I also maintained that the falling oil prices could exacerbate these succession concerns and they might lead to new challenges from within the House of Saud. Especially, if the King refuses or is unable to put his economic house in order.
To my mind, the House of Saud has very little wiggle room in either of these situations and regardless of how they move they are likely to end up in hot water.
To make matters worse, in this second part, I want to highlight two more structural issues that also tie the royal family's hand and force them to make certain choices. Since these choices stem from immutable factors, I cannot see how the royal family might opt for a different course.
And in the current situation, these choices will almost certainly damage the House of Saud and the Kingdom.
Let me explain what I mean.
Ties to Terrorism and Fundamentalism
Because of its symbiotic relationship with the House of Wahhab, the House of Saud has always been implicated in financing Islamist and Jihadist movements.
While it is certainly true that both Reagan and Thatcher (and of course the CIA) encouraged the Saudi government to promote Jihad in some areas of conflict, their push worked because it coincided with the Saudi desire to unleash the Salafist Islam promoted by the House of Wahhab. That is to say, regardless of the shortsighted and stupid anti-communist exhortations of successive American Administrations, after the 1979 siege of Mecca, the House of Saud would have done what it did anyway because its own survival depended on it.
But the Western support made the whole thing easier and more efficient and allowed it to be handled at the highest levels.
In that sense, the new King is a case in point, as he was the royal family's designated man for raising hundreds of millions of dollars for Islamic insurgencies in Afghanistan and Bosnia and for al Qaeda affiliated organizations.
In 2001, an international raid of the Saudi High Commission for Aid to Bosnia, which Salman founded in 1993, unearthed evidence of terrorist plots against America, according to separate exposés written by Dore Gold, an Israeli diplomat, and Robert Baer, a former CIA officer.After the Bosnian war, Salman continued to support al Qaeda and other Jihadist organizations through murky Islamist charities, including the Abdulaziz bin Baz Foundation, named after a fundamentalist cleric who died in 1999.
Besides channeling hundreds of millions of dollars to Jihadist activities, these charities were instrumental in providing a lofty platform to fundamentalist clerics. For instance, Bin Baz's infamous ruling that women who studied with men were to be considered prostitutes, reached a much wider audience thanks to this Foundation.
Salman nominated Aqeel al-Aqeel to the Foundation's Board even though he was sanctioned by the US and the UN for assisting al Qaeda operations in 13 countries.
|Aidh Abdullah al-Qarni|
The new king has also embraced Saudi cleric Saleh al-Maghamsi, an Islamic supremacist who declared in 2012 that Osama bin Laden had more “sanctity and honor in the eyes of Allah,” simply for being a Muslim, than “Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, apostates, and atheists,” whom he described by nature as “infidels.”By themselves these actions would not surprise anyone who knows something about the House of Saud and its cynical dealings with Jihadis. But recent revelations by Zacarias Moussaoui claiming that the royals actually funded the 9/11 attack gave them a whole new dimension.
Mr. Moussaoui describes meeting in Saudi Arabia with Salman, then a prince, and other Saudi royals while delivering them letters from Osama bin Laden.He named other Saudi royals supporting Bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Among those he said he recalled listing in the database were Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the Saudi intelligence chief; Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States; Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a prominent billionaire investor; and many of the country’s leading clerics.Saudi Arabia issued fierce denials but given what is known of Salman's past activities and the billions channeled through Islamist charities, Moussaoui's accusations are a lot more credible now than they might have been a couple of years ago.
I expect this to be a major headache for the House of Saud, especially if the classified sections of the 9/11 report were to become public. While I doubt that they contain a smoking gun, there might be enough there to make it rather sticky for the House of Saud.
And I think the White House might currently be inclined to provide that ammunition to the enemies of the House of Saud, because the religious and political fear and loathing that motivate the royal family put them in a collision course with their global and regional allies, i.e. the US and Turkey.
That, in turn, forced the Obama Administration to implement a complicated new strategy in the region.
The schisms in Islam and the House of Saud
Non-Muslims usually have a hard time to grasp the deep divisions within Islam, like the profound hatred the Sunni and Shia have for each other.
Ever since Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and the last of the Rashidun caliphs Ali was assassinated and the Caliphate was grabbed by Muawiyah, there has been a deep divide between these two denominations of Islam.
In fact, contrary to what you might have heard, before modern times, Muslims had no real animosity towards Christians and Jews, as they are People of the Book. But almost since the beginning, Sunnis considered Shias kuffar and Shias, because of what they did to Ali and his two sons Hassan and Hussein, viewed Sunnis as usurpers of Allah's will and cheaters and murderers.
That is still the case. That's why ISIS declared that killing Shias takes precedence over fighting Israel and have been slaughtering them viciously. That is why most conservative Sunnis and Sunni ulema cannot bring themselves to condemn ISIS.That's why Pakistani extremists routinely target Shias.
Or that's why, despite their well-known anti-Semitism, the House of Saud happily aligned themselves with Israel and cooperated with the Likud government against Iran.
And that is also why Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Pakistan are all fearful of their Shia minorities and have been trying to contain or suppress them.
The Sunni camp is not a unified bloc either. But the most important cleavage is within the so-called political Islam: the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood are bitter rivals and detest each other with passion. Wahhabis, as muwahhiddin, believe that their interpretation of Islam is the truest and all Muslims should unite under their banner. The Muslim Brotherhood, as mujaheddin and the precursor of al Qaeda, believe that their fight represents the true Jihad.
It is a zero-sum game. They cannot be both right. And they cannot co-exist.
The key difference is that Wahhabis accepted a symbiotic existence with the House of Saud and they owe their prominence to that relationship. Whereas Muslim Brotherhood would never accept a power sharing arrangement with a separate political body. As former CIA analyst Robert Baer put it:
A core tenet of the Muslim Brotherhood is that there can be no separation between church and state. The Brotherhood’s nonnegotiable demand is that they get both the pulpit and the crown. The implication then is that the Al Sa’ud are illegitimate rulers of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis watched in mute horror as Egypt’s Arab Spring led to the legitimization of the Muslim Brotherhood in voting booths. They could only ask whether their turn was next. A source close to the Saudis told me, “The royal family looks at the Muslim Brotherhood as hands down the most serious threat to its existence. Its Shia minority doesn’t come even close.”You can see why the House of Saud thumbed its nose to the US and engineered a coup d'etat in Egypt to overthrow the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Mursi and why it has been working overtime to crush the Brotherhood.
It is them or the Brotherhood.
However, while this fear and loathing towards the Shia and Muslim Brotherhood explain the Saudi motivations, they also expose the Kingdom's vulnerabilities: the House of Saud is not in a position to fully alienate its allies:
Although Saudi Arabia spends 9.1 percent of its GDP on its military and has an active duty armed force of 200,000, the fact is it’s always depended more on alliances for its national security than it has military force. From the moment Franklin Roosevelt sat down with King Ibn Sa’ud on the deck of the USS Quincy in 1945, the United States has been a constant and vital ally for the Kingdom. Even when the United States took up positions against it, Saudi Arabia never let the relationship go.In other words, they have an extremely well-equipped army which is barely adequate to suppress the Bahraini uprising. They need regional and global allies to ensure their security.
After the Egypt debacle, the US, cognizant of this vulnerability, worked out a carefully designed rapprochement with Iran using President Rouhani's desire to see the embargo lifted and relying on the trust and friendship between Javad Zarif and John Kerry.
It is a clever bit of play on the part of the Obama Administration.
On the one hand, the move unsettled the Iranian clergy and exposed their weaknesses. They could not stop the negotiation process because they were keenly aware that the crushing embargo would soon open the floodgates of social discontent and people would be likely to rise up against their regime.
Moreover, they knew that, in the last decade, the balance of power in the region had dramatically shifted against the Islamic Republic: Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries had the financial resources and ideological zeal to wage a war of proxy against Iran. And Iran's long-time neighbor Turkey, the only remaining regional superpower, was now headed by a mercurial Sunni Islamist with delusions of grandeur. A shrinking economy is hardly an asset when you feel threatened.
Finally, ISIS and other Sunni terror groups occupy large swaths of Iraq and Syria and pose a very tangible and violent threat to the Hezbollah and the Shias of Iraq.
So, the mullahs had no choice but let Zarif and Rouhani work with the US. In fact, despite harsh public rhetoric, there is already a deeper collaboration between the two sides, as Iran has just joined the Great Satan in bombing raids against ISIS.
On the other hand, if a nuclear deal is signed, and despite stupid moves of the Republican Congress, I am pretty sure it will be (probably with a cliffhanger finish to make it more credible for each side's constituencies), Saudi Arabia will find itself in a very tough spot.
Because that will mean that, freed from the shackles of the embargo, Iran will move to regain its regional power status. This is something that terrifies the Sunni bloc and the House of Saud. And it should.
For one thing, Iran might proceed to re-ignite Shia uprisings in Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia. It might provide support to Iraq's Shia in the South to lure them away from what looks like a failed state destined for partitioning. And perhaps more problematically for the Sauidis, it might turn the Houthis of Yemen (adherents of a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidiyyah), who have just surprised everyone by forcing the Yemeni government to capitulate, into a permanent thorn on the side of Saudi Arabia.
On Jan. 25, Hojatoleslam (a Shiite clerical rank just below that of ayatollah) Ali Shirazi, representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, said, “Hezbollah was formed in Lebanon as a popular force like Basij (Iran’s militia). Similarly popular forces were also formed in Syria and Iraq, and today we are watching the formation of Ansarollah in Yemen.”While this is probably boastful credit-taking on the part of the Iranian clergy (Houthis are unlikely to be like the Hezbollah or take orders from Iran), it is still quite indicative of their mindset and of the dangers for the Kingdom in its own neighborhood.
Secondly, before they engineered a coup in Egypt the royal family could count on Turkey as the most important Sunni regional power to provide a solid deterrence towards Iran.
Angering Erdogan in a bid to crush Muslim Brotherhood was very short-sighted, as Egypt cannot provide the kind of regional counterbalance that the Kingdom needs. Its economy is in shambles, its army is not very professional and most importantly, it is separated from Iran by 2,300 km.
To emphasize the growing gap between the two countries, after the Egyptian coup (just like the US), Erdogan moved closer to Tehran. During his visit in January 2014, he called Iran "his second home" and he made conciliatory announcements about regime change in Syria, which is their biggest point of disgareement. He publicly and loudly slammed the embargo against Iran. And people close to his government helped Iran evade the embargo through a massive and illicit gold trade.
To reciprocate, in June 2014, Rouhani visited Turkey and announced that bilateral trade should increase to $30 billion in 2015 and declared that "Syria was no problem" between Turkey and Iran.
Erdogan is scheduled to travel to his "second home" in the next few weeks to establish a "Turkey-Iran High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council."
You can see the conundrum for Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have no choice but to go after Shias and Iran, both for theological and geo-strategic reasons. They are their mortal enemies.
They also have to continue to try to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood because if the Brotherhood becomes the prominent Sunni political force in the region, it is game over for both House of Wahhab and House of Saud.
But these very same choices put them in a collision course with their two important allies. The coup in Egypt disrupted the American plans to re-arrange the Middle East and to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Since the main reason for them to want peace and stability in the region was to have a control over the distribution of oil and gas and therefore control over the energy needs of rising Asian powers, the Americans are not happy at all.
Simultaneously, the Egyptian coup was acrushing blow to Erdogan's dream of becoming the leader, if not the Caliph, of Sunni Muslims and contributed to Turkey's regional isolation. This is not going to over well with the current Islamist government.
For now, they have enough clout to force Erdogan to be careful in his statements about the Kingdom. And they are betting on the Egyptian generals as their first line of security by bankrolling the purchase of their new toys from France.
However, once the nuclear deal is signed with Iran, the House of Saud will suddenly become quite vulnerable and will have to review this strategy.
But given the structural factors that enlighten their current policies, I don't see how they can implement a change of course.
They are probably praying that Netanyahu could provide a way out of this impasse by encouraging the Republican Congress to sabotage the nuclear talks with Iran.
Talk about irony.