Saudi Prince Mohammad Misreads the Tea Leaves in Washington

Saudi prince Mohammad bin Salman greets American defense secretary Ash Carter in Washington DC, May 13, 2015
Saudi prince Mohammad bin Salman greets American defense secretary Ash Carter in Washington DC, May 13, 2015 (DoD/Glenn Fawcett)

Emboldened by perceived White House support, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman appears to have stepped up his risky, so far faltering effort to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East.

The kingdom, despite Prime Minister Saad Hariri complicating Saudi efforts to curb the political and military power of Hezbollah, the country’s Shiite militia, by putting on hold his decision to resign, is signaling that it is looking beyond Lebanon to fulfil Prince Mohammad’s vow in May that the fight between the two rivals would be fought inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking earlier this month, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir warned that “any way you look at it, they (the Iranians) are the ones who are acting in an aggressive manner. We are reacting to that aggression and saying, ‘Enough is enough. We’re not going to let you do this anymore.'” Read more

Crown Prince Breaks Saudi Monarchy’s Two Pacts

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the defense minister and crown prince of Saudi Arabia
Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the defense minister and crown prince of Saudi Arabia (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Middle East expert Adam Garfinkle writes in The American Interest that by putting members of the royal family under house arrest, giving women the right to drive and removing the arrest power from the Islamic religious police, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud has broken the two pacts that have held the monarchy together for more than half a century:

  1. The consensus of family elders that has kept factions in rough balance with each other and kept most contentions from public view.
  2. The duumvirate between the Al Saud and the Al Wahhab, the temporal and religious halves of the whole Saudi enterprise going back to the eighteenth century. Read more

World Won’t Let Catalonia or Kurdistan Come Quietly Onto the Map

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, October 3
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, October 3 (Fotomovimiento)

Catalonia and Kurdistan couldn’t seem farther away. One is nestled in the peace and prosperity of Western Europe, the other swims in the chaos of a dissolving Middle East.

Yet the two independence referendums of these would-be nation states are revealing. Both raise questions about the meaning of their regional orders and have provoked pushback from the status-quo world. Read more

Iraq’s Kurds Deserve the West’s Support for Their Own State

View of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, May 10, 2011
View of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, May 10, 2011 (James Gordon)

Western countries are falling into the familiar habit of discouraging Kurdish self-determination.

American and European officials have urged Iraq’s Kurds to delay their independence referendum, scheduled for next Monday.

The reasons are by now well-known: a Kurdish state would anger the Turks, destabilize Iraq and complicate the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

All of which is true, but there will always be a reason to deny the Kurds self-rule. They have been stateless for generations. If it isn’t Turkish apprehensions today, it will be fears of an Iranian-Turkish condominium tomorrow.

The Kurds, one of the most progressive people in the Middle East, deserve better. Read more

After Caliphate’s Fall, A Spending Challenge

Two children walk among the ruins of Mosul, Iraq, June 14
Two children walk among the ruins of Mosul, Iraq, June 14 (ECHO/Peter Biro)

Since Iraqi troops seized back Mosul last month, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has been reduced to the area around Raqqa in Syria. Predominantly Kurdish forces are attempting to take the city, protected by Western airpower. Authorities estimate the number of Islamist fighters has dwindled from the thousands to the hundreds.

As soon as the caliphate falls, governments will face another challenge: the reconstruction.

Repairs to basic infrastructure in Mosul alone could cost up to $1 billion, according to the United Nations.

Iraq’s Ministry of Planning puts the long-term cost of rebuilding Mosul at $10 billion. That includes repairing the damage from the fighting as well as the deliberate destruction caused by the Islamic State.

Given Iraq’s history of corruption and mismanagement of public funds, the final figure could be much higher. And that’s just Mosul. Read more

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

Donald Trump Wants Conflict with Iran

American president Donald Trump gives a speech in Paris, France, July 12
American president Donald Trump gives a speech in Paris, France, July 12 (DoD/Dominique A. Pineiro)

By all accounts, Iran is complying with the 2015 multilateral agreement that curtailed its nuclear program. The country is giving full access to inspectors, who have found no violations.

The only person upset by this is Donald Trump.

The New York Times revealed earlier this month that the American president had only reluctantly certified Iran’s compliance with the deal.

Now the same newspaper reports that he has instructed his team to find a way to declare Iran noncompliant — whether it is or not.

Congress requires the president to certify every three months that Iran is meeting its obligations under the agreement. If Trump doesn’t, then lawmakers have sixty days to restore sanctions that were rescinded in 2015. Read more