Category Archives: Lebanon, Yemen, Etc

Rivers of Dust: Water and the Middle East

Rivers of Dust: Water & the Middle East

Dispatches From The Edge

July 28, 2019

 

 

It is written that “Enannatum, ruler of Lagash,” slew “60 soldiers” from Umma. The battle between the two ancient city states took place 4,500 years ago near where the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers come together in what is today Iraq. The matter in dispute? Water.

 

More than four millennia have passed since the two armies clashed over one city state’s attempt to steal water from another, but while the instruments of war have changed, the issue is much the same: whoever controls the rivers controls the land.

 

And those rivers are drying up, partly because of overuse and wastage, and partly because climate change has pounded the region with punishing multi-year droughts.

 

Syria and Iraq are at odds with Turkey over the Tigris-Euphrates. Egypt’s relations with Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile are tense. Jordan and the Palestinians accuse Israel of plundering river water to irrigate the Negev Desert and hogging most of the three aquifers that underlie the occupied West Bank.

 

According to satellites that monitor climate, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, embracing Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran, is losing water faster than any other area in the world, with the exception of Northern India.

 

The Middle East’s water problems are hardly unique. South Asia—in particular the Indian sub-continent—is also water stressed, and Australia and much of Southern Africa are experiencing severe droughts. Even Europe is struggling with some rivers dropping so low as to hinder shipping.

 

But the Middle East has been particularly hard hit. According to the Water Stress Index, out of 37 countries in the world facing “extremely high” water distress, 15 are in the Middle East, with Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia heading the list.

 

For Syria and Iraq, the problem is Turkey and Ankara’s mania for dam building. Since 1975, Turkish dams have reduced the flow of water to Syria by 40 percent and to Iraq by 80 percent. According to the Iraqi Union of Farming Associations, up to 50 percent of the country’s agricultural land could be deprived of water, removing 124 million acres from production.

 

Iran and Syria have also built dams that reduce the flow of rivers that feed the Tigris and Euphrates, allowing salt water from the Persian Gulf to infiltrate the Shatt al-Arab waterway where the twin rivers converge. The salt has destroyed rich agricultural land in the south and wiped out much of the huge date farms for which Iraq was famous.

 

Half a century ago, Israel built the National Water Carrier canal diverting water from the Sea of Galilee, which is fed by the Jordan River. That turned the Jordan downstream of the Galilee into a muddy stream, which Israel prevents the Palestinians from using.

 

Jordanian and Syrian dams on the river’s tributaries have added to the problem, reducing the flow of the Jordan by 90 percent.

 

And according to the World Bank, Israel also takes 87 percent of the West Bank aquifers, leaving the Palestinians only 13 percent. The result is that Israelis on the West Bank have access to 240 liters a day per person. Israeli settlers get an extra 60 liters a day, leaving the Palestinians only 75 liters a day. The World Health Organization’s standard is 100 liters a day for each individual.

 

At 4,184 miles in length, the Nile River is the world’s longest—Brazil disputes the claim—and traverses 10 African countries. It is Egypt’s lifeblood providing both water and rich soil for the country’s agriculture. But a combination of drought and dams has reduced its flow over the past several decades.

 

Ethiopia is currently building an enormous dam for power and irrigation on the Blue Nile. The source of the Blue Nile is Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands. The Egyptian Nile is formed where the Blue Nile and the White Nile—its source is Lake Victoria in Uganda—converge in the Sudan at Khartoum. Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia were initially tense over water but have eased somewhat with the two sides agreeing to talk about how to share it.

 

But with climate change accelerating, the issue of water—or the lack thereof—is going to get worse, not better, and resolving the problems will take more than bilateral treaties about sharing. And there is hardly agreement about how to proceed.

 

One strategy has been privatization.

 

Through its International Finance Corporation, the World Bank has been pushing privatizing, arguing that private capital will upgrade systems and guarantee delivery. In practice, however, privatization has generally resulted in poorer quality water at higher prices. Huge transnational companies like SUEZ and Veolia have snapped up resources in the Middle East and global south.

 

Increasingly, water has become a commodity, either by control of natural sources and distribution, or by cornering the market on bottled water.

 

Lebanon is a case in point. Historically the country has had sufficient water resources, but it is has been added to the list of 33 countries that will face severe water shortages by 2040.

 

Part of the current crisis is homegrown. Some 60,000 illegal wells siphon off water from the aquifer that underlies the country, and dams have not solved the problem of chronic water shortages, particularly for the 1.6 million people living in the greater Beirut area. Increasingly people have turned to private water sources, especially bottled water.

 

Multi-national corporations, like Nestle, drain water from California and Michigan and sell it in Lebanon. Nestle, though its ownership of Shoat, controls 35 percent of Lebanon’s bottled water. Not only is bottled water expensive, and many times inferior in quality to local water sources, the plastic it necessities adds to a growing pollution problem.

 

There are solutions out there, but they require a level of cooperation and investment that very few countries currently practice. Many countries simply don’t have the funds to fix or upgrade their water infrastructure. Pipes lose enormous amounts through leakage, and dams reduce river flow, creating salt pollution problems downstream in places like Iraq and Egypt. In any event, dams eventually silt in.

 

Wells—legal and illegal—are rapidly draining aquifers, forcing farmers and cities to dig deeper and deeper each year. And, many times, those deep wells draw in pollution from the water table that makes the water impossible to drink or use on crops.

 

Again, there are solutions. California has made headway refilling the vast aquifer that underlies its rich Central Valley by establishing ponds and recharge basins during the rainy season, and letting water percolate back into the ground. Drip agriculture is also an effective way to reduce water usage, but it requires investment beyond the capacity of many countries, let alone small farmers.

 

Desalinization is also a strategy, but an expensive one that requires burning hydrocarbons, thus pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerating climate change.

 

As the Middle East grows dryer and populations in the region continue to increase, the situation will get considerably worse in the coming decades.

 

The Middle East may be drying up, but so is California, much of the American Southwest, southern Africa, parts of Latin America, and virtually all of southern Europe. Since the crisis is global “beggar thy neighbor” strategies will eventually impoverish all of humanity. The solution lies with the only international organization on the planet, the United Nations.

 

In 1997, the UN adopted a convention on International Watercourses that spells out procedures for sharing water and resolving disputes. However, several big countries like China and Turkey opposed it, and several others, like India and Pakistan, have abstained. The convention is also entirely voluntary with no enforcement mechanisms like binding arbitration.

 

It is, however, a start, but whether nations will come together to confront the planet wide crisis is an open question without it, the Middle East will run out of water, but it will hardly be alone. By 2030, according to the UN, four out of 10 people will not have access to water

 

There is precedent for a solution, one that is at least 4,500 years old. A cuneiform tablet in the Louvre chronicles a water treaty that ended the war between Umma and Lagash. If our distant ancestors could figure it out, it stands to reason we can.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Dispatches From The Edge

April 8, 2019

 

 

The recent decision by the Hague-based International Court of Justice that the Chagos Islands—with its huge US military base at Diego Garcia—are being illegally occupied by the United Kingdom (UK) has the potential to upend the strategic plans of a dozen regional capitals, ranging from Beijing to Riyadh.

 

For a tiny speck of land measuring only 38 miles in length, Diego Garcia casts a long shadow. Sometimes called Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” planes and warships based on the island played an essential role in the first and second Gulf wars, the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Libya. Its strategic location between Africa and Indonesia and 1,000 miles south of India, gives the US access to the Middle East, Central and South Asia and the vast Indian Ocean. No oil tanker, no warship, no aircraft can move without its knowledge.

 

Most Americans have never heard of Diego Garcia for a good reason: no journalist has been allowed there for more than 30 years and the Pentagon keeps the base wrapped in a cocoon of national security. Indeed, the UK leased the base to the Americans in 1966 without informing either the British Parliament or the US Congress.

 

The Feb. 25 Court decision has put a dent in all that by deciding that Great Britain violated United Nations Resolution 1514 prohibiting the division of colonies before independence. The UK broke the Chagos Islands off from Mauritius, a former colony on the southeast coast of Africa that Britain decolonized in 1968. At the time, Mauritius objected, reluctantly agreeing only after Britain threatened to withdraw its offer of independence.

 

The Court ruled 13-1 that the UK had engaged in a “wrongful act” and must decolonize the Chagos “as rapidly as possible.”

 

While the ruling is only “advisory,” it comes at a time when the US and its allies are confronting or sanctioning countries for supposedly illegal occupations—Russia in the Crimea and China in the South China Sea.

 

The suit was brought by Mauritius and some of the 1500 Chagos islanders, who were forcibly removed from the archipelago in 1973. The Americans, calling it “sanitizing” the islands, moved the Chagossians more than 1,000 miles to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they have languished in poverty ever since.

 

Diego Garcia is the lynchpin for US strategy in the region. With its enormous runways, it can handle B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers and huge C-5M, C-17 and C-130 military cargo planes. The lagoon has been transformed into a naval harbor that can handle an aircraft carrier. The US has built a city—replete with fast food outlets, bars, golf courses and bowling alleys—that hosts some 3,000 to 5,000 military personal and civilian contractors.

 

What you can’t find are any native Chagossians.

 

The Indian Ocean has become a major theater of competition between India, the US, and Japan on one side, and the growing presence of China on the other. Tensions have flared between India and China over the Maldives and Sri Lanka, specifically China’s efforts to use ports on those island nations. India recently joined with Japan and the US in a war game—Malabar 18—that modeled shutting down the strategic Malacca Straits between Sumatra and Malaysia, through which some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass each year.

 

A portion of the exercise involved anti-submarine warfare aimed at detecting Chinese submarines moving from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean. To Beijing, those submarines are essential for protecting the ring of Chinese-friendly ports that run from southern China to Port Sudan on the east coast of Africa. Much of China’s oil and gas supplies are vulnerable, because they transit the narrow Mandeb Strait that guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz that oversees access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The US 5th Fleet controls both straits.

 

Tensions in the region have increased since the Trump administration shifted the focus of US national security from terrorism to “major power competition”—that is, China and Russia. The US accuses China of muscling its way into the Indian Ocean by taking over ports, like Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan that are capable of hosting Chinese warships.

 

India, which has its own issues with China dating back to their 1962 border war, is ramping up its anti-submarine forces and building up its deep-water navy. New Delhi also recently added a long-range Agni-V missile that is designed to strike deep into China, and the rightwing government of Narendra Modi is increasingly chummy with the American military. The Americans even changed their regional military organization from “Pacific Command” to “Indo-Pacific Command” in deference to New Delhi.

 

The term for these Chinese friendly ports—“string of pearls”—was coined by Pentagon contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and, as such, should be taken with a grain of salt. China is indeed trying to secure its energy supplies and also sees the ports as part of its worldwide Road and Belt Initiative trade strategy. But assuming the “pearls” have a military role, akin to 19th century colonial coaling stations, is a stretch. Most the ports would be indefensible if a war broke out.

 

Diego Garcia is central to the US’s war in Somalia, its air attacks in Iraq and Syria, and its control of the Persian Gulf, and would be essential in any conflict with Iran. If the current hostility by Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US toward Iran actually translates into war, the island will quite literally be an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

 

Given the strategic centrality of Diego Garcia, it is hard to imagine the US giving it up, or, rather, the British withdrawing their agreement with Washington and de-colonizing the Chagos Islands. In 2016, London extended the Americans’ lease for 20 years.

 

Mauritius wants the Chagos back, but at this point doesn’t object to the base. It certainly wants a bigger rent check and the right eventually to take the island group back. It also wants more control over what goes on at Diego Garcia. For instance, the British government admitted that the Americans were using the island to transit “extraordinary renditions,” people seized during the Afghan and Iraq wars between 2002 and 2003, many of whom were tortured. Torture is a violation of international law.

 

As for the Chagossians, they want to go back.

 

Diego Garcia is immensely important for US military and intelligence operations in the region, but it is just one of some 800 American military bases on every continent except Antarctica. Those bases form a worldwide network that allows the US military to deploy advisors and Special Forces in some 177 countries across the globe. Those forces create tensions that can turn dangerous at a moment’s notice.

 

For instance there are currently US military personal in virtually every country surrounding Russia: Norway, Poland, Hungary, Kosovo, Romania, Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and Bulgaria. Added to that is the Mediterranean’s 6th Fleet, which regularly sends warships into the Black Sea.

 

Much the same can be said for China. US military forces are deployed in South Korea, Japan and Australia, plus numerous islands in the Pacific. The American 7th fleet, based in Hawaii and Yokohama, is the Navy’s largest.

 

In late March, US Navy and Coast Guard ships transited the Taiwan Straits, which, while international waters, the Chinese consider an unnecessary provocation. British ships have also sailed close to Chinese-occupied reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

 

The fight to de-colonize the Chagos Islands will now move to the UN General Assembly. In the end, Britain may ignore the General Assembly and the Court, but it will be hard pressed to make a credible case for doing so. How Great Britain can argue for international law in the Crimea and South China Sea, while ignoring the International Court of Justice on the Chagos, will require some fancy footwork.

 

In the meantime, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravard Jugnauth calls the Court decision “historic,” and one that will eventually allow the 6,000 native Chagossians and their descendents “to return home”

 

–30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Iran & Sanctions: A Prelude to War?

Iran: Sanctions & War

Dispatches From The Edge

May 29, 2018

 

The question is: has the Trump administration already made a decision to go to war with Iran, similar to the determination of the Bush administration to invade Iraq in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington?

 

Predictions are dicey things, and few human institutions are more uncertain than war. But several developments have come together to suggest that the rationale for using sanctions to force a re-negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is cover for an eventual military assault by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia aimed at regime change in Teheran.

 

As clueless as the Trump administration is on foreign policy, the people around the White House—in particular National Security Advisor John Bolton—know that sanctions rarely produce results, and unilateral ones almost always fail.

 

Sanctions aimed at Cuba, North Korea, Iraq and Libya did not dislodge any of those regimes and, in the case of North Korea, spurred Pyongyang into producing nuclear weapons. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi were eventually overthrown, but by American firepower, not sanctions.

 

The only case in which sanctions produced some results were those applied to Iran from 2010 to 2015. But that embargo was multi-lateral and included China, India, and one of Iran’s major customers, the European Union (EU). When the U.S. unilaterally applied sanctions to Cuba, Iran and Libya in 1996, the move was a conspicuous failure.

 

This time around, the White House has made no effort to involve other countries. The Trump plan is to use the power of the American economy to strong-arm nations into line. Back our sanctions, threatens the administration, or lose access to the US market. And given that the world uses the dollar as its de-facto international currency, financial institutions may find themselves barred from using the Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunications (SWIFT), the American-controlled network that allows banks and finance centers to transfer money from country to county.

 

Those threats have not exactly panicked the rest of the world. China and India, which between them buy more than 1 million of Iran’s 2.1 million barrels per day production, say they will ignore the sanctions. According to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs minister, “The European Union is determined to act in accordance with its security interests and protect its economic investments.”

 

Adding up all the countries that will go along with the sanctions—including South Korea and Japan–will cut Teheran’s oil exports by 10% to 15%, nothing like the 50% plus that Iran lost under the prior sanctions regime.

 

In short, the sanctions won’t work, but were they really meant to?

 

It is possible that the White House somehow thinks they will—delusion is a characteristic of the Oval Office these days—but other developments suggest the administration is already putting in place a plan that will lead from economic sanctions to bombing runs.

 

For starters, there is the close coordination between the White House and Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s April 30 speech shortly before Trump withdrew from the Iran agreement was tailored to give Washington a casus belli to dump the agreement. Virtually all of what Netanyahu “revealed” about the Iranian nuclear program was old news, already known by US, Israeli and European intelligence services.

 

Four days before Netanyahu’s speech Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met with his American counterparts and, according to Al Monitor, got a “green light” for any military action Tel Aviv might take against Iran.

 

The same day Liberman was meeting with the Pentagon, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Saudi Arabia to end its campaign against Qatar because the Americans wanted the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to be united around a campaign against Iran.

 

Each of these moves seems calculated to set the stage for a direct confrontation with Iran involving some combination of the US, Israel and the two most aggressive members of the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The latter two are currently waging war on the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen.

 

It is almost impossible to imagine what the consequences of such a war might be. On paper, it looks like a cakewalk for the anti-Teheran axis. Iran has an antiquated air force, a bunch of fast speedboats and tanks that date back to the 1960s. The military budgets of the US, Israel and the GCC are more than 58 times those of Iran. But, as the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz once remarked, the only thing one can determine in war is who fires the first shot.

 

Military might does not translate into an automatic win. After almost 17 years of war, the US is still bogged down in Afghanistan, and it basically left Iraq with its tail between its legs. Indeed, the last time the American military won a war was in Grenada. As for the GCC, in spite of more than two years of relentless warfare in Yemen, the monarchs are no nearer victory than they were when the war started. And Hezbollah fought Israel to a stalemate in 2006.

 

While Iran does not have much in the way of military force, it has 80 million people with a strong streak of nationalism who would certainly unite against any attacker. It would be impossible to “win” a war against Iran without resorting to a ground invasion.

 

But none of Iran’s antagonists have the capacity to carry that out. The Saudis have a dismal military record, and the UAE troops are stalemated in their campaign to take Yemen’s capital, Saana from the rag-tag Houthi militia. The Israelis don’t have the troops—and, in any case, would never put them in harm’s way so far from home—and the Americans are not about to send in the Marines.

 

Most likely this would be a war of aircraft and missiles to destroy Iran’s military and civilian infrastructure. There is little that Teheran can do to stop such an assault. Any planes it put up would be toast, its anti-aircraft weapons are obsolete, and its navy would not last long.

 

But flattening Teheran’s military is not winning a war, and Iran has other ways to strike back. The Iranians, for instance, have shown considerable skill at asymmetric warfare in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and it does have missiles.

 

The real damage, however, will be the fallout from the war. The price of oil is already on the rise, and hostilities in the middle of one of the world’s largest petroleum repositories will likely send it through the roof. While that will be good for the GCC, high oil prices will put a dent into the economies of the EU, China, India, and even the US.

 

What a war will almost certainly do is re-ignite Iran’s push to build a nuclear weapon. If that happens, Saudi Arabia will follow, and the world will be faced with several new nuclear powers in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

 

Which doesn’t mean war is inevitable.

 

The Trump administration hawks broke the JCPOA because they hoped Iran would then withdraw as well, giving the anti-Iranian axis an excuse to launch a war. Iranians are divided on this issue, with some demanding that Teheran re-start its uranium enrichment program, while others defend the agreement. Europe can play a key role here by firmly supporting the Joint Agreement and resisting the American sanctions, even if it means taking a financial hit. Some European firms, however, have already announced they are withdrawing their investments.

 

The US Congress can also help stop a war, although it will require members—mostly Democrats—to put aside their anti-Iranian bias and make common cause with the “stay in the pact” Iranians. This is a popular issue. A CNN poll found that 63 percent of Americans opposed withdrawing from the agreement.

 

It will also mean that the Congress—again, mainly Democrats—will have to challenge the role that Israel is playing. That will not be easy, but maybe not as difficult as it has been in the past. Israel’s brutality against Palestinians over the past month has won no friends except in the White House and the evangelical circuit, and Netanyahu has made it clear that he prefers Republicans to Democrats.

 

Lastly, Congress should cut the arms pipeline to the GCC and stop aiding the Saudis in their war on Yemen

 

If war comes, Americans will find themselves in the middle of an unwinnable conflict that will destabilize the Middle East and the world’s economy, and pour more of this country’s resources into yet another quagmire.

 

—-30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Tortured Politics behind the Persian Gulf Crisis

Middle East Chaos

Dispatches From The Edge

June 14, 2017

 

 

The splintering of the powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into warring camps—with Qatar, supported by Turkey and Iran, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), supported by Egypt, on the other—has less to do with disagreements over foreign policy and religion than with internal political and economic developments in the Middle East. The ostensible rationale the GCC gave on June 4 for breaking relations with Qatar and placing the tiny country under a blockade is that Doha is aiding “terrorist’ organizations. The real reasons are considerably more complex, particularly among the major players.

 

Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn once described the Syrian civil war as a three-dimensional chess game with five players and no rules. In the case of the Qatar crisis, the players have doubled and abandoned the symmetry of the chessboard for “Go,” Mahjong, and Bridge.

 

Tensions among members of the GCC are longstanding. In the case of Qatar, they date back to 1995, when the father of the current ruler, Emir Tamin Al Thani, shoved his own father out of power. According Simon Henderson to of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE “regarded the family coup as a dangerous precedent to Gulf ruling families” and tried to organize a counter coup. The coup was exposed, however, and called off.

 

Riyadh is demanding that Qatar sever relations with Iran—an improbable outcome given that the two countries share a natural gas field in the Persian Gulf—and end Doha’s cozy ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, if there is any entity in the Middle East that the Saudis hate—and fear—more than Iran, it is the Brotherhood. Riyadh was instrumental in the 2013 overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt and has allied itself with the Israelis to marginalize Hamas, the Palestinian version of the Brotherhood that dominates Gaza.

 

But fault lines in the GCC do not run only between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Oman, at the Gulf’s mouth, has always marched to its own drummer, maintaining close ties with Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis, Iran, and refusing to go along with Riyadh’s war against the Houthi in Yemen. Kuwait has also balked at Saudi dominance of the GCC, has refused to join the blockade against Doha, and is trying to play mediator in the current crisis.

 

The siege of Qatar was launched shortly after Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, when the Saudi’s put on a show for the U.S. President that was over the top even by the monarchy’s standards. Wooed with massive billboards and garish sword dances, Trump soaked up the Saudi’s view of the Middle East, attacked Iran as a supporter of terrorism and apparently green-lighted the blockade of Qatar. He even tried to take credit for it.

 

Saudi Arabia, backed by Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE, along with a cast of minor players, made 13 demands on Doha that it could only meet by abandoning its sovereignty. They range from the impossible—end all contacts with Iran—to the improbable—close the Turkish base—to the unlikely—dismantle the popular and lucrative media giant, Al Jazeera. The “terrorists” Doha is accused of supporting are the Brotherhood, which the Saudi’s and the Egyptians consider a terrorist organization, an opinion not shared by the U.S. or the European Union.

 

On the surface this is about Sunni Saudi Arabia vs. Shiite Iran, but while religious differences do play an important role in recruiting and motivating some of the players, this is not a battle over a schism in Islam. Most importantly, it is not about “terrorism,” since many of the countries involved are up to their elbows in supporting extremist organizations. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is the root ideology for groups like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, and all the parties are backing a variety of extremists in Syria and Libya’s civil wars.

 

The attack on Qatar is part of Saudi Arabia’s aggressive new foreign policy that is being led by Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman. Since being declared “monarch-in-waiting” by King Salman Al Saud, Mohammed has launched a disastrous war in Yemen that has killed more than 10,000 civilians, sparked a country-wide cholera epidemic, and drains at least $700 million a month from Saudi Arabia’s treasury. Given the depressed price for oil and a growing population—70 percent of which is under 30 and much of it unemployed—it is not a cost the monarchy can continue to sustain, especially with the Saudi economy falling into recession.

 

Underlying the Saudi’s new-found aggression is fear. First, fear that the kind of Islamic governance modeled by the Muslim Brotherhood poses a threat to the absolutism of the Gulf monarchs. Fear that Iran’s nuclear pact with the U.S., the EU and the UN is allowing Tehran to break out of its economic isolation and turn itself into a rival power center in the Middle East. And fear that anything but a united front by the GCC—led by Riyadh—will encourage the House of Saud’s internal and external critics.

 

So far, the attempt to blockade Qatar has been more an annoyance than a serious threat to Doha. Turkey and Iran are pouring supplies into Qatar, and the Turks are deploying up to 1,000 troops at a base near the capital. There are also some 10,000 U.S. troops at Qatar’s Al Udeid Airfield, Washington’s largest base in the Middle East and one central to the war on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Any invasion aimed at overthrowing the Qatar regime risks a clash with Turkey and the U.S.

 

While Egypt is part of the anti-Qatari alliance—the Egyptians are angry at Doha for not supporting Cairo’s side in the Libyan civil war, and the Egyptian regime also hates the Brotherhood—it is hardly an enthusiastic ally. Saudi Arabia keeps Egypt’s economy afloat, and so long as the Riyadh keeps writing checks, Cairo is on board. But Egypt is keeping the Yemen war at arm’s length—it flat out refused to contribute troops and is not comfortable with Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam. Cairo is currently in a nasty fight with its own Wahhabist-inspired extremists. Egypt also maintains diplomatic relations with Iran.

 

Besides the UAE, the other Saud allies don’t count for much in this fight. Sudan will send troops—if Riyadh pays for them—but not very many. Bahrain is on board, but only because the Saudi and UAE armies are sitting on local Shiite opposition. Yemen and Libya are part of the anti-Qatar alliance, but both are essentially failed states. And while the Maldives is a nice place to vacation, it doesn’t have a lot of weight to throw around.

 

On the other hand, long-time Saudi ally Pakistan has made it clear it is not part of this blockade, nor will it break with Qatar or downgrade relations with Iran. When Riyadh asked for Pakistan troops in Yemen, the national parliament voted unanimously to have nothing to do with Riyadh’s jihad on the poorest country in the Middle East.

 

The largely Muslim nations of Malaysia and Indonesia are also maintaining relations with Qatar, and Saudi ally Morocco offered to send food to Doha. In brief, it is not clear who is more isolated here.

 

While President Trump supports the Saudis, his Defense Department and State Department are working to resolve the crisis. U.S. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson just finished a trip to the Gulf in an effort to end the blockade, and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is threatening to hold up arms sales to Riyadh unless the dispute is resolved. The latter is no minor threat. Saudi Arabia would have serious difficulties carrying out the war in Yemen without U.S. weaponry.

 

And the reverse of the coin?

 

Doha’s allies have a variety of agendas, not all of which mesh.

 

Iran has correct, but hardly warm, relations with Qatar. Both countries need to cooperate to exploit the South Pars gas field, and Tehran appreciated that Doha was always a reluctant member of the anti-Iran coalition, telling the U.S. it could not use Qatari bases to attack Iran.

 

Iran is certainly interested in anything that divides the GCC. The Iranians would also like Qatar to invest in upgrading Iran’s energy industry and maybe cutting them in on the $177 billion in construction projects that Doha is lining up in preparation for hosting the 2022 World Cup Games. Also, some 30,000 Iranians live in Qatar.

 

Figuring out Turkey these days can reduce one to reading tea leaves.

 

On one hand, Ankara’s support for Qatar seems obvious. Qatar backs the Brotherhood, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is a Turkish variety of the Brotherhood, albeit one focused more on power than ideology. Erdogan was a strong supporter of the Egyptian Brotherhood and relations between Cairo and Ankara went into the deep freeze when Egypt’s military overthrew the Islamist organization.

 

Qatar is also an important source of finances for Ankara, whose fragile economy needs every bit of help it can get. Turkey’s large construction industry would like to land some of the multi-billion construction contracts the World Cup games will generate. Turkish construction projects in Qatar already amount to $13.7 billion.

 

On the other hand, Turkey is also trying to woo Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies for their investments. Erdogan even joined in the GCC’s attacks on Iran last spring, accusing Tehran of “Persian nationalist expansion,” a comment that distressed Turkey’s business community. As the sanctions on Iran ease, Turkish firms see that country’s big, well-educated population as a potential gold mine.

 

The Turkish President has since turned down the anti-Iran rhetoric, and Ankara and Tehran have been consulting over the Qatar crisis. The first supportive phone call Erdogan took during the attempted coup last year was from Qatar’s emir, and the prickly Turkish President has not forgotten that some other GCC members were silent for several days. Erdogan recently suggested that the UAE had a hand in the coup.

 

Is this personal for Turkey’s president? No, but Erdogan is the Middle East leader who most resembles Donald Trump: he shoots from the hip and holds grudges. The difference is that he is far smarter and better informed than the U.S. President and knows when to cut his losses.

 

His apology to the Russians after shooting down one of their fighter-bombers is a case in point. Erdogan first threatened Moscow with war, but eventually trotted off to St. Petersburg, hat in hand, to make nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And after hinting that the Americans were behind the 2016 coup, he recently met with Tillerson in Istanbul to smooth things out. Turkey recognizes that it will need Moscow and Washington to settle the war in Syria.

 

The Russians have been carefully neutral, consulted with Turkey and Iran, and have called on all parties to peacefully resolve their differences.

 

There is not likely to be a quick end to the Qatar crisis, because Saudi Arabia keeps doubling down on one disastrous foreign policy decision after another, including breaking up the Arab world’s only viable economic bloc. But there are developments in the region that may eventually force Riyadh to back off.

 

The Syrian War looks like it is headed for a solution, although the outcome is anything but certain. The Yemen War has reached crisis proportions—the UN describes it as the number one human emergency on the globe—and pressure is growing for the U.S. and Britain to wind down their support for the Saudi alliance. And Iran is slowly but steadily reclaiming its role as a leading force in the Middle East and Central Asia.

 

There is much that could go wrong. There could be a disastrous war with Iran, currently being pushed by Saudi Arabia, Israel and neo-conservatives in the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. and Turkey could fall out over Syria. The Middle East is an easy place to get into trouble. But if there are dangers, so too are there possibilities, and from those spring hope.

 

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hillary and the Urn of Ashes

Hillary & The Urn of Ashes

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Jan.30, 2016

 

“They sent forth men to battle.

                           But no such men return;

                           And home, to claim their

                                   welcome.

Comes ashes in an urn.”

Ode from “Agamemnon”

in the Greek tragedy

the Oresteia by Aeschylus

 

Aeschylus—who had actually fought at Marathon in 490 BC, the battle that defeated the first Persian invasion of Greece—had few illusions about the consequences of war. His ode is one that the candidates for the U.S. presidency might consider, though one doubts that many of them would think to find wisdom in a 2,500 year-old Greek play.

 

And that, in itself, is a tragedy.

 

Historical blindness has been much on display in the run-up to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. On the Republican side candidates were going to “kick ass” in Iraq, make the “sand glow” in Syria, and face down the Russians in Europe. But while the Democratic aspirants were more measured, there is a pervasive ideology than binds together all but cranks like Ron Paul: America has the right, indeed, the duty to order the world’s affairs.

 

This peculiar view of the role of the U.S. takes on a certain messianic quality in candidates like Hillary Clinton, who routinely quotes former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s line about America as “the indispensible nation” whose job is to lead the world.

 

At a recent rally in Indianola, Iowa, Clinton said that “Senator [Bernie] Sanders doesn’t talk much about foreign policy, and, when he does, it raises concerns because sometimes it can sound like he really hasn’t thought things through.”

 

The former Secretary of State was certainly correct. Foreign policy for Sanders is pretty much an afterthought to his signature issues of economic inequality and a national health care system. But the implication of her comment is that she has thought things through. If she has, it is not evident in her biography, Hard Choices, or in her campaign speeches.

 

Hard Choices covers her years as Secretary of State and seemingly unconsciously tracks a litany of American foreign policy disasters: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Georgia, Ukraine, and the “Asia pivot” that has dangerously increased tensions with China. At the heart of Hard Choices is the ideology of “American exceptionalism,” which for Clinton means the right of the U.S. to intervene in other countries. As historian Jackson Lears, in the London Review of Books, puts it, Hard Choices “tries to construct a coherent rationale for an interventionist foreign policy and to justify it with reference to her own decisions as Secretary of State. The rationale is rickety: the evidence unconvincing.”

 

Clinton is undoubtedly an intelligent person, but her book is remarkably shallow and quite the opposite of “thoughtful.” The one act on her part for which she shows any regret is her vote to invade Iraq. But even here she quickly moves on, never really examining how it is that the U.S. has the right to invade and overthrow a sovereign government. For Clinton, Iraq was only a “mistake” because it came out badly.

 

She also demonstrates an inability to see other people’s point of view. Thus the Russians are aggressively attempting to re-establish their old Soviet sphere of influence rather than reacting to the steady march of NATO eastwards. The fact that the U.S. violated promises by the first Bush administration not to move NATO “one inch east” if the Soviets withdrew their forces from Eastern Europe is irrelevant.

 

She doesn’t seem to get that a country that has been invaded three times since 1815 and lost tens of millions of people might be a tad paranoid about its borders. There is no mention of the roles of U.S. intelligence agencies, organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, and of openly fascist Ukranian groups played in the coup against the elected government of Ukraine.

 

Clinton takes credit for the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot” that “sent a message to Asia and the world that America was back in its traditional leadership role in Asia,” but she doesn’t consider how this might be interpreted in Beijing. The U.S. never left Asia—the Pacific basin has long been our major trading partner—so, to the Chinese, “back” and “pivot” means that the U.S. plans to beef up its military in the region and construct an anti-China alliance system. It has done both.

 

Clinton costumes military intervention in the philosophy of “responsibility to protect,” or “R2P,” but her application is selective. She takes credit for overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, but in her campaign speeches she has not said a word about the horrendous bombing campaign being waged by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. She cites R2P for why the U.S. should overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but is silent about Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain to crush demands for democracy by its majority Shiite population.

 

Clinton, along with Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s National Security Advisor, has pushed for muscular interventions without thinking—or caring—about the consequences

 

And those consequences have been dire..

 

Afghanistan: Somewhere around 220,000 Afghans have died since the 2001 U.S. invasion, and millions of others are refugees. The U.S. and its allies have suffered close to 2,500 dead and more than 20,000 wounded, and the war is far from over. The cost: close to $700 billion, not counting the long-term medical bill that could run as high as $2 trillion.

 

Libya: Some 30,000 people died and another 50,000 were wounded in the intervention and civil war. Hundreds of thousands have been turned into refugees. The cost was cheap: $1.1 billion, but it has created a tsunami of refugees and the war continues. It also produced one of Clinton’s more tasteless remarks. Referring to Gaddafi, she said, “We came, we saw, he died.” The Libyan leader was executed by having a bayonet rammed up his rectum.

 

Ukraine: The death toll is above 8,000, some 18,000 have been wounded, and several cities in the eastern part of the country have been heavily damaged. The fighting has tapered off although tensions remain high.

 

Yemen: Over 6,000 people have been killed, another 27,000 wounded, and, according to the UN, most of them are civilians. Ten million Yeminis don’t have enough to eat, and 13 million have no access to clean water. Yemen is highly dependent on imported food, but a U.S.-Saudi blockade has choked off most imports. The war is ongoing.

 

Iraq: Somewhere between 400,000 to over 1 million people have died from war-related causes since the 2003 invasion. Over 2 million have fled the country and another 2 million are internally displaced. The cost: close to $1 trillion, but it may rise to $4 trillion once all the long-term medical costs are added in. The war is ongoing.

 

Syria: Over 250,000 have died in the war, and four million Syrians are refugees. The country’s major cities have been ravaged. The war is ongoing.

 

There are other countries—like Somalia—that one could add to the butcher bill. Then there are the countries that reaped the fallout from the collapse of Libya. Weapons looted after the fall of Gaddafi largely fuel the wars in Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic.

 

And how does one calculate the cost of the Asia Pivot, not only for the U.S., but for the allies we are recruiting to confront China? Since the “Pivot” took place prior to China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, is the current climate of tension in the Pacific basin a result of Chinese aggression, or U.S. provocation?

 

Hillary Clinton is not the only Democrat who thinks American exceptionalism gives the U.S. the right to intervene in other countries. That point of view it is pretty much bi-partisan. And while Sanders voted against the Iraq war and criticizes Clinton as too willing to intervene, the Vermont senator backed the Yugoslavia and Afghan interventions. The former re-ignited the Cold War, and the latter is playing out like a Rudyard Kipling novel.

 

In all fairness, Sanders did say, “I worry that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences may be.”

 

Would Hillary be more inclined toward an aggressive foreign policy? Certainly more than Obama’s—Clinton pressed the White House to directly intervene in Syria and was far more hard line on Iran. More than the Republicans? It’s hard to say, because most of them sound like they have gone off their meds. For instance, a number of GOP candidates pledge to cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran, and, while Clinton wanted to drive a harder bargain than the White House did, in the end she supported it.

 

However, she did say she is proud to call Iranians “enemies,” and attacked Sanders for his remark that the U.S. might find common ground with Iran on defeating the Islamic State. Sanders then backed off and said he didn’t think it was possible to improve relations with Teheran in the near future.

 

The danger of Clinton’s view of America’s role in the world is that it is old fashioned imperial behavior wrapped in the humanitarian rationale of R2P and thus more acceptable than the “make the sands glow” atavism of most the Republicans. In the end, however, R2P is just death and destruction in a different packaging.

 

Aeschylus got that: “For War’s a banker, flesh his gold.”

 

                           —30—

 

 

 

 

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Why Did Turkey Shoot Down That Russian Plane?

Syria: Shooting Down Peace?

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 8, 2015

 

Why did Turkey shoot down that Russian warplane?

 

It was certainly not because the SU-24 posed any threat. The plane is old and slow, and the Russians were careful not to arm it with anti-aircraft missiles. It was not because the Turks are quick on the trigger. Three years ago Turkish President Recap Tayyip Endogen said, “A short-term violation of airspace can never be a pretext for an attack.” And there are some doubts about whether the Russian plane ever crossed into Turkey’s airspace.

 

Indeed, the whole Nov. 24 incident looks increasingly suspicious, and one doesn’t have to be a paranoid Russian to think the takedown might have been an ambush. As Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney (ret), former U.S. Air Force chief of staff commented, “This airplane was not making any maneuvers to attack the [Turkish] territory,” the Turkish action was “overly aggressive,” and the incident “had to be preplanned.”

 

It certainly puzzled the Israeli military, not known for taking a casual approach to military intrusions. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told the press Nov. 29 that a Russian warplane had violated the Israeli border over the Golan Heights. “Russian planes do not intend to attack us, which is why we must not automatically react and shoot them down when an error occurs.”

 

So why was the plane downed? Because, for the first time in four years, some major players are tentatively inching toward a settlement of the catastrophic Syrian civil war, and powerful forces are maneuvering to torpedo that process. If the Russians had not kept their cool, several nuclear-armed powers could well have found themselves in a scary faceoff, and any thoughts of ending the war would have gone a glimmering.

 

There are multiple actors on the Syrian stage and a bewildering number of crosscurrents and competing agendas that, paradoxically, make it both easier and harder to find common ground. Easier, because there is no unified position among the antagonists; harder, because trying to herd heavily armed cats is a tricky business.

 

A short score card on the players:

 

The Russians and the Iranians are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and fighting a host of extremist organizations ranging from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (IS). But each country has a different view of what a post civil war Syria might look like. The Russians want a centralized and secular state with a big army. The Iranians don’t think much of “secular,” and they favor militias, not armies.

 

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and most the other Gulf monarchies are trying to overthrow the Assad regime, and are the major supporters of the groups Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are fighting. But while Turkey and Qatar want to replace Assad with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia might just hate the Brotherhood more than it does Assad. And while the monarchies are not overly concerned with the Kurds, Turkey is bombing them, and they are a major reason why Ankara is so deeply enmeshed in Syria.

 

The U.S., France and Great Britain are also trying to overthrow Assad, but are currently focused on fighting the IS using the Kurds as their major allies—specifically the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party that the U.S. officially designates as “terrorist.” These are the same Kurds that the Turks are bombing and who have a friendly alliance with the Russians. Indeed, Turkey may discover that one of the price tags for shooting down that SU-24 is the sudden appearance of new Russian weapons for the Kurds, some of which will aimed at the Turks.

 

The Syrian war requires a certain suspension of rational thought.

 

For instance, the Americans are unhappy with the Russians for bombing the anti-Assad Conquest Army, a force dominated by the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria. That would be the same al-Qaeda that brought down the World Trade towers and that the U.S. is currently bombing in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.

 

Suspension of rational thought is not limited to Syria.

 

A number of Arab countries initially joined the U.S. air war against the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, because both organizations are pledged to overthrow the Gulf monarchies. But Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have now dropped out to concentrate their air power on bombing the Houthis in Yemen.

 

The Houthis, however, are by far the most effective force fighting the IS and al-Qaeda in Yemen. Both extremist organizations have made major gains in the last few weeks because the Houthis are too busy defending themselves to take them on.

 

In spite of all this political derangement, however, there are several developments that are pushing the sides toward some kind of peaceful settlement that doesn’t involve regime change in Syria. That is exactly what the Turks and the Gulf monarchs are worried about, and a major reason why Ankara shot down that Russian plane.

 

The first of these developments has been building throughout the summer: a growing flood of Syrians fleeing the war. There are already almost two million in Turkey, and over a million in Jordan and Lebanon, and as many as 900,000 in Europe. Out of 23 million Syrians, some 11 million have been displaced by the war, and the Europeans are worried that many of those 11 million people will end up camping out on the banks of the Seine and the Ruhr. If the war continues into next year, that is a pretty accurate assessment.

 

Hence, the Europeans have quietly shelved their demand that Assad resign as a prerequisite for a ceasefire and are leaning on the Americans to follow suit. The issue is hardly resolved, but there seems to be general agreement that Assad will at least be part of a transition government. At this point, the Russians and Iranians are insisting on an election in which Assad would be a candidate because both are wary of anything that looks like “regime change.” The role Assad might play will be a sticking point, but probably not an insurmountable one.

 

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are adamant that Assad must go, but neither of them is in the driver’s seat these days. While NATO supported Turkey in the Russian plane incident, according to some of the Turkish press many of its leading officials consider Erdogan a loose cannon. And Saudi Arabia—whose economy has been hard hit by the worldwide fall in oil prices—is preoccupied by its Yemen war that is turning into a very expensive quagmire.

 

The second development is the Russian intervention, which appears to have changed things on the ground, at least in the north, where Assad’s forces were being hard pressed by the Conquest Army. New weapons and airpower have dented a rebel offensive and resulted in some gains in the government’s battle for Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

 

Russian bombing also took a heavy toll on the Turkmen insurgents in the Bayirbucak region, the border area that Turkey has used to infiltrate arms, supplies and insurgents into Syria.

 

The appearance of the Russians essentially killed Turkey’s efforts to create a “no fly zone” on its border with Syria, a proposal that the U.S. has never been enthusiastic about. Washington’s major allies, the Kurds, are strongly opposed to a no fly zone because they see it as part of Ankara’s efforts to keep the Kurds from forming an autonomous region in Syria.

 

The Bayirbucak area and the city of Jarabulus are also the exit point for Turkey’s lucrative oil smuggling operation, apparently overseen by one of Erdogan’s son, Bilal. The Russians have embarrassed the Turks by publishing satellite photos showing miles of tanker trucks picking up oil from IS-controlled wells and shipping it through Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

 

“The oil controlled by the Islamic State militants enters Turkish territory on an industrial scale,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Nov. 30. “We have every reason to believe that the decision to down our plane was guided by a desire to insure the security of this oil’s delivery routes to ports where they are shipped in tankers.”

 

Erdogan did not get quite the response he wanted from NATO following the shooting down of the SU-24. While the military alliance backed Turkey’s defense of its “sovereignty,” NATO then called for a peaceful resolution and de-escalation of the whole matter.

 

At a time when Europe needs a solution to the refugee crisis, and wants to focus its firepower on the organization the killed 130 people in Paris, NATO cannot be happy that the Turks are dragging them into a confrontation with the Russians, and making the whole situation a lot more dangerous than it was before the Nov. 24 incident.

 

The Russians have now deployed their more modern SU-34 bombers and armed them with air-to-air missiles. The bombers will now also be escorted by SU-35 fighters. The Russians have also fielded S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems, the latter with a range of 250 miles. The Russians say they are not looking for trouble, but they are loaded for bear should it happen. Would a dustup between Turkish and Russians planes bring NATO—and four nuclear armed nations—into a confrontation? That possibility ought to keep people up at night.

 

Some time around the New Year, the countries involved in the Syrian civil war will come together in Geneva. A number of those will do their level best to derail the talks, but one hopes there are enough sane—and desperate—parties on hand to map out a political solution.

 

It won’t be easy, and who gets to sit at the table has yet to be decided. The Turks will object to the Kurds, the Russians, Iranians and Kurds will object to the Conquest Army, and the Saudis will object to Assad. In the end it could all come apart. It is not hard to torpedo a peace plan in the Middle East.

 

But if the problems are great, failure will be catastrophic, and that may be the glue that keeps the parties together long enough to hammer out a ceasefire, an arms embargo, a new constitution, and internationally supervised elections.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

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Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom Stumbles

A Kingdom Stumbles: Saudi Arabia

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2015

 

For the past eight decades Saudi Arabia has been careful.

 

Using its vast oil wealth, it has quietly spread its ultra-conservative brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world, secretly undermined secular regimes in its region and prudently kept to the shadows, while others did the fighting and dying. It was Saudi money that fueled the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, underwrote Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, and bankrolled Islamic movements and terrorist groups from the Caucuses to Hindu Kush.

 

Today that circumspect diplomacy is in ruins, and the House of Saud looks more vulnerable than it has since the country was founded in 1926. Unraveling the reasons for the current train wreck is a study in how easily hubris, illusion, and old-fashioned ineptness can trump even bottomless wealth.

 

The Kingdom’s first stumble was a strategic decision last fall to undermine competitors by upping oil production and, thus, lowering the price. Their reasoning was that, if the price of a barrel of oil dropped from over $100 to around $80, it would strangle competition from more expensive sources and new technologies, including the U.S. fracking industry, the arctic, and emergent producers like Brazil. That, in turn, would allow Riyadh to reclaim its shrinking share of the energy market.

 

There was also the added benefit that lower oil prices would damage countries that the Saudis didn’t like: Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Iran.

 

In one sense it worked. The American fracking industry is scaling back, the exploitation of Canada’s oil sands has slowed, and many arctic drillers closed up shop. And, indeed, countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Russia took a serious economic hit. But despite obvious signs, the Saudis failed to anticipate China’s economic slowdown and how that would dampen economic growth in the leading industrial nations. The price of oil went from $115 a barrel in June 2014 to $44 today. Because it is so pure, it costs less than $10 to produce a barrel of Saudi oil.

 

The Kingdom planned to use its almost $800 billion in financial reserves to ride out the drop in prices, but it figured that oil would not fall below $80 a barrel, and then only for a few months.

 

According to the Financial Times, in order to balance its budget, Saudi Arabia needs a price of between $95 and $105 a barrel. And while oil prices will likely rise over the next five years, projections are that price per barrel will only reach $65. Saudi debt is on schedule to rise from 6.7 percent of GDP this year to 17.3 percent next year, and its 2015 budget deficit is $130 billion.

 

Saudi Arabia is spending $10 billion a month in foreign exchange reserves to pay the bills and has been forced to borrow money on the international financial market. Two weeks ago the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) regional director, Masood Ahmed, warned Riyadh that the country would deplete its financial reserves in five years unless it drastically cut its budget.

 

But the Kingdom can’t do that.

 

When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, the Saudi Arabia headed it off by pumping $130 billion into the economy, raising wages, improving services and providing jobs for its growing population. Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations in the Middle East, a lot of it unemployed and much of it poorly educated. Some 25 percent of the population lives in poverty. Money keeps the lid on, but for how long, even with the heavy-handed repression that characterizes Saudi political life?

 

In March, the Kingdom intervened in Yemen, launching an air war, a naval blockade, and partial ground campaign on the pretense that Iran was behind the civil war, a conclusion not even the Americans agree with.

 

Again, the Saudis miscalculated, even though one of its major allies, Pakistan, warned Riyadh that it was headed for trouble. In part, the Kingdom’s hubris was fed by the illusion that U.S. support would make it a short war—the Americans are arming the Saudis, supplying them with bombing targets, backing up the naval blockade, and refueling their warplanes in mid-air.

 

But six months down the line the conflict has turned into a stalemate. The war has killed 5,000 people, including 500 children, flattened cities, and alienated much of the local population. It has also generated a food and medical crisis, as well as creating opportunities for the IS and Al-Qaeda to seize territory in Southern Yemen. Efforts by the UN to investigate the possibility of war crimes were blocked by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

 

As the Saudis are finding out, war is a very expensive business, a burden the Saudis could meet under normal circumstances, but not when the price the Kingdom’s only commodity, oil, is plummeting.

 

Nor is Yemen the only war that the Saudis are involved with. Riyadh, along with other Gulf monarchies, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are underwriting many of the groups trying to overthrow Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. When anti-government demonstrations broke out in 2011, the Saudis—along with the Americans and the Turks—calculated that Assad could be toppled in a few months.

 

But that was magical thinking. As bad as Assad is, a lot of Syrians, particularly minorities like Shiites, Christians, and Druze, were far more afraid of the Islamists from al-Qaeda and the IS then they were of their own government. So the war has dragged on for four years and has now killed close to 250,000 people.

 

Once again, the Saudis miscalculated, though in this case they were hardly alone. The Syrian government turned out to be more resilient that it appeared. And Riyadh’s bottom line that Assad had to go just ended up bringing Iran and Russia into the picture, checkmating any direct intervention by the anti-Assad coalition. Any attempt to establish a no-fly zone will have to confront the Russian air force, not something that anyone other than U.S. presidential aspirants are eager to do.

 

The war has also generated a flood of refugees, deeply alarming the European Union, which finally seems to be listening to Moscow’s point about the consequences of overthrowing governments without a plan as to who takes over. There is nothing like millions of refugees headed in your direction to cause some serious re-thinking of strategic goals.

 

The Saudis goal of isolating Iran is rapidly collapsing. The P5+1—The U.S., China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany—successfully completed a nuclear agreement with Teheran, despite every effort by the Saudis and Israel to torpedo it. And at Moscow’s insistence, Washington has reversed its opposition to Iran being included in peace talks around Syria.

 

Stymied in Syria, mired down in Yemen, its finances increasingly fragile, the Kingdom also faces internal unrest from its long marginalized Shiia minority in the country’s east and south. To top it off, the IS has called for the “liberation” of Mecca from the House of Saud and launched a bombing campaign aimed at the Kingdom’s Shiites.

 

Last month’s Hajj disaster that killed more than 2100 pilgrims—and anger at the Saudi authorities foot dragging on investigating the tragedy—have added to the royal family’s woes. The Saudi’s claim 769 people were killed, a figure that no other country in the world accepts. And there are persistent rumors that the deadly stampede was caused when police blocked off an area in order to allow high-ranking Saudis special access to the holy sites.

 

Some of these missteps can be laid at the feet of the new king, Salman bin Abud-Aziz Al Saud, and of a younger generation of aggressive Saudis he has appointed to key positions. But Saudi Arabia’s troubles are also a reflection of a Middle East in transition. Exactly where that it is headed is by no means clear, but change is in the wind.

 

Iran is breaking out of its isolation and, with its large, well-educated population, strong industrial base, and plentiful energy resources, is poised to play a major regional, if not international, role. Turkey is in the midst of a political upheaval, and there is growing opposition among Turks to Ankara’s meddling in the Syrian civil war

 

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is impaled on its own policies, both foreign and domestic. “The expensive social contract between the Royal family and Saudi citizens will get more difficult, and eventually impossible to sustain if oil prices don’t recover,” Meghan L. O’Sullivan, director of the Geopolitics of Energy project at Harvard told the New York Times.

 

However, the House of Saud has little choice but to keep pumping oil to pay for its wars and keep the internal peace. But more production drives down prices even further, and, once the sanctions come off of Iran, the oil glut will become worse.

 

While it is still immensely wealthy, there are lots of bills coming due. It is not clear the Kingdom has the capital or the ability to meet them.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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