I began my previous column by asking, rhetorically, whether any nation today looks more pathetic than the United Kingdom. A few do, I conceded, but the important fact was that the question didn’t sound absurd. Saudi Arabia is among that small set of countries that have made such a mess of their affairs that the UK’s stumble towards Brexit seems well-thought-out in comparison.

On September 14, two of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facilities were attacked by drones and, probably, cruise missiles. This wasn’t a Balakot-style phantom strike in which bombs magically penetrated concrete structures without leaving any trace discernible to satellites passing overhead. It was an immaculately planned assault whose impact in the form of fire and smoke was visible for miles. The damage took out half of the Kingdom’s oil production, only a fraction of which has been restored in the fortnight since the hit.

The Houthi rebels of Yemen took responsibility for the strikes, but the Saudis, the Americans and, later, the leading lights of the European Union, all pointed to Iran as the prime culprit.

The possibilities

Let us consider the two possibilities separately. If the drones originated in Yemen, it means that the ragtag army that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman believed he could crush in a few months has not only survived for five years but grown incredibly adept. The two targeted oil facilities lie over a thousand kilometres from the Yemen border. Previously the Houthis had hit sites in Western Saudi Arabia, near the Red Sea, but aiming for massive complexes near the Persian Gulf reveals uncommon confidence and audacity.

The second possibility is that the missiles came from Iran (there were suggestions that the launch site was in Iraq, but those are largely discounted). If that’s the case, it is a straightforward act of war, an aggression perpetrated by one sovereign nation on another. No self-respecting country can let such a strike go unpunished. Pakistan retaliated immediately to India’s Balakot action, and one would expect something similar from the Saudis, but they’ve done nothing but sulk. While repeatedly playing up Iran’s role in the attack, they have stopped short of saying the drones and missiles were launched from Iranian territory, because that would raise demands for action on their part.

Clearly, they are scared of war with Iran. Saudi Arabia is the biggest importer of arms in the world, having increased purchases tenfold over the last decade, but appears to have little to show for those billions of dollars spent. Vladimir Putin openly mocked the regime, and its imports from the United States, while touting Russia’s S 300 and S 400 missile defence system during a meeting with leaders of Turkey and Iran, both adversaries of the Saudis.

When Mohammad Bin Salman came to power, he cultivated the image of a reformer, but the murder of the reporter Jamal Khashoggi decisively changed the narrative about his leadership. His intervention in Yemen may have cost him less in terms of reputation, but has claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. Bin Salman falsely believed he could win that war solely through air power imported from the United States and United Kingdom.

Paying tribute in Istanbul to mudered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Credit: Yasin Akgul/AFP

Instead, the conflict dragged on. Not only did the Houthis retain control of Sana’a but, last month, Saudi Arabia’s proxies in Aden were ousted by separatists backed by its closest ally, the United Arab Emirates. To be beaten by enemies is bad enough, but to be defeated by friends as well is massively humiliating.

The Saudi rulers’ response to the crisis has been to request more US aid, not just in the form of weapons but of actual troops. This is a new disaster in the making. Remember the 9/11 attacks? American leaders claim the terrorists were inspired by a hatred for western freedoms, but they were actually driven more by a hatred of American military interventions. Prominent among these was the deployment of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia in 1990 as part of Desert Shield, an operation aimed at protecting the Kingdom from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein after he threatened Kuwait.

Bin Laden’s anger

Fundamentalist Muslims hated the idea of Christian troops in their Holy Land. Osama Bin Laden, in an infamous rambling letter sent to the Saudi King in 1995, excoriated him for allowing foreign troops into the country. Bin Laden’s manifesto of the following year declaring jihad on the West began with the injunction, “Expel the polytheists from the Arabian Peninsula”. Americans combat troops did quietly leave Saudi Arabia in 2003, but now they’re heading back to the desert, in an act that is likely to inspire a new generation of jihadists.

The Saudi government’s professed views have never been far from Osama Bin Laden’s. The problem is that religious fundamentalism can never be the foundation of a scientifically advanced and technologically self-sufficient society. That leads fundamentalist regimes interested in self-preservation to make allies of secular arms exporting countries like the United States, Russia and China, which in turn creates a divide within the fundamentalist camp, and leads purists like Bin Laden to deride the rulers as infidels.

Saudi Arabia has huge reserves of petroleum, and they are the most easily available in the world. As one expert put it, you can stick a straw in the sand and suck out oil. Oil revenues make up 87% of the Saudi budget and 90% of its exports. Those figures demonstrate that the Saudi royals have failed entirely to diversify the economy by leveraging the immense natural resources at their command.

Once the oil boom fades, as it will in the next few decades, Saudi Arabia will return to its impoverished past, its gilded mansions gradually swallowed up by the desert from which they rose.