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A nation must think before it acts.
It was on the fourth night, very early in the great Arabic tale, that Shahrazade, in telling the story of King Yunan and his evil vizier, says as follows: “Oppression hideth in every heart; power revealeth it and weakness concealeth it.” It’s hard to say from Washington, D.C. how oppressive it really is for a passel of princes (eleven at last count) and assorted retainers (as many as 500, according to some reports) to be held under “hotel arrest” at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, but it’s easy to suppose that Mohammad bin Salman, the 32-year old Saudi Crown Prince—and King for practical purposes in all but formal title—senses that his burgeoning power gives him license for a bit of what he no doubt considers necessary oppression. It no longer hideth entirely in his heart.
We’ll see how all this ends in due course: whether MbS remains the banquet hall’s premier diner long into the future, or rather sooner than that becomes the entrée. Both outcomes are possible. What is not possible the longer his coup from above lasts is putting Saudi political arrangements back the way they were pretty much since the end of 1953. He has destroyed the status quo, presumably with his feeble 81-year old father’s blessing—or maybe not. He did so possibly because he thinks the future of the Kingdom depends on it, possibly because his will to power and personal ambition far outrun his wisdom and experience, and likely because he shrouds, even to himself, the latter truth with the former conviction.
What has gone on in Saudi Arabia over the past few days—along with its related external emanations, from the shocking resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister while in Riyadh to the Houthi missile attack on Riyadh—is the most significant cluster of events to hit the region since ISIS burst onto the scene, seemingly from nowhere, to overrun Mosul in June 2014. But unlike ISIS taking Mosul, the Saudi events may well reverberate for far longer than three and a half years, and their ultimate significance could be far more profound.
Anyone can see from the mainstream American press what has happened in sketch form, but as is usually the case these days, the mainstream press is frail at two services: connecting dots and providing context. When it comes to this set of interlocked stories, that is fatal to adequate understanding. So the purpose of this brief analysis is not so much to tell you what has happened (though some review is necessary to set the scene), but rather to tell you what it means, not least for U.S. interests in the region and beyond.
The current Saudi King, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, became King in late January 2015 upon the death of his half-brother Abdallah. In June of this year, Salman elevated his son Mohammad to the position of Crown Prince in place of his cousin Mohammad bin Nayef. That act created additional ill will inside the Saud family, which compounded other conflicts bubbling and burgeoning for other reasons (mostly) below the surface.
For example, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd—a major shareholder in Middle East Broadcasting Company that operates the Al-Arabiya television network, and also in the distressed company of the family of recently resigned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Saudi Oger—got hauled into court in Geneva, Switzerland in 2015 by his cousin, Prince Turki bin Sultan. Turki, an outspoken reform-minded member of the family, accused his cousin of orchestrating his abduction, sedation, and forcible repatriation from Switzerland in 2003 because he was about to blow the whistle on family corruption shenanigans in the Saudi defense and interior ministries. Abdul Aziz is either under hotel arrest now or dead, as a rumor has it. Turki is not.
What this shows is that in the Saudi royal family personal and political positions are hard to untangle: policy positions may be adopted because they either align with or oppose a personal enemy or competitor, or one can make allies and enemies from adopting certain policy positions—but after a while it’s often hard even for the principals to tell which is which. That is not unusual, and it certainly applies to current accusations of corruption, a concept that in Saudi Arabia lacks anything like a specific legal definition. But two things have changed in the past few years.
First, the sense of urgency about making decisions believed to have existential importance has risen as the era of oil appears to be waning and as the reliability of the United States as the Kingdom’s protector appears less certain (even as the perceived threat from Iran looms larger) thanks first to the standoffishness of the Obama administration and now to the sheer strangeness of the Trump administration (of which more below).
And second, ever since the founder of modern Saudi Arabia died in November 1953, the principle of ijma’—consensus of the family elders—has kept contending family sections and members in rough balance with one another, and kept most contentions from public view. Consensus has been deployed, above all, in choosing kings—and in a single case deposing a king, Abdul Aziz’s own successor Saud, in 1964 after nearly 11 years on the throne. Every Saudi king since Abdul Aziz bin Saud died has been his son. (He had 45 sons, of whom 36 survived to adulthood.) But it also applied to lesser positions in government and in business.
Alas, the actuarial tables have turned on Abdul Aziz’s remaining sons, all of whom are either very old now or not kingly material. Everyone understood that the transition to the next generation required a particularly exquisite implementation of ijma’. Some believe that the generational transition should have happened already, and that Salman should not have become king. But evidently no agreement was forthcoming as to who should be enthroned, so Salman may well have been the only acceptable, temporary compromise. And now his son Mohammad has short-circuited the ijma’ process, having established at least temporary control over the army, the national guard, and the internal security apparatus.
That is not quite all. Before this past weekend’s coup from above, MbS had been responsible for several other major initiatives. Two were foreign policy oriented: the war in Yemen and the squeeze against Qatar. But at least three others were domestic: a host of high-profile economic reform quests, most notably the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative; promising women the right to drive, a highly symbolic issue; and most important but least remarked upon in the Western media, removing the arrest power from the Religious Affairs Ministry’s “morality police.”
Clearly, MbS has been moving boldly and simultaneously on both foreign and domestic fronts, hoping to demonstrate an iron will in order to steal a march on his cousinly competitors and win the hearts of younger Saudis, who have for the most part applauded his reformist efforts as well as his brash and seemingly intrepid national security initiatives. But, in so doing, he has undone not just one kind of balance in the Kingdom—the aforementioned family ijma’ process—but two. An even older and more basic balance forms the very constitutional backbone of the Saudi state: the biumverate between the Al-Saud and the Al-Wahhab, the temporal and religious halves of the whole Saudi enterprise going back to the 18th century.
The relationship between the royal house and the clergy has shifted about over the years, in recent times coming to favor the court over the mosque. But the basic division of labor has endured: the Saudis ran the economy and the country’s foreign policy, and the Wahhabi clergy ran the education system and set the standard for proper public behavior in all forms. Now, the clergy is suddenly on its heels, not only because MbS has ripped the teeth from its ability to control public etiquette, but because the Crown Prince has publicly challenged the very model of religiosity that has defined the nation for as long as anyone can remember.
The clergy and other social conservatives in the Kingdom also see the attack on the religious establishment and the economic and social reform programs as being closely related: merely letting women drive, they aver, will lead to the total gender integration of the work force and soon thereafter the brazen violation of Islamic standards of female dress and behavior. God will punish this sin. This is the Saudi version of a slippery slope argument. Under the circumstances, it is not entirely idle.
Casual Western observers generally miss the significance of this because they do not understand the origins of the Saudi state and hence what kind of Islamic society it has spawned. Contrary to what the vast majority of Americans seem to think, Saudi Arabia is not a traditional Muslim country. Saudi Arabia is an attenuated neo-fundamentalist country from having been taken over, by force of arms in the early 20th century, by a “revitalization movement”—to use Anthony F.C. Wallace’s classic 1956 description of the type. The Wahhabi movement is therefore similar in some ways to the 19th century Mahdiya movement in Sudan and the early 20th century Sanusiya movement in Libya, also to the Almohad convulsion of the 12th century and its long-delayed doppelganger, ISIS—and, not entirely coincidentally, to the original rise of Islam in Arabia under Mohammad himself.
To condense and simplify a bit, revitalization movements are: socially integrative and hence trans-tribal; highly hierarchical and disciplined; based on the charisma of a leader; tend to be literalist and intolerant in their religious interpretations; tend to be militant even sometimes to the point of suicidal, and to subsume all political energy invariably directed against some perceived outside threat; and to carry a neo-messianic tone. These characteristics bear no overlap with traditional Sunni Islam at least since its medieval synthesis reconciled a still young, conquering Islam with the realities of its own division amid a recalcitrant world—in, say, the 9th or 10th century.
It is very hard to maintain a revitalization movement at full fervor for long. Since the messianic era does not dawn, all examples wind down if they are not first defeated from without or overthrown from within. So do secular utopian revolutions and similar movements in other religious domains—double predestination Calvinism, for example. When they do wind down, they find themselves in a condition of permanent cognitive dissonance, at least until the next “big social thing” comes along. On the one hand, they acknowledge high ideals and maximalist goals, but on the other they know that these ideals and goals are very far out of reach.
What happens most of the time in such circumstances is the construction of a serviceable hypocrisy that, eventually, can permeate many aspects of ordinary daily behavior. An example: If a typical pious Muslim woman from Pakistan gets on a plane in Islamabad in order to visit Paris for some reason, she will probably exit the plane wearing the same clothing she was wearing on entering the plane, for she has internalized the rules of her religious culture; when a Saudi woman flies from Riyadh or Jedda to Paris, she will likely enter the plane in standard Saudi attire but exit the plane in the latest Western fashion, for she cannot internalize an externally enforced set of obligations in service to an obviously impossible goal. So she tows the line at home where others see her in that apparently stable if stultified hypocritized context, but outside of that context she feels little obligation to otherwise empty forms. Similarly, Saudi men will not usually violate restrictions on alcohol and non-halal food at home, but many with the means to do so think little of crossing the causeway to Bahrain to indulge in what some entrepreneurial locals there call a Saudi Special: champagne and barbecued pork ribs. And finally in this regard, it is extremely rare inside the Kingdom for anyone to profess atheism, not least because it’s both illegal and dangerous to do so. But whenever an anti-common sense religious orthodoxy is shoved down people’s throats, it is bound to boomerang at least from time to time. There are more “private” atheists in Saudi Arabia than you might suppose.
To return to MbS and the point: Saudi society is built on a massive serviceable hypocrisy that is more than usually vulnerable to disruption, just as its politics have been built on the afore-described double balance that has now been disrupted. The two are not separate. So when conservatives in the Kingdom right now wonder and worry how all this will end, they are not wondering and worrying for no reason. The whole Saudi house of artificial and by-now-antiquated religious fantasy could collapse almost overnight. This you do not usually read about in the newspapers.
The Western press has noted the apparent contradiction between MbS wanting to attract more foreign investment to Saudi Arabia and the instability that the coup from above has generated. Yes, that’s obvious.
It has noted, too, that in wanting to confront Iran MbS has been talking tougher, and now has pulled away the curtain of Lebanese politics by apparently forcing Saad Hariri to resign so that everyone can see the raw truth: the diabolical betrayal of the Maronite President Michel Aoun in laying the country at the feet of Hezbollah and hence Iran. (If there is any country in the Arab world that Americans tend to misunderstand even more than they misunderstand Saudi Arabia, it’s Lebanon; but never mind that for now.) That could spark a renewed civil war in Lebanon, thus raising the price to Iran of controlling its satrapy now that the war in Syria seems to be turning Iran’s way; but it could also maul the Sunni community there in the process. That’s fairly obvious, too.
And the press has called attention to the fact that just yesterday the Houthis again lobbed a missile about 800 miles to the outskirts of Riyadh, where a Patriot missile battery apparently intercepted it, meaning that we’re closer to turning an already extant proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran into a direct one. Well, maybe.
What’s not obvious in the press, seeing as how it is not mentioned, is that neither country can mobilize a conventional expeditionary force worth so much as a skewer of shishtawook, and there is anyway no land border between them. Nor is the right analogy obvious in the press: Iran helping Yemenis to use their territory to rocket Riyadh is something a bit like Nikita Khrushchev putting missiles in Cuba, because it undermines the asymmetrical advantage of one side. In 1962, we could hit the Soviets, but they could not hit us, and the Saudis can bomb Sana’a, but not the other way around…..until now.
In any event, the air forces and navies of both countries (with the UAE probably helping the Saudis), such as they are—and Iranian militias in Iraq and Houthi allies in Yemen ankle biting, rocketing, and terrorizing Saudi cities—look to be the modalities of any fight, if there is one. That and Iranian-supported and equipped Shi’a saboteurs in Bahrain, perhaps, trying for a head shot at a Saudi ally/client. All kinds of interesting if improbable larger scenarios can be spun, too: Pakistan supporting Saudi Arabia by attacking and seizing Iranian Baluchistan, for example.
We don’t know what might happen if anything major happens at all, but it’s obvious that we don’t know because the locals don’t yet know what they’ll do. It could well be, as Lord Vansittart put it long ago in a different context, that “there are moments which unmistakably portend slaughter,” and this may be one of them. Or not. But for sure MbS brings to mind another Vansittart witticism, about Kaiser Wilhelm: “He does not like war, but he likes doing the things that lead to war.”
Ah, but the real wild card in all this is not what the Pakistani authorities might or might not do, but what the U.S. government might or might not do. No one is sure about that either, and that certainly includes the clueless President of the United States.
The Trump administration, just possibly, had one sensible idea in foreign policy: stop playing footsie with the Iranians and organize the Sunnis to confront the real threat—creeping Iranian imperial recidivism—and whack ISIS at the same time. But having a decent idea and knowing how to make it happen are two different things. The Saudis did not whack ISIS; if any locals did it was the Kurds, and look where their efforts have got them. The Trump White House (which in this weird situation may or may not speak with and for the Defense Department, the State Department, and the intelligence community on any given point, and vice versa!) has nevertheless dumped virtually all its regional eggs into the Saudi basket, assuming, or hoping, that the Saudis can organize all the ambient anti-Iranian energy floating around the region, bankroll it, and point it effectively anywhere the Iranians are encroaching—Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and so on.
That, presumably, is why the President has audibly blessed the coup from above, saying that, “the Crown Prince and King know exactly what they’re doing.” That, also apparently, is based on the takeaway the President got from his son-in-law, who reportedly just returned from his third trip to the Kingdom having talked one-on-one with MbS into the wee hours of the morning. I shutter to imagine what was said, and promised, in this conversation between a 32-year old daredevil driving a country at top speed with no brakes and an experience-free B-minus student who has not the slightest idea what he is doing. The White House’s gilded optimism in the Saudi capacity to successfully bump chests with Iran thus qualifies as something between blind faith and sheer fantasy.
This mess is not all the Trump administration’s fault. It was the Obama administration that exaggerated the ISIS threat (even as it underplayed the Iranian one) and so made American arms the objective ally of Syria, Iran, and Russia; the Trump administration merely continued what its predecessor set in motion, and arrived at the inevitable dilemma: Now that ISIS is dead as a holder of real estate, and Syria doesn’t have a government that can control its whole territory, what do we do next? Any administration fool enough to pursue a faulty strategy to the end would have faced this question, for which there are not many good answers.
And it was the Obama administration that acquiesced in the idiotic Saudi decision to ensnare itself in Yemen, just because we wanted to mollify their anger at us for having dallied with Tehran—not that Washington could necessarily have stopped the Saudis had it tried. It is a war the Saudis cannot really win—can anyone imagine a Saudi army marching up those mountains and surviving?—and it actually draws Iran closer into Yemen, as we’ve lately seen. This is the same mistake the Bush Administration made with regard to Iraq: One of the unexpressed but real reasons for going to war in March 2003 was the hope that by flipping Iraq into an ally hosting U.S. forces, Iran, also looking at U.S. forces across its Afghan border, would come to heel. Screw up a war based on that premise and exactly the opposite occurs: the war maker becomes a soft target of opportunity for the attacked. But the Trump administration ignored the lesson and, once again, doubled down on its predecessor’s bad judgment.
Good heavens: New administrations of the other party are supposed to be revulsed by its predecessor’s ways, as with, in this case, health care, Title IX, environmental regulations, and more. Why, then, did the Trump administration persist with some of the dumbest things previous administrations did? Getting continuity where we least needed and could afford it has got to rank as some kind of bad joke, because it’s just too stupid to qualify as mere irony.
Be that as it may, the Trump White House has given MbS a green light to drive Saudi Arabia 90 miles an hour over a cliff. Consider the components of likely disaster. The Yemen war will not be won, and Saudis—soldiers and civilians—may die in politically significant numbers. Missiles may fly into Saudi cities now from many directions, and not all of them will be intercepted. Most Saudis have gotten used to almost perfect material and physical security in recent years; this is a pampered and brittle society not used to pulling together or suffering hardship. The touted MbS-signed economic reforms, though indeed necessary, may not work; or, maybe worse, they will work and catalyze the usual social instability that comes from rapid change—except it could be much worse than the historical norm given the rigidity of Saudi Arabia’s frozen neo-fundamentalist social mindset.
At some point, too, those now designated as the family “delinquents,” with much of the clergy in support, might use failure at home and abroad to try to get rid of MbS; after all, not only was one Saudi king deposed after 11 years on the throne, another, Faisal, was assassinated by a relative. What might that look like? For now, it’s safe to assume that the eleven arrested princes are in effect hostages and hence useful for deterrence: If their near kin try to discomfit MbS, the detainees might lose their heads. But that tactic has a half-life. And if foreign and domestic threats combine at a sour moment to threaten the Saudi regime itself, will the Trump administration send U.S. forces to save it? What would that look like?
Whatever it looks like, the U.S. government, if not actively complicit in the consequences short of or actually in a war, will nevertheless be associated with them. What a deal, especially if President Trump does send the cavalry in a crisis, and they do not prevail against rolling chaos.
And so it was on the 544th night that, as Shahrazade told the story, Sindbad the Seaman felt remorse, and said, “Would heaven I had tarried in the island. It was better than this wild desert; for there I had at least fruits to eat and water to drink, and here there are neither trees nor fruits nor streams. . . . Verily, as often as I am quit of one peril, I fall into a worse danger and a more grievous.” Oh yes, Dinarzad; these things happen.
 The Thousand and One Nights, A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, made and annotated by Richard F. Burton (Heritage Press, 1934), Volumes I & II, pp. 58-9.
 Burton, Volumes III & IV, p. 2027.