The Saudi Military Option

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As Iran’s role in the ARAMCO attacks becomes clear Saudi Arabia finds itself at a critical moment. Iran was responsible for the attacks against Saudi oil facilities over the weekend. Drones and missiles were launched from sites inside of Iran. US sources have confirmed it, and provided more detailed information on the locations of the sites. There is no question.

Now, the Saudis must decide how to respond to a clear act of aggression on the part of Iran. Understandably, Riyadh is moving cautiously. However, given the circumstances of the moment, it may need to pick up the pace and reach a decision sooner than it would like. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally are engaged in a high-stakes geopolitical chess match and for better or worse the Saudis are positioned right in the middle. Iran can needle the US by launching attacks against Saudi Arabian targets, either through its Houthi proxy, or on its own, as we are seeing. The United States cannot launch an attack against Iran on Saudi Arabia’s behalf. Especially not now with the UN General Assembly week beginning today. Timing is everything.

This might explain why the Saudis have elected not to respond militarily yet. Retaliating against Iran as the world meets in New York would be a mistake, plain and simple. Riyadh is buying time, claiming it needs to examine the evidence and reach its own conclusions regarding the attack. But if it waits too long to respond, Tehran will be emboldened, and assume it will not be held accountable for its actions. Another attack will be made against the kingdom, inevitably forcing the United States to respond with military action. Where the crisis goes from that point is anyone’s guess.

General Assembly week also provides Saudi Arabia the opportunity to quietly prepare its forces for a military option, should one be ordered. At present, the Royal Saudi Air Force is oriented towards operations in Yemen. Given that the RSAF would be the main force used in a military effort against Iran, it requires time to shift its focus and prepare for operations against Iran. Those preparations could be underway right now, quietly of course. Should this be the case, expect any Saudi military response to occur within hours of the General Assembly drawing to an end on 30 September, 2019.

Monday 6 November, 2017 Update: In the Aftermath of Saturday Night in Riyadh

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The world is still coming to terms with Saturday’s events in Riyadh and what the political, economic, and social ramifications will be for the Middle East, and the rest of the world. The Saudi Arabian political purge has so far had a greater impact than the failed Houthi missile strike on Riyadh or the Lebanese PM’s resignation. Today oil prices hit a fresh two year high, the upward surge stemming from uncertainty about what is happening in Riyadh. There are questions, and concerns about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed’s intentions following a weekend that saw him consolidate and expand his control over the Saudi government. With the approval and support of his father King Salman, the Crown Prince’s newly unveiled anti-corruption committee swooped down on Riyadh, arresting, and detaining scores of princes, ministers, and high ranking government officials. The men being held now represent a cross section of Saudi Arabia’s elite including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the world’s richest Arab,  who was one of those arrested on corruption charges.

MbS, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan is known, has pushed to initiate political and social reforms throughout the kingdom. Those moves were resisted by many in the Saudi Royal Family and government. These anti-corruption arrests come as part of an ambitious powerplay by MbS to remove the men most stubbornly resisting reform. In the process, MbS is paving the way for the time when he will succeed his father on the throne. Events this weekend have led many to wonder if King Salman intends to abdicate in the near future. He has virtually handed executive power to MbS already and given his blessing for his son to launch a complete rebuilding of the governance system in Saudi Arabia.

The failed Houthi missile attack on Riyadh has not been lost in the shuffle. The Saudis have placed blame for the attack squarely on Iran’s shoulders. The Saudis denounced the attack and labeled it a potential ‘act of war,’ pointing to Tehran’s oversight and control of the Houthis. Even though Iran denies it, the Houthi rebels are an Iranian proxy. The possibility that they launched the missile on their own, not on orders from Tehran, is minimal. The Saudis see the Iranian fingerprints on the attack clearly.

In Yemen, the war between the Saudi-led coalition, and Iranian supported Houthi rebels continues on with no end in sight. The conflict has been an occasional flashpoint, most notably when Houthi anti-ship missile strikes were launched against United States warships operating off the Yemeni coast last year. For the most part, the conflict ebbs and flows at regular intervals, serving a purpose as an arena in the great game being played out by Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance. How Saturday’s events will affect the Saudi-Iran competition, Yemen, the Qatari crisis, and other geopolitical endeavors of the kingdom remain to be seen. The region, and the world will not have to wait very long to find out though.

 

 

 

Wednesday 21 June, 2017 Update: Saudi Shakeup

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Saudi King Salman decided that it was time for change in Riyadh. As the kingdom contends with low oil prices, Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, and conflicts across the Middle East, Salman has made a change in the royal line of succession. Saudi Arabia now has a new crown prince. Gone is Mohammed bin Nayef who served in the post since April of 2015. His replacement will be Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 31 year old son of the current king.

Nayef has been stripped of his responsibilities by royal decree. The former crown prince often marched to the beat of his own drummer, so to speak. He frequently spoke to the media, something which is in stark contrast to the traditions of the Saudi royal family. This behavior rankled some senior members of the royal family, as did his perceived feet dragging during the first months of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Rumors swirled around Riyadh for quite some time that his days were numbered and replacement imminent.

That day has come. Although young, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has developed a reputation as hard working. Following his father taking the reins of power, the younger Salman emerged from obscurity. He was handed large responsibilities and afforded vast power in what now appears to have been a grooming period for this specific moment. He served as the minister of defense, playing a major role in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen operations.  It is hoped by many in the corridors of power in Riyadh that his ascension will strike a positive chord with the kingdom’s younger population. He does have his critics though, who see the new crown prince as inexperienced and power hungry. With the close scrutiny that comes with his new role, the real Mohammed bin Salman will be uncovered rather quickly.

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an attempted transformation. The kingdom is seeking to shed the cumbersome dynamics that have accompanied its domestic and foreign policy decision making for decades. King Salman wants to create a more dynamic and assertive kingdom. The Yemen intervention, and more recently the orchestrated blockade of Qatar are prime examples. Ironically, it has been a new administration in the US which has provided the impetus for the kingdom’s recent behavior changes. The policies and goals of the Obama administration and Saudi Arabia clashed far more often than they aligned. This brought about friction and a lack of understanding at a time when a more cohesive US-Saudi relationship was needed. Now, King Salman understands that President Trump now provides the kingdom with the solid ally it has desperately sought from the US since 2008, and the motivation to remodel its foreign policy machinations in order to function more closely with the United States.

 

Saturday 2 January, 2016 Update: Execution Sparks Violent Protests In The Middle East

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Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 people for terrorism offenses has set off a wave of protests in the region and added more tension to a region that is already a powder keg. Specifically, it was the execution of Shia cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr that stoked the fires. The cleric was a vocal opponent of the Saudi royal family, calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government and inciting sectarian strife in the kingdom, which is what led to his arrest and death sentence.  Protests have erupted in Shia communities across the Middle East, following his execution. The most violent examples were in Tehran, where rioting crowds stormed and ransacked the Saudi embassy this evening. Iran, the region’s leading Shia power and rival to Saudi Arabia, denounced the execution and warned that the Saudis would pay a heavy price for their policies. The Saudis responded by summoning the Iranian ambassador in Riyadh and warned Iran about its strongly worded protest.

The Saudi-Iran showdown has not attracted the same level of attention that other flashpoints in the Middle East have. While Syria burns and tensions in Israel are on the rise, the two regional powerhouses have been squaring off in a duel for regional supremacy for some time now. The reaction to Sheik Nimr’s execution underscores the fact that religious sectarianism can lead to catastrophic destabilization in the Middle East if allowed to go unchecked.

In Tehran, some protesters appear to have made it into the Saudi embassy and caused damage. The situation appears to be under control for the moment. It is unlikely that the al-Nimr’s execution will lead to an overt conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, the situation does give Iran an opening to encourage the Shia communities in the kingdom to openly defy Riyadh. That is, if Iran choses to exploit the current situation to its benefit. And why wouldn’t Tehran want to? The more attention Saudi Arabia has to devote to its internal issues, the less attention it will be able to focus on Iran.

Why Saudi Arabia Matters

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Close relations with Saudi Arabia are almost as essential for the United States and its Middle East policies as is the special relationship with Israel. This was evident following the death of King Abdullah last month. President Obama led a group of thirty current and former members of the US government to Riyadh to pay respects to Abdullah and meet with King Salman. The caravan of Washington DC policymakers underscores the importance that is placed on the US-Saudi relationship.

Saudi Arabia matters to the United States and it has for decades. On the surface, much of this importance appears economic in nature, owing to the vast reserves of oil embedded beneath the Saudi desert. The Saudis hold 16% of the world’s oil reserves and is the largest exporter of petroleum in the world. Europe, Japan, and increasingly China and India, rely a great deal on Saudi oil to fuel their economies. The Kingdom is also the second largest petroleum exporter to the United States. Disruption of the Saudi oil flow would cause a ripple effect across the economies of the world. Therefore, Saudi Arabia will remain relevant for the foreseeable future.

Saudi Arabia’s importance is not limited to economic interests. The nation is a bastion of stability in a neighborhood that thrives on instability. Think of the Kingdom as an anchor that is tied to US interests. Iran’s growing influence is not in either nation’s best interests. Neither is Al Qaeda, ISIS, the current situation in Syria or other elements of instability that can be exploited by Iran. As Saudi Arabia goes, so does US influence in the Middle East.

King Salman has taken the throne at a precarious time for Saudi Arabia. A number of challenges await him, both at home and in the region. Each one is important to the security of his nation. The domestic issues, while important in their own right, can be discussed at another time. For the purposes of the moment, this article will focus on the external challenges facing the Kingdom.

Strife In Yemen

The situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate. The ascension of the Houthis and their announced takeover of the government have not been well received by a large portion of Yemenis, who view the Houthi announcement as the end of a coup. Government decisions will now be made by an appointed revolutionary council that is made up primarily of Houthis. Protests and demonstrations have been going on since the arrival of the Houthis in Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen. With the Houthi consolidation of power nearly complete, the protests show every sign of increasing in frequency and determination. How the drama plays out remains to be seen, but one of two outcomes seems most likely. Political and tribal divisions could lead to open conflict between factions, resulting in a breakup of the nation. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, the Houthis retain total control of the country and Yemen becomes an ally of Iran.

In either case, Saudi Arabia would come out as the loser. Since 2011, Riyadh financially supported the transitional government out of fear that a collapsed Yemen would intensify the threats of Al Qaeda-Arabian Peninsula and the Iranian allied Houthi militants. Saudi Arabia is fortifying its border with Yemen to insulate itself from its wobbly southern neighbor. Funding to Yemen has also been halted in the hope that it will make the new leaders in Sanaa more open to compromise. So far, there has been no response. The vast amount of influence that Riyadh once held is quickly diminishing. The Saudis are finding themselves with no favorable options to contend with an unbalanced, potentially hostile southern neighbor.

 

The ISIS Threat

Saudi Arabia is set squarely in the crosshairs of ISIS. The group’s leadership has referred to the nation as the “head of the snake and stronghold of disease.”  The most desirable target of the Islamic State, the Kingdom will also prove the toughest nut to crack. ISIS fighters are present in Saudi Arabia and have been responsible for a handful of attacks, including the killing of a Danish National. The Saudis are responding effectively to ISIS. Security forces have been deployed to the border with Iraq in an effort to curtail militant activity. Over 130 suspected ISIS members have been arrested in the past year.

ISIS has been able to gain footholds in Iraq and Syria largely due to its appeal to disaffected populations in areas where government control is weak or has collapsed. There is no shortage of estranged residents in Saudi Arabia, but the government has a reputation of launching brutal crackdowns at the first signs of ill intent towards the government. The Saudis have been successful in combating Al Qaeda over the past thirteen years and will not be as open to the ISIS threat as other nations in the region.

This does not mean that Saudi Arabia does not have, or will not have a problem with ISIS in the future. As of May, 2014, the number of fighters from Saudi Arabia who went to Syria to fight with the Jihadists stood at 2,500. Roughly 500 went to Iraq from the Kingdom. In the last two years many men have returned to Saudi Arabia and undergone a government mandated “counseling and care” program. Some have ‘relapsed’ according to the Ministry of the Interior. These relapsed fighters become a risk for Saudi security and could carry out lone wolf attacks inside the Kingdom.

There is probably not going to be an ISIS uprising in Saudi Arabia similar to what took place in Syria or Iraq. However, we are going to see more Islamic State support for elements in Saudi society that are sympathetic to the ISIS cause. King Salman is well aware of the threat posed and Saudi security forces will be busy guarding against ISIS sponsored attacks for the foreseeable future.

The Saudi-Iran Rivalry

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two biggest kids on the block in their area of the world. Each nation has its own blueprints for leadership of the Persian Gulf region and those ideas are markedly different. Oil exports, interpretations of Islam and relations with the West are some of the geo-political issues that Iran and Saudi Arabia clash on. Historically, relations between the two nations have endured more periods of strain and near hostility than times of improvement and warm ups in relations.

The current set of circumstances is nothing short of a cold war. Saudi Arabia believes that Iran’s main ambition is to export its revolutionary ideas across the Arab world and expand influence in the Persian Gulf region. It is wary of Iran’s goal of achieving regional hegemony and is the only regional power able to stand in direct opposition to Iran’s hegemonic moves. Relations have been on a downward spiral especially since the 2011 Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Earlier in 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring, Iran’s fingerprints were evident in the Bahraini Uprising. Saudi Arabia dispatched 1,000 troops to Manama to help stabilize the situation, largely out of fear that if Bahrain’s government fell, it would be replaced by a revolutionary government aided by and allied to Iran.