While we wait for the Friday evening breaking news, I thought I’d take a minute and focus a bit on what is going on in Saudi Arabia in regard to both domestic and regional activities. Let’s take things one at a time.
1) The Saudi anti-corruption campaign: Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) has used the slogan anti-corruption to try to further solidify his position as Crown Prince. From his perspective he’s 32 and the Crown Prince. His father is 80 and in poor health. If he can solidify his position, then he can essentially rule Saudi for five or six decades. I think that this is what a good part of what we saw last week is about. Another portion is that it is a financial shakedown. Muhammad bin Salman is using the anti-corruption label to fine those he’s detained and/or to just strip them of vast sums of wealth. He needs capital to do what he wants, yet because of the price of oil for the past decade and the emergence of alternative energy options becoming competitive as the tech gets better, Saudi’s treasury is in bad shape. Funding a proxy war for regional hegemony against Iran hasn’t helped budgetary matters either.
What I think MBS would really like to do is change the governance dynamic within the Kingdom and these actions are all geared towards this goal. What he wants is not the familial/kinship/tribal style of rule of his predecessors where the Saudi king runs the kingdom like it is one big tribe with a bunch of smaller affiliated tribes in the mix. Rather MBS wants to turn Saudi into a proper, pre 20th century style absolute monarchy. I think we’ll have a better idea if he’s successful within the next 30 to 60 days. His coup proofing and wealth shakedown under cover of anti corruption is either going to be acquiesced to or there will be push back. It would not surprise me if he succeeds. It would also not surprise me if he is dead within two months. Or there is at least a credible attempt on his life. My long term impression of Saudi royal family politics is that it is quite opaque to any but the best informed outside observers who are given at least partial access to the Kingdom and the royal family. I think Saudi royal family internal politics can best be described as being like a bucket of crabs where each crab is trying to escape the bucket by crawling over the other crabs and by grabbing the crabs above them and pulling them down.
2) The Saudi campaign in Yemen: This is absolutely strategically stupid! The Houthis are Zaydis (Fivers), not Ithna Ashari (Twelvers) Shi’a. They had no long standing or historic alliance with Iran until the Saudis decided that there was an Iranian conspiracy against them in Yemen that leveraged the Houthis. So who did the Houthis turn to for supplies when they had no other options? The Iranians. The Saudis made the mess that is Yemen worse. And specifically Muhammad bin Salman did. This is his baby. What we’re watching with the Saudi actions in Yemen are that MBS is a terrible strategist, he’s also a terrible tactician, and what many have long observed is true: the Saudi military is good for parades and presentations and not very good if you need it to fight. They can’t and don’t do joint operations despite long term training programs to teach them to do so.
The only competent military service in Saudi is the National Guard, which is both a praetorian guard like force to protect the royal family (which MBS will now try to remake into protecting MBS since he’s arrested his cousin who ran the Guard) and the descendants of ibn Saud’s desert warriors, the Ikhwan, who were the first and some of the most fanatical converts to ibn Wahhab’s teachings of radical and extreme tawheed.* The Saudi campaign in Yemen has also created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The conditions in Yemen are horrible and abysmal. It is going to cost billions if not trillions to fix the mess Saudi created and by any measure should require prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
3) This leads us to the Saudi led blockade of Qatar. There are some long term issues in regard to who the Amir of Qatar provides financial support to, but what MBS did, in conjunction with his friend and mentor Muhammad bin Zayed the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was also strategically stupid. The US has over 10,000 personnel at al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Those folks can’t just be relocated. Additionally, by putting the blockade in place it created the opportunity for Iran to expand its influence by offering to relieve Qatari food and other shortages created by the blockade, which it did. So here too Muhammad bin Salman’s strategic ineptitude is visible. Instead of checking Iranian influence, he created the conditions to expand it. And the Iranians took the opportunity.
4) Lebanon: This is a mess. Hariri’s party and his family are treating this as a Saudi driven plot. They’ve actually accused the Saudis of kidnapping Harriri, holding him against his will, and forcing him to do this. Regardless it only empowers Hezbullah in regard to Lebanon’s government. And Hezbullah, which is not exactly an ally of Hariri’s, is also now claiming he has been taken hostage by the Saudis. All Hariri’s resignation and flight to Saudi Arabia has done is create another new opportunity for Iran to expand its influence in Lebanon. Here too Muhammad bin Salman’s failure as a strategist is clearly evident. His actions have achieved the opposite effect from that he desired.
5) All of this is part of the larger, regional Saudi-Iranian proxy war for regional hegemony. Saudi seeks to be the hegemon and the protector of Sunni Islam. Iran seeks a Shia sphere of influence and near abroad. The difference is that the Iranians have, perhaps, the best strategist in the region – MG Suleimani, while the Saudis are being run by a 32 year old with delusions of grandeur.
As it always does with Saudi, some of this comes back to ibn Wahhab’s radical and extreme version of tawheed (the radical unity of the Deity). As Ahmad Moussalli wrote in Wahhabism, Salafism, and Islamism: Who is the Enemy:
the Wahhabi muwaheedun have been arguing for over 200 years that they are the true defenders of Sunni Islam, while at the same time being in direct and active opposition to 90% of Sunni Islam.
This also includes ibn Wahhab’s conceptualization of Sunni/Shi’a relations as good versus evil, which leads the Saudis to take an almost religiocidal approach to dealing with the Shi’a as ibn Wahhab’s teachings state the Shi’a must be killed wherever they can be found. This is contributing to the Saudi created mess in Yemen.
Muhammad bin Salman has indicated that he wants to reform the version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. Specifically he wants to modernize and moderate it. That’s great. But a modernized and moderated radically extreme theology is still just a more pleasantly packaged radically extreme theology. The danger of ibn Wahhab’s radical concept of tawheed is that it is not jurisprudence.** It has no madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence). Despite attempts to claim it is an extension of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, it isn’t just a more severe Hanbalism. It is not ijtihad (Islamic jurisprudence and legal reasoning). Rather it is theology and doctrine. And theology and doctrine can spread and infect any of the four Sunni madhads. This is what has made it so dangerous because as radical and extreme as ibn Wahhab’s teachings were, they can be further refined. Which is what bin Laden and Zawahiri did for al Qaeda and what Zarqawi and Badghdadi have done with ISIS. And why first AQ’s and now ISIS’s even more extreme versions of ibn Wahhab’s tawheed have been able to spread. They aren’t madhab dependent, so they can travel throughout the Sunni Muslim world influencing theology and doctrine.
6) Finally, and one that is not Saudi specific, the US led coalition has reduced the physical caliphate, but all the conditions and drivers that made the Levant and the Middle East and the Maghreb and parts of Africa and Central Asia a powder keg haven’t been addressed, let alone resolved. There is still a long term regional drought, which was a major driver of both the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi sectarian violence. The proxy war between Saudi and Iran with Turkey trying to edge itself in is still ongoing. Sectarian issues haven’t been resolved. The Kurds still don’t have independence and now the Barzani faction is angry and seeking support from Russia. Russia is not only determined to keep its warm water port in Latakia, but is trying to put a land route in through the Caucasus to another warm water port in Iran. ISIS may not have much physical territory left, but they’ve got plenty of cyber presence. The Netanyahu government and no one in his coalition has any real desire to resolve the dispute with the Palestinians, let alone allow for the creation of a Palestinian state. The US and NATO led train, advise, and assist mission in Afghanistan has just entered its sixteenth year, or rather we’ve started year one for the sixteenth time again in Afghanistan. As ISIS loses its physical territory, we’ve done nothing to resolve the underlying conditions and drivers that allowed for them to come in to being and to take and hold so much territory to begin with. And we’ve certainly not resolved the problems that make them attractive in parts of the Maghreb, east and west Africa, and southeast Asia.
* Please see chapters 3 and 4.
** Please see chapters 2, 5, and 6.