Musings on Saudi Arabia and the Khashoggi Affair

22 Oct

I wrote this yesterday, so things might have moved on.

In order to consider Saudi Arabia, at least from the point of view of Saudi Arabia’s impact on the outside world, you need to be aware of three facts:

1) Saudi Arabia is a state based on religious, sexual, racial and social apartheid. The princes – effectively a ruling tribe, rather than a UK-style Royal Family – hold most of the power, thanks to ruthless use of their vast oil wealth. To back this up, they formed an alliance with one of the most extreme variants of Islam in existence – Wahhabism – an unholy alliance that allowed the clerics to dictate to the people in exchange for unquestioning support for the government. This combination of factors has turned Saudi Arabia into a powder keg that people have been gleefully predicting will explode for the last twenty years.

2) Saudi Arabia has two great advantages when it comes to manipulating the outside world, mainly America. On one hand, Washington has consistently required Saudi Arabia to support its policies in the Middle East (at the moment, Saudi support is vital as part of the US effort to contain Iran); on the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s role as one of the world’s largest oil producers has given it a vast amount of direct and indirect power. By threatening to reduce oil supplies, it can influence its customers; by purchasing support in Washington, it has built a lobby that makes the Israelis look like amateurs.

3) To all intents and purposes, Saudi Arabia is an enemy state.

It is difficult to explain this because the Saudi Government has not engaged in open hostilities against either the United States or the West in general. However, the Saudis have encouraged the spread of Radical Islam and turned a blind eye, at least as much as they could, to their citizens who either funded or went to fight in insurgencies around the world. The Saudis have only cracked down on terrorism when their kingdom itself was threatened, a problem caused – at least in part – by the obvious discrepancy between the finer points of Islamic Law (and the conduct expected of Muslims) and the behaviour of the Saudi Royal Family. In a sense, the Saudi Government is actually quite weak. It is unclear how long it would survive if oil prices dropped so sharply that the country literally ran out of money.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia itself is actually quite vulnerable. They have purchased a vast amount of military equipment from America and a number of other nations, but their ability to use it is actually quite limited. It isn’t clear just how effective their troops are, compared to Saudi’s potential enemies; their performance during the Gulf War, in 1991, was very much a mixed bag. Some units did better than expected, others fled at the first hint of combat. Their attempts to coup-proof their armed forces have been successful, preventing a military coup, but such measures come at the cost of actual effectiveness. I would not care to place bets on a Saudi-Iran War without the US or another major power becoming involved.

Furthermore, the country has a multitude of internal and external enemies. Iran – and Osama Bin Laden and his successors – have charged that Saudi Arabia is a poor custodian of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. Iran has plenty of opportunity to harass Saudi’s eastern coastline and, perhaps more effectively, forge ties to the Shias of Saudi Arabia, an oppressed minority that shares land with many of the oil wells. Islamic State may have been badly weakened, but a Saudi offshoot might have better luck in upsetting the delicate balance of power within the kingdom. And Saudi Arabia’s mass of guest workers might riot, then rebel, against their mistreatment. Alone, they might not get very far, but – again – it might upset the balance of power.

Worst of all, perhaps, the Saudis have only limited control over their own fate. If there is a major drop in oil prices, as I noted above, the Royal Family will be unable to fund its projects – bribes – to keep the clergy and the population at large happy. What happens then? A major economic collapse within the kingdom will have thoroughly unpleasant repercussions for the average citizen, many of whom are unsuited for employment in a modern economy. Oil is both the kingdom’s greatest advantage and its greatest weakness. On one hand, the oil wealth has kept the kingdom from having to build a proper economy – which would require a certain degree of democracy, or at least active participation from the population – but, on the other hand, they have nothing to fall back on. The plans to turn Saudi Arabia into a modern state are, unless there are fundamental changes within the kingdom’s social structure, doomed.

Over the last few days, the world has been rocked by the suggestion – perhaps true, perhaps not – that Saudi Arabian agents murdered a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey. It is unclear what actually happened. Saudi Arabia, according to some reports, is calling the whole incident a ‘rogue operation’ and ‘a terrible mistake,’ which is what you say when the operation goes spectacularly wrong. (I think that, whatever happened, the Saudis have not yet figured out what they want to tell the world.) This has created a number of serious problems for both the Saudis themselves and Washington, as Khashoggi was resident in America when he was murdered. President Trump will need to figure out how to respond.

The problem, as I see it, is that there is very little Trump can actually do.

A state’s freedom to act in a manner other states might not like is based on two factors: it’s ability to push its interests through military force and, just as importantly, how much the other states need its active cooperation. On the face of it, Saudi Arabia is no match for the American military; however, practically speaking, the US is unlikely to be interested in bombing or invading, let alone occupying, Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, it has considerable ability to impede America’s operations in the Middle East – and, indeed, to make a mess of American politics. Could the US continue to contain Iran without Saudi cooperation? I suspect the Saudis are hoping for a great deal of shouting, but not much actual action.

Considered in isolation, it should be easy to pressure Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is not isolated.

This is pretty much a no-win situation for President Trump. If he does nothing, he will be accused of …well, doing nothing; if he does something and sets off the powder keg, he will be accused of blundering. And Khashoggi himself was a deeply dubious character, with links to international terrorists. He is not the sort of person many people would wish to pay a steep price to avenge. The situation may well be unsolvable, at least from Trump’s point of view. His willingness to pretend to believe Saudi statements may stem from an awareness that the best he can hope for is a handful of cosmetic motions that will be, in practical terms, meaningless.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has relatively little manoeuvring room. The prospect of sanctions is unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm, even though the world has a vast appetite for oil. They can be pressured, particularly if Congress forces Trump’s hand; they can be cut off from international financial networks and suchlike that will do immense damage. But, at the same time, they cannot afford to look weak in front of their people. These are not the times when they could afford to delay the announcement of Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait for several days. Supine surrender will encourage their enemies inside and outside the country. I suspect that a number of people will be executed – some of them may even have had something to do with the murder – and Saudi will insist that everyone involved has been punished. It will be difficult to come up with a convincing story, or at a narrative that doesn’t have too many plot holes, but they’ll think of something. And outsiders will pretend to believe them.

The greatest failure of both Bush and Obama was not invading Iraq, nor pulling out of Iraq way too soon; no, it was the failure to do something about the oil weapon. Bush may have hoped to bring Iraqi oil online, thus weakening Saudi Arabia’s ability to use the oil weapon (and accounting for Saudi’s opposition to the war), but this was largely unsuccessful. Instead, both Presidents should have focused on finding a more permanent solution to the problem. A Manhattan Project should have been launched, one instructed to find a new – and cheap – source of energy. Vast rewards should have been offered to the corporation who cracked the secret of cold fusion, or devised an electric car that was actually cost-effective, or built a working SSTO so we could construct solar power satellites in space … Trump may well live up to his bragging if he starts such a project and it actually finds something that can be turned into workable hardware within the next decade.

But, for the moment, we will find it hard to put pressure on Saudi Arabia. And that means, I suspect, that we will have to wait nervously for the powder keg to finally explode.

22 Responses to “Musings on Saudi Arabia and the Khashoggi Affair”

  1. Rhino October 22, 2018 at 3:35 pm #

    In a “nutshell “, thats about as accurate as possible given the middle east. Well said

  2. PhilippeO October 22, 2018 at 5:19 pm #

    an Accurate Assessment about Saudi State.

    In Normal Presidential Administration, President would already issue condemnation and declare some sanction (even if they know its will be ineffective). USA should defend its Residents and its Ideal.

    Trump involvement in this is embarrassing, he practically bend over backward to satisfy Saudis.

    Nobody expect Trump to magically solve oil problem, but saying that Trump had no choice in dealing with Saudi is ridiculous. US had dealing with Saudis (and other “bad” regimes) for long time, they had dozens of option to condemn Saudis.

    and Saudis problem is self-inflicted, Obama treaty with Iran limit Saudis option, Trump and Kushner foolishly ally too deeply with Saudis, become Saudi defender when they commit genocide in Yemen, making war with Qatar, and let MBS self-coup in Riyadh eliminating all opposition.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard October 22, 2018 at 5:29 pm #

      Of course, if Trump (or any Republican President) dealt strongly against the Saudis, then the Left would start screaming “No Blood For Oil”.

      • Mike October 24, 2018 at 6:08 pm #

        Trump has reacted *exactly* as past Presidents have reacted to this type of situation. Remember Bush and Kuwait being caught in their propaganda with the daughter of a high level Kuwaiti official blathering about Iraqi atrocities? Remember Hillary’s stunt in Serbia as SOS? The only thing different is the spin and fake reporting when it comes to Trump.

  3. Shrekgrinch October 22, 2018 at 7:01 pm #

    This whole thing is blown out of proportion to who these types of stories were covered…or rather, not covered, in the past.

    Why? This is a WashPo guy. And the US Media thinks that everything that happens to it is de facto newsworthy. Nevermind all the other journalists the Saudis have bumped off over the years.

    And that is all this is.

  4. Vapori October 22, 2018 at 11:04 pm #

    Well said, you covered the current situation fairly accurately. , Even if the lead too and possible solutions, seem a bit shortsighted in my option. The Manhatten Project will likely not work in time. Even if Trump launches a grand project like that. he will not reap the rewards during his presidency.

    Also just as a site note the Manhattan project was just a 20milion dollar project. post the cost for the targeting system of the aircraft as well as the development for the long range aircraft that carried the bomb cost more the he actual Manhattan project.

    To compare that, the world currently invest a bit more 300 billion dollars a year in in renewable energies, and a a bit more then 3-4 billion per year (accurate numbers are hard to get.) into fusion.
    Cold Fusion would be cool, but it seems that it will not work, after all it was one of the most prominent examples of pathological science.

    As for Saudi Arabia and the middle east, while there are not really any great allies to be found, Saudia Arabia is one of the worst possible ones. But while the US is partly to blame for how it turned out it’s mostly clear in hindsight.

    While Oil prices rise currently it’s not assured that it will last for long. Renewable energy has still it’s flaws, but rising oil prices make them more competitive, as will some traditional research for the Support infrastructure if the current timeframe from researches is correct (better taken with a grain of salt.) those will likely be fixed in the next 8-12 years. while hot fusion might be in the cards , after 2035 the biggest ever experiment in that has been conducted in hot fusion will likely produce results by 2026-2030 based on that it might be much easier to acquire Additional funds for hot fusion. even then it will not be an economic factor before the year 2045.

    As for insulation them, if the US stops their involvement with Saudi Arabia, it is assured that one of the other big powers like China or maybe even India will step in. After all both countries need a lot of oil and are close by.

  5. sam57l0 October 23, 2018 at 12:24 am #

    The Saudi military, I’m pretty sure, would get wiped by the Israelis.

    • Bewildered October 30, 2018 at 8:26 am #

      Not really a fair comparison since the Israelis could pretty much wipe anyone other than Russia. Even the likes of the UK would get thrashed in any land or air based conflict.

  6. George Phillies October 23, 2018 at 1:15 am #

    Bush had a very simple way to activate the Iraqi oil fields. End the sanctions against Iraq. Alas, just as the Saudis are pinned by their ties to the Wahhabis, American Presidents are pinned by our Warfare State, the military-industrial complex.

  7. Dan October 23, 2018 at 3:05 am #

    so what are we looking at worldwide politically if Saudi does explode. Will it have a large effect on anything but gas prices?

  8. Darryl October 23, 2018 at 7:25 am #

    We have a hated regime which has been propped up by the West. The situation when such a regime falls is not exactly unprecedented. Whilst I don’t know enough about the Saudi situation to make predictions, I expect that if this regime falls its likely replacement will be a hard core Islamist one. So much for containing Iran in that situation.

    • chrishanger November 3, 2018 at 5:14 pm #

      I could write up an outline of the possibilities, if you like. There are some issues that are very much like Iran and some that are quite different.


  9. Stuart the Viking October 23, 2018 at 3:41 pm #

    I have long said the real reason to push for a domestic, renewable energy solution is so we won’t have to keep sending buckets of money to people who hate us.

    Sure, that solution should also be environmentally sound. It would be stupid to create a solution that causes more environmental problems. We have enough problems in that regard. Whether you believe in Anthropogenic Global Climate Change or not, you can’t ignore the pollution coming out of your exhaust pipe. That crap will kill you.

    But the real benefit would be that it would suck the oil money out of the middle east, sending that hell-hole back to the middle ages where it has always been mentally, without the economic means to project it’s misery onto the rest of the world. Image how nice a world it would be if we could safely ignore the screams of jihad-this and fatwa-that. I don’t begrudge anyone their religion. Let them live and worship in whatever manner they want… As long as it doesn’t spill over to effect the rights of others. Extreme Islam has not only stepped over that line, it sent a suicide bomber to blow the crap out of that line.

    Frankly, when Obama was elected, I didn’t agree with his politics. The one silver lining I saw was that MAYBE, with all the “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” rhetoric, he might push to fund real, reasonable science towards a positive, environmentally sound, renewable energy solution. Instead, he just gave a bunch of money to friends and supporters who had jack-s#!t for new ideas, but were happy to live large until the money ran out. Leaving the American people with nothing for their investment.

  10. Vapori October 23, 2018 at 10:03 pm #

    I’ve now read a few post about the middle ages in Saudia arabia and other nations in the middle east, and while not wrong from our perspective, it has already changed a lot in recent years.

    Hard to belief I know, blame the media on always reporting the dramatic things first.
    But actually they are more like 6-4 generations behind us(depending on were in the middle east you look and on what point. Then 700 or so years. Think about how many people went to school in the place were you live 150-250 years ago, and how many go too school in the middle east. What was the birthrate in the place were you live 100-200 years ago and what are they now. Then crosscheck with the middle east. You will notice that they are a lot closer to the west of the 1910-50 depending on were you look. Then too the middle ages. And that has an impact on human culture and behavior, not instantly of course, but over a few generations it will become and is already very clear that some things changed dramatically.

  11. M Boddy October 23, 2018 at 11:33 pm #

    While this is a clear assessment of Saudi Arabia and the middle east there is one think that everyone is overlooking. While he was killed in turkey in the Saudi embassy it was done on Saudi Soil. You can do what ever you want on your own soil even if its murder. I just find it amusing how many people do not seem to grasp or care about this fact.Saudi Arabia has a human rights record that should be making everyone jump up and down and ask why are we not wanting to stop this?

  12. Andrew Jones October 24, 2018 at 7:21 pm #

    North America is anet oil exporter. Shale can be brought online quicker than the Saudis can turn the non. The US isn’t there for it’s own direct economic interest. Saudi Arabia is about energy security for our allies and keeping Russia from adding buffer land before its demographic collapse. China and Japan are also dependent and both are investing in force projection to secure their feedstocks, including petro. Throwing ant piles on each other, Iran and Saudi Arabia is also a good way to prevent a regional hegemony, and KSA needs backing.

  13. JUAN T SUROS October 25, 2018 at 5:52 pm #

    Any updates on a release date for “The Broken Throne”?

    • M Boddy October 26, 2018 at 8:18 am #

      When Chris is feeling better I am sure more books will be coming. The most important thing though is getting better and staying that way!

  14. Big Ben October 28, 2018 at 6:14 pm #

    If America wanted to bring down the Saudis it would be easy, if expensive.
    1) Immediately cease selling them military equipment. As I understand it, most of their modern war machines are American built. What with their war in Yemen and essential national defense requirements their air force would be grounded in a week and they’d be out of high-end munitions in a month.
    But Trump can’t stop touting his multi-billion dollar Saudi arms deal.
    2) Stop exporting American oil. Accept higher prices at the pump and crank up North American production. I don’t know what that would ultimately do to global oil prices, but at least we would be standing up for our ideals for once and not shoveling money to the nation that supplied the vast majority of the 9/11 highjackers. It would have added benefits of putting Americans to work in the domestic oil patch.
    3) Stop looking backwards at coal and invest in the future, whether it’s more wind turbines, smart grids, higher efficiency solar or even cooler things like cold fusion. Better batteries for better EVs. Anything that moves humanity off of oil and coal is a long-term benefit for our species and planet.

    Trump is in a quandary of his own making. He has riled up his base with countless cries of “fake news” and unequivocally calling the press “the enemy of the people.”
    If you have watched even one of his love-fest rallies you’ve seen how his gleefully vociferous worshippers roar their hatred for one of the bastions of the First Amendment.
    So when a journalist is murdered, whether in Maryland or in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, what’s Trump supposed to say? Don’t slander, harass and/or murder the Enemy of the People?
    You reap what you sow.
    Words matter when a President speaks … or Tweets, as the case may be.
    The end result is mail bombs and mayhem.

    • chrishanger November 4, 2018 at 9:30 pm #

      That’s true, but that would cause other problems. This is pretty much a ‘no-win’ as far as Trump is concerned.


  15. November 11, 2018 at 12:36 am #

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