Fawaz Gerges: Saudi probably won't fall, but if it does the world will change

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There is a revolution taking place in the Middle East. The young people are emboldened and confident in a way they have never been before, and what we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya could yet take hold in other countries in the region.

But if the revolution is going to stop anywhere, it is likely to be in the desert at the gates of the House of Saud; crucially the home of the world's greatest supply of oil.

Unlike the striking poverty in Tunisia, Egypt and other places, Saudis are relatively well off. Although there is poverty in Saudi Arabia, the government has invested billions of dollars in welfare.

It is no surprise that King Abdullah's return to the Kingdom on Wednesday coincided with the announcement that the government is set to inject an additional $36bn into public spending projects – it is the result of nervousness for sure, but it is also a tried and tested method of keeping dissent at bay.

The structure of society in the Kingdom also makes it less vulnerable. The state's main organs, the government and the ultra-conservative Sunni religious leaders, are largely at one. A social contract between these two competing powers exists to the benefit of both.

The elites in each camp have enforced this social contract at times of instability, with King Abdullah – who is a viewed as a reformer – winning the trust of the conservatives by refusing to make radical changes to Saudi society in return for the religious leadership eschewing the extremists of the al-Qa'ida type. That does not mean there are no risks for the establishment. The Arab uprising has largely been made possible by the "Al Jazeera effect", with ordinary people becoming aware of corruption and injustice in their own societies through new media outlets, and the Kingdom is not immune.

The rest of the world should be taking a careful look at the situation. If Saudi Arabia were to fall, an unlikely scenario, there would be an earthquake across the world economy. The two major spikes in Western inflation in recent memory were caused by Opec limiting supply in 1973 in protest at the US arming Israel, and later by the revolution in Iran. Saudi Arabia is a huge economy that oils the wheels of the rest of the world. Most of us believe Saudi is too big to fall. If we are wrong, the effect on the world will be devastating.

The author is director of the LSE's Middle East Centre

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