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Facing Iran Saudi Arabia weakened

22.01.2016 11:17

Thomas Flichy of La Neuville, CNRS, University of Paris IV, Sorbonne

The diplomatic turn made by President Obama with respect to Iran has reflected the fragility of Saudi Arabia, whose geopolitical position had been artificially inflated by US support. This fragility is first a cultural one: the nomadic Saudi culture that gives rise to very late in 1932 opposes indeed the old Iranian state, which has thousands of years of history.

The second is economic fragility. The Saudi production system is indeed based on monoproduction oil whose annuity will decline till 2028. But domestic demand exports bends downward. Between 2004 and 2015, for example, exports fell 1.4% per year. Oil revenues are 80% of the state budget. This trend could result in problems. Indeed, the decline in domestic subsidies has historically been the cause of the Arab spring. The climate is also a trouble: with rising temperatures, drought has grown, 80% of food is already imported. The Saudi is finally being weakened demographicly: 31 million Saudis face 77 million Iranians supported by a birth policy since 2009.

Taking into account those Saudi problems, Saudi Arabia started making irrational steps.

First regards a military field. Faced an Iranian army of 550,000 men including 125,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Saudi Arabia has 230,000 soldiers whose training level is not very high. Moreover quarrels are common among the Saudi princes, the dynastic discrepances spill over the officer corps. Taking into consideration its human weaknesses in the military field, the government has decided to acquire the best Western technology in order to outperform its rival Iran.

The second field is a geopolitical competition. Iran and Saudi Arabia lead various proxy conflicts including one in Bahrain, where the Arab population is Shiite and courted jointly by Wahhabis and Iranians. Conflicts also crystallize on pilgrimage sites, including Mecca or on theaters where the Islamic State is present.

The last aspect is economic. Saudi oil exports volume is six times more than the Iranian one. With five allies in OPEC, Saudi Arabia currently serves on the declining oil prices in order to drown his Iranian opponent in cheap oil.

Tensions are vivid but should not be exaggerated, however. After all, a diplomatic rupture had already occurred in 1988, followed by reconciliation two years later. Among the referees of a future return to calm, one can imagine Iraq, but also the United States who now find themselves in a situation similar to the previous 1979 Islamic revolution: that of a referee potential between two competing powers.