Saudi, Lebanon, Iran …WTF?

by Maria on November 8, 2017

That’s kind of it, really.

What on earth is this new Saudi prince thinking? That he can enlarge the sphere of the existing proxy war to fight and win a conventional war against Iran..? Despite vast spending, SA barely has an military – and no, buying lots of shiny weapons, equipping a few militias, renting mercenaries, and fighting a partial air-war in Yemen won’t much count against Iran if SA succeeds in picking the war it seems to so badly want. The rhetoric and posturing seem to go significantly beyond sabre-rattling for national unity. What can the game-plan possibly be?

If the Aramco thing isn’t going ahead, soon – clearly – then where will the $$ come from for all this?

And why make Hariri resign on the same day as the Saudi putsch? Was the plot against him real? And is he at liberty? (Slightly more than averagely curious as I very briefly met him, seven or eight years ago, with some Lebanese friends in Washington. Charismatic man.) And, oh gods, WTAF was the son-in-law of the US president doing, sniffing around just before all this?

What does the approaching end-game in Syria have to do with it all? Will Russia stay out of any widening of the Yemen conflict? And is anyone who sold SA its mountains of weaponry and aircraft and the people to operate them – God knows actual Saudis couldn’t be expected to do the heavy-lifting – feeling just a tingle of ‘oops’..?

{ 64 comments }

1

Spindoctor 11.08.17 at 10:15 am

So, do you have any answers too..?

2

Lee A. Arnold 11.08.17 at 11:29 am

Continuation of a fairly straight line in Western foreign policy since before the invasion of Iraq: i.e. containment of Iran, until they demilitarize. Bush got rid of Saddam, taking a militarist wild-card out of the deck. But pro-Western Sunnis have had a damaging interior split over the funding of Wahhabism. Obama essentially put the Saudis on notice, chastising them publicly — and at the same time he showed everybody that an international sanctions regime against Iran cannot hold forever, and only gets you an interim nuclear deal. Therefore it’s time for Sunnis to step up and be counted. Kushner may have assured Crown Prince MBS that the U.S. will have his back in a secularizing social reformation (long overdue) and that the U.S. will help if this new Saudi regime targets Iran. Hariri may understand that MBS’s move puts him immediately in Hezbollah’s crosshairs because Iran’s next retaliatory move would include the fight for Lebanon.

3

bob mcmanus 11.08.17 at 12:21 pm

Pat Lang is the place where I follow this stuff. Lots of info and links in the comments. And speculation. For instance:

“Another theory relating to the mass recent arrests and helicopter “crashes” in Wahhabi Barbaria
“Prince Abdul Aziz was deeply involved in Saudi Oger Ltd, a company which until it ceased operations in the summer of this year, was owned by the Hariri family. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was putitively in charge of the company until it ceased operations.

Prince Abdul Aziz’s strange and sudden death which is said to have occurred during an attempted arrest, sheds light on the theory that the clearly forced resignation of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri had more to do with internal Saudi affairs than the Saudi attempt to bring instability to Lebanon.”

Coups, counter-coups, pre-emptive coups…most of what is going on has more to do with internal KSA “politics” than regional strategy. Arresting Miteb may have gone too far.

Arnold: “that the U.S. will help if this new Saudi regime targets Iran.”

Help? The Saudis would not even be minor factors in a direct war with Iran. The US (and Israel) would be fighting it. More likely is the continuing war of attrition by degrading Iran’s allies and proxies. But madness is always possible.

4

Layman 11.08.17 at 12:24 pm

I think it’s a mistake to think there is a coherent strategy here. Bush got rid of Saddam, but that was a colossal blunder in foreign policy terms, as it simply magnified Iran’s regional clout. What Obama showed is that it is possible to make a deal with Iran, to move toward a normalized posture with them; that they are at least as rational an actor as is any other regime in the Middle East. This of course means Trump must oppose Obama, Iran, and the deal, and the Saudis (and Israel) are a convenient proxy with which to fight that battle. No doubt Kushner has encouraged the Saudis to up the pressure on Iran, and similarly encouraged Israel. Forcing Hariri out creates instability in Lebanon, which of course is what Israel is always looking for to exploit.

The question remains, though: Why is MBS on board with this? He wants to be king, of course, and that explains the ‘anti-corruption’ coup. But threatening war with Iran is, well, stupid.

5

Cranky Observer 11.08.17 at 12:31 pm

= = = Continuation of a fairly straight line in Western foreign policy since before the invasion of Iraq: i.e. containment of Iran, until they demilitarize. = = =

Iran is a midsized regional power and is no more going to demilitarize than the UK is (pending arrival of heaven on earth anyway). [1] And as Maria notes Iran has real military forces with motivated soldiers, while SA has… a whole lot of expensive hardware maintained by contract personnel and often operated by contract personnel as well. Do you really expect that the retired USAF, McDonnell-Douglas (Boeing), and Eurofighter personnel who are maintaining and operating the Saudi hardware are going to risk their lives and their families’ lives fighting a war of aggression on behalf of the princes?

[1] Iran is also a natural ally of the US in the Middle East, but as with Vietnam it will take the US another 20 years to figure that out (thought we were making some progress under Obama, but now we are trumped…)

6

Katsue 11.08.17 at 1:04 pm

I understand that Nasrallah gave a statement a few days ago saying that he didn’t believe Hariri made the statement issued in his name.

I presume the threat is that MBS will have another go at supporting Al Qa’ida/ISIS against Iran, this time in Lebanon, but given that Hezbollah drove them out of Qalamoun recently with the assistance of the LAF and SAA I’m not sure why he would think another go would be more successful.

7

Mario 11.08.17 at 2:09 pm

I wonder who the hell convinced the Saudis that an Aramco IPO would be in their interests. They are being duped, badly, and will find out too late. By then they will have no friends left.

8

Cian 11.08.17 at 3:24 pm

I think one factor is the new prince is a stupid man who believes himself to be brilliant. Hence the Yemeni war, the neoliberal plans for the economy (which will cause further political destabilization in SA) and the way in which he pushed Quatar into Iranian arms. These are all unforced errors.

@6 Katsue – well no, I don’t think much anyone in Lebanon thinks it was Hariri’s idea. It takes quite a bit to unite Lebanese opinion, but this prince managed it.

As for ISIS in Lebanon. Not only would Hezbollah prevail, but they would be politically far stronger at the end of it. So if that MBS’ plan, and I agree it does seem possible, he’s even stupider than I imagined.

@7 Mario – Business consultants.

9

LFC 11.08.17 at 4:18 pm

@Cian
I agree Saudi Arabia is playing a v. destructive role in Yemen, contributing to a major humanitarian catastrophe.

Otoh, MBS has talked about wanting to move the kingdom to a more ‘moderate’ version of (Sunni) Islam — domestically and, presumably (?), in terms of its funding and other activities abroad. If that is sincere on his part, and I don’t know whether it is, it isn’t bad.

10

Ed 11.08.17 at 4:32 pm

“I wonder who the hell convinced the Saudis that an Aramco IPO would be in their interests. They are being duped, badly, and will find out too late. By then they will have no friends left.”

It makes a lot of sense, at least for the princes, if their oil production really has peaked. Cash out while you still can.

11

Trader Joe 11.08.17 at 4:35 pm

Mohammad Bin Salman fancies himself a ‘Modernizer’ with the stated objective of rooting out influences that have been looting the country for decades. To accomplish what he needs to do – he needs to establish crucial power bases.

Fighting Yemen strengthens his hand/control over the military and begins to develop capabilities should they need to/choose to be involved elsewhere.

Sacking /detaining the assorted royalty not only removes opposition – but the related responsibilities will be distributed like candy to his loyalists which magnifies his power and control.

A very partial sale of Aramco is earmarked to provide funding for a social agenda and funding it in this manner has the least influence on the various royal families – which their united opposition is the one sure way to get his own head chopped.

The Hariri resignation is meant to show his reach and allow him to consolidate his regional influence.

I’m not saying all these plans are going to work – but its not an ill considered strategy. MBS is young and ambitious – if he succeeds in executing these bold moves at a time when his opposition is relatively weak and definitely disorganized it will assure him a power base he can build upon for decades. Not doing anything would be perceived as weakness – he has to act in order to build support and he has to do it in a way that isolates his opposition.

12

Omega Centauri 11.08.17 at 5:27 pm

I was thinking it was largely about “national unity” at a time of the power rab in SA.
To up the scary factor , what if this is part of a Trump fantasy to ignite a regional war against Iran? With Israel, Saudi-Arabia, and Trump in on the planning. People who are deluded into thinking they are oh-so clever….

13

Brett 11.08.17 at 6:28 pm

They’re going to need a lot more mercenaries if they really want to escalate this.

And, oh gods, WTAF was the son-in-law of the US president doing, sniffing around just before all this?

Combination of personal diplomacy and him sniffing around for someone willing to buy that money-drain of a building he has in New York City.

14

Doug K 11.08.17 at 8:07 pm

as Layman says – these are princes, they confidently assume the right of kings, and coherent strategies are alien to them. I particularly liked the sentence in the Washington post reporting on Kushner’s visit, “The two princes are said to have stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. several nights, swapping stories and planning strategy.”
So basically a bull session between two extremely stupid rich boys..

15

P O'Neill 11.08.17 at 11:44 pm

If the Aramco thing isn’t going ahead, soon – clearly – then where will the $$ come from for all this?

One theory is that it will come from the assets seized from the businessmen and non-Salman branch princes that have fallen out of favour.

16

Maria 11.09.17 at 8:16 am

P O’Neill, I did wonder about that but assumed the numbers still couldn’t possibly add up? Aramco sale would presumably have a couple of extra zeros on it compared to anything that might turn up from the odd helicopter ‘crash’.

17

Maria 11.09.17 at 8:37 am

Cranky @5, yes, it’s hard to see what motivates the US enmity with Iran other than path dependence (something not inconsiderable, but still…).

18

Z 11.09.17 at 10:26 am

it’s hard to see what motivates the US enmity with Iran other than path dependence

I wonder if “the US” is the right category to approach this problem, just as I doubt it is when John Quiggin proposes his yearly comprehensive plan for US involvement in the Middle East (a blank post). I think a tiny part of the US élites has a lot to personally gain in having a quasi-symbiotic relationship with autocrats with unlimited access to cash, in the sense that such actors are ideal to organize market distorsions: your constituency demands jobs? They can buy your fighter planes. One of your biggest donor asks for something in return? They can sign a huge construction deal for his company. You need quick campaign money? Here it is. You need a dirty job done? They can do it. Etc.

So I think a tiny but influential part of the US élites has a lot to gain personally in working hands in hands with the Saudi (the ruling dynasty, not the people). The Saudi, in turn, have a lot to gain in achieving regional supremacy over Iran and a lot to lose if Iran achieves it. When this tiny part of the US élites is dominant, as is regularly the case and clearly the case currently, the US antagonizes Iran. But I think it has very little to do with American people and Iran.

A comparable dynamic is at play between e.g “France” and “Morocco” with respect to Western Sahara, or “France” (i.e Sarkozy) with “Libya” (i.e Gaddafi).

19

Lee A. Arnold 11.09.17 at 11:08 am

Bob McManus #3: “info and links…And speculation”

Well things rarely happen with one motive and one result: Shakeup in Saudi, so old scores will be settled, moneys rearranged. Or: Removal of Saddam gave the Shi’ites political voice in Baghdad, but also led to ISIL etc. I agree that Saudi would be a minor actor in war with Iran, (except for basing), but I think Omega Centauri #12 hit the nail on the head. Note that Trump has been decimating the State Dept. — as with N. Korea, he may not want intermediaries scotching his plans.

20

rea 11.09.17 at 12:17 pm

What Obama showed is that it is possible to make a deal with Iran

What Trump showed is that it is not possible to make a deal with the US.,

21

P O'Neill 11.09.17 at 12:32 pm

I did wonder about that but assumed the numbers still couldn’t possibly add up? Aramco sale would presumably have a couple of extra zeros on it compared to anything that might turn up from the odd helicopter ‘crash’.

Indeed, but MBS has shown a tendency to be dazzled by zeroes. The consultants convinced him that Aramco was worth $2 trillion, so float 5 percent of that, get US$100 billion, and use it as leverage to borrow more, and they thought they had a plan. The problem is that Aramco is probably not worth US$2 trillion, and they can’t find a stock market both deep enough on money and lax enough on disclosure to run that kind of IPO. So it wouldn’t be surprising (even if not a good plan for broader reasons) that they looked at alleged assets of Prince Waleed bin-Talal, the senior princes around former King and Crown Princes (Abdullah, Sultan, Nayef) and thought they could get somewhere in the same range. Then there’s the question of how they’re going to pay for “NEOM” (which looks like vaporware, but something that will need some cash to keep the vapors going),

22

Peter Erwin 11.09.17 at 12:34 pm

SA barely has an militaryrenting mercenariesanyone who sold SA … the people to operate them

Do you have some sort of reference or sources for that? Most online sources seem to agree that the Saudi military consists of several hundred thousand active-duty personnel. I have great difficulty believing those are all or even mostly “mercenaries” or “contractors”, even if we exclude the separate Saudi National Guard, which is recruited from tribes considered loyal to the House of Saud. (Several hundred or a few thousand foreigners providing specialized training or maintenance of certain high-tech items, sure, but more than that?)

Also, things like “God knows actual Saudis couldn’t be expected to do the heavy-lifting” sound, to be honest, slightly racist (“Oh, of course those lazy Arabs can’t do any hard, dangerous work”).

23

Fake Dave 11.09.17 at 12:37 pm

There’s no “endgame” in Syria at present. The FSA is weak and fractured and the Salafists have been reduced to a few strongholds, but the strength of the Syrian Arab Army is dependent on Hezballah and Russian air power to gain ground and reporting over the last few years has revealed the effect mass conscription has had on a generation of young men. ISIS is just a eulogy and a few tears from being put in the ground, but the Syrian Democratic Forces have gained huge swaths of ISIS territory for themselves and have largely secured the North/East bank of the the Euphrates and taken crucial oil fields. They’ve been bolstered by US weapons and equipment that the Trump administration pinky swears will be returned once ISIS is defeated, but the Turks aren’t convinced and we shouldn’t be either. The uneasy truce between Assad and the Kurds and Arabs of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria won’t last much longer and even a “grand bargain” that unites the country on paper won’t be enough to put the revolutionary genie back in the bottle.

Besides that, there’s still the question of Idlib and Daraa. Tahrir Al-Sham nee Jabhat al-Nusra nee Al Qaeda in Syria still controls most of Idlib governorate following the defeat of the Saudi/Turkish proxy Ahrar al-Sham and even a Turkish military intervention (in support of Ahrar and against Nusra, but also the Kurds of Afrin Canton) and repeated attacks from the Assad regime haven’t broken them yet. Meanwhile, in Southern Syria, the FSA aligned forces of the Southern Front still hold out in the countryside around Daraa (birthplace of the revolution) and, despite huge amounts of ordnance being dropped on them, haven’t given in yet. There are other pockets of revolutionary resistance in East Ghouta, Douma, the Badia and elsewhere, but they’re positions are extremely vulnerable at the moment.

Add in the ongoing Turkish intervention on two fronts (North Aleppo and North Idlib, almost surrounding Afrin Canton) and Israeli border skirmishes along the Golan and you get a picture of a war that is far from over. I will concede that forces loyal to Assad control the majority of Syria for the first time in years, but large swaths of that territory are, in fact, being occupied by Hezballah at the moment and the Syrian Arab Army never really recovered from the defeats and defections it suffered in the early days of the war.

Assad’s regime no longer looks like it could fall any day now, but it’s still far from being in as strong a position as when they first fired on those protestors back in 2011 and I don’t think the civil war will be over for at least a couple years yet. A lot can happen in the mean time and one of those scenarios involves a war on Hezballah on the Lebanese/South Syrian front. It’s not at all clear that Assad can reconquer Syria without Hez and other Shia militias, so if the Saudis and Israelis make good on their recent threats to take the war to Hezballah, it could still turn this whole war on its head.

I’m not saying that would be a good thing (although I do think Assad staying in power is one of the worst possible outcomes of this war), but it’s something to consider. Wars aren’t over ’til they’re over and, even then, not necessarily.

24

Chris S 11.09.17 at 2:28 pm

“I understand that Nasrallah gave a statement a few days ago saying that he didn’t believe Hariri made the statement issued in his name. “

You mean – surely – that he didn’t author it ? He read the statement itself on TV.

25

Murc 11.09.17 at 3:58 pm

The Saudis may be counting on us to bail them out if they get into an actual-factual shooting war with Iran.

They might be right about us doing so. If missiles and fighters start flying back and forth over the Persian Gulf, I have a hard time seeing the US not intervening, and under Trump that intervention would likely take the form of an unrestricted air war against Iran and that’s just for starters.

26

Cian O'Connor 11.09.17 at 4:59 pm

One of the key things to remember is that Saudi Arabia is not a state in the modern sense, but an area of land ruled over by a family that conquered it. Saud legitimacy has always been a tricky thing, and one of the ways in which they’ve maintained it is by doing a deal with the Wahhabi clerics. Which is why/how a country as puritanical as Saudi Arabia has been ruled by such a dissolute group of individuals.

As a result there’s a tension in how the government is run and who runs it. Parts of the government (in particular the intelligence services) are run by what are essentially Jihadists, with strong links to the country’s clerics. They’re the guys who helped fund/support 9/11. They’re the guys that are responsible for Al-Quaeda, Isis, et al. There’s never much sign that the Saud family have had any interest in Jihad, but they’ve never been in a position to challenge this stuff.

Then on top of this you have the complex ways in which the Saudi’s intersect with the interests of the various western intelligence agencies. I suspect one reason the CIA was comfortable training Wahhabists in Syria, was because they had long standing relationships with their pay masters. Equally Israel and Isis (and to a lesser degree Al-Quaeda) seem to have come to an understanding of sorts. Everything goes back to Saudi Arabia.

As to what MBS is doing. Well notable is what he hasn’t done. He hasn’t challenged the clerics, and has actually increased his acquiescence with their interests. For example the brutal crackdown on Shiites, destruction of their homes and so forth (and the state murder of senior Shiite clerics). If anything the repressive Saudi justice system has got worse in recent years, rather than better (but he’s a reformer!). This is purely an internal power struggle within the Saud family – it’s not a Saudi Arabian power struggle.

Externally he seems determined to prove that Saudi Arabia is the Middle East dominant power. Yemen was supposed to be that, though it’s failed. His recent (and again failed) attempts to boss Quatar were about that. And to the degree that he was supporting Saudi funding of Syrian rebels – I would guess that to was about that. Unfortunately he has a few problems. First of these is that the Saudi military, despite being ludicrously overendowed with weapons, is pathetic. The weapons systems, planes etc are largely manned by foreign mercenaries, whose loyalty to Saudi Arabia extends to the next pay check. Their brual, genocidal and illegal attacks on Yemen are only possible because the US is providing satellite and guidance support for their aircraft. The other problem is that their main rival, Iran, is good at this stuff. They have a decent army, excellent intelligence services, are good at diplomacy and have loyal allies (the Iranians, unlike the US and Saudis, generally don’t stab you in the back when you’ve served your purpose).

I suspect the other problem that Saudi Arabia is facing, though noone truly knows, is that Saudi oil production is declining fast. Without oil they’re nothing.

27

Cian O'Connor 11.09.17 at 5:05 pm

Z @18 – that’s definitely a big part of it. Also the gulf states provide a lot of financing for wall street. The gulf states have traditionally recycled their petrodollars there.

28

Cervantes 11.09.17 at 8:16 pm

” The Saudi, in turn, have a lot to gain in achieving regional supremacy over Iran and a lot to lose if Iran achieves it. “

What, exactly? If Iran is buddies with Baghdad and Damascus, it doesn’t seem to me it’s any skin off SA’s nose. Regional trade is of no substantial importance to them and I can’t imagine Iran has any interest in threatening SA militarily. I really can’t see any point to all this saber rattling and proxy warring. What would it even mean for the Saudis to gain “regional supremacy”?

29

Eamonn 11.09.17 at 9:57 pm

The upside of old school American hegemony in the ME was that the Saudis thought that whatever happened the US had their backs, so the royals could devote themselves mainly to debauchery and peculation. With Obama they realized that the old guarantee didn’t seem to apply anymore. They decided to do something. Yemen was/is something, so they did/are doing it. Trump’s tough talk -no/symbolic action approach to Iran (see what’s happening to the Kurds) may have convinced them that they have to do something more than Yemen. So they might be about to do it.

30

christian h. 11.09.17 at 10:37 pm

For much of the last decade US policy in the Middle East has moved towards finding an accomodation with Iran. It seems to me there are now two contradictory US Middle East policies operative simultaneously – the one of the US state, continuing from the Obama years and prosecuted by whatever remains of the Sate Department bureaucracy, factions in the DoD, and exponents of foreign policy in the Senate; and the one of the Trump family and a small circle of insiders (including the new ambassador to Israel, for example), which seems to attempt to forge a SA-Israel-US alliance to start a regional war against Iran and its allies.

31

Tom 11.09.17 at 10:59 pm

” it’s hard to see what motivates the US enmity with Iran other than path dependence”

Is it really that hard to see?

If you go to https:://www.aipac.org the most prominent item displayed under “Legislation and Issues” is warmongering against Iran. That is pretty easy to see.

Neocon Zionists have been agitating for decades for the destabilization of Iran. That is also pretty easy to see.

This is not just some right-wing push for war for its own sake. The warmongers against Iran do not care whether they are exploiting Trump’s weakness for Israel, or whether they are exploiting the distaste of Democrats for Trump (witness the legislation sanctioning Russia, North Korean and … Iran, which was supported by virtually all Democrats).

The problem is that if you’re asking “Is is good for the USA to go into a war with Iran?” you’re asking the wrong question. The correct questions is “Does the Israel lobby think that a war with Iran is good for Israel?”

32

Raven Onthill 11.10.17 at 1:37 am

I wonder if Erik Prince would perhaps provide the army?

33

Collin Street 11.10.17 at 2:14 am

Is this like how the japanese government found that the best practicable path out of its problems in china involved dropping torpedos on hawaii?

34

Fake Dave 11.10.17 at 2:25 am

Yeah, the Israeli lobby has been going after Iran for years because Iran supports both Hamas and Hezballah. Post-Revolution Iran is seen as an existential threat in both Israel and the KSA and that attitude explains both the strange unspoken alliance those two countries have as well as some of the absurd unforced errors (like supporting Saddam in the ’80s) that the US has made in the region.

35

LFC 11.10.17 at 2:40 am

C. O’Connor @26

Parts of the government (in particular the intelligence services) are run by what are essentially Jihadists, with strong links to the country’s clerics. … They’re the guys that are responsible for Al-Quaeda, Isis, et al.

SA intelligence services are “responsible” for al-Qaeda? I think that word is too strong. It’s not the impression I got from Wright’s The Looming Tower. Bin Laden himself was expelled from SA and moved to Sudan before going to Afghanistan; the mtg at which Al Qaeda as an organization was born occurred in 1988 and was held in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda’s funding came from more than one source. That said, it’s true that elements of the SA govt plus private rich Saudis fund Wahhabism in many parts of the Muslim world.

36

ozajh 11.10.17 at 2:51 am

Cian @8,

I think one factor is the new prince is a stupid man who believes himself to be brilliant.

So an alliance with the USA, whose current President is . . .

How could anything go wrong, go wrong, go wrong . . .?

37

Chris S 11.10.17 at 2:54 am

Worth noting that in the middle of all this, the Saudis are currently also blockading Yemen – including all aid. The noise about Aleppo was understandable – but the same voices are silent on Yemen.

38

sapaterson 11.10.17 at 6:20 am

Richard III comes to mind when it comes to what motivates MBS. But instead of a mere two princes that need offing Saudi Arabia has hundreds each sucking at the oil teat. The closer to the crown, the bigger the nipple. Not a good business model. Not conducive to savings.

The war to come is a desperate plan by Bibi – soon to otherwise be deposed or jailed for corruption; and the Donald – soon to be deposed and stripped of his wealth which is like a prison. They are all tragic figures three who would destroy the world rather than admit to parity with their own people.

And yes Maria. Intelligent minds flock to these places in times of great uncertainty. I look up John’s references and ponder them for days. But any person with half a brain knows that this war to come does note bode well.

39

Z 11.10.17 at 10:06 am

” The Saudi, in turn, have a lot to gain in achieving regional supremacy over Iran and a lot to lose if Iran achieves it. “

What, exactly? If Iran is buddies with Baghdad and Damascus, it doesn’t seem to me it’s any skin off SA’s nose.

Iran becoming the de facto dominant power and cementing its alliance with Syria and Iraq could be viewed (and apparently is viewed) as an utter catastrophe for the Saudis (again, the ruling dynasty, not the people) because the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia might then feel it has enough regional backing to assert its rights and ask for a share of political and economical power. As the regions were this Shiite minority is a relative majority are oil-rich, this could destabilize the entirety of the Saudi regime.

Of course, part of this is a question of perception: if the Saudis were to give a measure of political respect to this Shiite minority, that would go a great deal in solving the problem. But they aren’t (according to Cian O’Connor above, quite the contrary). Once you take this parameter for granted, the rise of Iran is extremely worrisome for the Saudi regime (and likewise to an even greater extent for Bahrain).

40

Fake Dave 11.10.17 at 12:25 pm

One thing to realize is that the KSA has effectively just had a palace coup and is now in the process of forming a new government. It’s not clear how King Salman and his son outmaneuvered their rivals, but they’ve effectively written most of the once powerful princes out of the the Saudi line of succession. The House of Saud may as well have been renamed the “House of Salman.” That this power grab was able to occur at all indicates a profound shift in the mechanisms of the Saudi state and we’re in uncharted territory now.

As the old guard gets systematically purged from positions of power (or just murdered, as has apparently happened to at least one prince), the old axioms about what the Saudi government will or won’t do become obsolete. It’s too soon to call them a sinking shift, but they’re lost in a storm and just threw half the crew overboard. Even they don’t know what course they’re on.

41

Layman 11.10.17 at 12:39 pm

42

rogergathmann 11.10.17 at 12:46 pm

Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian horror, and this is more of the same. But I do think that what crank anti-Zionists say about the power of the Israel lobby is actually about the tacit alliance between Israel and the most anti-Jewish government on earth, S.A. Saudi power is pretty easy to trace in the U.S. economy, and all the usual establishment players hop to it.
It is interesting to compare the outcry when Khodorkovsky was arrested for fraud – and undoubtedly he did commit fraud – with the non-outcry over the arrest of Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud. Alwaleed, like Khodorkovsky, made a name for himself criticizing corruption and fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia, which should tick the boxes for the NYT editors and such. But his arrest comes with nary a blink, plus the unskeptical publication of the charges against him – which are as ludicrous as the charges against the old Bolshevik’s in Stalin’s Great Terror. The only reason the bien-pensant are not running around is: the money is against it. After all, what media company wants to have bad relations with its investors? And everybody knows that Alwaleed’s investments in Fox, Times Warner, etc., will be taken over by some Kingdom stooge. All that guff about humanitarian interventionism and human rights, all that wooing of the center-left, has left us with a shambles. It was always bs. It has now led to an incredible amount of death in the Middle East. It is not only Blair and Bush who should be up on trial at the Hague.

43

Collin Street 11.10.17 at 1:00 pm

if the Saudis were to give a measure of political respect to this Shiite minority, that would go a great deal in solving the problem.

They can’t. The ibn Saud family has been allied with wahhabism since the very very beginning of their rise to power: the legitimacy of their authority is critically dependent on their not being nice to shiites, and with the carbon bubble maybe bursting and possible long-rumoured production limits/difficulties, they don’t exactly have the leeway to try changing right now.

44

Katsue 11.10.17 at 1:51 pm

@24 Apologies, you are correct.

45

Katsue 11.10.17 at 1:55 pm

@23

I don’t think we can say for certain that the truce between the Syrian government and the SDF won’t hold. Certainly there are good reasons for both sides to avoid fighting each other.

46

Cian O'Connor 11.10.17 at 1:57 pm

SA intelligence services are “responsible” for al-Qaeda? I think that word is too strong. It’s not the impression I got from Wright’s The Looming Tower. Bin Laden himself was expelled from SA and moved to Sudan before going to Afghanistan; the mtg at which Al Qaeda as an organization was born occurred in 1988 and was held in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda’s funding came from more than one source. That said, it’s true that elements of the SA govt plus private rich Saudis fund Wahhabism in many parts of the Muslim world.

Well part of the problem with assigning responsibility is that Al-Quaeda have never really been a distinct entity (even the name seems to have been created by the US in the 90s), and these days it seems to a be a brand that local Wahhabist latch onto for various reasons. But the Saudi intelligence agencies, and religious charities have provided money and support to various parts of it since the Afghanistan days. I don’t think there’s much doubt at this point that they were supporting them (and ISIS) in Syria, including providing weapons and facilitating transportation of fighters from the gulf.

This Andrew Cockburn article on the 9/11 case is excellent, and part of what he discusses is the revelations about Saudi support and funding of the 9/11 hijackers (some of which was already out there, but the US had done a good job of clamping down on discussion of it):
https://harpers.org/archive/2017/10/crime-and-punishment-4/

The other aspect of the Wahhabist part of the Saudi state (for want of a better description) is that they push their extremist ideology all across the muslim world (as far as Indonesia), and provide huge sums to support Madrasas, clerics and other things. And obviously this creates (and is intended to create) the environment from which Jihadism emerges.

47

Cian O'Connor 11.10.17 at 2:04 pm

Eamonn @29: The upside of old school American hegemony in the ME was that the Saudis thought that whatever happened the US had their backs, so the royals could devote themselves mainly to debauchery and peculation. With Obama they realized that the old guarantee didn’t seem to apply anymore. They decided to do something. Yemen was/is something, so they did/are doing it. Trump’s tough talk -no/symbolic action approach to Iran (see what’s happening to the Kurds) may have convinced them that they have to do something more than Yemen. So they might be about to do it.

I don’t think this really works for a couple of reasons:
1) Saudi Arabia has been interfering in Yemen for a long time. The escalation was driven by the failure of their proxy in the south, and the failures of some border incursions by the Saudis.
2) The US is providing military support.
3) Saudi Arabia seems to be getting more and more nervous by Shiites on both their border (Iraq) and internally (thus the destruction of Shiite towns, murder of Shiites and high profile executions). They do genuinely seem to fear a Shiite rebellion (which has happened in the past), and that it would be supported by other Shiites in the region.

Saudi Arabia has been actively (if often incompetently) in Middle East politics and wars for a long time. The scale of this is new, but the scope isn’t.

48

Cian O'Connor 11.10.17 at 2:16 pm

Do you have some sort of reference or sources for that? Most online sources seem to agree that the Saudi military consists of several hundred thousand active-duty personnel. I have great difficulty believing those are all or even mostly “mercenaries” or “contractors”, even if we exclude the separate Saudi National Guard, which is recruited from tribes considered loyal to the House of Saud. (Several hundred or a few thousand foreigners providing specialized training or maintenance of certain high-tech items, sure, but more than that?)

I think Maria’s statement is an exaggeration. Saudi Arabia does have an army, it’s just rubbish. Certainly no match for Houthi fighters (let alone Iran or Hezbollah). But yes the military is heavily dependent upon (very well paid) foreigners for both the high tech stuff and maintenance (there are some Saudis flying fighter jets because that’s glamorous). They recruit heavily from the UK and also Pakistan. Probably other places too – those are just the ones I know of. I believe the army relies upon Pakistanis for actual soldier as well.

Also, things like “God knows actual Saudis couldn’t be expected to do the heavy-lifting” sound, to be honest, slightly racist (“Oh, of course those lazy Arabs can’t do any hard, dangerous work”).

Foreigners do the most of the heavy lifting in other aspects of the Saudi economy, why would the military be any different. If the foreigners left, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t function. Incidentally many of the foreigners doing the heavy lifting are from places like Pakistan, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. So I don’t know that the racist card really works here.

49

novakant 11.10.17 at 4:10 pm

Seconding Chris, it needs to be emphasized that the Saudis have been committing major large scale ware crimes against civilians in Yemen and are on the verge of engaging in full-scale genocide – all this with US backing.

Where’s the outrage?

50

novakant 11.10.17 at 4:12 pm

PS

google: “Saudi blockade Yemen”

or go here: https://goo.gl/dEXmkb

NB: not for the faint of the heart

51

Cian O'Connor 11.10.17 at 4:16 pm

This from David Hirst on the crackdown in Saudi Arabia is good:
http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/exclusive-senior-figures-tortured-and-beaten-saudi-purge-1489501498

It seems it’s on a much larger scale than first assumed.

I’m not sure what the Saudi plans are for Lebanon are. My guess would be they will focus on the banking system. Maybe try to impose some kind of sanctions. That would be the smart move. Though given Lebanon’s history as a Middle Eastern hot money center, it could have all kinds of unintended consequences.

52

Cian O'Connor 11.10.17 at 4:19 pm

I’m also amused by how botched Hariri’s resignation was. Given his financial interests you’d think they could have pressured him to resign from within Lebanon. Instead by doing it this way they’ve convinced the majority of Lebanese (including those who are pretty hostile to Hezbollah) that the Saudis kidnapped him and are holding him under duress. In the short term they’ve unified the Lebanese rather than divided them.

I feel this is further evidence for my theory that the prince is stupid. A smarter man would be less brutal and less overt.

53

Srynerson 11.10.17 at 10:06 pm

“Do you really expect that the retired USAF, McDonnell-Douglas (Boeing), and Eurofighter personnel who are maintaining and operating the Saudi hardware are going to risk their lives and their families’ lives fighting a war of aggression on behalf of the princes?”

Based on the events of the North Yemen Civil War (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Yemen_Civil_War#British_involvement_1962.E2.80.931965), I would say I absolutely expect those personnel to risk their lives as long as the checks keep clearing.

54

Orange Watch 11.11.17 at 12:09 am

Cian O’Connor@46

The other aspect of the Wahhabist part of the Saudi state (for want of a better description) is that they push their extremist ideology all across the muslim world (as far as Indonesia), and provide huge sums to support Madrasas, clerics and other things. And obviously this creates (and is intended to create) the environment from which Jihadism emerges.

This should be universal knowledge at this point, but it always bears repeating and underscoring. If you ever want to really depress yourself, get one of the Qur’an translations + commentaries the Kingdom freely distributes all over the the globe and compare it to other extant translations – and more significantly, commentaries.

55

Cian O'Connor 11.11.17 at 12:28 am

@53 – the British Mercenary Operation were a kind of private extension of the British army. They had a high level of ideological commitment to the war and what they saw as British interests.

The mercenaries operating in Saudi Arabia today are nothing like that.

56

Fake Dave 11.11.17 at 8:12 am

@ Katsue 45

I don’t know if the truce will hold or not, but a truce with Rojava/Northern Syria is different from reconquering it. Compare the situation with Iraqi Kurdistan which has been autonomous since the ’70s but has never been able to claim full independence nor been completely reconquered by Baghdad.

Barring a costly invasion of Rojava, the best the Assad regime can achieve is an “understanding” with the new state that has grown on their territory. They are necessarily less in control of Syria than when they started and their room to maneuver will be restricted in the future.

57

Eamonn 11.11.17 at 7:43 pm

The Saudis gave Lloyd Austin, the general in charge of Centcom at the time, a whole 60 minutes notice that their air force was about to attack Yemen. I’d say that’s a pretty clear sign of a changed relationship with the US.

And once the they got started and were evidently not going to pack it in, of course the Yanks started to support them. What else would they do?

58

Peter T 11.12.17 at 5:49 am

I’m not sure what’s going on here, but the facts of geography and relative power would seem to rule out a serious kerfuffle. Egypt and Jordan are restoring relations with Damascus and Iraq is openly aligned with it. So there’s no way for Saudi to actually get to Lebanon or Syria (bar open, serious collaboration with Israel, which would surely cause ructions within Saudi). Likewise, there’s no way for Saudi to get at Iran. It lacks the capacity, the allies and the geography is against it. My guess is that most of this is noise to distract from whatever the internal game is.

Likewise, although there are factions in the US pushing for war with Iran, their arguments tend to break down when actual proposals are under consideration. Iran is not Saddam’s Iraq – internally divided, diplomatically isolated and weakened by a decade of sanctions. It’s four times the size, relatively cohesive, on reasonable or good terms with all its neighbours, has Russia and China on side and has a formidable defensive capability. Like “Repeal and Replace Obamacare”, it’s a slogan without serious content behind it.

So my prognosis is more whining, minor moves and nothing much else.

59

Procopius 11.12.17 at 7:26 am

Eamonn @ 57 – I’ve been retired a long time, and I don’t have any active duty friends right now, but I had the impression that CENTCOM has pretty much lost control over the Middle East, which is now almost entirely in the hands of SOFCOM. As, actually, seems to be most of the active duty military. The fact that the Saudis only gave CENTCOM 60 minutes notice probably shows more about CENTCOM’s standing with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The question would be to what extent they worked out their plans with SOFCOM, which seems to have taken advantage of the situation to insert an unknown number of “special operators” in Yemen for unknown reasons.

60

Collin Street 11.12.17 at 7:53 am

The thing is… right-wing politicians are all self-satisfied morons or grifters. So your “it’s not possible” doesn’t count for a lot: brexit without destroying the economy was impossible, operation barbarossa was impossible, stopping US support for chinese nationalists by a decapitation strike in hawaii was impossible, creating a stable US ally in iraq by invading and sacking the entire government was impossible. But “impossible to achieve” doesn’t mean “impossible to attempt”, and it’s the _attempt_ that does the damage.

So god only knows what the saudis will try. It’ll be doomed and stupid, but that was never enough to stop everyone.

61

Dipper 11.12.17 at 4:28 pm

The excellent Tim Marshall has some opinions on the Saudi business here.

62

Fake Dave 11.13.17 at 2:17 pm

@Peter T 58

I think the Saudis have enough sway in Egypt and Jordan that air access is in the cards. A lot depends on the US and Israel though. The Saudis don’t need to fly over Israeli airspace (and probably wouldn’t want to anyway), but if Israel decides a war in Lebanon is in their interests, the US will almost certainly support it and can readily lean on Egypt and Jordan to allow air access.

Sisi’s Egypt has largely acted as Saudi client and, although there’s been evidence of a split lately, it may not take much to get them back on board. Likewise, Jordan has a complex relationship with its larger neighbor, but has generally sought good relations with the Saudis and the rest of the GCC bloc and also can’t afford to jeopardize its strategic alliances with the US and Israel. The Saudis prefer to act as part of a “coalition” and the smaller Arab League states usually go along. Egypt supported the Yemen war and the Qatar blockade and Jordan provided support and safe havens Saudi and US proxy fighters in Syria for years. I don’t think they’d object as strongly to another “Saudi-led coalition” war in Lebanon as you imagine. Hell they might even join it.

63

Peter T 11.14.17 at 11:03 am

Fake Dave

All true. On the other side, Sisi is coping with an ISIS insurgency in the Sinai, popular detestation of the Saudis and (probably) a lot of fallout from the sudden severance of ties between Egyptian businesses and those the new Saudi ruler has incarcerated. And relations between Cairo and Damascus have warmed up. Likewise relations between Amman and Damascus. The smaller states of the GCC will back Saudi, for lack of choice.

Final point is that given the ties between Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi PMU, Saudi and the US have to worry about Iraqi reactions. Qatar has not been a resounding success, given prompt Turkish and Iranian support, and US indecision.

As Colin Street observed, none of this is conclusive, given the long record of idiotic policy.

64

LFC 11.14.17 at 3:36 pm

Worth noting that discontent in Congress w U.S. policy re Saudi and Yemen appears to be growing. A recent House of Reps. resolution, though largely symbolic rather than practical in effect, is significant in that “it is the first time the House has acknowledged the U.S. role in the conflict, and it notes that U.S. involvement against parties in the Yemeni civil war is not permitted by either of the two military force authorizations Congress passed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”

The above quote is from a HuffPo article:
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/house-vote-humanitarian-crisis-yemen_us_5a0a6409e4b0b17ffcdfd18a

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