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Understanding the Developments in Saudi Arabia

There are interesting developments brewing in Saudi Arabia over the summer.

+ Saudi Arabia, joined by other Gulf countries (United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt), called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), severed diplomatic ties with Qatar for embracing “various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at {destabilizing} the region.” The GCC demanded that Qatar dissolve its ties with Iran, shutdown television network al-Jazeera, and deport extremists from within its country.  Qatar defied the GCC and strengthened their ties with Iran, while Saudi Arabia campaigned regional businesses and other countries to join them in boycotting Qatar.

Qatar hosts two American bases, including the Al Udeid Air Base, which is the largest American base in the Middle East with approximately “11,000 US military personnel.” If the United States put a status update on this situation, it would be “it’s complicated.”

+ Later that month, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud promoted his (then) 31-year old son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to Crown Prince, making him the next ruler of Saudi Arabia. Like most in the Saud family (perhaps more), Mohammed Bin Salman views Iran as their greatest threat and their actions are clearly designed to counter Iranian influence in the region.  Fighting between Sunnis and Shiite is a significant source for regional instability, with the principle characters, Iran (Shia) and Saudi Arabia (Shiite) conducting proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.

Worst still, both countries, Yemen and Syria, are in the middle of a humanitarian catastrophe. Tens of thousands have died in Yemen, more than half of them being civilians, and the country is facing a cholera epidemic with tens of thousands of infections and over 2,000 deaths. It’s worse in Syria, where estimates nearly half a million dead — and that doesn’t include over 5,000 refugees who have perished trying to cross the mediterranean.

+ In early November, Houthi rebels, an Iranian-backed group trying to remove the Yemeni government, fired sophisticated missiles that targeted Riyadh and the international airport. Saudi Arabia, who responded with their own missiles at the Yemen capital, and the United States are accusing Iran for providing the missiles.

A top U.S. Air Force general in the Mideast on Friday alleged that missiles fired by the Houthis bore “Iranian markings,” without elaborating or offering pictures. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information later sent military briefing material to The Associated Press showing what they allege to be part of a Houthi Burkan, or “Volcano,” ballistic missile. Writing on the side matched an image of an Iranian Qiam missile.

That’s not all.

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, repeatedly has accused Iran of running armaments into Yemen. It points to seizures over a four-week period in early 2016, when coalition warships stopped three dhows, traditional ships that ferry cargo through the Persian Gulf. The dhows carried thousands of Kalashnikov assault rifles, as well as sniper rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles and other weapons.

One dhow carried 2,000 new assault rifles with serial numbers in sequential order, suggesting they came from a national stockpile, according to the London-based group Conflict Armament Research. The rocket-propelled grenade launchers also bore hallmarks of being manufactured in Iran, the group said.

Iran has repeatedly denied any involvement.

+ An anti-corruption committee, formed and led by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, waged an anti-corruption campaign that resulted in the arrest of 11 princes, multiple government ministers, and nearly 200 other people, including international investor Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal, Head of the National Guard, Prince Miteb Bin Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, and Minister of Economy and Planning, Adel Bin Mohammed Fakeih. While their stated claim is to root out corruption, most analysts believe Mohammed Bin Salman is consolidating power; a typical maneuver for communist governments and absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia.

“A country famous for its stability to the point of stagnation is watching a 32-year-old crown prince arrest his relatives, freeze their bank accounts and dismiss them from key posts,” writes Fareed Zakaria with the Washington Post. “But on closer examination, it should not be so surprising. Mohammed bin Salman is now applying to Saudi Arabia what has become the new standard operating procedure for strongmen around the world.”

+ And then there’s the intriguing development of former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, who suddenly announced his resignation during a televised broadcast from Saudi Arabia. Soon after, Saudi Arabia ordered its civilians out of Lebanon. “Due to the current situation in Lebanon, the kingdom has asked its citizens, whether visiting or residents, to leave Lebanon as soon as possible. We also advise citizens not to travel to Lebanon from any international destination,” the Saudi Arabia Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday. The Hariri resignation is a curious development.

On Friday, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, part of his governing coalition at home, charged that the Saudis were holding him against his will, while the Saudis have said they were protecting him from an unspecified assassination plot.

Throughout these developments, with the exception of Qatar, the United States has mostly stood by Saudi Arabia. When Houthi rebels fired missiles at the Saudi Arabia capital, the United States joined Saudi Arabia in accusing Iran. In addition, the United States have been selling arms to Saudi Arabia to use against Houthi rebels in Yemen. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed human rights concerns regarding those arrested during Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption campaign, United States President Donald Trump supported the move.

Of course this isn’t surprising. The United States relationship with Saudi Arabia can be traced back to the mid-30s.

The United States, first through its oil industry and then via government contacts, established a relationship with Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz, and his successors that evolved into a close alliance despite a stark clash in values. U.S. businesses have been involved in Saudi Arabia’s oil industry since 1933, when Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) won a concession to explore in eastern Saudi Arabia, discovering oil in 1938. U.S. companies were preferred to European drillers operating in Iraq and Iran because Saudi Arabia’s founder was wary of colonial powers that controlled much of the region at the time.

In addition to being an energy supplier (aka, oil!), the United States views Saudi Arabia as a military and counterterrorism partner when it suits them (despite Saudi Arabia being known for exporting a significant number of terrorists). Yet, this aspect of their relationship hasn’t been without conflict.

Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and really until al-Qaeda began to attack the kingdom directly in May 2003, Saudi Arabia was often uncooperative on counterterrorism, and more part of the problem than part of the solution. Since 2003, the Saudi regime has emerged as a vital counterterrorism partner, and several important successes against al-Qaeda in particular are due in large part to its cooperation. Yet it’s not a simple story of progress: The kingdom engages in many troubling behaviors today that make the terrorism problem worse. In the end, policymakers would do well to remember that Saudi Arabia is a key partner but not a friend: The United States and Saudi Arabia share many common interests, but they do not share common values or a common worldview.

However, as Foreign Policy magazine notes, Saudi Arabia is becoming less dependent on America and are starting to independently strike out on their own.

“The Saudis have become everything we wanted them to be — and by the looks of things, maybe a lot more than we bargained for. Under Mohammed bin Salman, Riyadh has morphed into an independent force striking out aggressively at home and adventurously abroad, dragging Washington with them. Here’s why we have a serious case of buyer’s remorse — and why the Trump administration needs to hit the reset button with King Salman and his impetuous son.”

In summary:

  1. A more independent Saudi Arabia is aggressively countering Iranian influence in the region, waging proxy wars in Syria and Yemen (both facing a humanitarian catastrophe), and possibly Lebanon.
  2. Any country with ties to Iran is being cut out, such as Qatar, and possibly Lebanon.
  3. Save for a handful of “concerns” in the conflict in , the United States is cool with this.

The issues that need to re-visited:

  1. American participation in Yemen, including the selling of arms.
  2. Conflict between Saudi Arabia (the GCC) and Qatar, many of whom are a strategic U.S. partner against extremism.
  3. What’s going on with Lebanon, and how will the curious story regarding Saad Hariri play out.

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