Mohammad bin Salman and the new balance of power
The Crown Prince has set off a complex chain reaction of political moves that affect the region's political and economic stability
Morbid curiosity draw attention to the real-life Game of Thrones now playing out in Saudi Arabia, but the stories of intrigue among the Bedouin clans who control the kingdom are less interesting than the changes in the regional chessboard. Some of the facts are known, while others only can be inferred. The ascent of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman – with the assistance of the United States and the approval of China – occurs in the context of an effort to restore the regional balance of power, following 15 years of instability due to America’s sponsorship of Shi’ite rule in Iraq.
Saddam Hussein’s Sunni government balanced Shi’ite Iran. When the George W. Bush administration overthrew him and imposed majority, that is, sectarian Shi’ite rule in Iraq, the disenfranchised Sunni minority supported non-state actors, namely al-Qaeda and its offshoot ISIS. The regional power balance shifted drastically in favor of Iran, and the Obama administration’s jerry-rigged nuclear deal with the Iran gave it additional power.
The Petraeus “surge” briefly interrupted the Sunni insurgency by putting large numbers of Sunni fighters on the American payroll, but only prepared a more ferocious insurgency in the future, as I warned in 2010. The Sunni powers in the region, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both funded Sunni terrorists to counter Iran’s enhanced influence in the region. Assured of hegemony in Iraq, Iran intervened in Syria with its own Revolutionary Guards and thousands of Shi’ite mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Sunni insurgency metastasized into ISIS and became a grave threat to stability in and outside the region. Thousands of foreign terrorists from Russia’s Caucasus and China’s Uyghur-majority Xinxiang province fought for ISIS in Syria and elsewhere and returned home to wreak havoc. Nine-tenths of Russia’s large Muslim population and virtually all of China’s are Sunni. Moscow and Beijing view their radicalization as a grave threat. Russia’s intervention in Syria and its alliance-of-convenience with Iran had several motives, but an important one was fear of reflow of ISIS-trained terrorists to Russia.
Russia, to be sure, wants to restore its status as a world power; the Saudi royal family supports an expansionist brand of Salafist Islam; the Turks imagine themselves the founders of a new caliphate; and Iran wants to establish Shi’ite hegemony. All of these attitudes are relevant, to be sure, but America’s willful destruction of the Sunni-Shi’ite balance of power in the region drew all of these players into a permanent regional war. Whatever the ambitions and illusions of regional players, America’s strategic bumbling in Iraq compelled them to act as they did out of raison d’etat.
The Trump administration now has the sorry task of repairing the mess left by George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
After tipping the balance of power towards the Shi’ites, the United States now wants to restore the balance of power by reinforcing Saudi Arabia. So do Moscow and Beijing. If Prince Mohammad bin Salman didn’t exist, Washington would have to invent him. Saudi backing for “non-state actors,” namely terrorists, came in response to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent Sunni insurgencies in Iraq and Syria, but the world’s sufferance for such support had reached a limit. Just as important, the kingdom would run out of money without a drastic reform. As I wrote two years ago, the kingdom’s vast subsidies for an idle population would drain the its treasury within five years. The number of pigs at the trough had to be reduced to keep the kingdom solvent, and that was a primary motivation for the culling of the royals.
His seizure of power earlier this month began by freezing the accounts of prospective adversaries. On Oct. 26, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the formation of a Terrorist Financing Targeting Center in Riyadh. That is an extension of the Treasury’s 700-person Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Department. The Treasury office has a close relationship with CIA. Its Undersecretary during the second Obama Administration, David S. Cohen, moved from Treasury to become Deputy Director of CIA. People familiar with the Treasury operation report that the US Treasury provided the Crown Prince with “technical assistance” in his efforts to seize royal family funds, namely the location of all their accounts. The kingdom is now in negotiations with various royals as well as their bankers over these accounts, reportedly offering some of the princes now imprisoned in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel their freedom in return for a large part of their fortunes. It has also asked banks to turn over accounts to the kingdom. That is a delicate negotiation, because the banks do not want to frighten away high net worth clients by making it easy for the Saudi authorities to expropriate funds.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been covering his flanks carefully, presumably with “technical assistance” from Washington and elsewhere.
First, as Kunwar Khuldune Shahid reported in Asia Times Nov. 16, deep ties with Pakistan’s military helped the takeover. A senior Pakistan officer said, “Even if the Pakistani troops aren’t physically involved in an attack on Iran – or in Yemen, Qatar or Lebanon – the fact that we are bolstering Saudi defense domestically naturally makes us an integral part of their camp.” Pakistani pilots fly the best of Saudi Arabia’s nearly 300 modern military aircraft, and Pakistan mercenaries serve in key branches of the Saudi armed forces.
Second, Riyadh took pre-emptive action against the Muslim Brotherhood, the only entity within the kingdom capable of overthrowing the monarchy. Saudi Arabia blockaded Qatar, whose royal family backs the Brotherhood. The week before MbS seized power, moreover, Turkish financial markets went into a tailspin and the Turkish currency fell to all-time lows vs. the US dollar. I have no evidence that the Saudis engineered this; the fall of the Turkish lira is attributed to a diplomatic fight with the United States over federal prosecution of a Turkish-Iranian money launderer with close ties to the Erdogan regime, against the vociferous protests of Ankara. Gulf State banks finance a large part of Turkey’s current account deficit through the interbank market, and it is a reasonable conjecture that they pulled Turkey’s chain in late October.
Third, King Salman as well as the Crown Prince went to Moscow in late September and bought Russia’s top-of-the-line S-400 air defense system. As I wrote on Oct. 16, Russia evidently wants to maintain a regional balance of power. The S-400 is a far more powerful system than the S-300 system that Moscow sold to Iran, capable of acquiring nearly 100 targets at ranges of several hundred kilometers. The question is what Moscow would have asked in return, and my conjecture is that the issue had to do with Saudi financing of Sunni terrorists.
Fourth, as M.K. Bhadrakumar wrote in Asia Times Nov. 18, Saudi Arabia went out of its way to reaffirm its friendship with China. China’s commentary “specifically praised the Saudi leadership on two counts. First, it upheld the authenticity of MbS’ desire to shift toward moderate Islam – ‘Saudi wants to be less bound by religion… Although Saudi strengthens its soft power by exporting Wahhabism, it leads to the spread of extremism, seriously damaging Saudi’s international image. Hence Riyadh wants to change’,” Bhadrakumar observed.
Fifth, MbS has opened relations with Israel. For Saudi Salafists, this is not as odd as it seems. As Burnahettin Duran wrote Nov. 19 in Turkey’s Daily Sabah, “MbS laid the groundwork for Riyadh’s cooperation with Israel, which was recently endorsed by the Saudi grand mufti, who said that it was not permissible to fight against Israel, identified Hamas as a terrorist organization and issued a fatwa to declare that cooperating with the Israeli military against Hamas was permissible. To be clear, it should not come as a huge surprise to anybody that Salafism, an apolitical movement that promotes obedience to rulers under any circumstances, would endorse fighting with Israel. The same people could, with equal ease, legitimize a type of moderate Islam flavored secular Arab nationalism.”
Israel, to be sure, will not risk its own people to do Saudi Arabia’s dirty work, but the skill and experience of the Jewish state could help the kingdom enormously in the event of war with Iran. That is very unlikely. Iran has no air force, and its Russian air defense cannot defend soft targets such as electric generating plants. With a vast arsenal of highly accurate Chinese-built medium-range missiles and a very large air force, Saudi Arabia could destroy the Iranian economy in a few days of war.
Despite these careful preparations, it is by no means assured that MbS will succeed. The humiliated clans of the royal family might conspire to overthrow him. They have the choice of luxurious retirement in Marbella or London with a portion of their billions, or a civil war that might result in the extermination of their families. As long as MbS retains the support of the Pakistanis in the royal air force, I do not think an insurgency can succeed. MbS appears to have the backing of Washington, Beijing, Moscow and Jerusalem, as well as Islamabad, and that is a strong argument for his success.
China and Russia will try to persuade Iran to abandon its grandiose plans to repopulate parts of Syria with Shi’ite settlers, and concentrate on restoring its property through participation in the One Belt, One Road infrastructure project. Whether Iran will agree to do so is unclear, but the Chinese carrot is balanced by the Saudi (and Israeli) stick. If Iran attempts to emplace a permanent military presence in Syria it will have to fight Israel, and I do not think Iran wants to take that risk just now.
In the best case, a new balance of power will emerge in the Middle East, freezing out the Sunni non-state actors as well as Iran’s marauding Revolutionary Guard Corps, and allowing the countries of the region to attend to their economic future.