Tumult in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, could make the Middle East situation more fluid and have a negative impact on the global economy.
Concerns about hurried reforms implemented by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cannot be easily waved away.
An anti-corruption committee headed by the crown prince has targeted powerful princes and incumbent cabinet ministers in a sweeping crackdown. Prominent investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, National Guard chief Miteb bin Abdullah and Economy and Planning Minister Adel Fakieh reportedly were among those detained.
The crown prince, who holds the real power in steering state affairs, is seeking to wean his nation off its oil dependence. He has launched reforms to attract investment from overseas and diversify Saudi Arabia’s economic structure. The exposure of alleged corruption seemingly aims to eliminate opposition elements and solidify the crown prince’s power base. A motive of seizing the assets of these princes and other officials and diverting them to government funds also can be glimpsed.
Expectations that oil-producing nations will extend their reduced production, combined with uncertainty over the situation in Saudi Arabia, briefly pushed up crude oil prices.
The direction of the reforms is correct, but it is highly possible the extreme method of suppressing criticism by force could invite political instability. Also, there will be little prospect of foreign companies starting operations in an unstable business environment.
In the diplomatic field, Saudi Arabia, as the leader of Sunni Muslim states, is attempting to roll back the growing influence Iran, the dominant Shiite Muslim state, has gained in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia’s severing of diplomatic ties with Iran and Qatar is believed to have been orchestrated by the crown prince.
This sectarian struggle recently spilled over to Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation while he was in Saudi Arabia. The crown prince seems to have pressured Hariri to step down after becoming exasperated by the growing threat posed by Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group supported by Iran.
Lebanon is a mosaic society in which Sunnis, Shi’ites, Maronite Christians and other citizens live together. If the nation’s sectarian balance crumbles, there is a risk it could plunge into civil war. Riyadh and Tehran must wake up to the fact that interfering in Lebanon’s domestic politics will heighten tensions in the region.
It is disconcerting that US President Donald Trump has shown open hostility toward Iran and offered full support for Saudi Arabia. As a result, Trump seemingly has kindled the crown prince’s hard-line policy. The United States needs to play a constructive role to ensure stability in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia supplies about 30 per cent of Japan’s crude oil imports by volume. In March, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and visiting Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz signed an agreement to expand economic cooperation. Ensuring the Saudi reforms have a “soft landing” will be essential for securing Japan’s energy resources and strengthening bilateral relations.
For many years, Japan has maintained friendly ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Japan will need to continue urging both sides to be wary of engaging in a battle for supremacy and alleviate their antagonism.