Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Joker in the Pack

An interesting article in the Independent. The UK and US ally Saudi Arabia is a destabilizing force in the Middle East according to a report by German intelligence. Saudi defence minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the powerful 29-year-old favourite son of the ageing King Salmani is a political gambler who is destabilising the Arab world through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. There is also a sense that Prince Mohammed is an inexperienced gambler who is likely to double his stake when his bets fail. This is the very opposite of past Saudi rulers, who had always preferred, so to speak, to bet on all the horses. It is a measure of the concern in the BND that the memo should be so openly and widely distributed. The BND warns that Saudi Arabia has become an unpredictable wild card.

The BND lists the areas in which Saudi Arabia is adopting a more aggressive and warlike policy. In Syria, in early 2015, it supported the creation of The Army of Conquest, primarily made up of the al-Qaeda affiliate the al-Nusra Front and the ideologically similar Ahrar al-Sham, which won a series of victories against the Syrian Army in Idlib province. In Yemen, it began an air war directed against the Houthi movement and the Yemeni army, which shows no sign of ending. Among those who gain are al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which the US has been fruitlessly trying to weaken for years by drone strikes.

None of these foreign adventures initiated by Prince Mohammed have been successful or are likely to be so, but they have won support for him at home. The BND warned that the concentration of so much power in his hands “harbours a latent risk that in seeking to establish himself in the line of succession in his father’s lifetime, he may overreach”.

At every stage in the confrontation with Iran over the past week Riyadh has raised the stakes. The attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad might not have been expected but the Saudis did not have to break off diplomatic relations. Then there was the air strike that the Iranians allege damaged their embassy in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. There are signs of the Saudi leadership deliberately increasing the political temperature by putting four Iranians on trial, one for espionage and three for terrorism. The four had been in prison in Saudi Arabia since 2013 or 2014 so there was no reason to try them now, other than antagonize Iran.

A main reason for Saudi Arabia acting unilaterally is its disappointment that the US reached an agreement with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme. Again this looks naive: close alliance with the US is the prime reason why the Saudi monarchy has survived nationalist and socialist challengers since the 1930s. Aside from the Saudis’ money and close alliance with the US, leaders in the Middle East have always doubted that the Saudi state has much operational capacity. This is true of all the big oil producers, whatever their ideological make-up. Experience shows that vast oil wealth encourages autocracy, whether it is in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya or Kuwait, but it also produces states that are weaker than they look, with incapable administrations and dysfunctional armies.


This is the second area in which Prince Mohammed’s interview suggests nothing but trouble for the Saudi royal family. He suggests austerity and market reforms in the Kingdom, but in the context of Middle East autocracies and particularly oil states this breaches an unspoken social contract with the general population. People may not have political liberty, but they get a share in oil revenues through government jobs and subsidised fuel, food, housing and other benefits. Greater privatisation and supposed reliance on the market, with no accountability or fair legal system, means a licence to plunder by those with political power. This was one of the reasons for the uprising in 2011 against Bashar  al-Assad in Syria and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. So-called reforms that erode an unwieldy but effective patronage machine end up by benefiting only the elite.

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