Turmoil in America’s favorite kingdom

November 16, 2017

Eric Ruder looks at the stakes that loom behind the power struggles in Saudi Arabia.

A POWER grab is shaking the royal family tree of the House of Saud--and that could unleash a regional conflagration of frightening proportions.

In early November, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (often referred to by his initials MBS) carried out an audacious roundup of his enemies and rivals at home while simultaneously pursuing aggressive foreign-policy moves from Yemen to Lebanon.

It's too early to tell if MBS's gamble will pay off or backfire spectacularly, but the 32-year-old crown prince has succeeded in winning over one particularly important booster.

"I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing," tweeted Donald Trump as more than 200 members of the ruling family, military officials and business moguls were arrested and detained on unspecified charges of "corruption."

Whether or not MBS knows what he's doing, Trump almost certainly does not.

It was easy for King Salman and his favorite son--who is expected to ascend to the throne within the next couple years--to seduce Trump, who no doubt admires the Salmans' bounteous billions, MBS's heavy reliance on family members to run the royal state, and his powers to lock up his political rivals.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with Donald Trump in the White House
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with Donald Trump in the White House (Shealah Craighead | Wikimedia Commons)

But Trump's transactional understanding of geopolitics means he's playing checkers while the Saudi royals are playing chess.

Trump boasted repeatedly of the arms deal he brokered with the Saudis--signing contracts with U.S. weapons manufacturers worth $110 billion immediately and $350 billion in total over the next decade.

Trump seems to consider this in purely economic terms--by fattening the bottom line of American military hardware manufacturers and the salaries of their CEOs, this makes America great, right?

But that's the checkers view. In chess, you've got to think several moves ahead--and all of the subsequent moves made possible by a better-armed Saudi Arabia carry enormous risks, both for the people of the region as a whole and, more narrowly, for Trump's pledge to restore America's flagging power.

BARACK OBAMA'S foreign policy sought to balance the wishes of Washington's closest allies in the Middle East--especially Saudi Arabia and Israel--with a larger strategic vision for U.S. domination of the entire region.

But that meant trying to secure U.S. interests without inflaming the Saudi-Iran rivalry that increasingly loomed large behind every arms deal, peace treaty and proxy war from one end of the Middle East to the other.

The Iran nuclear deal struck the balance well, in the view of the Obama administration. In exchange for lifting sanctions, the U.S. was given the right to closely monitor Iran's nuclear production facilities.

Perhaps more importantly, the deal cleared the way for continuing collaboration between the two countries in Iraq, where Iran and the U.S. were on the same side in backing a Shia-dominated government and pursuing joint goals of driving out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and keeping ethnic rivalries from pulling the country apart.

When Trump hit the campaign trial, though, the Iran deal was Exhibit A in Trump's war on Obama and the Democrats. To Trump, it illustrated the Obama administration's military weakness and supposed appeasement of "radical Islam."

Trump's haste to rip up the Iran deal, however, left him defenseless in the face of the charm offensive from the Saudi royals, who have been Iran's arch-rivals since Iran's 1978-79 revolution put in power a Shia government hostile to the Sunni Wahhabist monarchy in Saudi Arabia.

As for Trump, MBS seems to have known exactly what he was doing: To variously maneuver, cajole and flatter Trump into more clearly taking Saudi Arabia's side and aggressively threatening a confrontation with Iran.

But a series of moves orchestrated by MBS to militarily beat back Iran's regional influence have gone badly wrong in recent months and years.

In Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia to the south, the Saudi military has been carrying out a scorched-earth military campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, which has taken a horrifying toll in civilian deaths, but failed to defeat the insurgency.

The humanitarian crisis caused by Saudi forces wielding U.S. military hardware has led to the deaths of a half million Yemenis, pushed 7 million to the brink of starvation in the Middle East's poorest country, and triggered a cholera outbreak that could claim tens of thousands more lives.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's aggressive regime of sanctions imposed on Qatar--a peninsula in the Persian Gulf also bordering Saudi Arabia--as punishment for not sufficiently embracing a hostile posture towards Iran was supposed to quickly force Qatar's capitulation.

Instead, the sanctions failed to isolate Qatar, which has now been drawn more tightly into the orbits of Iran and Turkey.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia backed a number of Islamic fundamentalist militias to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, another regional ally of Iran. The strategy failed to dislodge the Syrian dictator, but did manage to strengthen the forces of Sunni fundamentalism beyond the control of Saudi Arabia.

MOST RECENTLY, the Saudi regime summoned various Arab leaders to its capital of Riyadh. The naked aim was to firm up its allies in the regional battle with Iran, but the outcome was mixed at best.

First came Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's visit. While in Riyadh, he abruptly resigned his position in Lebanon, obviously under pressure, the same day that MBS rounded up his domestic enemies.

For MBS and the regime in Riyadh, Hariri, who holds dual Saudi-Lebanese citizenship and is a caretaker of Sunni political interests in Lebanon, was too weak toward Hezbollah, Iran's ally in the country--particularly when Hariri last year proposed a solution to a stalemate that had left the country without a stable government for several years.

Now, as Hariri issued his halting resignation speech, he blasted Hezbollah and Iran. He also explained that he would "soon" return to Lebanon--but without his family, who would remain in Saudi Arabia, transparently as hostages.

The move was so heavy-handed that it almost united all of Lebanon, with every political party, including Hezbollah, calling for Saudi Arabia to allow Hariri to return unhindered.

But the Saudi regime continued on its aggressive track--Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan used Hariri's speech, obviously delivered under duress, as an excuse to further denounce Hezbollah and declare that Lebanon's government would now "be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia."

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas was the next leader summoned to Riyadh.

For many years, Saudi Arabia and Israel have held a similar foreign policy outlook, and the rising influence of Iran has only pushed them closer together.

The speculation is that the Saudis were pressuring Abbas to abandon the two-month-old attempt at Palestinian national unity between the PA and Hamas, which predominates in Gaza--and instead advance the new "peace process" that Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are assembling. This would keep maximum pressure on Hamas, which has relied on Iran to sustain its military forces in the face of Israel's blockade of Gaza.

SAUDI ARABIA thus seems determined that the Sunni sectarian alliance it dominates escalate its confrontation with sectarian Shia militias and forces backed by Iran.

But the price to be paid for this strategy could be Saudi Arabia's own stability--which, aside from its plentiful oil reserves, seemed to be the one asset the regime never seemed to lack.

For decades, the royal family maintained peace within its own ranks and in society at large with a combination of large doses of cash, political co-optation and harsh repression.

Power was parceled out across ministries and the economy to balance between the six wings of the royal family. Fuel subsidies keep the price of a gallon of gas below $1, and a host of other payments and social welfare spending buy the kingdom a veneer of social peace.

But with the dramatic slide in oil prices since their high point in 2014, Saudi Arabia's room for maneuver has narrowed.

The main reason for MBS's arrest of other royals has nothing to do with corruption--if it did, the entire royal family would be detained. Instead of housing his princely detainees in the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh, surely the world's most luxurious jail, he would need a decent-sized sports stadium--the House of Saud includes some 15,000 people with a combined net worth of $1 trillion.

The arrests in early November were aimed at cementing MBS's power--by undercutting the ability of his rivals to use their fortunes to fund their own counter-patronage efforts. In the process, he has undermined decades of carefully balanced networks of power and wealth.

Though Saudi Arabia has massive reserves of oil and wealth, a large segment of its 33 million residents lives in squalor--especially, but not only, the 7 million or so foreign workers who perform all the undesirable jobs that keep the palaces and shopping malls gleaming, as the royals spend their millions.

MBS's power play could set the stage for squabbles and splits in an embittered ruling family to break out into the open. If they do, grievances from below could also burst forth, with much higher stakes.

BACK IN the U.S., where Donald Trump is struggling to wipe out every last trace of the Obama years, an old adage comes to mind: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Trump attacked Obama throughout his campaign--but not only for Obama's policy toward Iran. He also attacked Obama for opposing the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which expanded the ability of families of 9/11 victims to take legal action against the Saudi government. It was the one veto of legislation by Obama that was successfully overridden by Congress.

Now, however, Trump also opposes this legislation--because he doesn't want Saudi assets in the U.S. seized, especially when the regime is seeking to generate cash by selling off a $2 trillion portion of its state-run oil company.

Obama sought to repair the damage done to U.S. interests by George W. Bush's cowboy imperialism with a return to well-heeled statesmanship. He tried to fulfill Henry Kissinger's famous dictum that "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests"--that was the motive behind the nuclear deal with Iran and other arrangements.

In this sense, Obama's hardheaded foreign policy fulfilled the "art of the deal" that Trump wrote a book about, but can't seem to practice as president.

Instead, Donald Trump has found himself attached to the strategic agenda of one of the world's most unequal and oppressive regimes, endorsing the decisions of its crown prince--and possibly setting the stage for a deadly regional clash.

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