Saudi Arabia Tries the Waters of Retrenchment

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia attends a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, March 16
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia attends a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, March 16 (DoD/Amber I. Smith)

In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s new minister of defense, Mohammad bin Salman, sent the kingdom’s armies to Yemen. In 2017, shortly before usurping the position of crown prince, Salman organized a blockade on little Qatar, which had dared defy the kingdom’s geopolitical priorities.

Both were bold moves fraught with risk. The Yemen war was meant to roll back Iranian influence on the southern border, deny ever-dangerous Al Qaeda a base and prove Saudi Arabia was a capable, independent military power that could fight without mighty America.

The blockade on Qatar was meant to secure the kingdon’s backyard. Regime-rattling Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood both enjoyed Qatari state support and, in uncertain times of economic restructuring and inevitable cultural change, having those two wildcards in the mix was not a game the Saudis wanted to play. Read more

So Much for Yet Another Russian Reset

A flag of the Russian Federation
A flag of the Russian Federation (Amanda Graham)

From Reuters:

US president Donald Trump grudgingly signed into law on Wednesday new sanctions against Russia that Congress had approved overwhelmingly last week, criticizing the legislation as having “clearly unconstitutional” elements.

Ever since the United States entered the stage as a world power, it’s brushed up against Russia. From the 1918-20 international intervention that halfheartedly tried to prevent the rise of Soviet communism to this latest American sanctions bill, the US has long hoped to turn Russia into yet another reliable ally, joined together in a liberal order of peace and prosperity.

That geopolitical naivety is deeply embedded in the American body politic: candidate after candidate has hoped to defang the Russian bear with arms outreached, only to discover that Moscow sees not friendship but subjugation.

It is a relationship between an idealistic, extremely safe nation state and a cynical, deeply insecure one. One finds every betrayal or turnabout shocking; the other sees them as a natural course of events. Read more

Venezuela Is a Geopolitical Tinderbox

Presidents Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Vladimir Putin of Russia shake hands at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 2, 2013
Presidents Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Vladimir Putin of Russia shake hands at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 2, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Surges of protests against a deeply unpopular government have catapulted Venezuela from back-burner regional crisis to a hemispheric one. It’s only a Russian presidential visit away from becoming the world’s next geopolitical hot spot.

Medical supplies are running short, opposition leaders are calling for nationwide boycotts and now the Americans are rousing themselves to begin a sanctions regime against the beleaguered Maduro government.

It’s quite the fall from grace. From 2004 until 2013, Venezuela’s economy rocketed upward, bringing a measure of prosperity to a country long accustomed to hardship. It appeared, in those heady days, that Hugo Chávez, the country’s authoritarian ruler, could bring about his socialist Bolivarian Revolution and economic prosperity. For the Latin American left, Venezuela was proof that one did not have to conform to the neoliberal capitalism of the United States to be successful.

Alas, since 2013, the economy has slid further and further while inflation has hammered the country’s currency to the point of worthlessness.

With America now poking its nose directly into Venezuelan affairs, with the opposition building a shadow government and with the Russians trying to shore up Nicolás Maduro’s government through increasingly generous aid shipments, the country has all the ingredients of a major geopolitical crisis.

The Americans could find themselves sucked into an ever-expanding role in managing the Maduro regime; the opposition could give up on peaceful politics altogether and embark on an armed struggle; an opportunistic Vladimir Putin might wedge Russian power into South America in hopes of throwing the Americans off balance in Europe. Read more

To Save Saudi Arabia, They Needed a Young King

Ray Mabus, then America's secretary of the navy, speaks with Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, November 28, 2016
Ray Mabus, then America’s secretary of the navy, speaks with Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, November 28, 2016 (USN/Armando Gonzales)

By most metrics, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is running out of time. It’s finding it impossible to balance its budget after trying to wage a failed price war on shale oil. It is lurching toward a knowledge economy but hoping that knowledge does not bring a demand for political freedom along the way. Its economic model has hit a dead end. A housing crisis coupled with high, nearly permanent unemployment is dragging down the competitiveness of the kingdom.

Plus there’s the surging power of Iran, the madness of the Sunni supremacists in the Islamic State and Al Qaeda and the quite probable retrenchment of the Americans away from their old alliances in the Middle East.

To be a Saudi leader is to look into the future and despair.

Yet doomsday is not certain. In other places, great kings have overcome the burdens of geopolitics by force of will and shrewd wisdom. Peter the Great of Russia force-marched his empire into modernity, bestowing a powerful polity for his successors. Emperor Constantine cobbled together a Roman Empire from the fragments of a century of civil discord. Fredrick the Great managed to guide Prussia from a minor German state to the spine that would eventually unite the whole country after his death.

They all had one thing in common: decades of absolute power. Peter the Great ruled 39 years; Constantine, 31 years; Frederick the Great, 46 years. They had both time and energy to fix the many problems afflicting their domains.

Now the Saudis are gambling that Mohammad bin Salman, just 31 years old, can do the same for their kingdom. Read more

The Weapons of Saudi’s Siege on Qatar

Tilt-shift perspective of Doha, Qatar, May 21, 2010
Tilt-shift perspective of Doha, Qatar, May 21, 2010 (Joey Gannon)

Anyone who’s ever worked in the Gulf isn’t shocked that Qatar missed a deadline. Badiin, badiin, “later, later,” in the local parlance, as yet another meeting fails to happen.

In light of that, we shouldn’t be so surprised that the Qatar’s been given something of an extension. Reuters reports:

Four Arab states refrained on Wednesday from slapping further sanctions on Qatar but voiced disappointment at its “negative” response to their demands and said their boycott of the tiny Gulf nation would continue.

Qatar earlier in the day accused Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt of “clear aggression” and said the accusations cited when they severed ties a month ago “were clearly designed to create anti-Qatar sentiment in the West”.

Western media is conflict-driven and narrative-obsessed: the advent of 24/7 cable news in the 1980s transformed news from the highlights-heavy, factually-driven 5 o’clock stories to the ever-in-crisis outrage industrial complex.

That’s the result of a free market, free speech and cultural shifts that value action over substance.

Very little of that translates to the Arabian Gulf, where markets are only free in designated zones and where free speech applies only to those at the very, very top.

Thus the notion that missing the deadline was a disaster for Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi is hype. Anti-Saudi conspiracy theorists are grasping at what straws they can if they add up to a haystack of Saudi humiliation.

Alas, all of that misreads the situation and the Gulf in general. This is a soft-power war: Saudi Arabia and its UAE allies will not risk a military invasion of a country with a United States base inside it. They don’t have to either. For the kingdom and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) lackeys to call it a victory, they need only to wait. Read more

Egypt’s War on Sunni Supremacism Goes to Libya

Egyptian president Abdul Fatah Sisi speaks with American defense secretary James Mattis in Washington DC, April 5
Egyptian president Abdul Fatah Sisi speaks with American defense secretary James Mattis in Washington DC, April 5 (DoD/Amber I. Smith)

From Reuters:

Egyptian airstrikes destroyed twelve vehicles loaded with arms, ammunition and explosive material trying to cross the border from Libya, the army spokesman said on Tuesday.

The airforce acted after hearing that “criminal elements” had gathered to try and cross the western boundary, the army statement said, without giving details on exactly where or when the strikes took place.

Despite the paucity of the initial report, it’s clear the Abdul Fatah al-Sisi is trying to look like he’s getting revenge for attacks on Egyptian Christians by Sunni supremacists, who are trying the same old terror tricks of the 1990s to destabilize the regime. Read more

Meet Mohammad bin Salman, the Last King of Saudi Arabia

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, arrives at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China September 5, 2016
Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, arrives at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China September 5, 2016 (Bundesregierung)

From Reuters:

Mohammad bin Salman, 31, was appointed crown prince by his father King Salman on Wednesday, replacing his cousin who is 26 years his senior. This made the prince, who already oversaw defense and energy policy, the most powerful figure in the country by some stretch after the octogenarian monarch.

Already more than a few have mentioned Mohammad bin Salman’s hawkish anti-Iran policies and his bold economic vision. But there’s more to the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia than that. He may be dynamic, comparatively worldly and supposedly forward-thinking, but the odds are we just met the last king of Saudi Arabia. Read more