What? Too soon? Maybe not.
This story had precursors in 2014, just a few hints about what it could become. In the spring, a courageous BBC journalist smuggled out pictures and reports of a three-year-old uprising where no uprising can be permitted. Shortly afterward the host country sentenced to death two leaders of the uprising (presumably by the country’s favored method of public beheading followed by crucifixion). Whereupon the uprising managed a murderous bombing attack. In the Middle East they have a name for this: Tuesday.
These events did not take on the gravitas of portents because they took place in the Middle East, but because they took place in Saudi Arabia. There they posed a threat not merely to another brutal Arab dictatorship, but to the entire industrial world, which cannot function without Saudi oil. Such power over the richest countries of the world might seem enviable, but it is, as they say, no bed of roses. Crude oil is selling for about half what it did six months ago, and oil is the kingdom’s only source of income. Their budget for the coming year posits the largest deficit in its history.
The Saudis are not going to run out of money anytime soon, but strains are mounting in every direction. Its population is becoming larger and more affluent, thanks to the lavish spending of oil money, and likes its air conditioning, cars, and 30-cent-a-liter gas. So much so that it is consuming an ever larger share of the country’s oil output, which has not increased significantly since 2005. I am talking here about crude oil, taken from the ground, not the recently fabricated definition of “petroleum liquids” that makes it appear that “production” is still increasing.
So this country, buffeted by market forces, trying desperately to stamp out an insurgency in the heart of its oil-rich Eastern Province, gets the news on Wednesday that King Abdullah, 90, who has terminal lung cancer, was admitted to hospital with pneumonia and was put on a ventilator to keep him breathing. Five per cent of the value of the Saudi stock exchange vaporized. But we are assured that the succession has been arranged, all will be well, nothing can possibly go wrongwrongwrogngarn. It is simply not conceivable that the descendants, in-laws, extended family and close personal friends of (the first Saudi monarch) Ibn Saud’s 45 sons, presented with an opportunity to seize unimaginable wealth and power, will do anything other than behave.
These precursor stories probably do not qualify for the most ominous of 2014. But if the story they are pre-cursing, that is the descent of Saudi Arabia into an Arab Spring maelstrom, should become a story in 2015 then it will win the year for bad news, hands down. May as well hand over the statuette right now.
[See also: The Scariest Picture in the World]