Correct. The scariest news story of 2016 is already in. Saudi Arabia is starting to come apart, and when its unscheduled rapid disassembly is a little farther along, the Industrial Age will come to an end.
[TROLL: “Don’t you ever get tired of making predictions that never come true? You said exactly the same thing a year ago. And the year before that.” Actually, dear trolls, what you find here are not exactly predictions, rather they are analyses of trends and the likely outcomes of those trends. But even if you insist they are predictions, the fact is that virtually all of them are in the process of “coming true” — it’s just that people who have the historical horizons of a fruit fly assume that anything that doesn’t happen while they’re looking at it is never going to happen, and never happened before. In medicine that’s called amnesia.]
But back to Saudi Arabia, where the forces of disassembly have been in play for decades.
It has been only eight decades since the country as we know it — a vast desert sparsely populated by nomadic tribes — was assembled as one kingdom under Ibn Saud, whose descendants still rule there. Six years later, in 1938, Standard Oil of California found oil under the sand. Found, as it turned out, that nearly 20% of all the oil on the planet was under Saudi Arabia.
Made wealthy beyond imagination, the House of Saud has been smart enough to bind together its hard-won alliance of fractious tribes, sects, clans and warlords with lavish bribes, otherwise known as subsidies. For years, Saudis have been filling their tanks with gasoline for a little over 60 cents a gallon. The government paid the difference between that and the cost of production. Similar subsidies kept the costs of electricity and water abnormally low, and the population unnaturally quiet under the lash of despotic rule, harsh justice and misogynistic customs.
Only three things could bring trouble to this paradise: the oil could run out; the price of oil could crash; or a burgeoning population could suck up so much cheap energy that it reduced the amount available for export, thus reducing the revenues needed to pay for all those subsidies.
The Saudis appear to have hit the negative trifecta. Despite nearly impenetrable secrecy and pervasive deception, it has become apparent that the Saudi oil fields have peaked (at a hair over 10 million barrels per day) and are beginning a slow but irreversible decline. Rapidly increasing domestic consumption of oil, now over three million bpd, is eating into the amount available for export. And the crash of oil prices during the past 18 months has placed an appalling drain on the Saudis’ cash reserves, which are huge but not infinite. The current Saudi annual deficit — the largest in its history — is estimated by the International Monetary Fund to be $140 billion. At that burn rate, their formidable reserves would be exhausted in less than five years.
On Monday, the kingdom announced a wide array of “reforms” to stem the bleeding, including 50% higher prices for gasoline, electricity and water, and higher taxes. When such “reforms” have been attempted in the past, by the Saudis and by other petro-states with extravagant subsidies, the immediate result has been public protest, unrest, and a quick restoration of benefits. With this in mind, the Saudis have tried to increase prices on the richest first, but have also made it clear that more pain is on the way.
It seems clear that there is no road back to normal open to the Saudis. Even a sudden return of oil prices to their previous highs would not solve the problem of the depleted fields and growing domestic demand. In any case, the people of Saudi Arabia, already restive [SEE “The Worst News Story of 2015” and “The Worst News Story of 2015 Just Got Worse”] are unlikely to wait very long to see how these long term trends play out. And to the extent they destabilize Saudi Arabia, they destabilize the world.