Chuck Spinney: Saudi Arabian Collapse — Bad Rulers, No Water? A Case Study…

08 Wild Cards, 09 Justice, 12 Water, Corruption, Cultural Intelligence, Earth Intelligence, Government
Chuck Spinney
Chuck Spinney

I want to flag and discuss two articles.  The first, Saudi Royal calls for regime change in Riyadh, is a report in the Guardian by Hugh Miles.  He describes the four immediate factors that have stimulated the now famous letters by the anonymous 3rd generation prince calling for the replacement of King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: (1) the double tragedy at Mecca that killed 800 people, (2) the collapse of oil prices, (3) the war in Yemen which, according to Miles, few Saudis support, and (4) King Salman’s elevation of his young son, the inexperienced and impetuous Mohammed bin Salman to the peculiar but powerful post of Deputy Crown Prince, making him second in the line of succession.

The second is an op-ed analysis entitled The collapse of Saudi Arabia is Inevitable by Nafeez Ahmed.  He takes a somewhat longer view, summarizing deep-seated long-term problems that threaten to destabilize and possibly destroy Saudi Arabia.  While I think his discussion suffers from two weaknesses, it is nevertheless a very sobering analysis and well worth careful reading, although the conclusion implicit in his title is far from certain.

The first weakness is that Ahmed understates the long-term man-made problem of water depletion in Saudi Arabia’s deep aquifers, caused by the irrigation of water intensive crops for export — a problem persuasively described in this essay and analyzed in greater detail in this report.  Even energy rich Saudi Arabia cannot desalinate its way out of this problem.  In combination with Saudia Arabia’s rapidly growing population and severe income inequality, water depletion makes the country much more vulnerable to the destabilizing effects of the inevitable droughts that will occur from time to time.  The only solution for the long term is to restructure its agriculture into one more in harmony with its supporting environment and its rapidly growing population.

The second weakness is connected indirectly to the first and derives from the author’s casual and repeated invocation of the emotionally charged term “climate change.”  These two words are a highly politicized re-branding of the theory of man-made or anthropogenic global warming, and they now suggest subliminally and erroneously that all changes in climate are substantially manmade.  A more neutral descriptor would be climate variability, which more clearly accounts for natural variability as well as the effects produced by the emission of manmade greenhouse gases.  Natural variability is a fact of life: Human history and paleo-records are replete with indications of quasi periodic occurrences of climate change, including the occurrences of severe long lasting droughts in the Middle East (and all arid areas, including the southwestern US).  The causes of these droughts and the differing patterns of multi-decadal climate variations in general are not well understood.  Isolating the man made signal from the welter of natural signals is a signal-to-noise problem fraught with uncertainty, as explained elegantly (and soberly) — in a building block fashion that is accessible to the educated layman — in the free ebook Doubt and Certainty in Climate Science, written by biological oceanographer/ecologist Alan Longhurst.*

However, if one substitutes the term climate variability for each occurrence of climate change into the text of Attachment 2, nothing in Ahmed’s argument would be weakened.** Moreover, by neutrally suggesting natural as well as manmade implications, it would be a technically more accurate description of the growing mismatch between Saudi Arabia’s cultural evolution and the tightening constraints of its supporting environment, particularly its extraction of water from that environment. This more balanced view would be a better guide for evolving policies to cope with the interaction of Saudi Arabia’s growing population with its tightening environmental constraints.

To date, the Saudi regime — i.e., the royal family — has proven to be remarkably resilient, notwithstanding the growing complexity in the patterns of cooperation and competition within its geometrically increasing number*** of members.  Whether or not that regime can survive the mounting challenges of a rapidly growing population, increasing environmental overload, resource depletion, and worsening income inequality over the long term will remain an open question for the foreseeable future.


* One of the most fascinating aspects of this book lies in Longhurst’s extensive use of peer reviewed scholarly literature (as opposed to relying on some of the excellent work published by citizen scientists in the blogosphere) to support his critical arguments.
** Although his gratuitous introduction of temperature and rain predictions for 2040 should be caveated by noting these predictions are highly uncertain, because they based on global climate models that include unvalidated assumptions.  Ironically, this validation problem is most acute for assumptions regarding the effects of water vapor on the global and regional climate systems.  Water vapor, by the way, is by far the most prevalent and least understood greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.  These uncertainties are well known in terms of both their physics and mathematical modeling and are explained quite clearly in Longhurst’s book.
*** The size of the Saudi Royal Family founded by Saudia Arabia’s first king, Abdul Aziz (1875-1953), is huge and might be thought of as a rapidly growing social class, according to historian William R. Polk.  He estimates it includes perhaps as many as  20,000-30,000 members, once marriages, in-laws, cousins, etc are taken into account.