Last week, we looked at the (admittedly impossible) idea that the United States might break with Saudi Arabia over Yemen, and then over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. I still think it is impossible, but just today the President of Turkey made it very clear he believes the murder was premeditated, and not the result of the laughably absurd fistfight.
Now, it is not the official policy of this blog to turn matters of truth and morality over to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but in this case, we’re inclined to believe him. At the very least, the Turkish intelligence community has been sitting on information for weeks, letting it drip out to counter ever Saudi lie. It’s been sort of masterful, if you ignore the backdrop of a man’s brutal torture and murder.
The Turkish angle here isn’t entirely clear, though it also seems pretty obvious on the surface. They have been vying once again with Saudi Arabia for the leadership role in the Middle East, and indeed the broader Muslim world. For 1000 years Istanbul was the heart of Islam, and while it is reductive and probably Orientalist to say they want it back, the idea of Turkey as a world-historic power is part of Erdogan’s appeal.
We’ve talked about how in the post-West Middle East, powers like Russia, Turkey, and Iran were circling back to familiar patterns. This isn’t due to historical determinism, but rather to the realities of political geography. They are all jostling over borderlands. And while Saudi Arabia isn’t on a border with any of them, there is an imaginary borderland between the Arab world, the Persian one, the Turkish one, and the Russian one.
Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as the true fighter for the Arab world against Iran, and successive US administrations have rushed to reward them for it. But the eager complicity of Obama, while real and a true stain, pales in comparison to the headlong alliance the US under Trump has forged with Saudi Arabia. Their mutual obsession with Iran, and the ahistoric and indeed idiotic idea that it has no rights to influence the region, have created a relationship based on murder and mutual complicity.
But let’s say that it changes (it won’t). Is a Saudi/Russian alliance possible? We have seen a lot of commentators say that we can’t lose the alliance of the House of Saud, for economic and geostrategic reasons. They’d move into the arms of Russia or China.
Russia is possible, I suppose, in the short term, but I don’t really see it being a lasting thing, for a few reasons.
- Russia is already involved in the Middle East on the side of Asad and ostensibly Iran, so are basically opposed to Saudi interests. Cynicism could allow for flexibility, as the Russian position isn’t based on any strong regional ideology, but there are too many inherent contradictions.
- Russia doesn’t need Saudi oil. The US doesn’t really, either, but Russia would much rather be the sole supplier of Europe’s energy than enter an alliance with a potential competitor.
These can surely be overlooked for a time being. There is no doubt that Moscow is using this as a wedge issue. They made it clear that the murder of a journalist doesn’t bother them in the slightest. They didn’t explicitly say “Come on- you really think that bothers us?”, but the implication was pretty obvious.
Western governments are acting horrified, and maybe they are. Angela Merkel said they might stop selling arms to the Saudis (which, could have happened over Yemen, but small victories, I suppose). Western mucky-mucks are pulling out of the obscene Davos in the Desert wankfest. This gives Russia an opening.
If Russia were to become a patron and ally of Saudi Arabia, with enough skill they could be the main power broker in the region, bring a rough peace to Syria, and play Iran and the Saudis off each other. That is probably the Russian angle here, at least in the long run. The short-term is just to cause chaos.
But I don’t think they have that skill, and anyway, if the US were to back away, China is the much more likely suitor. Energy and resources without strings attached is the Chinese approach to foreign policy. That would be a far snugger fit for the Saudi ruling clique.
(So far I’ve been stipulating that it would be easy to just suddenly start buying arms from another country, which isn’t the case at all. That’s a generational process and would cripple the Saudi war machine, which is the main reason the US should cut them off.)
I don’t really think any of this will come to pass. In announcing that the US has no intention of giving up arms sales, the Trump administration has inverted the idea of the client state. We know we let “useful” countries do essentially whatever they want as long as they are useful. But now we’re saying “we’ll do whatever you want if you give our richest corporations some more money.” Trump has made the US a client state.
But still: the outrage from the West has to make the Saudi nervous. If they didn’t have such a stalwart dipshit as their primary ally, they could be in trouble. I think they’ll be casting for closer alliances with China, while using and being used by Russia.
This, combined with growing Turkish ambitions, threatens even more instability. Erdogan is clearly trying to influence internal Saudi politics and shake up the ruling family. Russia is trying to play all sides without a long-term strategy. Old alliances aren’t exactly crumbling, but are revealed to be shakier. A million temporary alliances of convenience come and go.
We’re not quite in the post-US Middle East, but we are in a state where the US is just another player, a powerful one, but one dumber and less rich than it thinks. That’s very dangerous, and promises a region where new weapons and strategies fit bloodily over old patterns.