Ironically, questions about Saudi stability tend to arise after the Saudi regime has recently demonstrated its resiliency in the face of regional crisis—and the Arab Spring is no exception.
There are two central reasons that Riyadh was the major Arab state least affected by the upheavals of the last few years. The first is that it has plenty of money in the bank. Only one major oil exporter, Libya, faced a regime-shaking crisis in 2011, and the regime there fell because of external intervention. Because the Saudis (and other oil exporters) had enjoyed a ten-year period of rising prices, the skids of the patronage state were well greased. To remind everyone of how good they have it, King Abdullah committed to spending $130 billion on such public provisions as education allowances, unemployment benefits, higher wages, and low-income housing—even as demonstrations were gaining momentum around the region. That commitment put a dent in Saudi financial reserves (which total approximately $700 billion), but hardly exhausted them. The second reason explaining Saudi stability is the presence of serious divisions in Saudi society along sectarian, regional, and ideological lines. Disparate groups in Egypt and Tunisia could put their differences aside and come together against their dictators because their common national identity is relatively strong, while postponing the fights for power we see in those countries now. In Saudi Arabia, potential axes of regime opposition do not have the levels of contact and trust to join forces against the regime.
What could change the picture of Saudi stability? Obviously, a dramatic and sustained reduction in the price of oil would eventually lead to a fiscal crisis in the Kingdom, calling into question the patronage base of the regime. A serious split in the ruling family, when power finally passes to the next generation of princes, could also shake the regime. If the two scenarios happened simultaneously, the chances of regime survival would decrease markedly.
Gause is one of five experts on Saudi Arabia who discussed the kingdom's prospects for maintaining stability in "Sada Debates." You can find all five pieces here.
This commentary is reprinted with permission from Sada, (Washington, DC; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013).