2015 was a bloody year for Saudi Arabia. Continuing a violent pattern, Riyadh executed over 150 people last year. On the second day of the New Year, the Kingdom killed nearly a third of that annual total in a single day, executing 47 people. One those killed was prominent Shiite Cleric Sheikh al-Nimr.
In response to protests in Iran, the Saudi government has severed diplomatic ties with Tehran, making the first weekend of 2016 unpredictably eventful in terms of Middle Eastern politics.
But according to a new analysis by Eurasia Group of the world’s top risks of the coming year, Riyadh’s aggression is the result of its own internal strife and shaky political future.
"Saudi Arabia is in serious trouble, and they know it," Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider.
According to the analysis, "The Saudi Kingdom faces a growing risk of destabilizing discord within the royal family this year, and its increasingly isolated status will lead it to act more aggressively across the Middle East this year."
One problem facing the Kingdom is the questions of royal succession. King Salman assumed power 11 months ago, but the 79-year-old is in ill health. While his nephew, Crown Prince Mohammaed bin Nayef, is next in line for the throne, the King’s son also has eyes on the crown. Making matters worse is the fact that these royal rivals currently head government ministries.
"It’s resulting in some disturbing policies abroad and internally," said Frederic Wehrey of the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, according to Agence France-Presse.
Falling oil prices are also hurting the Kingdom economically. After intentionally flooding the global market in an attempt to crush rival energy sources like US shale, Riyadh recently raised domestic oil prices by 40%.
"More generally, expect an isolated and domestically weaker kingdom to lash out in new ways," reads the analysis.
But the Kingdom is also facing external pressures. Its bloody bombing campaign in Yemen has gone on longer than Riyadh planned, and the continued threat of Daesh, also known as IS/the Islamic State, has forced the Saudi government under an international spotlight.
"They hate the international attention on them given the growing ISIS concerns and want to make regional tensions an Iran story, which helps them domestically," Bremmer told Business Insider.
"The key source of external Saudi anxiety is Iran, soon to be free of sanctions," Eurasia Group’s report reads.
By provoking Tehran, the Saudi government can create a regional boogeyman to draw attention away from its own failings. With Iran rising as an economic powerhouse, particularly with the lifting of sanctions after the nuclear deal, Tehran became Riyadh’s preferred target.
"…A scenario of open conflict, unimaginable prior to King Salman’s January 2015 ascension, has now become entirely realistic," reads Eurasia Group’s analysis.
The Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence firm, also expects Saudi Arabia’s aggression to increase.
"If the execution of Sheikh Nimr is intended to take the minds of Saudi’s Sunni population off the recent 40% price hike in gasoline and point the finger at an external enemy as the cause of current economic woes, it may not be enough,” the group wrote in its daily briefing, according to Business Insider.
"To pursue that line of exculpation, the Saudi royal family will have to continue to escalate its rhetoric and action against Iran."