A few years ago, James Fallows, the superb writer on foreign policy matters who’s often published in the Atlantic, wrote a piece about Pakistan, and the double-dealing, two-faced games played by Pakistani leadership and its fearsome intelligence agencies, titled The Ally From Hell. I won’t be at all surprised if he follows that up soon with a reprise, this time about Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is an ancient land, but a new country, cobbled together in the early 1930s by one Ibn Saud, and the potentates of the House of Saud have served as its more or less absolute dictators ever since. You know they’re in charge, because they named the country after themselves. Saudi relations with the Western World are, of course, complex, and always have been, which is actually no knock against them. A fine line needs to be walked in the cockpit of the Middle East, and while the Saudis are inclined to be friendly with the West, particularly the United States, this is a purely pragmatic, geopolitical calculation, and requires them to consort with the nation that serves as the chief backer of the hated Israelis. Hating the Israelis, too, is a pragmatic, geopolitical posture, it’s just what a good Islamic Gulf State does, but behind the scenes the Jewish state and the House of Saud find many things about which to quietly agree, including a mutual loathing of Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia’s Shia rival across the Gulf. It’s long been rumoured, for example, that Saudi air defences might arrange to be on a lunch break if Israeli strike aircraft ever needed to transit the air space to take a shot at Iran’s nuclear program.
So they’ve always been, per force, a little bit duplicitous, and they do what it takes to hang on to the throne. Take their approach to religion. Saudi Arabia’s monarchs have, despite recent incremental reforms, fostered the most severe form of theocratic Islam, Wahhabism, referred to once by Chris Hitchens as “Islamo-Fascism”. Saudi money funds fundamentalist religious schools, the Madrassas, all over the Islamic world, where youth are indoctrinated into a version of the faith that still tolerates the preaching of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the heinous, fraudulent anti-Jewish hate propaganda that Jews refer to as the “Blood Libel”. At home, the clerics are coddled and given almost free reign – it’s considered dangerous to do otherwise, lest the House of Saud go the way of Iran’s Pahlavis, and get swept aside in some sort of Islamic revolution. You do what it takes.
The Americans are kept at arm’s length, generally, except when it’s necessary, as it was in 1990, to accept an influx of US military might in order to stave off invasion from some rival Gulf State. This led to a large and unsavoury infidel presence in the holiest land of Islam, the home of Mecca and Medina, including, most awfully, women serving as soldiers and even officers, an affront that caused widespread outrage, and had much to do with the terrorist career of a Saudi child of privilege named Osama Bin Laden. Almost all the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, and that was just fine by the general population. America is the land of hedonism and amorality, no? Still, the Americans and other Westerners have always been the ones with the insatiable lust for oil, and those Americans sure do cooper up some awesome weapons systems – just ask any Egyptian or Syrian who had to go up against the Israelis in whatever he could buy from the Russians.
Thus the geopolitical imperatives are obvious and incontrovertible, or at least they have been, historically. We need oil. They have plenty. They’re a small nation with much to protect, and need weapons. We have just the stuff. We need some sort of allies on the Arab side to serve as go-betweens in sticky situations involving dealings with Syria, or the Taliban, or to serve as brokers with the Palestinians as we pursue the latest doomed peace plan, and nowadays we want friends to resist the rise of Iran, an unfortunate outgrowth of the Bush Era misadventures in Iraq. The Saudis will do. It’s all quite simple, and until recently was also largely free of major stresses. Saudi foreign policy was for decades quite conservative, very careful, and aimed at preserving a very agreeable status quo in the region.
Yet throughout, the embrace of the House of Saud has placed we Westerners in a profound moral quandary, and Americans, accustomed to billing themselves as the defenders of freedom and human rights throughout the world, have always struggled to square their avowed principles with the Saudi’s unwavering support of a repressive theocracy that turns women into chattel, preaches hatred against Jews, and cuts people’s heads off in the street for a whole litany of Sharia Law capital offences, including many related to drug use, homosexuality, and atheism. The policy community’s defence has always been something along the lines of look, they’re all autocrats over there, and we have to deal with someone, which isn’t necessarily wrong, but it feels a little dirty, doesn’t it? It’s, well, unsatisfactory. Yes. But in international relations, the cardinal rule is you do what ya gotta do.
OK – but do we gotta? Are we sure? From where I sit the Saudis are beginning to outlive their usefulness, and it’s high time to start thinking about cutting them loose, at least as a thought experiment. A re-think seems particularly appropriate in the wake of all the mayhem sown by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, billed far and wide as “MbS”, who was anointed heir apparent and pretty much handed the keys to the Kingdom just over three years ago. He was only 30, at the time, and came on like he was all full of piss and enlightened vinegar, eager for progressive reform. In some ways that’s proved the case, not so much in his ridiculously overhyped decision to let women drive and go to movies, but in his vision for Saudi Arabia’s economic future.
The Saudis have a problem: they use their oil revenue to buy political peace at home, and the overwhelming majority of the working class amid their generally contented population is on the government payroll, holding down jobs in which they often do, essentially, nothing. It’s known as the “90/90” conundrum: about 90% of Saudis are employed by the government, while 90% of the jobs in the private sector are filled by foreigners imported for their skills and willingness to work in a more demanding and competitive environment.
Well and good, as long as the oil revenue keeps flowing, but the global market for oil has been buffeted both by the increasing use of green energy alternatives, and the ability of nations like America to drill into vast but previously inaccessible oil reserves via technologies like “fracking.” The time was, you wanted to raise some money, you got together with your pals in OPEC and jacked the price for a while. These days the OPEC cartel no longer calls the shots, and if you raise the price past a certain point, it merely becomes economical for America and others to boost their fracking efforts, driving the price back down. Oil used to fetch $100.00 US a barrel. Now it hovers around $40.00. It’s hard to keep on paying all those civil service salaries at that price.
Besides, the oil is running out, hard as that is for those of us who grew up during OPEC’s heyday in the 1970s to wrap our minds around. It’s widely believed they’ve been overstating their reserves, and my brief research indicates that nobody really knows how long they have left to keep pumping at present levels. People have been predicting Saudi “peak oil” for decades, and it never seems to happen – they pump more today than they ever have – but still, MbS reckons it’s time for the Saudis to plan for a life beyond oil. The world is moving on, and petroleum will likely become a lot less popular when the full impact of global warming begins to be felt, which will, it now seems certain, be very, very soon. As Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Yamani is reputed to have said, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of rocks, and there will still be plenty of oil in the ground when the Oil Age ends, simply because people don’t use it any longer.
MbS therefore wants to revolutionize Saudi Arabia’s economy, and he’s set an ambitious target date of 2030 as the point at which Saudi GDP should no longer be dominated by petroleum revenue. Good for him. Maybe diversifying the economy can even get a good chunk of the workforce off the dole, and provide the money to pay the rest. This does, though, prompt a tantalizing and overdue question: if the Saudis are moving beyond oil, shouldn’t we as well? Indeed, aren’t we already, haltingly, but surely?
Instead of compromising everything we believe in, year after year, striving to maintain the status quo on the Arabian Peninsula, shouldn’t we be working toward a future when renewable energy technologies make oil, and by extension Saudi Arabia and all of its oil-rich neighbours, far less important? Why on Earth do we conduct ourselves as if there’s no foreseeable alternative, and we’ll always need to keep coddling and propping up this bleak and still quite tyrannical monarchy on the Persian Gulf? I’d argue that Western policy in the region is driven by inertia, and a lack of imagination. The unwavering support for the Saudis, underpinned by assumptions that never get challenged, has also been eased in the past few years by the propaganda coming out of Riyadh – isn’t the old, repressive regime being eased out of power by a young reformer? Isn’t MbS slowly but surely turning Saudi society into something that might fit more comfortably within an alliance structure supposed to be led by the freedom-loving human rights champion of the world?
MbS sure would like you to feel that way, and in the past couple of years he’s launched several charm offensives in the Western media to tout his reforms, but let’s get real; change of the sort we’d all like to see in the Royal Kingdom comes slowly and painfully, often accompanied by violence, and the minor tweaks MbS has thus far imposed are still quite a ways short of turning the land of Wahhabism into a sandier, hotter Scandinavia. Meanwhile, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the 30-something de facto ruler is a reckless hot head, who fancies himself a Machiavelli while making one bone-headed and sometimes terribly bloody misstep after another. Look at what he’s done:
• Repression of women continues, with female activists being rounded up and imprisoned, including, incredibly, activists who lobbied for allowing women to drive, the policy change most widely cited as proof of MbS’s reformer bona fides.
• He poured Saudi money and support behind friendly factions in the Syrian civil war, fearing advances by the dreaded Shias, and militias allied to Lebanon’s Iran-sponsored Shia Hezbollah group, which produced the usual blowback: as soon as Syria’s Assad started losing, the Russians intervened, and Assad is now ascendant (though to be fair, the fiasco in Syria can hardly be laid exclusively on the Saudi’s doorstep).
• He decided to intervene in the cruel civil war in neighbouring Yemen, again fearing advances by Shia forces allied to arch-enemy Iran. The plan was for a decisive victory for the Saudi’s allies by way of crushing application of US-supplied aircraft and munitions, but it devolved into the predictable quagmire, with at least 10,000 civilian deaths, epidemics of diseases like Cholera spreading in the wake of the destruction of water infrastructure, and a shortage of essential foodstuffs that now threatens millions – literally millions – with starvation. It’s now feared Yemen is about to experience the most devastating famine in a recent world history replete with almost unbelievably devastating famines.
• He decided that the tiny neighbouring state of Qatar was an irritant, again owing to growing links to Iran, and ostensibly because of Qatari support for radical Islamists associated with Al Qaeda, a charge that sticks just as well to the Saudis as the Qataris. The blockade he instituted on Qatar has imperiled the security of a crucial Gulf ally of the United States, home of the huge Al Udeid Air Base from which most regional Coalition air operations are launched – the largest US Military facility in the Middle East – and driven the Qataris still further into the tender embrace of the hated Iranians.
• Eager to influence outcomes in Lebanon, where the Shia Hezbollah has, in his view, far too much sway over the official government, he essentially kidnapped Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was summoned to Riyadh, then not allowed to leave until he resigned his position over the airwaves. This has, as some might have predicted, only strengthened the influence of Hezbollah, and their Iranian sponsors.
• He pulled off an astonishing power play, like something out of Game of Thrones, by rounding up business leaders, government ministers and rivals in the Royal Family and putting them under house arrest in a luxury hotel in Riyadh, torturing some, killing at least one, and allowing them to leave only after they forked over literally billions of dollars – a truly breathtaking instance of extortion carried out, get this, under the guise of an “anti-corruption” initiative.
• Now, as if drunk on what he’s been able to get away with, he orchestrated the murder of expatriate journalist and permanent US resident Jamal Khashoggi, lately a columnist for the Washington Post, upon his visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi needed some sort of documents to facilitate his upcoming wedding, and at his first visit was given a time to return, upon which he was met by 15 thugs who murdered him in ways too gruesome to bear description. Then they cut up what was left of him with a bone saw, as was, after all, ideal for easy disposal.
This is our guy? These are our allies? We’re still as happy with them as we’ve always been? Yes indeed, if you’re Donald Trump, whose long history of profitable business dealings with the Saudis is well-documented:
…and whose dimwitted Dauphin of a son-in-law has fallen almost completely under the thrall of MbS, hoping for support in formulating a Mideast Peace accord, the crafting of which must surely be beyond the acumen of poor, befuddled Jared Kushner. Plus, the Saudis buy weapons from the US – tons and tons of weapons, billions worth, things like F-15s so advanced that USAF officers almost weep at the prospect, complete with all the fixings, including all manner of smart and not-so-smart munitions, the better to incinerate Yemeni school busses and such. Anyway, this Khashoggi guy wasn’t a US citizen, and he wasn’t killed in the US, and let’s be clear, he was also a journalist and thus an enemy of the people, so who cares that he’s dead?
Not Trump. He sees no moral quandary in US support of Saudi Arabia. Human rights? Equality for women? Huh? He seems genuinely nonplussed by all the fuss. In this, he perhaps merely dispenses with all the feckless hand-wringing while he emulates the policies of a long string of administrations that preceded him, but he seems to have no sense of what’s at stake when the United States starts shrugging off the murder of journalists by its own client states. Trump likes money, so he very much likes the Saudis. He said so many times on the campaign trail. They buy his yachts and such when he needs a cash infusion, which is often, and purchase large chunks of his buildings, transactions worth tens of millions a pop. Business is business, and you don’t piss off your best business partners just because you’re now in the Oval Office and supposed to be running US foreign policy, which anyway should be run in a way that’s good for business, right? America First, and all that. That’s why his very first foreign visit as President was to Riyadh. Good for him, good for everybody, just ask Boeing.
Yet even Republicans in Congress seem upset by the brazen, Putinesque murder of a journalist by our purported ally and security partner in the Middle East, and Trump and the Saudis are scrambling behind the scenes to come up with a plausible story to placate those clamouring for a response. One idea is to pin the assassination on an unlucky high-ranking intelligence officer and Royal advisor, Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, who could semi-plausibly be characterized as a rogue operator acting without proper authority. Nobody will really believe that, of course, but maybe it’ll do until it all blows over. Too bad for the Major General, but it’s not like he was lily-white in all this anyway.
We’ll see. Maybe Congress will actually do something, like halt the delivery of weapons to the Kingdom (albeit probably only temporarily – Boeing, Lockheed and Raytheon gotta have it). It may be, too, that MbS has finally overstepped – he’s heir apparent, but he’s not King yet. Not yet, sonny. There might be an epic power struggle going on even as I write this, with all of his bitter enemies, of which he’s made plenty, trying to get MbS ousted. I wouldn’t bet on it, but you never know in a place like Saudi Arabia, you can be Top of the Pops one week, and the next wind up with your head on a pike.
Regardless, it’s time to revisit this whole, sordid special relationship. The Saudis may have their uses, but the House of Saud has a brittle hold on power and has been ripe for revolutionary overthrow for as long as I can remember. It’s unwise to put so many eggs in their basket. Their steadfast, aggressive struggle with their Shia rivals in Iran, a much larger and more dynamic country, may see them soundly defeated, perhaps even ousted, and in the interim is useful to us only to the extent we also continue to pursue not merely containment, but the outright isolation and hobbling of Iran – which, come to think of it, why do we? Why do we pick sides in this festering religious war, so like the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that blighted so much of the history of our own civilization? From my perspective the liberalization of US Policy towards Iran was one of several Obama geopolitical master strokes that Trump undid immediately upon gaining office, because Iran is the future, with a demographic that skews overwhelmingly young, and a large population that actually has no inherent hatred for the Western world. It’s US policy they despise, and really, why shouldn’t they?
Why are we imposing sanctions on the nation that continues to adhere to the nuclear treaty that briefly saw them lifted, sanctions that only aggravate popular opinion and help cement the otherwise fragile rule of the Mullahs? Why are we doing everything we can to undermine, alienate and perhaps one day even attack Iran, when long term engagement, however fractious at the outset, is the policy that makes far more sense? Partly owing to Israeli pressure, of course, and partly because Iran works hard to do nasty things all over the region, which is pretty much par for the course, but it’s possible to try to contain a foe and deal constructively with it at the same time, just as we once did with the Soviet Union, just as we now do with China. Yet with Trump the emphasis has shifted to an uncritical support for the Saudis and their religious blood feud with Iran. There are those who favour the current stance on geopolitical grounds, but one can’t help but wonder whether something else is going on – something, perhaps, to do with the long-term business interests of the Commander-in-Chief and his greedy brood?