Saudi Arabian Power Grab A Perfect Encapsulation of our Catastrophic Times

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Genocide in Yemen, turmoil in Lebanon, major power war, Jared Kushner, and Tom Friedman. We live in terrible times, with Mohammed bin Salman and his techno-tyrant ambitions at the center of them. 

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Mohammed bin Salman, Murderer of Yemen, To Be Next Saudi King

 

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This is the yacht future king Mohammed bin Salman bought last year for over $300 million.

 

To say the Saudi line of succession has been sclerotic is to underestimate the ravages of sclerosis. It has barely been a succession, as far as we usually understand it, as the kingdom hasn’t moved forward a generation since Ibn Saud kicked it in 1953: it has just been a series of his sons, a bunch of dyed-bearded princelings handing the crown sideways to each other for 60 years. There’s been more dynamism in the staid permanence of Queen Elizabeth.

But that had to change. As prolific a progenitor as Ibn Saud was, eventually he was going to run out of sons. The current occupant, Salman, was one of the last born, in 1935. He’s 81 years young, and just yesterday announced one of the bigger shakeups in Saudi Arabia’s brief history.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia promoted his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, to be next in line to the throne on Wednesday, further empowering a young, activist leader at a time when the kingdom is struggling with low oil prices, a rivalry with Iran and conflicts across the Middle East.

The decision to remove the previous crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, comes as some members of the royal family have chafed at the rise of the younger prince, who emerged from relative obscurity when his father, 81, ascended the throne in January 2015.

So whence the trigger for this move? Well, there are competing reasons.

The first is that bin Nayef might have fallen slightly out of favor due partly to the weird diplomatic attack on Qatar. That’s probably unfair to him, since they were given a tacit (and then essentially explicit) ok to do so from Donald Trump (which is a sentence that will never seem like it makes sense: “Wait, the guy from The Apprentice?” It sounds like a dispatch from Bizzaro World, which, I suppose, it is).

Despite Trump’s deeply unserious and self-praising blundering, the State Department yesterday came out strongly against KSA and UAE, with some deeply undiplomatic language.

On June 20, the State Department issued a statement that was perhaps the strongest criticism of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent memory. In response to Saudi statements about having proof of Qatar’s terror financing—an issue that historically has been a real concern for all GCC countries—State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. was tired of waiting for the proof: “Now that it’s been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar.”

She went on to add that the “more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns about Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?”

That hurts. Neither country is very good at dealing with criticism, and they generally react poorly. Still, though, their heavy-handed nonsense, which only served to empower Iran and Turkey, might have been the precipitating factor, but it clearly wasn’t the only one. This is less about bin Nayef, who has long been the crown prince of American foreign policy hearts, and more about bin Salman. The Soufan Group explains:

Perhaps one element of the king’s announcements that may have caused surprise was their timing. But with the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen attracting wide support in the kingdom and throughout the rest of the Sunni Middle East, where it is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a long overdue and muscular retort to the growth of Iranian influence, this was a good time to promote Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As minister of defense, Mohammed bin Salman has been presented as the man in charge of the air campaign and the architect of what may be seen as a rare Arab military success. It is likely that the impact of the campaign has now peaked, with little more to be achieved against a relatively powerless neighbor without a far more tricky and uncertain ground operation; the elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman may therefore have caught his popularity on the flood.

Yup. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. Bin Salman was barely known before the war against Yemen, or against Iran, started. But he quickly won favor with a stirring series of military successes based entirely on indiscriminate carpet bombing. It got so bad that the US Congress intervened on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, briefly.

Now, of course, the floodgates are opened. Team Trump sees Yemen as an “area of active hostilities”, wiping away even the pretense that Yemen was a humanitarian situation more than a war zone (and, to be fair, Obama barely kept up even that pretense). They look at Yemen, and see a spot for ISIS and AQAP, but mostly they see Iran (and probably conflate the threats).  And so the elevation of bin Salman, who is perhaps the strongest Sunni voice for anti-Iranian belligerence, sees his kinghood at least temporarily assured.

One can’t blame this entirely or even largely on Trump or on the United States, of course. The rivalry has been brewing for decades. Centuries, really, but not being strict determinists, we’ll look at the political battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran from a contemporary geopolitical lens. It’s the “big war” in which all the little wars are fought.

It’s a cold war which is getting hotter, and proxies are not being added as much as adopted. The war in Yemen would have happened without Saudi and Iranian interference; indeed, they more or less just chose sides, Iran more so because everyone already thought they did, and so had to save a little face. Syria, same. So every generational conflict is now being subsumed into this big war, which amps up the carnage and lowers the chance of any kind of decent revolutions for decades.

For an example of how this can spiral out of control for generations, look at how Afghanistan’s internal strife hasn’t stopped since it got further ground up in the abattoir of US/Soviet politics. And we only had like 30 years of hating each other at that point.

Yemen’ agony is unbearable. The nation “on the brink” for 10 years has fully topped over. It will never be whole. Famine and disease will wreck it. Bin Salman is not its only oppressor. These wars have been brewing and exploding through avarice, short-sightedness, and petty politics. But he is most responsible for the sheer reckless destruction and degradation of anything resembling a functioning state. And now that has been elevated. This war, both big and small, is just getting started.

Trump on Yemen: Confirming Again That Our Next President Knows Literally Nothing

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Be honest: how many of these countries do you think our next President could name. Two? Maybe three?

It’s one thing for the President not to know a lot about an issue. It’s another thing to know nothing about an issue. And it’s another thing altogether to be as bone-dumb and ignorant as Trump. 

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Thursday Quick Hits: Charlotte and Expressways; The Balance of Capitalism; and the US vs. Saudi Arabia (but only a little)

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A neighborhood set to be destroyed to make the 290 in Chicago. Image from WBEZ

We’re talking about the building of highways is one of the hidden racial histories in the US, and much more.

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Saudi Arabia, Iran, and The Hajj: The Middle East’s Overwhelming Power Struggle and the US Election

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I’m not saying that to be a successful President you have to understand what this map means. But you actually kind of do… (Image from Vox.com)

In which the ludicrous complexity of a region in historic transformation is nearly impossible to understand. 

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Congress Finally Steps Up on Yemen, Saudi Arm Sales

 

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A Saudi airstrike in Yemen. Image from mintpressnews.com

 

 

Far from the ISIS-inspired headlines of Syria, Saudi Arabia has pretty calmly and easily been engaged in an endless series of war crimes in Yemen. Its policy had always been to keep Yemen weak, but not in total chaos. A kind of war madness has led them to abandon the second part of that. They are far from the only antagonists in the horrific dissolve of the nation, but they are the most powerful, and they are flexing that power in terrible ways.

And they are doing it with arms and support from the US. It is US-made planes dropping US-made bombs on hospitals and schools, with a ferocity that has led a normally-placid UN to try to stop them. From raw self-interest, this is a terrible policy for the US. From a human level, it is a nightmare.

Finally, nearly 60 congresspeople are trying to at least slow down the arms funnel, as Foreign Policy reports.

In  a sign that frustration is growing in Congress over Saudi Arabia, a bipartisan group of 60 lawmakers have signed a letter seeking to delay the Obama administration’s planned sale of $1.15 billion in arms and military equipment to Riyadh.

The proposed sale, approved by the State Department on Aug. 9, includes up to 153 tanks, ammunition, hundreds of machine guns, and sundry other military equipment. Congress has 30 days to block the sale, but the lawmakers appear irritated that the notification of the sale came in the middle of Congress’s summer recess.

“Any decision to sell more arms to Saudi Arabia should be given adequate time for full deliberation by Congress,” wrote the lawmakers. “We are concerned, however, that the timing of this notification during the August congressional recess could be interpreted to mean that Congress has little time to consider the arms deal when it returns from recess within the 30 day window established by law.”

Part of this is territorial and bureaucratic, of course: Congress is angry about being bypassed. But they absolutely should be. The loss of Congressional prerogative in foreign policy has been a slow-rolling disaster for the US, as it allows enormously important decisions to be shaped, essentially, by the will of one branch, which in turn is shaped by the will of one person. Even when I trust the POTUS, and respect their judgment, having the lives of millions come down to one “decided” is monstrous. Leaving everyone else to deal with the ramifications of those decisions is essentially undemocratic.

So there should be more letters like this, both for the sake of our democracy, and to help the people who are being brutalized and pummeled into dust with our munitions. Slowing down the flow of arms into the Middle East, and particularly to the combatants in Yemen, is never a bad policy.