Saudi Arabia has mostly been a stable pillar of the imperialist order in the Middle East.
Its survival is guaranteed by the US to keep the oil flowing. The dynasty founded by King Ibn Saud has relied on ruthless repression and an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam to hang onto power.
But increasingly Saudi Arabia is a force for instability. Just in the past ten days 200 people led by the billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal have been arrested in an anti-corruption sweep.
In a peculiarly Saudi touch, suspects are being held in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Elsewhere in Riyadh Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation, leading Iran and the president of Lebanon to accuse the Saudis of kidnapping him.
The situation is the product of a combination of internal and external factors.
For the past few years the Saudi government has been dominated by King Salman’s ambitious son Mohammed. He is pushing through a programme of restructuring and privatisation aimed at reducing the economy’s dependence on oil.
So far the results have been less than spectacular, so Mohammed bin Salman is raising the stakes. He had himself declared crown prince in June, forcing out his predecessor. And he’s been using the issue of corruption to target his opponents.
Corruption is endemic to the Saudi regime. In 1996 the US embassy in Riyadh calculated that government stipends for the over five thousand descendants of Ibn Saud amounted to $2 billion a year.
It estimated that senior princes made another $5 billion off the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina, and also benefitted from kickbacks from government contracts.
So bin Salman’s anti-corruption campaign is popular among ordinary Saudis. “But once you start this type of shakedown, where does it end,” a former diplomat told the Financial Times newspaper. “The whole family has been doing the same thing, for generations.”
Bin Salman has also stepped up Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran. Tehran is the capital of Shia Islam, which the Saudis detest. Iran also has recently made advances in the region, supporting Hizbollah, the Shiite political movement in Lebanon, and propping up the Syrian regime.
Bin Salman is the architect of the bloody war against the Shiite Houthi militia in neighbouring Yemen that it claims is backed by Iran. The Saudi intervention has killed thousands of civilians and created three million refugees.
The Saudis have been flexing their muscles elsewhere in the Gulf, seeking to ostracise Qatar.
Its rulers have committed the crimes of being friendly with Iran, allowing news channel Al-Jazeera to carry criticisms of Arab regimes, and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Saudis loathe the Brotherhood, which challenges their claim ideologically to dominate Sunni Islam.
But everything isn’t going bin Salman’s way, above all in the Arab heartland of Iraq and Syria. The relationship between Isis and Saudi Arabia is murky, but Riyadh undoubtedly supports jihadi groups in Syria that share the same Sunni purist ideology.
The recent fall of the Isis capital of Raqqa in Syria has helped the Assad regime. And Shiite militias trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard played a crucial role in taking the Isis stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. Both developments have increased Iran’s regional power.
It looks as if bin Salman’s response is to open a new front in Lebanon.
The Saudis’ more aggressive foreign policy aimed to help fill the vacuum left by Barack Obama’s relatively cautious approach in the Middle East. They were furious with him for abandoning the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Donald Trump by contrast has strongly endorsed bin Salman’s policies. His first foreign visit as president was to Saudi Arabia. Eager to scrap the international pact over Iran’s nuclear programme, he is hoping to use Riyadh as a counterweight to Tehran. The new wars this may provoke will bring yet more suffering to a tortured region.