But whether or not Saudi Arabia improves its domestic record, it will remain an indispensible regional ally for the United States and its allies. Its fate is tied to the interests of many Western nations -- most prominently, perhaps, through the kingdom's continued ability to produce 9.25 million barrels of oil a day. It also claims to be able to add an extra 1 million barrels to the global market at short notice, and an extra 3 million given more time -- making it the world's only genuine swing state producer, capable of keeping the oil flowing in the event of a disruption elsewhere.
Furthermore, Western countries and Saudi Arabia have found a common enemy in al Qaeda, and cooperate closely on intelligence and counterterrorism matters. This month, evidence of a U.S. drone base in the kingdom, which has been used for U.S. strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen, came to light. Information sharing has likewise been useful in identifying a number of threats to Western nations, most notably the October 2010 "printer bomb" plot originating in Yemen. The importance of Saudi Arabia to counterterrorism efforts is evidenced by the access of Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef to the highest circles on his visits to Western capitals -- a level of access rarely afforded his colleagues from other countries.
The Saudis simply have too much clout throughout the Middle East to dismiss them as counter to Western interests. Take Bahrain, for instance, which is currently undergoing the beginnings of another national dialogue, meant to heal the sectarian wounds opened by the February 2011 uprising. Saudi assistance -- both financial and military -- is a vital tool for the ruling al Khalifa monarchy in its bid to secure their island kingdom. Even the Shiite opposition party al Wefaq acknowledges the central role that Saudi Arabia will have to play in convincing pro-government hardliners to come to a sensible agreement. Love it or hate it, no political agreement can be made in Bahrain without some approval from Saudi Arabia.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia's traditional backyard, it would be inconceivable to imagine President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi gaining control over the country's territory without Saudi assistance and financing -- or without the United States conducting its drone strikes on extremists from Saudi soil.
Saudi money will also play a significant role in determining the balance of power in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, each of which are going through tremendous internal upheaval. Saudi Arabia ultimately views all three countries as targets for Iranian expansion, which it vehemently resists. In the case of Syria and Iraq, that means it also is opposed to the possibility of further Shiite empowerment. Deep tribal connections held by members of the ruling al Saud family to areas of eastern Syria and Iraq's Anbar Province also allows the Saudis to expand their influence and patronage in those areas. As such, their influence on the course of events must be understood and respected.
Those who believe in a coming Saudi apocalypse usually list a number of factors they believe point to imminent calamity -- a youth bulge, mass unemployment for Saudis under 35, security issues in the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province, domestic oil consumption overtaking capacity, female social and economic empowerment, liberal-conservative tensions, and potential instability in the ruling family as power is handed down to a younger generation of princes.
This tiresome analysis assumes Saudis would seek the wholesale downfall of their monarchy, if only they were not so oppressed by the governance structures and conservative religious establishment. But it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Saudi Arabia is, and how Saudis perceive their government.