A colleague yesterday told me not to worry about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) overreaching in his effort to push back against Iran. The Saudis, he said, will talk a good line but not really do anything. They are too lazy.
That is little comfort and not accurate. MbS has launched a now more than two-year war in Yemen against the Iranian-supported Houthis, a diplomatic offensive against Qatar that aims (among other things) to break its good rapport with Iran, and the purported resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, whom the Saudis think too tolerant of Iran’s Hizbollah proxies. The United States appears to have greenlighted all these moves, the first under President Obama and the second and third under President Trump.
The net effect so far is not good. Iran, through Hizbollah, will own Lebanon, whether Hariri returns there or not. Qatar is weathering the Saudi blockade with the aid of the Turks and Iranians. Doha is arguably closer to Tehran now than it was before the Saudi initiative, though it continues to host a major US air base. The stalemated Yemen war has precipitated a massive humanitarian crisis throughout the country. MbS’s Washington-encouraged pushback against Iran is not working well.
Oddly, the one place neither the Washington nor Riyadh has pushed backed against Tehran is Syria. The US has assiduously tried to avoid conflict there with Syrian government forces, the Russians, and Iranian proxies, firing on them only when they appear to be getting ready to attack US or US-supported forces. Riyadh has organized, and is getting ready to re-organize, the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee, but the Kingdom’s military support to the opposition is fading, along with that of the Americans. Even Russian promises to keep Hizbollah far from the border with Israel appear to be evaporating.
The sad fact is that Saudi Arabia is a weak reed for the US to lean on. The Kingdom has purchased an astounding quantity of US and other weapons but has little capability to use them effectively. Financially strapped due to lowered oil prices, MbS is rushing to conduct long-overdue domestic reforms under the rubric Vision 2030, as well as an anti-corruption campaign that has the added virtue of eliminating some of his rivals. Even if thoroughly and assiduously implemented, the main positive effects of these domestic initiatives are a decade or more in the future.
Besides, reform plans in Saudi Arabia have a long history of getting stuck in the desert sand. Trying to do too many things at once will guarantee that some of them suffer that fate. And attacking Iran in peripheral places like Qatar, Lebanon, and Yemen may cause suffering to their populations but is unlikely to cause the Islamic Republic much heartburn. Tehran could suffer setbacks in all three without minding all that much. It is Syria that really matters to Iran, which is why it has sent its best there: the Quds Force and Hizbollah. Confronting them in Syria would be a lot more meaningful than the sum of all the Saudi initiatives elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Iranians are also escalating. Despite Tehran’s denial, Bahrain claims Iran was behind a gas pipeline bombing last week, the Iranians backed Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s successful offensive against Kurdistan, and they are pushing their proxies to establish the much-coveted “land bridge” from the Iranian border through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. If the Trump Administration has a regional strategy to push back against Iran, it is not working. MbS has overreached, to no good effect.
Thirty-two year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has taken on a lot:
- Domestic political and economic reforms, including partial privatization of Aramco, allowing women to drive, and shifting the economy away from oil and gas;
- The war in Yemen against the Houthi takeover of part of the country, in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and with sometimes reluctant support from the US;
- A major diplomatic spat with Qatar over its alleged support of terrorists;
- Removal of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri to protest Iran’s influence there;
- Arrest of rival princes for corruption.
What could go wrong?
Each of these moves may have virtues. Certainly Saudi Arabia needs reforms to get it into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. The Houthis overreached and merit comeuppance. Qatar’s financial empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood has caused problems for Bahrain, Egypt and Syria. Iran-sponsored Hizbollah is an armed non-state actor within a state that merits opposition. Corruption is endemic in the Kingdom and needs countering.
But each also poses problems. The “Saudi Vision 2030” reforms that MbS has proposed are far-reaching, but implementation is likely to be problematic and lag. The war in Yemen is causing massive civilian suffering and political division. It will be difficult if not impossible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The blockade against Qatar has drive Doha in the direction of Ankara and Tehran, rather than bringing it back into the Gulf orbit. Hariri was a weak reed, but now there is none. Lebanese are united in wanting his return, which the State Department also supports. Countering corruption only among your political opponents is not a good way to clean up a system.
One other, less visible but important, initiative is the Saudi rapprochement with Israel, which shares the Kingdom’s hostility towards Iran. How far can this go? What are its implications for the geopolitics of the region?
But most of all: doing all these things at once, without ample consultation even within the royal family, is far from the Kingdom’s cautious tradition. A 32-year-old Crown Prince undertaking it amounts to an auto-coup: a takeover by someone already in power.
Some will argue that is the only way to get things done. The parallel to President Trump’s efforts to upset the apple cart in the US is obvious. It is no surprise that the White House (in the person of Jared Kushner) apparently encouraged the arrest of the royal opponents, and maybe even the resignation of Hariri, making the State Department statement against it moot. But how is Trump’s radical program working out in the US? The repudiation Trump suffered Tuesday in America’s equivalent of by elections was massive, even if concentrated in blue states (one-purple Virginia, New Jersey, and New York).
Of course there will be no voting in Saudi Arabia to test MbS’s initiatives. The consequences are likely to be less visible, at least initially, and possibly less peaceful, eventually. MbS has taken big risks for big gains. Pay day, if it happens, is still a long way off.
- Countering Violent Extremism: Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood | Monday, October 23 | 11:30 am – 5:15 pm | Hudson Institute (held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center) | Register Here | This full-day event includes two keynote addresses, the first by Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and the second by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, as well as two panels titled “Sinews of Terrorism – Communications, Funding, and Ideological Support” and “New Dynamism in Congress.” General David H. Petraeus, formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Ambassador Hussain Haqqani will also speak at the event.
- The Future of Orthodox Christianity in Syria and America | Tuesday, October 24 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Over the last two thousand years, the Church of Antioch has played a major role in the formation and development of Christian theology and philosophy. Today the Church is facing tremendous challenges in its native homeland, Syria. Six years after the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the country is in ruins and millions of its citizens have become refugees or are internally displaced within Syria. The ongoing war has flamed sectarian tensions that threaten the existence of Christianity in one of its earliest locations. Though suffering at home, the Church of Antioch is flourishing abroad with a growing congregation in the United States. What place do Christians and the Antiochian Church have in the future of Syria? What role has the Church played in humanitarian assistance to the millions in need? Why is Orthodoxy finding renewed appeal in Western countries? For answers to these and many other questions regarding the future of Orthodox Christianity in Syria and America, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom will host a conversation with His Beatitude, John X, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, and His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph, Metropolitan of All North America and Archbishop of New York. Hudson Senior Fellow Samuel Tadros will moderate the conversation.
- Tunisia’s Corruption Contagion | Wednesday, October 25 | 12:00 – 2:30 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | Corruption in Tunisia is perceived to be even more pervasive today than under former president Zine el Abidine ben Ali, despite numerous legal measures and civil society initiatives working to fight it. In their upcoming Carnegie paper, “Tunisia’s Corruption Contagion: A Transition at Risk,” Sarah Yerkes and Marwan Muasher argue that corruption has become endemic, as more and more people engage in and benefit from corrupt practices. For the democratic transition to survive, Tunisia must simultaneously address the kleptocracy of the previous regime and the emergence of widespread petty corruption. Can Tunisia’s government and civil society win this fight? Yassine Brahim will provide keynote remarks, and Chaima Bouhlel and Safwan Masri will join Carnegie’s Sarah Yerkes in a discussion of the paper’s findings moderated by Marwan Muasher. Tunisian Ambassador to the United States Fayçal Gouia will provide closing remarks. A light lunch will be served at 12:00 p.m. The discussion will begin at 12:30 p.m.
- Trump and the Arab World: First Year Assessment and Policy Recommendations | Thursday, October 26 | 9:00 am – 5:00 pm | Arab Center DC (held at JW Marriott Washington DC) | Register Here | The Arab Center’s second annual conference will begin with an opening keynote titled “US Policy in the Arab World: An Arab Perspective given by Tarek Mitri of the American University of Beirut and will consist of four panels. The first panel, “What Arabs Want: Arab Public Opinion and US Policy,” will feature panelists Tamara Kharroub of the Arab Center DC, Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland- College Park. The second, “US Policy and Political and Economic Challenges in the Arab World” will include Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hani Findakly of Potomac Capital, and Najib Ghadbian of the University of Arkansas and Special Representative of the Syrian National Coalition to the US. The panel will be moderated by Dina Khoury of George Washington University. The third panel is titled “US-Gulf Relations and US Policy in the Arabian Gulf,” and moderator Khalid Al-Jaber of Qatar University will be joined by Abdullah Baabood of Qatar University, Sheila Carapico of the University of Richmond, David Des Roches of the National Defense University, and Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council. The final panel, “US Policy Recommendations in the Arab World” will feature Marwan Kabalan of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut, Ibrahim Fraihat of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Ellen Laipson of George Mason University, and will be moderated by Laurie King of Georgetown University.
- Public Perspectives Toward Democracy | Thursday, October 26 | 12:30 pm | Council on Foreign Relations | Register Here | Panelists discuss global public opinion towards democracy amid the rise of populists and autocrats, and the implications for the future of democracy and U.S. foreign policy. Speakers include Stewart M. Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ken Wollack of the National Democratic Institute, and Katie Simmons of the Pew Research Center.
- The Path Forward on Iran: Contain, Enforce, Engage | Thursday, October 26 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | What comes next after President Donald Trump’s decision not to recertify the Iran nuclear deal? Experts from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for a New American Security offer a suggested way ahead in a new joint report: Contain, Enforce, and Engage: An Integrated U.S. Strategy to Address Iran’s Nuclear and Regional Challenges. Carnegie President William J. Burns will introduce the report, and Carnegie’s Jen Psaki will moderate a discussion with some of the report’s authors. Speakers include Ariel E. Levite and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as Ilan Goldenberg and Elizabeth Rosenberg of the Center for a New American Security.
The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire: more than 90% of tap water is undrinkable, youth unemployment is at an estimated 65%, and electricity blackouts consume 20-22 hours per day. UNRWA, the largest humanitarian agency operating in Gaza, faces a deficit of $126.5 million on a budget of $715 million.
On Thursday, the Middle East Institute hosted a panel entitled “Is Gaza Reaching a Boiling Point?” to investigate the political and social pressures ravaging the strip. The panel featured Tareq Baconi of Al Shabaka, Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Acting Director Christopher McGrath of the UNRWA Washington Office; and Natan Sachs of Brookings. MEI’s Paul Salem moderated.
In June of this year, Gaza suffered an electricity crisis as the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, reached an agreement with Israel to reduce Gaza’s supply by 40 percent. This move, explained Baconi, was part of an attempt to exert pressure on Gaza’s Hamas government and consolidate control in the hands of the Palestinian Authority.
Several factors determined the timing of this play. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, the possibility of another Israel-Palestine deal looms on the horizon. As the Qatar crisis continues, it has become clear that President Trump intends to take a hardline stance against US-designated terrorist organizations. Abbas’s strategy of consolidating authority over Gaza and the West Bank by crippling Hamas—even if it entails exacerbating Gaza’s humanitarian crisis—serves both these objectives. The Palestinian Authority president is trying to position himself as a secular, antiterrorist strongman and key interlocutor in any negotiations.
This is a key moment for Abbas in part because Hamas is increasingly isolated, and in part because it marks the return to Palestinian politics of Abbas’s former Fatah rival Mohammed Dahlan. Hamas’s relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia are on the rocks, while Egyptian President Sisi’s attack on the Muslim Brotherhood has also marginalized the Gaza-based organization. In addition, the Egyptian military’s 2013-14 destruction of most of the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza has decreased Hamas’s income from taxes on smuggled goods. With Egypt and the UAE backing the Palestinian Authority, and Qatar scrambling to prove that it does not finance terrorism, now appears a strategic time for the Abbas government to squeeze its rival and potentially court new friends.
Dahlan’s re-emergence on the Palestinian national scene is also partially responsible for the Palestinian Authority’s decision to deny power to Gaza. Gaza remains a critical element of the Palestinian political establishment. Dahlan’s opportunistic alliance with Hamas—from which he gains a political entry point, and Hamas gains Dahlan’s funding and UAE—poses a real threat to Abbas’s authority.
However, it appears that Abbas’s attempt to exert pressure on Hamas in Gaza is going to backfire. Starving Gaza of electricity has not prevented several “hot wars” between Gaza and Israel. Younger Palestinians already see Abbas’s government as ineffective and authoritarian. Now, the Palestinian Authority has bought into the logic of the Gaza blockade—collective punishment to curtail Hamas.
From the Israeli side, elaborated Sachs, a basic dilemma exists: the long-term solution to the problem of Hamas is to bring Gaza under the fold of the Palestinian Authority, but in the short term, Gaza’s suffering must be alleviated. Why, then, has Israel failed to come to a short-term truce with Hamas? Israeli mistrust of Hamas is profound. Those who support the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority are likely to be the most hawkish on the blockade and matters involving Gaza. Moreover, it is not clear that Hamas speaks with one voice—its political wing may understand the value of avoiding war, but its military wing may not.
Ultimately, opined Friedman, the international community may need to insert itself into the complex dynamic among Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli approach is tactical, not strategic. Humanitarian arguments are denounced as risks and sacrifices in a zero-sum game. Yet conflict in Gaza can’t be allowed to fester to the brink of war.
“You do not get a peace agreement with the Palestinians without Gaza,” noted Friedman.
As tensions heighten between Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the future of American relationships in the Gulf hangs in the balance. On Tuesday, the Hudson Institute hosted a panel entitled, “Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Trump Administration: Stability or Upheaval?” Speakers Mohammed Khalid Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, Fatimah S. Baeshen of the Arabia Foundation, and Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute warned against Qatar’s behavior but suggested America steer a middle course: court Qatari support in the fight against ISIS, but validate GCC concerns. The panel was moderated by Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith.
Since the former Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani was succeeded by his son Tamim bin Hamad al Thani in 2013, the new Qatari leader has gone to great lengths to put the small Arab country of approximately 300,000 citizens on the map. Part of this effort has involved reckless political adventurism by which the Qatari government simultaneously aids Iran and Al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups in Syria, or hosts firebrand religious clerics on state-run news network Al Jazeera.
“I think Qatar will go down in history as the friend and enemy of everybody at the same time,” remarked Alyahya.
According to Pregent, Qatar appeases Americans with the Al Udeid air base in order to distract from its other activities. The Qatari government had expected a Clinton administration to continue the legacy of Obama-era leniency. Instead, the world was greeted by the election of zealously anti-terrorist, anti-Iran Donald Trump.
Until now, Qatar’s political game has been largely risk-free due to the country’s small citizen population and high GDP per capita, both of which prevent the formation of any significant opposition party. Instead, observed Alyahya, the effects of Qatar meddling and finance – including a recent ransom payment of up to $1 billion to an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria and Iranian security officials and regional Shia militias in Iraq – are borne by Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The GCC blockade is apparently an attempt to impose consequences for Qatar’s habit of playing all sides.
The United States has several means at its disposal to curb Qatar’s behavior. Together with the GCC blockade and its soft power, the United States could exert pressure on the small Arab nation to cease its support for Islamist terrorist organizations. Ideally, the US would offer incentives for Qatar to prosecute US-designated terrorists to the same degree that they currently prosecute UN-designated ones. Yet the Qatari Al Udeid air base is critical, and the United States has short-term objectives such as defeating ISIS that will require Qatari support. As Qatar opens to Iran, the United States and Qatar are headed for an impasse. This will affect American capabilities in the fight against ISIS.
Meanwhile United States-Saudi Arabia relations are warming considerably under President Trump, after frosty relations in the Obama years. Saudi Arabia is a close and valued ally against ISIS, along with Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Moreover, the Kingdom – which announced the King’s son Mohammed bin Salman as the new Crown Prince just last month – appears to be entering a period of relative liberality. In the last five years alone, explained Baeshen, there has been considerable improvement in freedom of speech. This phenomenon is manifest in political satire on social media sites such as Twitter, which is not, and has never been, blocked in the Kingdom.
As the rift between Qatar and the rest of the GCC countries widens, the United States will have to maintain a cautious balancing act between exerting pressure on Doha and courting its cooperation in the fight against ISIS. At the very least, thawing relations with Saudi Arabia present a note of hope.
The Trump Administration is failing, both domestically and internationally.
On the domestic front, last night’s collapse of Republican support for the repeal and replacement of Obama’s health care legislation ends any reasonable prospect of legislative action on this front. Republican Senate leader McConnell says he will bring simple repeal to a vote, which is what President Trump says he now wants.
Were it to pass, the US health care system would be thrown into chaos, with damaging economic consequences. More likely, it will never come to a vote. Instead, the President and his virulently anti-Obamacare Secretary of Health and Human Services will instead try to weaken Obamacare through executive action. That will also cause enormous economic uncertainty and risk stalling an aging economic recovery.
Even if somehow the healthcare debacle is resolved, the Administration needs to raise the debt ceiling by the end of September, in order to avoid a US Government default. There is no agreement yet among Republicans (the Democrats count for little as they are in the minority) on when and how to do this. Since it is a “must-pass” measure, members will try to hang lots of other things onto it, likely delaying passage until the last conceivable moment.
On the international front, it is now clear that not only the President himself but also his son, Don Jr., welcomed and encouraged Russian help during the election campaign, along with the campaign manager and the President’s son-in-law. Special Counsel Mueller will now have to determine whether their behavior violated the legal prohibition on soliciting or accepting foreign assistance.
Judicial standards of proof are much higher than journalistic ones, so we’ll just have to wait and see what Mueller concludes, but in the meanwhile the White House has been reduced to arguing that nothing they did could possibly be illegal, even if it involved active collusion with Moscow. No one should be surprised if Trump welcomes gives Moscow back its spy facilities and the personnel that Obama expelled in retaliation for interference in the US election.
On other issues, the news is no better:
- North Korea: The Administration failed to prevent Pyongyang from testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, as the President promised he would do. His efforts to convince China to get tough with Kim Jong-un have likewise failed. Instead, Seoul is breaking with the US hard line and seeking talks with the North. Trump’s bluster and bullying has gotten him no result at all on the Korean Peninsula.
- Qatar crisis: While the President was encouraging Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to go after Qatar about terrorist financing, his Secretaries of State and Defense have been trying to smooth things over, fearing that Qatar might lean farther towards Iran due to the blockade Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have levied. Mediation efforts (mainly by Kuwait) have so far failed. The Gulf Cooperation Council remains split and weakened, while someone in Washington yesterday leaked intelligence saying the Emirates intentionally provoked the crisis by hacking into Qatari broadcasts with false information about statements the Qatari Emir never made. This is the umpteenth time the Trump Administration has suffered leaks, which of course it denounces but then does nothing about.
- The Islamic State: The military operations to liberate Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS are proceeding, but it is increasingly clear that there are no viable plans for stabilization, reconstruction and governance thereafter. In Mosul, ISIS resistance continues, despite the victory celebration led by Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi. In Raqqa, the Kurdish-led forces taking the city are likely to face Turkish, Syrian government and Iranian resistance once they succeed.
None of these issues is even close to being resolved. All are likely to get more challenging in the future. I confess to Schadenfreude: this Administration and Congress are proving as incoherent and incompetent as predicted. But it is not fun to watch your country paralyzed and weakened. There is no quick way out of the debacle we are in.