The great oil crash and the greater coincidence? Price drop has weakened Saudi’s rivals
Oil Prices Continue to drop
Though cheaper oil was unlikely to last in 2015, Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to maintain high production levels that drove prices lower was not meant to use oil as a diplomatic weapon against Iran, Russia or any other country. The great oil price crash, which saw a barrel of crude go from more than $90 in January 2014 to less than $60 in December, occurred for a variety of reasons. Notwithstanding conspiracy theories to the contrary, the Kingdom did not deliberately cause the price collapse, because oil related matters were economic in nature and probably not motivated by a grand “geopolitical strategy.”
Nevertheless, the result was a significant weakening of Riyadh’s regional adversaries in Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
To their credit, Saudi leaders have historically used considerable diplomatic steps to devise and apply the country’s oil policy, most memorably when King Faisal openly employed oil as a “political instrument” in response to the massive American military airlifts to Israel at the height of the 1973 October War, or when King Fahd ordered Riyadh to pay London with crude for an arms sale in the mid-1980s.
The tendency ever since has been to fulfil the role of a swing producer. Simply stated, Riyadh played that role because it was a key pillar of the international community, and took its economic responsibilities seriously.
In 2015, therefore, chances were excellent that Saudi Arabia would use its position in the global oil market to fulfil its fiduciary obligations while it built on its political gains.
Still, experts anticipated that whatever political gains were amassed would not be haphazard, especially in ongoing volatile regional and international environments. In the contests over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, for example, Saudis concluded that they could not steer clear of imposed quarrels for fear of spill over effects.
In fact, the rise of Daesh threatened to bring instability onto the Arabian Peninsula, though the so-called Caliphate—which confronted demons of its own making—was probably on life support and would expire before long.
No matter how successful Daesh’s anticipated fall was expected to be, Saudi leaders took no chances as they adjusted their long-standing relationships with the country’s conservative religious establishment.
Under the influence of several ultra-puritanical clergymen, the Unitarian [Wahhabi] school of Sunni Islam witnessed a systematic assault on its traditional teachings, which affected gullible youths. Over time, the ruling family came to perceive such reinterpretations as a domestic security threat, fuelled by additional foreign radicalization.
Consequently, Riyadh introduced strict controls over sermons delivered by most preachers, favoured modernized clergymen, appointed reform-minded individuals to positions of authority to deliberate legal matters, and promoted a non-religious national identity that was shunned in the past.
The sum total of these initiatives was crystal clear: true Islam was not the one taught by Islamist militants. In fact, the ruler and his senior advisors believed that guiding the clergy towards an alternative interpretation of what passed for puritanical teachings, strengthened the 1744 partnership between the Al Saud dynasty and the Al Shaikh family, which stood as the cornerstone of the country’s legitimacy.
Nevertheless, senior Al Saud members also understood that the alliance could not be preserved, if skewed education further contributed to the rise of Islamist extremism among young Saudis.
To prevent such developments from gaining ground and to limit—perhaps even end—intolerant teachings, the ruling family adopted modernizing methods to encourage scientific education as well as accelerate the learning of foreign languages.
Parallel reforms in the all too critical legal arena were fast-tracked in 2014 though a fresh vetting process imposed on clerics that dominated the field, with more initiatives anticipated in the coming year.
One of the most intriguing recent developments was the television appearance of Ahmad Al Ghamdi, the former Makkah head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice alongside his unveiled wife.
Many ultra-conservative clerics denounced him for this act, though many more welcomed it as a sign that the faith practiced by Saudis ought not be associated with the uncovered faces of their women.
Remarkably, and despite his advanced age, the reformist ruler seldom compromised on such matters.
After his 2005 succession, King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz rarely failed to usher in new ideas and may be said to have saved the monarchy from its excessively cautious policies.
His strong promotion of nationalism, backed by most senior members of the ruling establishment, promoted a new image of Saudi Arabia: a dynamic modernizing country where one could be a faithful Muslim without the theatrics of pseudo-Caliphs or challenged clergymen.
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