Sunday, June 25, 2017

"We Misled You"

But we wanted to be misled.
Saudi Arabia’s line of succession changed last Wednesday morning. King Salman declared that his nephew, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was out and that his son, Mohammed, who has served as deputy crown prince since April 2015, would now be next in line for the throne.


Besides the throne, what does he want, and can he pull it off? The short answers are “unclear” and “maybe.” It is not that he lacks vision. In June 2016, the crown prince rolled out his signature policy, Vision 2030. It is the most recent in a growing list of Saudi reform programs hatched in the offices of various international consultancies. Mohammed bin Salman’s plan revolves around diversifying the Saudi economy to decrease its dependence on oil and its related downstream industries, making the country a “trade hub” and “investment powerhouse” (whatever that means), developing a non-hajj-based tourism industry, Saudi-izing the workforce while giving foreigners easier access to the country, and loosening restrictions that the religious establishment has imposed on society.

In the past, when we raised the issue of funding Islamic extremists with the Saudis, all we got were denials. This time, in the course of meetings with King Salman, Crown Prince Nayef, Deputy Crown Mohammad Bin Salman and several ministers, one top Saudi official admitted to me, “We misled you.” He explained that Saudi support for Islamic extremism started in the early 1960s as a counter to Nasserism—the socialist political ideology that came out of the thinking of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser—which threatened Saudi Arabia and led to war between the two countries along the Yemen border. This tactic allowed them to successfully contain Nasserism, and the Saudis concluded that Islamism could be a powerful tool with broader utility.


[T]he Saudi leadership also explained to me that their support for extremism was a way of resisting the Soviet Union, often in cooperation with the United States, in places like Afghanistan in the 1980s.

  Zalmay Khalilzad @ Politico
So you see, you didn't really mislead us.
But over time, the Saudis say, their support for extremism turned on them, metastasizing into a serious threat to the Kingdom and to the West. They had created a monster that had begun to devour them.“We did not own up to it after 9/11 because we feared you would abandon or treat us as the enemy,” the Saudi senior official conceded. “And we were in denial.”
Who's writing this shit? The Saudis didn't do this without our assistance.
This was not my first trip to Saudi Arabia. I have been going there since the 1980s, when I was working at the State Department. I became even better acquainted with the Saudi leadership during my ambassadorship to Iraq from 2005 to 2007. I visited the kingdom often and developed cordial relationships with King Abdullah and other senior officials.


[A]s the Saudis described it to me, this new approach to grappling with their past is part of the leadership’s effort to make a new future for their country, including a broad-based economic reform program.


For many years, I was accustomed to Saudi officials being vague and ambiguous. Now, our interlocutors were straightforward and business-like in discussing their past and their future plans. In past decades, my impression had been that the Saudis did not work hard. Now a team of highly educated, young ministers works 16- to 18-hour days on refining and implementing a plan to transform the country. The plan is the brainchild of Mohammad bin Salman and focuses both on domestic and regional fronts.
Could it be the writer is being "misled"?
There have been many reform programs announced before in Saudi Arabia, only to fade into insignificance. Also, modernization undermines two pillars of Saudi political legitimacy, the endorsement of the Wahhabi clerical establishment and the traditionalism that undergirds any monarchical government. As modernization creates economic uncertainty for those benefiting from the present inefficient order, the result could be political turmoil. And it is an open question as to whether the Saudi people have been sufficiently prepared at all relevant levels in terms of education and skills to compete in the world economy, as they will need to do in a modernized economy.
I wouldn't advise holding your breath for Saudi reforms.
Vision 2030 also calls for the partial privatization of Saudi Aramco, the oil giant that anchors the country’s wealth and international influence.


The new crown prince has also been a central player in the recent effort to isolate Qatar.


The effort to isolate Qatar also puts the United States in the rather awkward position of having to act as referee among important allies.


It also did not seem to occur to Mohammed bin Salman that the Qataris would hang tough. After all, the vast amounts of money they have at their disposal — they are airlifting dairy cows from Australia to get around the sanctions — and friends like the Turks, along with sort-of friends like the Iranians, give Qatar some room to maneuver. Then there’s the U.S., which despite Trump’s tweets siding with the Saudis, does not want an intra-Gulf struggle to disrupt its strategic goals in the region: fighting the Islamic State and rolling back Iranian influence. Under these circumstances, the attempted isolation of Qatar seems as impetuous as Mohammed bin Salman’s critics suggest.

Then there is the Saudi foray into Yemen that began in March 2015, a policy that is identified with Mohammed bin Salman and raises questions about his judgment.


It is a fight that has cost an estimated 10,000 Yemeni lives along with the Saudis killed in action, for which there is no reliable data. If not for the horror of Syria, there would be more attention on the humanitarian disaster in Yemen as famine and a massive cholera outbreak threaten to kill many more. The war has also cost the Saudis billions of dollars at a time when oil prices are low. Early on, the Saudis convinced themselves they were “fighting for the free world,” but the only thing they have achieved is what they most feared: an Iranian presence and proxy force in the Arabian Peninsula.

Based on Mohammed bin Salman’s record, it is probably best for Saudis to hope that he can grow into his job.

Ask Americans how well that approach works.

And, speaking of Trump...
There is a role here — if Trump does not undermine it — for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster or some combination of those three to help shape Mohammed bin Salman’s approach to the region. If they cannot, American policymakers will be confronted with a far bigger problem than an impulsive prince: the destabilization of Saudi Arabia.
And we're getting the horse before the cart anyway.  King Salman hasn't kicked the bucket yet.  He could change his mind again about who's next in line.

So, good luck to everybody.

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