'Out of whack'
[CIA's Riedel in the DailyBeast] "...Much more disturbing to the royals would be protests in Sunni parts of the kingdom. These might start in the so-called Quran Belt north of the capital, where dissent is endemic, or in the poor Asir province on the Yemeni border. Once they begin, they could snowball and reach the major cities of the Hejaz, including Jeddah, Mecca, Taif, and Medina. The Saudi opposition has a vibrant information technology component that could ensure rapid communication of dissent within the kingdom and to the outside world.The critical defender of the regime would be the National Guard. Abdullah has spent his life building this Praetorian elite force. The United States has trained and equipped it with tens of billions in helicopters and armored vehicles. But the key unknown is whether the Guard will shoot on its brothers and sisters in the street. It may fragment or it may simply refuse to suppress dissent if it is largely peaceful, especially at the start.
The succession issue adds another layer of complication. Every succession in the kingdom since its founder, Abdel Aziz bin Saud, died in 1953 has been to his brothers. King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman are the end of the brood; only a couple of possible remaining half brothers are suitable. Both the king and crown prince are ill, and both are often unfit for duty. If Abdullah and/or Salman die as unrest begins—a real possibility—and a succession crisis ensues, then the kingdom could be even more vulnerable to revolution.
As in other Arab revolutions, the opposition revolutionaries will not be united on anything except ousting the monarchy. There will be secular democrats but also al Qaeda elements in the opposition. Trying to pick and choose will be very difficult. The unity of the kingdom could collapse as the Hejaz separates from the rest, the east falls to Shia, and the center becomes a jihadist stronghold.
For the United States, revolution in Saudi Arabia would be a game changer. While the U.S. can live without Saudi oil, China, India, Japan, and Europe cannot. Any disruption in Saudi oil exports—whether due to unrest, cyberattacks, or a new regime’s decision to reduce exports substantially—will have a major impact on the global economy. In addition, the CIA war against al Qaeda is heavily dependent on the kingdom: Saudi intelligence operations foiled the last two attacks by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on the American homeland. The U.S. military training mission in the kingdom, founded in 1953, is the largest of its kind in the world. The Saudis also have been a key player in containing Iran for decades.
The other monarchs of Arabia, meanwhile, would be in jeopardy if revolution comes to Saudi Arabia. The Sunni minority in Bahrain could not last without Saudi money and tanks. Despite all their money, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are city states that would be unable to defend themselves against a revolutionary regime in what had been the kingdom. The Hashemite dynasty in Jordan would be at risk as well without Saudi and Gulf money and oil. Only Oman is probably isolated and strong enough to endure.
America has no serious options for effecting gradual reform in the kingdom. The Saudis fear, probably rightly, that real power sharing is impossible in an absolutist state. But we should plan very quietly for the worst. The intelligence community should be directed to make internal developments, not just counterterrorism, its top priority in the kingdom now. We cannot afford a surprise like Iran in 1978, and we need to know the players in the opposition, especially the Wahhabi clerics, in depth. This will be a formidable challenge, but it is essential to preparing for a very dark swan. ..."