The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is arguably one of the most iconic and strategically important states within the geopolitical web of the Middle East. It is not breaking news that the kingdom plays a significant role in the production and export of oil, which essentially enables the kingdom to play the key influential role that it does.
The kingdom has 16 percent of the world’s total proven oil reserves and produces up to 2.7 million barrels a day, which in turn accounts for more than half of the global spare capacity.
However, as of late, the once remote desert kingdom now faces an inexorable myriad of regional issues that are impacting its stability, on both a domestic and international level.
Internally, the Saudi government heavily depends on a fine balance in the form of a delicate power-sharing structure within the kingdom. While in the domain of foreign relations, Saudi Arabia is dependent on their dominance in the oil and gas sectors to maintain their influence.
Recent politically tumultuous events in the Middle East, and key domestic issues which remain unaddressed, threaten the delicate nature of the kingdom’s political environment.
The wave of political upheaval that swept across the Arab world, the civil wars in Yemen and Syria, the rise of Iran following the removal of sanctions, and the election of the anti-establishment Trump government in the United States have all proven to be thorns in the side of the Saudi government.
The kingdom has also had to deal with domestic discontent over key challenges including economic stagnation, a housing crisis, and most importantly youth unemployment.
A staggering 67 percent of the Saudi population is compromised of youth, that being those under the age of 25, and it is this key demographic that provides the future backbone of Saudi Arabia.
Youth unemployment in the kingdom has hovered at a sustained 30-35 percent for the last two decades. In order to address this issue, the Saudi government has to create six million jobs by 2030. The fact that there are an estimated 8 million foreigners who are employed in the kingdom has only increased the strain on the job market as both Saudi nationals and foreigners compete for working opportunities.
In response to rising unemployment following the fall of oil prices, the Kingdom has resorted to a form of nationalization in the private sector, whereby employment preference is now given to Saudi nationals, which in turn has led to discontent among some expatriate workers.
The Saudi youth of today also offer another key challenge in that the lack of a coherent educational system, one which emphasizes skill, knowledge, and proper work ethic also proves to be a long-term hindrance for the developmental security of the country.
The current educational system in the kingdom is mired with reports of mismanagement, which has contributed to a mismatch of the needs of the market and the skills of Saudi youth.
According to one study, late arrivals for work, leaving the desk to talk with colleagues, absences without excuses, and general lax office attitudes have cost the Saudi government a total of 54 million wasted work hours and a loss of $397 million a year.
Thus, the plunge in oil prices, mismanagement of the national educational curriculum, and flawed employment policies have all contributed to a stagnating economy in the kingdom.
The kingdom’s stability and regional integrity are also tested with key events unfolding at its borders. At the rise of their historic rival, Iran has proven to be a challenge to the kingdom.
Iran’s reintegration into international society following the removal of U.S sanctions, involvement in the civil wars of Yemen and Syria, and prominent role in Iraq have all but calmed worries in the kingdom about the ambitions of Iran.
The civil wars in Syria and Yemen have both become what is essentially a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and their respective allies.
In Yemen, the Saudi backed legitimate government of President Abd-Rabbou Mansur is pitted against the Shi’a Houthi rebels who are directly backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. While in Syria, Iran has long been accused of being involved on behalf of the Assad government, only to be confirmed in 2015, while facilitating the involvement of Shi’ite militias from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.
All of this has contributed to fears in the kingdom that Iran is politically manoeuvring to surround the Gulf region in order to check Saudi power, while exerting their own in key areas. Particularly in key regions such as the Straights of Hormuz, the Straights of Bab Al Mandab in Yemen, and the Levant across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
All of this goes without mentioning the rising threat of domestic radicalization via disillusioned youth within the kingdom. Regional politics, as well as the fiery rhetoric of some domestic hard-line clerics, have contributed to growing radicalization at home.
With ISIS active in Iraq and Syria in the North, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula bunkered in Yemen in the South, the kingdom has more than enough on its plate to deal with.
Truly the government of King Salman faces a monumental task in overcoming all of these obstacles, and ensuring that a prosperous continuation of stability exists within the kingdom.
The naming of a new Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, earlier this year offers hope for a future of economic and social reform in the kingdom. His new vision for Saudi Arabia may yet bring with it the necessary shift in policy needed to ensure the political and economic conditions that help foster both domestic and regional stability.