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

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

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

Saudi Arabia’s Culture Wars Strain the Kingdom

Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then defense minister, is seen in his office in Riyadh, December 9, 2013
Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then defense minister, is seen in his office in Riyadh, December 9, 2013 (DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

The Saudi stereotype is bleak. Environmental desolation is mirrored by a cultural desert. Religious police meander between buildings, looking for victims. Women hurry between shadows behind their male guardians. The strict interpretation of Najdi Islam dominates nearly every aspect of life. It is a quiet, bleak place, with the only civic engagement at the mosque, whose loudspeakers are the only music the kingdom ever hears.

It’s stark and it sticks in the mind. It is, of course, not totally true.

Saudi Arabia’s approximately twenty million citizens may be dominated by those who wish the kingdom to look like that; they’ve done a bang-up job controlling the kingdom’s image. Yet beneath the surface, discontent stirs. Read more

After Mosul Falls, What Then?

A Kurdish fighter waits on the frontline a few hours before the start of the offensive on Mosul, Iraq, October 18
A Kurdish fighter waits on the frontline a few hours before the start of the offensive on Mosul, Iraq, October 18 (Quentin Bruno)

There are some 100,000 troops involved in the conquest (or reconquest, depending on your perspective) of Mosul. On the surface, the battle is meant to restore the Iraqi government to its full writ; a Baghdad-united Shia and Sunni realm, a nation state on the way to functionality. In other words, a normal country.

Ah, dreams.

Careful observation reveals a more wretched future. The Islamic State may be doomed, but that hardly means peace for Iraq. There are too many who want a piece of this particular pie.

Many players there are. Let’s start with the greatest of powers, who define the broadest outlines of geopolitics in the Middle East. Read more

If Assad Captures Aleppo, Then What for the West?

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria enters a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, October 21, 2015
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria enters a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, October 21, 2015 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Behind the Islamic State’s murderous campaign of jihadi chaos, past the shattered European Union, veiled by America’s police shootings, protests and mass shootings lurks the skulking husk of the Syrian government, still barrel bombing, gaining ground, suddenly, quietly, reconquering Syria.

What a difference a year makes. Once Bashar Assad was clearly on the ropes: his depleted army unable to put out all the rebellious fires within his domain, his Russian and Iranian allies seemingly unable to save him, the Islamic State’s butchers sharpening their cleaves upon the antiques of Palmyra while his more moderate rebel foes began an offensive toward his Alawite stronghold of Latakia.

Then came the Russians, who made a point of decisively changing the war’s dynamic. Shoring up the wavering Syrian army battlelines and deploying massive airpower, Vladimir Putin carpet-bombed Assad’s enemies while his officers and soldiers stiffened the Syrian army’s spine. Given such support, the Syrian army began the slow crawl back from oblivion, recapturing key Palmyra from the Islamic State, blunting the rebel offensive into Latakia and even recently entering Raqqa Province, where the capital of the Islamic State lay.

Now Assad is closer than ever to recapturing the greatest prize of all. Once the largest city in Syria, now, like the country itself, a husk of traumatized survivors and ruined world heritage sites, Aleppo has been under siege since July 2012 — four brutal years now of back and forth sniping across the same bullet-pocked streets, both sides desperately trying to complete an encirclement around the other. Now Assad looks to have cut off the rebels and, if his forces hold, he will be master of Aleppo once more. Read more