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Saudi Arabia and its Challenges 30, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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The following article was published by King’s College London’s Defence in Depth blog on 25 March 2015.

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In 2010 at a conference in Riyadh, an academic presented a cogent case as to why the fiscal picture for Saudi Arabia was, in the medium and long term, looking grim. His figures were correct, and his conclusions were not hyperbolic, but sensibly grounded in the facts. Nevertheless, the Saudi participants around the table, ranging from ministers to CEOs to academics to the state’s leading journalists, greeted the presentation with a weary shrug. Their point was that they had seen just such cogent presentations every five years for decades and yet the sky never did quite manage to fall in.

It would be, therefore, really quite a significant call to suggest that on this occasion, as opposed to the countless previous assertions, Saudi Arabia is actually facing some kind of a crisis. Yet, it appears that the state may well be entering just such a concerning phase.

At the core of this thesis are three interlinked factors that are facing quite unprecedented change and these changes look set to – at the very least – vastly complicate the already Gordian difficulties facing the Kingdom.

Oil: supply and demand

Saudi Arabia is, understandably, a state synonymous with oil. The substance has transformed the state entirely and continues to be the centre of gravity of the state’s economy. Yet it could be argued that there are vast supply and demand-related changes afoot that may fundamentally undermine the state’s central reliance on its black gold.

On the demand side, the central problem is that it is rising in places that Saudi Arabia does not really want it to rise, and falling in places where it would rather it didn’t. Most importantly, demand is rising within the country. This is not a good thing. Given the subsidies that exist for oil and its derivative products, the government loses money refining and processing oil for its domestic market as well as having less oil to sell internationally. There are even studies noting that Saudi Arabia may be a net oil importer by the late-2030s, a notion that indicates just how much of a paradigm-shift the Kingdom may be about to undergo.

Otherwise on the demand side, as America becomes ever more self-sufficient, the importance of Saudi Arabia declines, if it doesn’t disappear given the US’s reliance on a stable Gulf region is critical to its economy. That this drop in US demand is being picked up by China is a boon, but even growth in China is slowing relatively speaking and nor is China in any position in the foreseeable future to provide Saudi Arabia with any kinds of security guarantees.

In terms of supply too, Saudi Arabia’s dominating role in the oil industry may be under threat. Eventually, the likes of Iraq, Kurdistan, Libya, or Iran – all of which have huge oil reserves – are likely to add in a few more millions of barrels per day in oil to the market. Similarly, the unconventional hydrocarbon revolution has allowed states to tap reserves of oil and gas that were previously uneconomical. This means, first and foremost, that America may transition to an oil exporter – a large one – by the end of the decade; something that will upend the recent dynamics in the market.

These factors coalesce to present Saudi Arabia with a range of problems. At a time of burgeoning budgets inspired by a fear of the Arab Spring and growing youth unemployment, the state looks destined to spend even more on its subsidies. Meanwhile, the plunging oil price that looks set to stay nearer $50 per barrel than the $100 that markets and states had become used to, robs the state of further income. This all means that the state will run a budget deficit for the first time in years in 2015 and will continue with them for years to come. With low interest rates on the international market, huge foreign reserves, and being relatively debt-free to start with, this is not that problematic in the short-term at least. But the fiscal medium and long term look decidedly murky.

Defence and security

Historically, the Gulf states do not really use their militaries in an expeditionary fashion. They have preferred to rely on alliances, defence guarantees, and international coalitions where possible. But this is slowly changing, and the states are demonstrating a willingness to actually use their expensively assembled military kit around the Middle East. This is most clearly seen in the recent Saudi-led large-scale bombing campaign in Yemen. There are a variety of likely causes of this increased desire to utilise their forces.

The increasing Gulf disenchantment with America in recent years has now become palpable. After America dropped their long-term ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Gulf leaders were irate, fearing, ultimately, that America may too one day drop them. This fear of being left alone by America was exacerbated by the ‘Pivot to Asia’ rhetoric and utterly compounded by America’s negotiations with Iran; something Gulf states fear will hasten America’s departure from the region, leaving an emboldened Iran to dominate.

The sense is, therefore, that Saudi Arabia is pointedly noting that if America will not secure the region, then they will. And they are clearly willing to utilise their military capacity towards this end. None of this bodes well for the future.

While America and her allies may well have blundered – spectacularly at times – in the Middle East, the local knowledge of Saudi Arabia is hardly affecting a different outcome so far: the bombing campaign in Yemen has been a brutal, ineffectual one to date. Moreover, Gulf states, unencumbered by the restraint inherent in believing the America will ultimately back them up, may act on their Iranian paranoia, further adversely affecting security in the region.

Succession

Succession in Saudi Arabia has long been a source of concern. In particular, many have been focused on the jump of leadership to a new generation of al-Sauds. Since the state’s modern inception in 1932, the Kings have all been sons of the founder, Abdul-Aziz al-Saud. This has meant that recent Kings and their successors have been exceedingly old and, on occasion, infirm. Two Crown Princes, for example, died in office waiting for now former King Abdullah al-Saud to pass.

But this gap has been breached. In a recent reshuffle, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz ejected his brother, Prince Muqrin, from second in-line to the throne, and replaced him with a grandson of Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, Mohammed Bin Nayef al-Saud. More interestingly, he also installed his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, as the third-in-line to the throne. These two Mohammeds now have portfolios spanning all of the most important sectors of the Kingdom.

The jump to the 55-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef is no surprise and no cause for alarm. He is widely recognised as the leading candidate of the younger generation, and has steadily but effectively built up a reputation, internally and externally, as a diligent and effective minister.

But the jump to the 29-year-old Mohammed bin Salman is deeply surprising, if not shocking. He has emerged from nowhere to, in but a few months, be made Deputy Crown Prince, Minister of Defence, head of the centrally important economic committee, and Chairman of Aramco, the Saudi national oil company.

The implications of this shift are concerning.

Age and seniority are important aspects of Saudi social and political life. It is unclear how so completely trouncing established and widely regarded cultural rules will be received in the longer term. Similarly, both Mohammeds and the King himself come from the same Sudairi clique of the al-Saud. King Salman has, therefore, engineered that his section of the family hold practically all the most important portfolios and he has attempted to make sure that they will hold them for decades to come. Instead of the typical balance between Sudairis and non-Sudairis, this leaves most members of the latter camp completely disenfranchised.

Perhaps installing a young Deputy Crown Prince will prove to be a master-stroke, giving the aged Saudi leadership a voice for Saudi’s youth who dominate the state overall. But, taken together, the mix of a deteriorating fiscal situation, a far more militarily assertive foreign and security policy, controlled by a new leadership overseeing a delicate power balance, does not give confidence as to the longer term stability of the state.

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Breaking the Saudi Rules of Succession 28, May 2015

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The following article was published by the Washington Post in their longer-form blog on 27 May 2015.

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On April 29, 2015, King Salman of Saudi Arabia appointed Mohammed bin Nayef, a grandson of the state’s founder, second-in-line to the throne as crown prince and placed Mohammed bin Salman, a 29-year-old prince, third-in-line as deputy crown prince. The major change comes just months after Salman acceded to the throne on Jan. 23, following the death of his half-brother Abdullah. The relatively seamless transition is surprising after many years of fevered speculation about the complications surrounding what might happen when Saudi Arabia’s leadership finally jumped down a generation instead of just passing the kingly baton from brother to brother. What does this mean for our understanding of power dynamics in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia?

The latter appointment in particular challenges the expectations of both scholars and analysts. For instance, Saudi-focused scholars, such as Gregory Gause, as well as analysts, such as Simon Henderson, have tended to cogently emphasize the importance of age as a factor in determining positions of authority. How then to explain the appointment of 29-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, to one of the most important positions in the land?

Other popularly cited explanations for royal succession also fall short in explaining the appointment. Henderson has suggested a range of other important factors, such as being a “good Muslim,” having a suitable Saudi lineage, possessing experience and acumen, being popular and offering stability. But again, the most recent changes suggest that some of these attributes – seniority, possessing experience and acumen and perhaps being popular – could be jettisoned with ease when the need arose. The time is therefore ripe to reconsider some of the once self-evident truths that underpin understandings of Saudi Arabia’s political workings

First, seniority within the ranks of the royal family has often been heralded as the primus inter pares factor underpinning the rules of succession in Saudi Arabia. The current Saudi state was united by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in 1932 when he was 56 years old. Until today, rule has been passed among Abdulaziz’s sons. In order of their accession to the throne, Saud was born around 1902, Faisal 1906, Khalid 1913, Fahd 1921, Abdullah 1924 and Salman 1935. Saud and Faisal were in their 50s when they took power, Khalid and Fahd were in their 60s, and Abdullah and Salman were in their 70s. Unsurprisingly, age has been seen as a “preeminent qualification” in determining the order of ascending to the throne, according to Henderson’s 1994 study and repeated in his 2009 “After Abdullah.” The apparent importance of age fits with widespread understandings of the “enormous meaning” of seniority within the royal family and Saudi society.

But age is not enough. Given that Abdulaziz is reputed to have fathered around 100 children by dozens of wives, older sons have been passed overtime and again, particularly more recently. So age has been a shaping, if not a determining factor. Saudi social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed has gone as far as to suggest that there has long been “no serious commitment to seniority.” Nevertheless, the meteoric rise of Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince is an astonishing promotion for a man so young.

The rise of the new king’s son suggests that intra-family machinations deserve more attention. Analysts Henderson, Daryl Champion, Joseph A. Kechichian and Thomas W. Lippman have pointed to the importance of the Sudairi section of the Saud family. The name stems from Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, who is often referred to as Abdulaziz’s most important wife and whose children have come to dominate Saudi politics in recent decades. There is much to support such a reading. Though King Abdullah ruled with three Sudairi crown princes (two of whom died), he represented for the Sudairis an interregnum between two Sudairi kings, Fahd and Salman. The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior, two of the most important and influential in Saudi Arabia’s power structure, have been led by Sudairis for over 50 years. The current crown prince and deputy crown prince are both younger generation Sudairis and have centralized control of the key economic and security councils under their auspices.

What does this actually mean, though? The Sudairis are often implicitlydescribed as something approaching a unitary actor in direct, near-zero-sum competition with other groupings led by, say, former king Abdullah. Such suggestions make intuitive sense at the moment, with such a successful Sudairi full-court-press swamping key positions. But the cohesiveness of such groupings is questioned by Gause and Rasheed who frequently and persuasively frame these associations as being temporary and more “manifested in specific historical and political contexts.” The hint behind such assertions is that Sudairi cohesion is far from automatic.

A more positive spin, marketed by commentators ranging from formerambassadors to Saudi Arabia, pliant local newspapers, Washington-based Saudi Arabian lobbying organizations and, most recently, the former head of Britain’s external intelligence agency, has to do with what is being called an “embryonic embrace of meritocracy” taking hold in Saudi Arabia. The removal of Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz – who served as crown prince from January to April 2015 – might be explained by his lineage. Muqrin’s mother was a Yemeni slave, something that tended to rule him out as a potential successor as far as many Saudi-watchers were concerned before he was put in line to the throne – at which point the ever-flexible commentariat brushed off his heritage as hardly mattering at all. Nevertheless, few would disagree that his replacement with Mohammed bin Nayef is something of an upgrade in efficacy, judging by the new crown prince’s impressive domestic and international reputation. Similarly, the world’s longest serving foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, recently shuffled out of the portfolio he held for 40 years, has been plagued by illness and hospital visits for years.

Yet, any semblance of meritocracy falls apart with the colossal (over) promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to defense minister, to head of the Economic and Development Affairs Council, chairman of Saudi Aramco’s Supreme Council and now to third-in-line to the throne. For a young man with negligible experience in these (or any other senior) roles, it is difficult to see how it could possibly be interpreted as meritocratic in nature – though his promotion may be an attempt to reflect Saudi Arabia’s youth with60 percent of the population being under 21 years of age.

What about the rules? The key institutional innovation here was the 2006 creation of a 35-member Allegiance Council to agree upon and ratify succession decisions for future monarchs. In March 2014, King Abdullah used the council to rubber-stamp Muqrin as third-in-line to the throne and the statement from the Royal Court declared that this order “shall not be amended or replaced by any means or by whomsoever.” Abdullah seemingly tried to lock in Muqrin as crown prince because Muqrin, lacking a suitable heir, would likely have nominated one of Abdullah’s sons as his crown prince, thus avoiding the taboo of nominating one’s own son.

But this potential move was checkmated and the “irreversible” decree was easily dismissed. With Salman reversing Abdullah’s edict and undercutting the Allegiance Council’s initial decision, unseating a crown prince suddenly looks curiously straightforward. The council, then, appears to function more as a public relations approval body, with the real politics being done behind the scenes. A scenario where there is genuine disagreement in the council is possible to foresee, but would most likely be overcome firstly by closed-door politics or secondly by being bypassed by royal decree.

Rules, decrees, taboos and notional Allegiance Council mandates are there, it turns out, to be broken. Similarly, issues of age and seniority can be easily brushed aside in the short term at least. A certain acknowledgement of the importance of meritocracy, mostly around the edges, is seen as desirable – perhaps a counterweight, even – to naked nepotism at the heart of the issue. The importance of the small Sudairi clique is at best a useful term to group together a subset of the Saud family who continue to play the game of family politics effectively thus far. But its unity should not necessarily be taken for granted.

While ousting Muqrin was a coup for the Sudairis, it was, perhaps first and foremost, a coup for Salman himself – but with unpredictable results. This proves a salient reminder for scholars as to the ultimately changeable nature of domestic politics in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf – and the seemingly unrestricted power that leaders can exert. The promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince has removed seniority as a decisive factor in Saudi politics in the short-term at least, though Gause et al’s emphasis on the importance of seniority may be an issue that returns in the future. But in the meantime, Salman has increased the players in the game. The zero-sum promotion of a prince inevitably leaves those not selected disgruntled and widens the field with a whole new age bracket of the royal family realizing that they too – all of a sudden – have a legitimate claim on a senior role. Salman’s flouting of tradition provides such princes with extra ammunition in plotting their bids for power. The ultimate test will come when Salman, a 79-year old with significant health problems, shuffles off this mortal coil. Saudi history is not kind to sons of kings who pass away, and with Salman’s precedent-setting unpicking his predecessor’s decree and his bypassing of the Allegiance Council, Mohammed bin Salman in particular is eminently removable.

How far is Saudi-Iranian rivalry fuelling Yemen war? 8, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen.
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The following article was published by the BBC and can be found here.

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The Saudis see growing Iranian influence everywhere – to the north in Iraq and Syria, to the east in its own country and in Bahrain, and now pointedly to the south in Yemen.

But this view belies the complexities of Yemeni domestic politics, overemphasises the role of Iran, and is unlikely to lead to anything approaching a successful conclusion, as is being seen with the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which is yet to achieve its stated aims.

The Houthi moniker, originally but a clan name, has been associated with the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam and, thus, by overly simplified if not erroneous extension, the “Twelver” Shiism predominant in Iran and Shiism in general.

Firstly, Houthis are not all Zaidis, and neither are all Zaidis Houthis. And secondly, Zaidism is considered to be the branch of Shiism least in dispute with Sunni doctrine.

Whatever the religious similarities between the Houthis and Iran, there is an implicit notion that any commonality matters. Whether nominally united or separated by faith, it is seldom as determining a factor in action as it is fatuously perceived.

None of this is to ignore commonalities between Iran and the Houthis.

Map showing Houthi and al-Qaeda areas in Yemen (22 April 2015)

Both display a vociferous anti-American and anti-Israeli streak, and there are obvious instances of the Houthis co-operating in some way with Iran in recent years.

A day after the Houthis took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa in February, an aviation agreement with Iran was signed and an Iranian Mahan Airlines plane landed in the city.

Domestic dispute

But simplistically labelling the Houthis as “Iranian-backed” obscures the domestic nature of the conflict which predates the Arab Spring.

Zaidis ruled parts of Yemen for almost 1,000 years until 1962 and were even supported by Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

But then the Houthis, who emerged as a Zaidi revivalist movement in the 1990s, fought a series of wars between 2004 and 2010 against the Saudi-supported central Yemeni state led by then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who also happens to be a Zaidi.

Religious divisions have, therefore, played a surprisingly minor role in the past until they were deepened not least by Saudi Arabia’s attempts in the 1990s in particular to spread its own austere version of Sunni Islam in Yemen.

The Houthis believed that such policies were designed to further marginalise their position, given their historic powerbase of Saada province being right on the Saudi border.

Spoils of war

The numerous wars fought against government forces gave the Houthis all the training and combat experience that they needed to humiliate Saudi forces when they intervened in Yemen in 2009 and to apparently fare so well against the recent air campaign launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

More importantly perhaps, many years of war have festooned Yemen with weapons.

There are plenty of accusations that Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons. Some reports lack credibility, like Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV’s insistence that 185 tons of Iranian weapons miraculously made it through the international naval taskforce currently blockading Yemen.

Other stories, like the Iranian dhow that was stopped on route to Yemen in 2013 with a range of advanced equipment, are far more plausibly an example of Iranian weapons shipping.

While one UN Security Council report noted independent verification was unable to confirm the allegations, a more recent, as yet unreleased one, concluded that a pattern of Iranian support had emerged.

Houthi resilience

Nevertheless, a perennial problem with such instances is that the evidence of Iranian involvement often comes from sources that have a vested interest in plugging such a line: whether from the Saudi, Yemeni or American side.

External supplies notwithstanding, an obvious source of weaponry for the Houthis came thanks to a new-found agreement with their erstwhile adversary, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who seemed to support the Houthis in their takeover of Sanaa in autumn 2014.

This gave the Houthis the opportunity to help themselves to an unknown quantity of US weaponry from army bases captured curiously easily.

Overall, the perennial resort to the “Iranian-backed Houthi fighters” logic is problematic as it simplifies the conflict too much and mandates too much of an external focus.

If Iran is the major source of supplies, then an air campaign to destroy stores and interdict resupply might make sense. But this logic is being sorely tested by the complete lack of a collapse of the Houthis (quite the opposite, so far) in the face of the bombing onslaught.

Al-Qaeda ascendant

Similarly, the urgency to combat the Houthis lest some hypothetical Iranian proxy force develops on the Arabian Peninsula means that, as a direct corollary, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has received a free pass to expand its orbit of power.

Recently, the group reinforced its hold on Mukalla in the southern province of Hadramawt taking over an airport, a military base, and a prison, freeing dozens of prisoners including AQAP leaders.

Given that AQAP remains the core US interest in Yemen, such a turn of events will surely have given its leadership pause to reconsider its open support of the Saudi campaign.

It would not be surprising if US cautions about the knock-on effects of the campaign enabling AQAP played a role in Saudi’s announcement on 21 April 2015 that it was ending the air campaign.

But the sense that the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are simply winging their policy in Yemen is inescapable.

In lieu of anything approaching a cogent, strategic plan, the short-termist resort of bombing to win does not inspire hope for the near future.

New Politics of Intervention of Gulf Arab States 26, April 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
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LSE pub

Find a link below to a new publication by the LSE of papers presented in 2014 focusing on the New Politics of Intervention of Gulf Arab States.

I wrote a paper on ‘Qatar’s Strained Gulf Relationships’ and there are also some fantastic contributions by Madawi al-Rasheed, Anoush Etheshami, Florence Gaub, Karen Young, and Christopher Philips.

New Politics of Intervention of Arab Gulf States

Saudi-Pakistan relations 13, March 2015

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As an update to the Saudi to borrow some troops from Pakistan article I wrote earlier this week, there is an interesting article in Dawn from one of its former editors. Discussing the $1 billion gift that was given to Sharif after his ascension to office, it discusses – to my mind at least – the most plausible ways that this gift could be reciprocated.

The latest such reports suggest that now the Saudis are seeking three things from Pakistan. One, the provision of a ‘nuclear’ cover if Iran does actually make such weapons and two support and assistance to anti-Iran terrorist groups such as Jundullah and freedom to it to operate from Pakistani soil in Balochistan.

Lastly, it is being suggested, the Saudis also want Pakistani troops to check any possible advance by IS from its strongholds in Iraq and also to keep an eye on its restive eastern regions.

I am always aware of succumbing to the conspiracy-fueled nature of the Middle East where agendas within agendas are a part of the basic discourse. But this whole Saudi-Pakistan nuclear sharing idea seems to make a lot of sense to me. Given the deep, paranoid suspicions of Iran and the belief on the Arab side of the Gulf that Iran is nigh-on certain to be simply playing with America, their security fears are acute and will be even more pointed if an agreement goes ahead and the whiff of the ‘pivot to Asia’ rhetoric grows. Equally, there is no real drama in obtaining some notional nuclear umbrella ‘cover’. That Saudi might ‘hold’ a nuclear weapon like Israel – not announcing it but making it perfectly clear to those concerned that it has one – would strike me as a lovely, and potentially effective, irony of sorts.

As for the second option of Pakistan and Saudi cooperating to support insurgent groups, when did that ever go wrong?

Saudi defence spending surges 8, March 2015

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ksa defence spending beeb

The BBC has a short but interesting report on Saudi defence spending. It reports that spending in 2014 has risen by 54% to $6.5 billion. Spending is expected to rise to nearly $10bn in 2015. Around $2bn worth of equipment is supplied by the UK, with the majority coming from the US.

The deteriorating situation in various Arab states alongside rivalry with Iran are suggested as the key motivating factors. Interestingly, the domestic issues that that state is suffering from in its eastern provinces are not mentioned, nor are issues of the efficacy of its forces.

See my article from earlier in the week for a bit more detail on some issues surrounding Saudi and its defence spending.

Saudi to borrow some troops from Pakistan? 6, March 2015

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KSA army

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have long had the closest of relationships. Extensive elite visits are a norm; the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, visited Riyadh this past week for the third time in 2015 alone.

Pan-Islamic dogma, remittances, aid, and security are the glues that bind the relationship together. Saudi Arabia has graciously spread its religious ideas in Pakistan and, naturally, built the biggest mosque in the country: the Faisal Mosque. Pakistan’s third largest city was even renamed Faisalabad after Saudi’s King Faisal in 1977. Today, there are approximately 1.5million Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia, sending home a third of all remittances that Pakistan receives (around $4.73 billion pa).

In return, aside from an acceptable source of workers, Saudi Arabia gets security cooperation. Pakistani soldiers were mobilised in 1990 to defend the Kingdom and cooperation continues though it is not clear how many Pakistani troops are currently deployed in the Kingdom.

Rumours also circulate that there has been some kind of an implicit deal between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan regarding nuclear weapons. Were Iran to properly ‘go nuclear’, the scurrilous theory goes, Saudi Arabia would acquire, in its most plausible iteration, an off-the-shelf nuclear weapon from Pakistan, the world’s first (and only) Islamic nuclear power. Frankly, this strikes me as perfectly plausible and fits with persistent rumours of Saudi’s part-funding of Pakistan’s original nuclear programme.

The latest security cooperation, according to the FT, is decidedly more conventional. Saudi Arabia is, apparently, seeking

to boost the numbers of its [Pakistan’s] troops in the kingdom to help bolster Riyadh’s defences against Islamic militants.

The threats to Saudi Arabia are real and apparent. To the north in Iraq there is Da’esh marauding around and to the south in Yemen, the Houthis – aka Iranians to the Saudis – are in the ascendancy. There are various implications of this iteration of Saudi-Pakistani discussions, chief among which is what this says about the indigenous Saudi Arabian armed forces.

The 2015 IISS Military Balance notes that Saudi Arabia has 227,000 men in active service: 75,000 in the Army; 13,500 in the Navy; 20,000 in the Air Force ; 16,000 in Air Defence; 2,500 in Strategic Missile Forces; and just the 100,000 in the National Guard. Just to briefly and far from exhaustively highlight a few systems and structures, the state possesses around 14 mechanized or armored brigades, 600 main battle tanks, 7 principal surface ships, 69 coastal patrol ships, and 313 ‘combat capable’ aircraft including over 140 F-15s of various types and more than 100 Tornado and Typhoons.

In short, on paper, Saudi Arabia has – to say the least – enough manpower and kit to take on the motley bunch that is Da’esh and defend themselves from whatever fractured, poor grouping might emerge from Yemen. Iran too, on paper, would be the merest of speed bumps on the Saudi march, let alone any other regional state aside from Israel.

But this is not, of course, how things work. Even ignoring issues of irregular tactics being employed by enemy actors which militates against sheer numbers and takes the edge off technologically advanced pieces of kit, there is a deep problem if a state with the putative numbers and military spending of Saudi Arabia needs to borrow some troops from Pakistan for security. Quite the conundrum for the new 29/34 year old Saudi Minister of Defence to solve.

 

 

Grappling With the Implications of Saudi Arabia’s Transition 26, February 2015

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KSA tree

On 23 January 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud died and his half-brother, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, in a smooth transition, became King. This was the sixth succession in Saudi Arabia since it formally became ‘Saudi’ Arabia in 1932 under King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud (d.1953).

So far, each Saudi ruler has been a son of the state’s founder, Abdul-Aziz. The first three kings (Abdul-Aziz, Saud, and Faisal) were in their fifties on ascending to the throne, their next two successors (Khalid and Fahd) were in their sixties, Abdullah was in his 70s when he became regent and in his 80s when he finally became King. Salman was three weeks into his 79th year when he became King. This mode of succession begs the question of what will the Kingdom do now that it is rapidly running out of compos mentis sons of Abdul-Aziz. This succession event was more important, therefore, in terms of what it sets in motion regarding the transition to the new generation than for weighing up the similarities and differences of Kings Abdullah and Salman.

The ministerial merry-go-round

Less than two months after eight new ministers were appointed under Abdullah, on assuming power, Salman swiftly instigated a raft of decrees shuffling the Saudi chess board once more. But, rather than the relatively cosmetic changes of the ministerial reshuffle of 8 December 2014, Salman’s changes concerned more important ministries and personalities. Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, a former intelligence chief, close US-ally (sometimes referred to as ‘Bandar bin Bush’), recently in charge of the Syria file, and who retained a key position advising Abdullah and as the head of the national security council, was sacked. Indeed, the council itself was dissolved, as were a dozen other committees and quangos. The upshot of this is the significant centralisation of the work of these defunct institutions to two bodies: the Council for Economic Development Affairs (CEDA) and the Council for Political and Security Affairs (CPSA).

One of Salman’s sons from his second marriage, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (MbS), has gained significantly in the reshuffle. Aged somewhere between 29 and 35, MbS heads the hugely powerful CEDA institution. Though his father the King has followed the tradition of being his own Prime Minister, in effect, the purview of this position means that MbS is ‘Prime Minister in training.’ Of equal significance was his promotion to become the world’s youngest Minister of Defence; quite a surprise given his lack of a military background. He remains the head of his father’s court and so replaced the arch insider and power broker Khalid al-Tuwaijri , who was the head of the Royal Court for Abdullah and who is, according to some reports, now under house arrest.

Only Mohammed bin Naif al-Saud (MbN) can claim to have benefitted as well from the reshuffle. The 55 year-old MbN, a son of a former long-term Minister of the Interior and Crown Prince, Naif bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, has long been regarded as one of the most capable and efficient Ministers and consequently seen as primus inter pares of the second generation Princes in the race for the top job. He was promoted and officially anointed by the Allegiance Council [a body formed in 2006 to ratify such matters] as second-in-line to the throne. Though competition remains, as the second-in-line and as the head of the powerful CPSA, he is well positioned. In between MbN and the top job is Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, the 69 year-old promoted to Crown Prince by Salman. That his mother was a Yemeni slave girl was often assumed to put him out of the reckoning for the position of King, but he now finds himself a heartbeat from ultimate power.

So what?

Rooting around in the tactical weeds of the who, what, and why of the changes in Saudi Arabia’s elite politics is, while interesting, not necessarily that useful. Firstly, it is too early to draw any substantive conclusions as to the wider ramifications of the changes. Secondly, it is a debatable point as to whether it is more generally possible to accurately plot the trajectory of change in the Kingdom. So opaque is the politics that deveining a link between action and reaction, of not confusing causation with mere correlation, is tediously difficult.

An analyst wanting to paint a doom-laden picture could point to the replacement of the head of the infamous Saudi religious police who was, much to the anger of those within the organisation, (slowly) reforming the medieval intuition. Similarly, the Game of Thrones-style replacement of two of Abdullah’s sons from positions of influence could easily be spun into a narrative of archetypal Machiavellian cutting and thrusting political intrigue. The blowing of $32 billion on gifts and bonuses for Saudis – a sum, as Hubbard notes, larger than Africa’s largest annual budget in Nigeria – also does not inspire confidence as to wider issues of fiscal prudence.

Those in search of a more positive twist could point to the technocratic appointment of a trained lawyer as the head of the stock market regulator, the installation of a military-trained commoner as intelligence chief, or the appointment of the editor of the secular al-Arabiya news channel as Information Minister. Other examples of pragmatism reining over politics include the ministers of finance, foreign affairs, and, crucially, petroleum and mineral resources remaining in post.

The best an analyst can do is to humbly plot the potential contours of the implications of the changes starting with what seems to be certain.

The known knowns

Salman has been at the heart of Saudi decision making for much of the past half-century. Though Abdullah is believed to have had a significant impact on the direction of Saudi policies, there is no evidence that suggests that Salman was an especially reluctant follower. Abdullah, after all, made him his Crown Prince. Some kind of about-turn in the pace of glacially slow reform – with occasional faster spurts – instigated by Abdullah seems unlikely.

With a strong record within the Kingdom for probity and having dealt relatively effectively with a wave of bombings in the mid and late-2000s (including being nearly killed by the world’s first rectal-bomb), and an apparently strong relationship with America too, MbN remains the favourite to be the first leader of Saudi Arabia from the new generation.

But Salman’s changes have quite clearly catapulted his young son, MbS, into the wider reckoning. No one else has as influential a seat in both the economic and the security camps in Saudi Arabia, not to mention his role as gatekeeper to his father’s court.

While MbN seems to offer a tried and tested safe pair of hands, MbS does not. He has no pedigree of any import whatsoever to take to his new, centrally important roles in the Kingdom. Doubtless his father saw some signs within him that persuaded him to heroically over-promote this son over others, but these skills are yet to be seen on the wider stage.

The known unknowns

Given the near-vertical rise of MbS and the real power that he now wields but the profound lack of knowledge about his skills, this situation must be classified as concerning. Partly this is an issue of basic capability of the Saudi-educated young Prince. But partly this is about the installation of an entirely untried and untested Prince at the centre of Saudi politics for, potentially, a number of decades. Four Deputy Defence Ministers have been sacked in the last 15 months alone, which some analysts suggest may be to do with MbS’s growing influence; a notion given more credence now that he has been appointed Minister of Defence. This could, of course, be a good thing: perhaps he demands a level of professionalism that they could not meet; equally, perhaps the opposite is the case.

Linked to this issue is the wider speculation surrounding the battle for prominence of the Princes of the next generation. Given the historical importance of a military background or otherwise developing strong connections to some form of hard-power, there are three key princes: MbN the Minister of the Interior and head of the security-orientated committee, MbS as the Minister of Defence, and Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, who, though he has lost influence and backing of his brothers who were sacked from their Governorship roles, retains a loyal, effective, fighting force (and his brothers could well return).

La Plus Ca Change? 

Eschewing the fatalistic supposition that all of Saudi politics belongs to the realm of the unknown unknowns, it is tempting to conclude that the near-term successions are not looking too challenging. Muqrin is in line to take the throne and, though the strength of his mandate on becoming Crown Prince (i.e. the number of votes he received in the Allegiance Council) is not known, it may be assumed that he will succeed. But even if he does not, the only logical alternative in view at this juncture is MbN usurping him. Such an outcome, though not immediately likely, does not present too problematic a challenge.

Perhaps the only clear outcome from this past transition is that issues surrounding jumping down a generation have actually been complicated, potentially worryingly so, and not simplified. If MbN had been made second deputy Crown Prince amid a cabinet reshuffle, then the only reasonable conclusion would have been to see him as a clear favourite. But the rise of MbS in and of itself poses MbN a direct challenger with the portfolios to gather support and influence.

Can Qatar, Saudi Arabia ease tensions at Gulf Cooperation Council? 24, August 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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It’s the gravest diplomatic crisis the Gulf Cooperation Council has ever faced — but as leaders from the six-member Arab alliance prepare to meet in Jeddah, are things about to get even worse?

The root of the current problem? Qatar simply will not do as it’s told by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have spent months trying to force the energy-rich nation to fundamentally alter its foreign policy. Bahrain, the UAE and the Saudis withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March, and have kept up the pressure ever since.

Read the rest of the article on CNN.COM

How personal politics drive conflict in the Gulf 7, May 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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The following article can be found on Steven Cook’s blog over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I love all the countries of the Gulf, and they all love me.” With this less than subtle statement, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the vocal Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood scholar tried to do his part to repair regional relations in the Gulf that have badly frayed in recent weeks. Long-brewing discontent erupted in early March with the unprecedented withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar. Subsequent mediation from Kuwait’s Emir has led the protagonists to the cuspof a modus vivendi, and a vague document has been agreed upon.

But core differences remain. Qatar is alone in the region in providing financial, material, and rhetorical support for popular governance around the Middle East. It can do this because its domestic security is strong and, without internal restrictions to speak of such as a strong Parliament, its elite is unusually unconstrained and capable of pursuing unusual foreign policy tangents such as assiduously supporting the new movements in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Such aid, which has been frequently channeled through Brotherhood connections, resonated favorably across much of the region. This allowed Qatar to play an important role in emerging popular revolts, keeping the autocratic monarchy with no meaningful elections on the right side of wider public opinion, while also laying the foundations for new, potentially close regional relations. Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, however, without as pliant a domestic context and driven by the intention of thwarting new Islamist actors, seek the firm reinstatement of the regional status quo ante.

In November 2013, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah presented Qatar’s new, 33-year-old Emir – a man one-third his age – with a document demanding a total reorientation of Qatar’s foreign policy under the guise of promoting regional security. In the face of conflicting interests between Saudi and Qatar, this was Abdullah’s attempt to cow Qatar and get its renegade regional foreign policy under control; something he had tried but failed to do for decades with Tamim’s father, Hamad. Tamim demurred, but  Abdullah was nevertheless led to believe that the Emir had acquiesced to the Saudi leader’s way of thinking. Yet Qatar’s rhetorical support of the Brotherhood continued and Qaradawi stoked ire across the region in early 2014. In January he accused Saudi Arabia’s leaders of not believing in sharia law and he also declared that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has “always been against Islamic rule” prompting its foreign ministry to summon the Qatari ambassador to explain the lack of an official denunciation or apology.

In March of this year, Qatari representatives facilitated the release of thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns held in Syria since in December 2012 with – according to some reports – a ransom of $67 million. From the Saudi perspective this was a clear example of Qatar adversely intervening in the conflict and further fermenting a petri dish in which jihadi groups grow, prosper, and strengthen. Saudi authorities also see Qatar fermenting similar problems in Saudi’s own backyard in Yemen where Doha stands accused of channeling itssupport through the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah party.

Despite their own material and financial support for suspect groups in such conflicts, Riyadh clearly believes that Qatari actions encourage jihadism, which represents a threat to Saudi security. Given the bitter Saudi experience with domestic terrorism in the mid-2000s and its large, relatively porous borders with Yemen and Iraq, fears are growing in the Saudi elite of the impact or ‘blowback’ of returning, more radicalized, and battle-tested jihadis. This is the reason that the remit of Minister of the Interior Muhammed bin Nayef has recently been extended to cover Syria and Yemen and why the Saudi leadership issued a decree in February making it illegal for their citizens to fight in regional conflicts.

The withdrawal of the ambassadors from Doha had little practical effect. Gulf diplomacy is conducted at a much higher level, but it was a public and unprecedented rebuke. Leaks to the press about the potential Saudi escalation including the cancellation of an impending airline deal by Qatar Airways in Saudi Arabia or potentially closing the land border to Qatar, added to a sense of near naked extortion.

The nature of the mooted compromise agreement that the Kuwaitis hammered out does not augur well for long-term stability. The agreement is thought to demand that Qatar curtails funding for a range of media organizations in the Middle East that are critical of the policies of the Gulf States; expels Brotherhood members currently living in Doha; halts its support of the Brotherhood and the Houthis in Yemen; and stops naturalizing Gulf citizens fleeing states as opposition members or Islamists. Though Qatar has, according to reports, now agreed to implement these statutes, it is difficult to see how Doha could possibly do so without fundamentally shifting its foreign policy, something it is most unlikely to do.

Since the late 1950s Qatar has provided various kinds of support for the Brotherhood. Even without a meaningful religiously based commonality – Qatar being theoretically closer, ironically, to the Saudi interpretation of Islam – Qatar often found Brotherhood members both available and sufficiently qualified to staff its emerging bureaucracies. This filled a basic need, while also allowing the Qataris to diversify away any existing dependency on Saudi Arabia in such matters. The Brothers, who settled in Qatar over the decades, whether notable ideologues like Qaradawi or those with the loosest of affiliation to the group, found Doha to be a safe and secure location. These relationships came into their own during the Arab Spring, when their potential for influence increased, for a time at least. Though the Brotherhood is once more deeply repressed across much of the region and should never be seen as a group in “Qatar’s pocket,” there is an unusually deep connection that has been cultivated over decades.

Qatar enjoys this relationship because neither the Brotherhood nor any similar groups poses a challenge to the country. Indeed, the local Brotherhood branch disbanded itself in 1999. Additionally, Qatari society is so small and close-knit, and the socioeconomic bargain so strong, that the ruling elites feel entirely and understandably comfortable supporting a group that offers an alternative arrangement of government. Saudi Arabia, however, does face a challenge from the Brothers in two ways. Firstly, the Brotherhood offers a competing form of Islamic government, one that was realized for a time in Egypt and that directly challenges Saudi Arabia as the beacon of Islamic governance. Secondly, Saudi Arabia faces politicized Islam as an oppositional force: Discord throughout the Kingdom could be channeled by the Brotherhood and used to confront the royal family. The UAE has similar fears, stemming from the disparities in wealth between Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the northern Emirates. The government also insists that it has rooted out dozens of Brothers who were planning to disrupt the status quo. Equally, the UAE’s de facto leader, Mohammad bin Zayed, is known to have a deep distrust and dislike for the group that directly shapes the state’s policy.

Given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, there is no turning back the clock; their antipathy is now institutionalized state policy. In the aftermath of the ambassadorial withdrawal, dozens of Qataris changed their Twitter profile pictures to photos of the Emir.  Qataris – even those who do not support the Brotherhood – were clearly signaling that they would not be  bullied into changing their policy. So while Qatar could theoretically change tack and join the bandwagon, such an about-face would be seen as a capitulation and would be received poorly back in Doha. Also, aside from the legacy of the policy toward the Brotherhood in Qatar, if there has been a central theme in the country’s foreign policy in the last twenty-five years it has been one of unambiguously asserting Qatar’s independence from Saudi Arabia. Reasonable accommodation has been made in the past, such as in 2008 when Qatar controlled to a greater degree Al Jazeera coverage of Saudi Arabia to ensure the return of the Saudi ambassador to Doha after a six year absence, but the current proposals seek strategic change. Part of the mooted accord attempting to resolve this latest crisis hints that once more Al Jazeera’s coverage might be on the table and Qaradawi is, for the time being at least, cooperating by toning down his rhetoric. But without precisely the kind of meaningful change that Qatar cannot undertake, relations seem set for an extended cold snap, punctuated by personally-led spurts of anger, potentially peripatetically lurching relations from one mini-crisis to the next.