Saudi Arabia lays the groundwork for war with Iran

Vijay Prashad writes that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) of Saudi Arabia has decided to take the country into uncharted waters with his internal crackdown on corruption, that has resulted in 11 princes and about 200 businessmen that include people who control sources of power (such as the National Guard) that might challenge him, arrested and detained in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, and his military adventurism in the region. He has also challenged the power of the clerical class in that country by decreeing that women can drive.

But Prashad says that it is not clear where he really wants to go with all these moves.

There is incoherence in the Crown Prince’s vision. On the one hand he wants to weaken the hold of the obscurantist clerics, but on the other hand he has taken a hard line against Iran—the very position that fans the flames of obscurantism in the Kingdom. It is sectarianism that is tinder for the clerics, a sectarianism that drove Saudi Arabia’s failed policies in Iraq, Qatar, Syria and Yemen. The Crown Prince’s sectarian wars have not succeeded. He has failed to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria and failed to pacify the Yemeni people. He has failed to bring Qatar to heel and failed to lessen Iran’s power in Iraq. His tantrum over Lebanon has resulted in a serious political crisis in that country, but it will not succeed in weakening Hezbollah. All this only provides fodder for the obscurantists inside Saudi Arabia. Allowing women to drive is of course an important forward step, but it is hardly going to break the power of the obscurantist clerics over Saudi society.

It is his aggressive attitude towards Iran that has elicited concern. Even though Iran is Shia-dominated and Saudi Arabia is Sunni-dominated, Murtaza Hussain writes that they share many similarities.

Despite their sectarian and ethnic differences, in many ways the two rivals are more similar to each other than the rest of their neighbors. Both are repressive petro-states that employ state religion as a tool for keeping their people in line. Both try to use sectarian identity as a way to cultivate their influence abroad. And both are seeking to establish themselves as regional hegemons, heedless of the destruction that their efforts cause.

What is really dangerous is the way that MBS seems to be itching to start a war with Iran, with the latest move comparing the supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Hitler, a remark that drew a contemptuous response and a warning from Iran.

Iran reacted harshly by saying that Salman was discredited internationally by his “immature” behavior, state television reported.

“No one in the world and in the international arena gives credit to him because of his immature and weak-minded behavior and remarks,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying.

“Now that he has decided to follow the path of famous regional dictators … he should think about their fate as well.”

The US media has faithfully followed the line adopted by successive US administrations, treating Iran like a major threat to world peace while ignoring Saudi Arabia’s horrendous record domestically and US complicity in its military actions against others. The latest example is the CBS new program 60 Minutes that had an entire segment on the war in Yemen and the immense suffering there because of the Saudi bombing campaign without once mentioning that the US supplies the munitions that are being dropped and provide refueling for the Saudi bombers.

On Sunday, “60 Minutes” aired a 13-minute segment on the war’s devastating humanitarian toll. The program featured imagery of starving children and interviews with displaced people, all obtained after Saudi Arabia blocked “60 Minutes” from entering the country.

“You keep going like you’re going, there’s not going to be anybody left,” David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, told CBS’s Scott Pelley. “All the children are going to be dead.”

Still, the program did not once mention that Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, and that U.S. support is essential for the Saudi campaign to continue.

For two-and-a-half years, the U.S. government has backed Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen every step of the way. The United States has dispatched warships to reinforce the blockade. It has refueled Saudi planes, sent the Saudi military targeting intelligence, and resupplied them with tens of billions of dollars worth of bombs.

The U.S. has had the power to pull the plug on the intervention since the beginning. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year veteran of the CIA, explained last year that “if the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia], ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”

That means that for years, former President Barack Obama — and now President Donald Trump — had the power to stop the bombing campaign in an instant. Instead, U.S. government officials have watched Saudi Arabia use American weapons on homes, markets, farms, water infrastructure, hospitals, and children’s schools, and made a conscious decision to continue that support for the sake of not upsetting a regional ally.

The US has long had the goal of overthrowing the government of Iran yet again. They previously overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and replaced him the dictator Shah of Iran, a fact that rarely gets mentioned in US media. But it may be that this time they are planning to use Saudi Arabia as a proxy and surrogate. But if the Saudis are having so much trouble in Yemen, a desperately poor and weak country, it will not breed confidence that they will have success with Iran.

Rather that the media focusing on Saudi atrocities, we have puff pieces like this one from the BBC where a reporter wandered through the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh where MBS has detained all the people in his supposed war on corruption.


  1. file thirteen says

    The United States has … supplied them with tens of billions of dollars worth of bombs

    U.S. government officials have … made a conscious decision to continue that support for the sake of not upsetting a regional ally the munitions sales

  2. jrkrideau says

    I think “letting women drive” while commendable is a minor point but likely to garner support from younger Saudia, particularly the Western educated men and women.

    Going from memory and as Prashad mentions, in the last year, Mohammad Bin Salman has cracked down on some (many?) of the more fanatical Salafist preachers and, most radically, removed the power of arrest from the religious police.

    I’d question the sub-title of the article. A population figure of 33 million is misleading. There may be 33 million people in the Kingdom but a large fraction of them are foreign workers. The CIA World Fact Book suggests about one third of the population are foreign workers. That gives what to me seems like a more reasonable estimate of about 22 million Saudi.

    The US has long had the goal of overthrowing the government of Iran yet again. … But it may be that this time they are planning to use Saudi Arabia as a proxy and surrogate.

    At one level, say, that of the long-term neo-cons in Washington and some military officers this seems quite possible. Their grasp of reality does not seem to have improved since Afghanistan or the Iraqi cakewalk.

    At the level of “official”, if one can use this term for the Trump shambles, I doubt it, simply because the USA does no seem to have any organized, let alone, coherent foreign policy, save perhaps “let’s annoy the hell out of ever the member of the UN. Oh, we missed Taiwan? Toss them in with the rest”.

    Foreign policy development by Presidential tweet does not seem the best approach.

    On the Saudi side, MBS is quite likely to accept US aid if it makes sense for the him but, rash as he seems, he probably is not foolish enough to trust a rudderless US administration.

    And something that the policy whizzes in Washington are sure to miss is that Washington and Riyadh purposes are not likely to be all that closely aligned.

    MBS is completely correct that the Kingdom needs comprehensive reform, well should have had it 35-40 years ago, at least, but he has formidable opposition and his propensity for (failed) foreign adventures probably means he will have too expended too much political capital to pull it off. It is, also, not clear that he has the right temperament to do this but there may be no one else.

    Kidnapping a lot of princes and assorted billionaires and holding them for ransom until they return some of the money they looted from the Kingdom is a novel approach to budgeting. The extra capital may buy him some leeway but, given his losses on the international front, I get the feeling that he is in real trouble.

    Oh, I saw an updated estimate yesterday--no idea of the reliability--suggesting there may be anywhere from 150 billion to 800 billion dollars parked in the Hilton up from Prashad’s conservative 33 billion.

    As an afterthought, the real desire for change, especially among the younger population may give him a better chance than I first thought, but it seems a faint hope.

  3. aashiq says

    This is a collaboration between MBS, Kushner, and Netanyahu to continue what was started in Iraq. If the Mideast can continue to be destabilized along sectarian and religious lines, that allows Israel to be the regional overlord. Iran (and later Turkey) remain the irritants. MBS is a 32 year old kid being played by crafty old men.

    Tom Friedman wrote a glowing piece on how cool MBS’s reforms were. When Friedman cheerleads, watch out!

    “Israel and the clash of civilizations” by Jonathan Cook is a well researched book worth reading. Cook lives in Israel, where there is freedom of the press, and free speech. In the US, there is a bill making its way through Congress to imprison and fine people who advocate the boycott of Israel. No other entity or person is protected in this way. Makes one wonder if the US is now a colony.

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