The How-To of Hegemony (Or: How To Rule The World And Get Away With It)

You had a bad day.  Plans fell through; a date went badly; something you really hoped would happen didn’t.  But it’s cool.  As the world’s hegemon, you know you’ll feel better once you’ve sent your drones against a beach full of screaming children.  Because you’re the world hegemon, and you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want.

But getting there ain’t precisely the smoothest of rides.  Smarter, tougher, and luckier people than you have all taken a stab and ended up shot in a bunker, probably poisoned, or dead before your mid-30s.

So how do you avoid their fates?  Mostly, luck and patience.  Oh, and using the How-To Guide of Hegemony.

First, hegemony defined

“Hegemony” comes from the Greek “hegemon,” which means “ruler” or “leader”, and which is very different than an empire, kingdom, or nation-state.  The United States isn’t really an empire because it doesn’t control large swathes of foreign territory directly (Puerto Rico and other territories blur that line a bit, but those territories are more or less free to join the U.S. or quit it as they like, undermining the imperial categorization).

The U.S. does run a big and effective hegemony.  It’s got various alliance systems all over the world that overlap with one another. None of them could function without the U.S.  All of them follow America’s general lead.  This is your ideal world: a place where you call the big shots and let the little guys deal with the details.

Rule #1 – You’ll need some large, productive land, with great access to the sea

The “geo” in “geopolitics” is all about geography.  Geography dictates what futures are possible.  Alexander the Great could have never built an empire from Athens – Athens was too small to support the army he needed.  Conversely, democracy couldn’t have been invented in Macedonia – Macedonia had too many military frontiers to let such a fickle system of government survive for long.  In both cases, geography made certain choices possible and others impossible.

Thus you need a big country with loads of resources within its borders.  The more isolated, the better, and preferably isolated by sea.  There is such a thing as “too big” – Russia’s long frontiers are not ideal, and Canada’s frozen tundra, while both isolated and massive, isn’t really superb for superpower building.

You’ll need natural and widespread rivers that can transport resources from one place to another.  Think of these as free superhighways.  And they should stay ice-free for as much of the year as possible.  In general, you want a country that is neither too hot nor too cold with long, stable growing seasons.

Most of all, you should have enough strategic resources like oil, timber, metals, and foodstuffs to survive a blockade and still fight a war.  No nation is an island; trade matters, but your army should be able to fight well even under the worst possible circumstances.

Pretty ideal set-up: a big, predictable river that goes to the sea. Talk about savings!

Rule #2 – Know who you are

Your national identity is super important for cohesion.  You can’t have an army made up of different languages; that’ll play hell with command and control, but invariably some dick will say something like, “Wait, why are we fighting for those creeps who don’t speak our language?”  It’ll spiral downhill and you’ll either have to shoot that guy or watch him grab a piece of your country and make it his own.

What kind of national culture is pretty irrelevant to success so long it doesn’t crowd out reason and science.  If your culture is dominated by people who don’t believe the world is round, you’ll have a hell of a time convincing them to send a naval expedition to bomb somewhere in Africa.  Barring that, you can adopt any language, religion, and national traits you like so long as you have the geography to produce a well-populated, well-fed, and resource-secure state.  Go ahead and worship the Moon Reptiles!  Just make sure your culture can understand why it may be advantageous to establish missile bases on the moon one day.

To establish this secure identity, you can use either force or persuasion.  Force means either shooting, expelling, or exterminating those who don’t share your national identity and, while this can create a Here Today, Gone Tomorrow situation with some ethnic rebels giving you trouble, it can also waste military resources on campaigns better not fought and create excuses for other foreign powers to meddle in your country.  Oh, if only Serbia hadn’t tried to ethnically cleanse Kosovo in 1999!

Persuasion is slower, but safer.  Control of national media helps, but mostly this is about education.  Your enemies won’t invade your country if you try to abolish local languages in schools and the workplace, but these tactics don’t always work.  Japan tried to bring its language to Korea during its long period of colonization.  Korea has neither forgiven nor forgotten that.

In all likelihood, you’ll have to do a mixture of both – burn out a few villages, deport an ethnic region or two, but always avoid appearing to be too much like Hitler.  If you’re lucky, you’ll take power in a country that’s already done this deep in the past.  American presidents, after all, don’t have to take responsibility for the crimes of the U.S. cavalry in the 19th century, and British monarchs don’t feel bad about their ancestors wiping out the Catholics in the 16th century.

Rule #3 – Don’t let other powers form coalitions against you

Nobody likes a winner who is too blatant about winning.  If you’ve ever played a game of Risk, you’ll know that everyone gangs up on someone who gets too powerful, too early.  There’s a point in the game where you can suddenly surge forward and win by appearing to be #2 or #3, but being an obvious #1 too early is often fatal.

So while you’ll have to be aggressive there and again, you can’t be too aggressive, and certainly not too successful.  Losing a war isn’t the end of the world, in this view, because it can reinforce an nonthreatening view of you.  The last thing you want is a coalition against you that checks your rise.

Oh, stupid Mr. Hitler ignored this to his peril.  What if he’d stopped in 1938 with Austria and died in his bed in the 1960s or 70s?  Germany certainly could have avoided nearly five decades of division.

Britain and the U.S., conversely, both did bang-up jobs of avoiding being too strong until it was too late for their enemies to stop them.  It wasn’t until the defeat of Napoleon that Britain secured its prominent position in Europe, but even then it had the good sense to balance European powers off one another to create the illusion that a coalition of powers on the continent could check its ambitions.  Its leaders skillfully played Europe against itself while building the world’s largest empire.

The U.S., meanwhile, kept from using its full power until the day came when it was forced to.  The U.S. could have taken a stab at world domination as early as 1900, but had it done so, would have forced Europe to unite.  Rather, it waited until Europe went mad in World War II and then jumped on the opportunity.  Which leads us to Rule #4.

If they all train their guns on you, you’ve fucked up.

Rule #4 – Exploit chaos when you can get something out of it

You’re busy trying not to alarm anyone by being too successful, but you realize that your power stock isn’t going anywhere fast unless you take down the other great states in the world.  This is easier than it looks; great powers compete with one another over time, and eventually they stumble into wars.  Your best bet is to stay out of their conflcits as much as possible.  Rather, you should aim to be the decisive force for any one side.  You get to pick the winners; then, you get to sit at the table and split the spoils.

Don’t pick friends; pick allies you can drop when you need to.  Let others make mistakes, fight bad wars, grow weaker, and bide your time until a critical moment comes when your influence can be most felt.  You’ll have to do this more than once and it could take decades.  But if you do it right, you’ll end up being the most powerful nation in the world by virtue of letting others exhaust themselves for dominance.

Rule $5 – Enforce your hegemony selectively

Now that you’ve slipped past the other great powers and become a superpower, you must keep the peace.  You’ll need to have strong rules on what wars are worth fighting and which ones aren’t.  You can’t make the world a utopia, and if you try, you’ll be creating the chaos you were just told to avoid.  Instead, you have to fight selectively and purposefully.  All wars should underpin your domination of each region and should do one of two things: divide regions further or replace regional military forces with your own.

You can, on occasion, be a good guy, but only if it’s on the cheap and it can be successful.  Remember that your enemies still wait in the wings and will take advantage of a slip-up by you to expand their own power and influence, so don’t fight wars you can’t lose.  Think of everything in terms of percentages – what’s the percentage of GDP you’ll siphon by invading this country or that, what’s the percentage of casualties your population will put up with, etc.  Absolute numbers don’t matter; a big country like yours can lose 10,000 men in a single battle if that battle is worth fighting.

All other powers must be corralled and watched.  Any attempt by them to grow should be painful, slow, and dangerous.  As much incentive as possible must exist to prevent them from matching you.  All-out war isn’t preferable; remember, you can’t afford such things with your forces spread worldwide.  Instead, you use your many tools to check would-be competitors, using regional forces to support you, and hopping from one foot to the other as crisis requires.

If at all possible,  make people accept and even need your hegemony.  When people complain about you too much, simply step back from a crisis you can afford to let simmer.  When everyone realizes nobody but you can solve it, your popularity will suddenly rebound.  And make sure nobody but you can be that fixer-upper!  Should another state slide into that role, you’re in trouble.

Fight small wars you can afford to lose and avoid big wars you can’t predict.

Keep the peace until one day you can do away with nation-states entirely

A truly successful hegemon should be the last one.  Rather than replaying history by falling and being replaced, your ultimate goal should be a slow, steady process of standardization and unification that takes place so slowly that nobody’s the wiser when they wake up one day and there aren’t countries anymore.  That’ll take at least a hundred years, if not more, because you’ll have to wait for entire generations to naturally die off and be replaced by more globalized youth.  But as an immortal, you’ve got the time.

From securing your geography, you then secure your identity to something that works.  Once united, you can prevent others from uniting against you; being selectively passive generally works.  In the meantime, you exploit others mistakes until the world recognizes you as the only power capable of keeping the peace.  Then you keep that peace for as long as necessary, ending the nation-state system and replacing it with something better.

Or you succumb to the cycle of history, lose everything, and get shot in a bunker.  Either way, you’ve had a great time.  Be patient; be balanced; if you’re lucky enough to have a good starting point, the odds favor you.  And have fun!  It might take a century or two, but if played right, you get to be the guy (or gal) whose name is synonymous with Pax Yourcountryana.

The Role of Trauma in Building a Nation-State

In the abstract of geopolitical discussion, it’s easy to forget that, when you talk about states breaking or nations splitting, you’re talking about large groups of people suffering unbelievable trauma.  I just watched this, from Aleppo in Syria, which details what seems to be a ballistic missile strike in a neighborhood (and it’s just as graphic as it sounds).  Doubtless there is a deep trauma happening here; doubtless people are changed forever by this; doubtless they will tell their children what it was like surviving a missile attack.

Trauma is part of our biological hardwiring.  It teaches us not to do something in order to survive.  On a mass scale, trauma teaches mass lessons and allows societies to build.  But to get there, the trauma must be deep, lasting, and widespread.  The missile attack affected and traumatized a small neighborhood.  Its lessons remain localized.  But the civil war in general is a trauma affecting the entire nation of Syria.  Its lessons are yet to be seen.

Learned from mass graves

English: The United Nations Human Development ...

The darker the blue, the less likely to go genocidal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the biggest traumas ever to hit civilization was World War II.  From it, societies learned that racism, imperialism, aggressive conquest, and industrialized warfare were ineffective ways to ensure security and immoral ways to run societies.  Societies also learned how to conform to achieve national goals; how to sacrifice for a nation-state; plus how to unite in the face of outside aggression. However, places that missed the war often missed those lessons.

Economic trauma teaches just as well

The Great Depression prevented our recent Great Recession from spiraling out of control.  Why?  Because we’d already learned what not to do.  As awful as it was to bail out banks, we knew that failing to do so would hurt a great deal more.

Industrialization changes a society in a massive way, as well.  People who used to live in wide open spaces working at their own pace are forced into cramped conditions where they no longer dictate their daily lives.  You can tell the difference between the two; the rugged individualistic farmer vs. the overworked and stressed out factory worker.  From the factory worker, you get your modern office drones.  This is not human nature.  It’s conditioned by economics.

Alas, the developing world is still learning

Imperialism died out because it grew inefficient, but it also died out because, out of the horrors of World War II, few Europeans were willing to kill natives the way their grandfathers did.  They’d become civilized, and so when it became clear they weren’t wanted, they went home.

From the twin pillars of industrialization and World War II, developed nations learned how to function in the modern world.  Much of the developing world is now undergoing a form of industrialization, and so tribes, local cultures, and other identities are being crushed under the weight of the conformity that such an economic system demands.  But few of these places suffered World War II.

Hence, the reason why the Middle East and Africa are such a mess

English: Shows traditional location of "F...

Blue are the West, red are the communists, and greens are the “left behinds.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In neither region did World War II go very far.  Local cultures have dim memories of the event, and certainly no grandfathers who can tell stories of finding concentration camps or coming across mass graves.  As horrible as what’s happening in Syria is, these atrocities have been committed before, somewhere else, within the developed world.  We know from cultural memory that they’re terrible.  Syrians are, alas, learning firsthand the evils of this kind of war.

Their society after the war will be fundamentally different.  Individual rights will probably matter a great deal more than tribal or family rights.  A war with Israel will be far less appealing.

Egypt is too facing this down now.  They haven’t learned that peaceful cooperation is better than the murderous power politics they’re playing.  Remember that developed nations of today invented and then tried out Nazism, communism, and imperialism; they’ve got the memory that those things are bad ideas.  Egypt does not.  So Egypt will now learn the hard way.

It’s not the only reason places get violent

But it’s one reason why developed nations that go poor are less likely to become violent than developing ones.  Having your hand burned on the stove hurts; you know better the second time around.  Alas, for much of the world’s population, they’re burning their hands right now.



Why Saudi is Fucked

Towns of hejaz arabic

Notice all the brown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even the name sounds foreign.  Hear it properly in Arabic, with its deep, swallowed sounds at center of the word, سعيدي and it’s hard to imagine a further away place.  Saudi Arabia is, on the one hand, on the frontiers of Western imagination, a closed off, secret place associated with hot weather, sand dunes, and terrorists.  It can seem baffling to an outsider, a walled off portion of the world beyond normal rules and comprehension.  But like all human societies, the rules of geopolitics still apply.  Figuring it out – and guessing its next move – is merely a matter of getting your facts down.

Arabia’s really fucking hot

Arabia is one of the most God-forsaken places on Earth. It’s a super hard place for humans to live, and ranks with Antarctica in its desolation.  That the word “Arab” and “desert” are nearly synonymous is no accident, and Arabic as a language still feels constrained to the sands, as if it’s only natural in a hot, dry place.

Its complications stem from that.  Arabia is divided into three topological zones – the vast, shitty sandy deserts, the slightly less miserable but equally dry mountain ranges, and the handful of relatively temperature mountain clusters.

And its geography makes water hard to find

In the sandy deserts, life is almost impossible.  Thanks to the oases and wells scattered under the surface, people have made do for thousands of years in clusters of tents and small villages.  The mountain ranges trap some moisture and allow a bit of pasture, but are only marginally less rough than the desert sands.

Because it was so hard to find even water, let alone food, the scattered peoples of the desert spent a great deal of time and energy finding and securing both.  They had less time to think about esoteric ideals, like wondering if rape was bad or if bad was even worth worrying about at all.  Culture was based upon chauvinistic strength as each group of people gathered into family-based tribes.  Tribes that went against this grain were quickly wiped out.  Literally, only the strong survived.

Around particularly large oases, towns and villages formed.  But if that oasis dried up, that community was fucked and everyone either fled or died in rapid order.  Water security was so difficult to guarantee that as soon as a civilization got going it fell apart because of lack of rain. The famous Iram of the Pillars (located in western Oman) was once a major trading city, but died a quick death as soon as its well went dry, consigned to the dust heap of legend.

Yemen was an exception, but may as well have been an island. Its power could never extend into the desert wastes.  Patrolling, supplying, and securing the desert was a vast sink of money and it was far better for the kings of Yemen’s various dynasties to fight one another or to go looking for slave girls in Ethiopia.  It’s for good reason that Yemen’s early history is far more tied up with the Horn of Africa than it is with Arabia.

These three zones made it goddamn hard to take over the whole thing

Arabian geography is not disposed to social or political unity.  In the west are a series of mountains in varying degrees of miserable and tolerable.  These were relatively easy to travel through and unify, but so poor it was often not worth it.

In the central and eastern deserts, communities clung to oases and wells, surviving by networks of traders bringing goods in and out.  Only in two places – Oman and Bahrain – did proper civilizations form.  Bahrain had a lovely fresh water oasis that remains in use to this day.  Oman had a set of mountain ranges that trapped moisture and recharged wells all along its coast. Both, however, were isolated by the deserts and found it far cheaper to communicate and expand via sea.  It’s no accident Oman’s empire went into Africa, to Zanzibar and Tanzania, rather than geographically closer central and western Arabia.

Imagine you’re in charge of two buildings.  You can’t call or signal the other building because they can’t hear or see you and you don’t have a phone or the Internet.  You have to physically send someone over there to find out what the fuck they’re doing and to tell them what they should be doing.  But it takes six months to get a message back and then forth.  Your messenger may well die along the way, too, and it’d take months to find that out.  Meanwhile, your second building is paralyzed with indecision – they’ve got calls only you can make.  How long until that second building says fuck it and starts doing things on their own?  How long until your appointed manager decides he can get away with start his own company and pocketing the profit himself?

Arabia is the same way.  The west, the Hejaz, was connected to the old centers of civilization up north via roads and trade routes.  An army from Syria or Egypt could come down to Yemen by land and reasonably expect not to die of heat exhaustion on the way.  But eastern Arabia may as well be on Tatooine inside George Lucas’s head.  In between, it’s even worse, more like Frank Herbert’s Dune, full of nasty shit that itched to kill travelers.

Islam created a resource where before there were none

Prior to Islam, hardly anyone bothered with Arabia.  Alexander the Great thought of conquering it on a whim before he died in Babylon.  Rome sent troops and then, like a drunk sobering up during sex with an ugly person, pulled out as soon as they got a good look.

English: Kaaba at the heart of Mecca. As the n...

The sacred Kaaba at the heart of Mecca. This thing is a major cash cow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Persia often just said, “Mine” in regards to the Gulf coast and nobody felt like disputing it.

Islam, therefore, proved to be a boom to this otherwise unfuckable landscape.  One of Islam’s main stipulations is that you must visit Mecca before you die if you can afford it.  As Islam gathered converts, more and more came to Mecca and dumped heaps of cash on an otherwise unappealing place.

The holy city, therefore, was the first must-have resource Arabia ever possessed.  Suddenly, regional powers had a reason to invade.

And invade they did

Nobody but a Muslim power could benefit from Mecca’s pilgrims and the legitimacy the city bestowed (Nothing says “God loves me” like being charge of a holy city).  Attack from the east was physically unfeasible (although, be it noted, not impossible), so only powers with bases in Syria and Egypt could move into the Hejaz.  Unfortunately for Yemen, they often kept going south until they reached Aden.  But they dared not waste their time trying to extend themselves over the whole peninsula.  Not only would their armies likely die out, but there was nothing of value out there.

Meanwhile, in the desert, the natives remained restless

Competition in the sands was fierce.  Fighting over wells and water resources sucked up most of their time.  Tribes lived by raiding one another and any settled communities to get manufactured goods like coffee pots and weapons.  But while they accepted Islam, this hardly made them any more peaceful or enlightened.  Their isolation from the mainstream discussions about Islam kept them from developing their religion in line with Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran.

This isolation also convinced them of their superiority as a culture, especially as they noticed that nobody but their culture group could survive in their desert.  All their bad (and good) habits were eventually declared to be bestowed and sanctified by God, from cousin fucking to woman whipping.  Nothing shut up the kids when they dared question their parents’ values by saying God wanted them to marry the hideous unibrow in the family.

And so it went until the 20th century

Without technology, people couldn’t get at the water deep underground.  Without water, they couldn’t afford to build cities and develop industries where they could manufacture goods for trade.  Without trade, they couldn’t get the technology to get the party started.  It was a thrilling cycle.

People did try to unify the place, but found that rather hard

Tribes organized and battered one another, occasionally achieving supremacy but always collapsing under their own weight and infighting.

And it all boiled down to the lack of water and food

A successful tribe, having driven out their enemy or, better yet, butchered them all, naturally divided the spoils amongst themselves and their allies.  These spoils were, more often than not, water and food.  This increased their survivability and made them prone to winning the next battle, since they were in better health than their enemies.

A tribe could snowball this and end up with quite a bit of territory.  But a critical breaking point was invariably reached.  Either the tribe overpopulated, and found themselves ironically weakened by all their success, or their own members started to get greedy, causing infighting rival tribes took advantage of.

Had a tribe gotten super lucky and actually put together a near-kingdom, they’d quickly pose a threat to the nearby great power occupying Mecca.  That great power would then roll into the desert, smoke out a few oases, and retreat again, leaving the tribes in disarray to start over.  So even if a tribe got to the point of nearly settling the interminable wars of the interior, some foreigner would roll in and screw it all up.

Because reading and writing outside of religious studies weren’t priorities for the tiny populations of the desert, history in the interior is fuzzy.  We know for a fact that this happened at least twice to the Saudi family, who built two kingdoms in the 18th and 19th century and then saw them collapse from internal squabbling or Turkish invasion.

English: Saudi Arabia

Saudi’s various regions. The ever-so-creatively named Eastern Province is where Saudi’s oil is located. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, outsiders carved up those bits worth carving

The Ottomans in the Hejaz developed rail lines to Mecca and Medina to help facilitate the cash flow brought by pilgrims from all over the Muslim world.  Until the 1930s, this was the only reason for a great power to bother.  When Britain fought Turkey in World War I, it outsourced the Arabian front to Arab tribes since Mecca had almost no value to them as a Christian power.

Britain, meanwhile, grabbed the east the same way as the Persians in antiquity – by sailing in and saying “Mine,” taking over with minimal effort.  A Political Agent in Bahrain oversaw the entire Gulf and his main duties seem to have been to complain about the weather and remark on how boring his post was.

But oil changed the game quite suddenly

In the 1930s, geologists found Arabia’s second must-have resource.  By this time, the Saudis had gotten lucky and had set up another proto-state, even securing Mecca and Medina. The collapse of the Ottoman Turks meant no outside power was hovering overhead, ready to intervene.

The new imperial power in town, Great Britain, had a different set of priorities entirely.  Seeing no value from Arabia, Britain desired only quiet frontiers with its mandates in Jordan and Iraq.  Anyone who ruled the interior had to provide that.  The Saudis took the hint, and when some of their more hardcore warriors, the Ikhwan, started to raid British territories, the Saudis turned on them with a vengeance and wiped them out.  Britain was duly grateful and sought not to interfere in Saudi’s nascent kingdom.

With Britain keeping neighboring powers out, the Saudi family got critical breathing space.  When oil was found, it duly set up companies and oil derricks.  Britain was not bothered with grabbing any of this up – they’d found plenty in Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, and Iran, all British holdings at the time.  Only the U.S. was willing to invest in the horrible Arabian desert.

And so the state of Saudi Arabia was born

Without oil, Saudi would no doubt have collapsed yet again into anarchy, given enough time.  Water and food are simply too scarce there to allow a proper state, which have to have dense populations, to survive.  But oil allowed the Saudis to buy up heaps of technology to come in and change the environment while at the same time buying off the tribes, families, and regions who otherwise might have challenged them.

The fact that they had more money than God made everything possible. Rebellion was a thing of the past.  The tribesmen, ever hungry, were happy to be given free meals.

And free meals led to free everything else

With each passing year, the Saudi family had to up the ante for their subjects.  By the 1970s, it wasn’t enough to just be fed, and the Saudis started to build free houses, offer free education all the way through university, and set up free health care centers.  With their small population and massive oil income, they could import all of this from the outside world.

As Britain withdrew from the Middle East in 1971, America stepped in to secure oil supplies.  Once more, Saudi could count its borders safe as America’s fleets and armies guaranteed their integrity.  In addition to oil income, which they did hardly any work for, Saudis could also write off national defense.  Everything was easy street.

But the nature of their ruling system meant they could change little else

The Saudis were blood-stained conquerors who’d won their kingdom by killing everyone who stood in their way.  Upon finishing that, desert tradition required them to dole out the spoils to their new subjects.  Rebellion was stifled so long as these spoils arrived on time and in sufficient quantity.  Change of leadership was out of the question for everyone concerned.

So the culture got frozen in time

The Saudis, too, had not gone through the same process as other Arab and Muslims states.  These had encountered foreign cultures, fought and lost wars against them, and learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t.  Saudis, many of them illiterate, had little to no memory of their failed proto-states and knew only that God have given them oil and with it shitloads of money.  They could be forgiven for suffering from cultural and religious arrogance, even xenophobia.

The ruling system was therefore entirely based on the supposedly supreme values of the desert.  Although the ruling family always came first, they had to delegate, and so power was dispersed to those most conservative and most traditional.

Quickly, this resulted in myth-making and fantasy as Saudis basically made up their own history to justify their modern decisions (and they must have been quite pleased their ancestors were mostly illiterate fucks who might otherwise have contradicted them).  What was already a hardline form of Islam became totalitarian, seizing radio, TV, press, and education.  It then started to spread to other countries, believing their superior culture needed only to be exposed to the ignorant masses to establish supremacy.

In the meantime, technology made a shitty environment rather palatable

English: Kingdom Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia....

All them goddamn lights ain’t cheap. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Air conditioning, deep well pumps, desalination, cars, airplanes – all of it made the environment less important than it had been.  Riyadh, once just a barely-there oasis (the g-string of the Arabian world) barreled into a multi-million person city, complete with malls, parks, highways, and airports.  Babies that used to die of heat exhaustion in the tent went on to adulthood.  Families that had two dozen kids expecting only five to make it instead sent them all off to free university.  The population exploded and cities appeared from the dust.

The east-west divide became far less important strategically as roads and air links allowed the Saudi government to send directives at little cost.  All modern technology was used to justify and sanctify Saudi culture and to degrade both foreign cultures and any Muslims who didn’t follow the Saudi way of life.  As we’ve seen, the buckets of cash allowed Saudi to think God really did favor them.

And a weird fucking place was formed

Saudi Arabia has all the trappings of a proper country – a single language, ethnic group, religion, etc.  It’s physically united through roads and airports and its national army can travel to and fro without harassment.  It has all the ministries a country should.

But scratch the surface, and you’ll find the desert.  In order to keep power, the Saudi royal family has, with each generation, needed to keep bribing at higher and higher levels.  By the 1980s, food, housing, education, and healthcare weren’t enough; disposable income for toys, hookers in Thailand, and maids from the Philippines was the next step.

Alas, Saudi culture doesn’t mesh well with much besides living in a desert tent.  Few Saudis knew how to do much more than pray, live in the desert, and judge people for not praying the right way.  As immigrants set up businesses and industries, it was obvious Saudis had no idea how to do these jobs properly.

So Saudi’s government made jobs out of thin air, allowing Saudis to work for – well, the government itself.  Short hours and long holidays helped empty out the office and nobody expected anything to actually be done.  Can’t read or write?  No problem! In the Ministry of Education you need only find the door.  (Oh, it’s that one over there). It was just another way of giving handouts to key tribes.  A job was a bribe; in exchange, you were loyal.

This worked for a long time because oil meant Saudi didn’t have to compete in anything

From the 1970s until the 2000s, Saudi didn’t have to be good – or even competent – at any of its supposed industries or businesses.  Everything needed could be imported from abroad.  Technology was overseen by foreign experts who took fat, tax free paychecks.  Businesses of strategic importance were managed by immigrants.  Saudis themselves needed only visit the ATM, as far the government was concerned (and the ATMs were probably installed by guys from Pakistan).

This isn’t to say individual Saudi citizens weren’t gifted and intelligent people – many of them took advantage of the free university education offered and became bright people in their own right.  The problem, these gifted folks weren’t enough to run the country. The vast majority of citizens had no incentive to learn how to do anything except spend money and give lip service to their religion and culture.  It created a skills gap of epic proportions.

The result is that the Saudi economy doesn’t know how to do anything

Saudis don’t have the education level to run their own country.  Massive numbers of immigrants keep the system humming along.  Those few qualified Saudis that exist won’t be promoted over more loyal or better connected Saudis who don’t know a goddamn thing because the royal family doesn’t value proper education.  Properly educated people would notice the Saudi ruling system is bullshit and making things worse; even well-educated Saudi royals have probably noticed that.

The staggering ignorance still doesn’t matter – for now

So long as oil remains the primary income and immigrants remain willing to come into the country to work for tax free salaries, Saudis can get away with knowing nothing and doing less.  Their regional security is still secured by the United States – Iraq’s foray into Kuwait ended the era of cross border invasions in the Middle East for at least this generation.  So they can be isolated, dumb, and indolent.

But the oil money isn’t going as far as it once did

Oil money is used by the government to purchase loyalty.  But the price is being inflated rapidly.  Food, housing, healthcare, and education weren’t enough even in the 1980s – fun and entertainment had now entered the equation.  The level of fun and entertainment have become inflated with each passing year, as well.  One car’s not enough – most people want two cars.  And not Nissans anymore.  They want Landcruisers.  Oh, also, they don’t want to pay for gas.

It’s gotten so bad that it’s predicted, by the 2020s, Saudi may actually need to import oil to cover all its losses in the energy sector.  With gas, electricity, water, and air conditioning all subsidized, it’s no wonder Saudi is a horrifically wasteful place.

As salaries for worthless government workers go up, too, so also do prices in the Saudi economy.  The workers produce nothing and don’t increase wealth – only the oil income does that.  Inflation ravages and so the government has to pump ever more generous paychecks into the system.

The Saudi government says it realize this

Economic diversification and Saudization are the key words of the past decade.  Attempts to reform this or that, to globalize education, to make Saudi workers more productive run up against the hard expectations Saudis have spent nearly forty years developing.  Saudis want a lot and to work little.  They refuse in large numbers to take jobs that offer anything less.

King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz in 2002

King Abdullah waving and saying it’s all cool.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And it all stems from the fact that the most important value to the Saudi royal family is blind loyalty through blind piety

God wants the Saudis in charge, and if you love God you must love the royal family too.  Fuck everyone who says otherwise because they’re for sure going to Hell. This is the basic theme taught by the Saudi education system.

People who fail to follow these rules face immediate and harsh punishment. They’re not just going against the king, but against God, so honestly, to many religious people, no punishment is severe enough.

And so the Saudis have fucked themselves

To reform, Saudi must open the door to critical thinking to allow creative problem solving.  Alas, when you open that door, you can’t shut it again.  Critical thinking will notice asinine habits of Saudi society – like women being unable to drive, like people working very little but getting a whole lot because of family connections, like setting up farms in the middle of a sandy desert.  It will notice all these problems stem from the bribes doled out by the ruling family and that the central problem is the royal family itself.

And that’s when you get a revolution

A clever monarchy reforms itself out of power but keeps many of the privileges.  It does so at the pace its society is modernizing.  Britain did that quite well and so the House of Windsor continues to enjoy Buckingham Palace.  The French Bourbons, on the other hand, didn’t.

But unfortunately for the House of Saud, it’s impossible to tell just how quickly society is modernizing.  Normally, you can get the feel of things through a free press or pop culture or even the Internet.  But all those sources are controlled or regulated into oblivion, so even if Saudi’s government was watching carefully, they’d see nothing. It’s also happening at a pace unimagined before.  Britain had the whole Industrial Age to flip from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary one.  Saudi may have just ten or twenty years.

Worse, the currency of the realm is still conservatism.  Challenging this results in quick pushback from the religious folks, who are hardly above outright rebellion.  The Shah of Iran could tell stories of what happens to a guy who modernizes too fast for his peoples’ liking.

Right now, bribes and fear keep the locals in line

If only Emperor Palpatine had used the Death Star to destroy planets and shower them with free gift cards, he’d probably have lasted a great deal longer.  This is essentially the Saudi model.  You can be arrested for anything even remotely anti-government or anti-Islam, and once in jail you’ll be raped as much and for as long as the police like with nary a peep from the press.  But smile at the king’s portrait and say sternly conservative things about Islam and you’ll get a lovely new car.

But the regions are not as united as they appear

Coat of Arms of Saudi Arabia

Coat of Arms of Saudi Arabia. Two things the whole country has in common: knives and palm trees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saudi is still a classic kingdom, with nobles and everything.  There’s a culture divide between east, west, and center.  In the west, long attached in some form to civilization, people are more likely to realize the Saudi system is not all its cracked up to be and that Islam has variant forms.  In the east, once under Persian influence, Shi’a Muslims are well aware their government thinks they’re going to Hell and that they sit on most of the kingdom’s oil reserves.  Only in the center – in Riyadh – where the Saudis originally came from and where people were most isolated – is loyalty most assured.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Failure to introduce critical thinking into their culture will make Saudi non-competitive in a generation.  Oil money only goes so far; it’s a finite well that doesn’t have to run out to become ineffective.  As soon as Saudi cannot pay some ridiculous food or wedding bills to even a few citizens, they risk a cascade of complaints that could tear their kingdom apart.  So Saudi must do something.

But critical thinking will invariably challenge everything Saudi society believes in.  You can’t get a creative problem solving engineer who won’t notice working for a retarded royal cousin is bullshit.  Additionally, Saudi’s official brand of culture is afraid of everything and convinced anything not Saudi is evil.  Upon learning that nations don’t fall when couples kiss in public (or that flogging people is a terrible crime deterrent), Saudi citizens will reject the official culture and the government’s central legitimacy will be lost.

The likely future

Saudi probably won’t reform or, if it does, will reform poorly.  The Saudi royal family is supposed to be ordained by God to rule; they’re not going anywhere.  Saudi society isn’t ready to question their religion and culture in a way that doesn’t involve fighting, arrests, and civil unrest.  The incentives to change just aren’t there.  Forward-thinking royals will experiment here and there; one of them might be become a king.  But all of them will be thwarted by the system they themselves created.

What will happen is the oil money will start to fail to solve society’s ills.  Crime will go up; disobedience will increase.  It will be a Saudi form of the 1960s, but far worse, as Saudi is still a tribal society.  Tribes will pull away from the House of Saud as they are no longer bribed.  They’ll support tribes that they think will restore the artificially imposed balance.

And nobody will know what the fuck they’re doing

Tribes will lie to acquire power.  Saudi will either crush them, making more enemies and spiraling violence further, or will lose to them, at which point they’ll inherit all the same problems.  A new tribe won’t solve the fundamental issue: Saudis will want more and more and the oil money will be able to deliver less and less.  That attitude won’t change except after hard times realign Saudi society.

The odds are in the government’s favor – for now

The degree of violence used will entirely depend on the Saudi government.  Right now, they’re far more likely to shoot on protesters or murder their enemies than negotiate.  The National Guard, essentially a giant tribal bodyguard, is blood-connected to the ruling house and well-armed.  Regular army units are treated as yet another jobs-but-really-bribes scheme and are terrible soldiers.

But they’ve got a problem – the United States

Alas, America’s values have changed.  As the guarantor of Saudi security, America’s opinion counts.  If the Saudi government turns on its people, like Syria, America will threaten all kinds of high hell, enough so as to scare members of the military and security services.  The Saudi royal family, or at least part of it, could be shunted aside by these pro-American forces, like Hosni Mubarak was.

So the fight will be Saudi vs. Saudi

America will ensure nobody gets involved except Saudis.  It will also quickly pick a side; whether it favors stability or reform will depend on the personality in the White House.  But it will secure its interests, the oil exports, rapidly and effectively.  It may well end up securing just the oil fields and letting Saudi society atomize and rot further afield.  That alone would secure American interests.

There are, in other words, no good futures for Saudi Arabia

Saudi must reform, but can’t because to do so will probably destroy the royal family itself.  The only way to change Saudi Arabia fundamentally is through a deep and long lasting trauma.  It’s too late for the king to do anything.

Will it be a bang or a whimper?

Eventually, a trauma must realign Saudi society.  The question comes, how big?  Will it be a civil war?  A running terror campaign?  A 60s-style cultural revolution?  Will the House of Saud die at home or in exile?  Will they go peacefully or by machine gun?  Regardless, it can’t last.  Change is coming.  The Saudis can only hope to mitigate the disaster.

The timeline is also up for grabs.  One can guess in the next ten years or twenty that something big will happen there.  But it certainly will happen long before the oil runs out.  Saudi won’t suddenly wake up one day and find themselves broke.  Societies don’t work that way.  They’ll fall apart another way.

Getting a Grip on Syria

As the West edges closer to yet another Middle Eastern war, there’s been loads of talk about the who, the what, the why of the Syrian civil war.  “They’’ve been doing it thousands of years” is the often-cited refrain from laymen isolationists, stating the supposed interminable history of bloodshed in the region that goes back to Moses.

So here I am to challenge a few assumptions and make a few explanations.  As makes sense, let’s go to the basics.

Syria is a really old name for a very new country 

Map of Syria in the Ottoman Empire in 1600.

Map of Syria in the Ottoman Empire in 1600. Notice how it looks nothing like modern day Syria because those borders are bullshit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Syria is an old goddamn word.  It’s not Arabic, and the Arabic equivalent used today (Sooryah/سوريا) doesn’t carry the same set of phonological sounds as the Greek, which sounds just like the word used in English.  Without going into too much detail, the word “Syria” is as old as the Bible, but the country Syria is about as old as your grandparents.

Besides a handful of city-states in the way-back-when times of B.C., Syria has never been independent before the modern era.  There was the Seleucid Empire from around 300 to 70 B.C. based out of Syria, but that empire was originally cut from a very large chunk of Alexander the Great’s empire.  At the end of its existence, the Seleucids were constrained to die in Syria really because was it their least valuable province.

The country Syria is actually quite new – 1946 new, when the French mandate ended and Syrians were asked to govern themselves for the first time in existence.

Syria’s new because Syria’s super easy to conquer

Unlike Turkey and Iran, with their mountains and hills, or Egypt, with its deserts, Syria’s got some rather nice, open land where armies can march to and fro in relative comfort.  Those three places could put together empires and big armies, and then promptly went at one another.  Any invasion from those places crossed Syria.  Virtually everybody who has ever gone to war in the Middle East has, at one point or another, conquered Syria – Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Muslims, Parthians, British, French, etc.

Being conquered so much gave Syria shitloads of different cultures and peoples

Because Syria was just a piece of an empire, there’s never been an official Syrian culture.  Empires function very differently than countries.  A country naturally gravitates towards a single culture, language, and religion because a country is supposed to be just one group of people living together as a community.  Empires typically don’t give a shit about that.  Empires want to collect taxes, crush rebellions, and conquer new countries so they can build bigger and more ridiculous monuments for their leaders.

Being in an empire allows cultures the safety to split into weird sub-cultures which, over time, become fully fledged cultures on their own.  Additionally, soldiers and officials from the ruling empire bring their own cultures with them.  Hence, in Syria, you get the Alawites and Druze, sub-cultures that managed to survive thanks to the fact that nobody was homogenizing the place.  You also get Christianity, once the religion of the Roman Empire and Sunni Islam, the religion of the Ottoman Turks.

Syria was horribly governed until the Assad family came along

When the French left town in 1946, they hadn’t taught the Syrians much about government.  Even before them, the Ottoman Turks hadn’t wanted the Syrians to know anything about running stuff besides keeping the lights on and fixing roads.  So the guys who took over quite suddenly in 1946 literally had no fucking clue what they were doing.  All they could manage was to copy France, failing, in the process, to understand that even France has a tough time being France.

These first leaders behaved the way you might if placed in charge of a business fresh out of university.  You might well have had some formal training in business, but you’re sure for shit not ready to lead.

They faced down some big problems – poverty, political immaturity, tribalism and corruption.  They failed.  From 1946 until 1970, government after government collapsed or was overthrown.  They tried everything – socialism, democracy, military dictatorship, nationalism. The Syrians got so desperate they even united – briefly – with Egypt from 1958 – 61, hoping to get a better government out of the deal. It didn’t work and the union fell apart in a military coup.

Map of the United Arab Republic, a former plan...

Map of the United Arab Republic, a former planned federation between Egypt, Iraq and Syria in 1963. This obviously didn’t work out. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Assads who came along in 1970 did so in yet another military coup.  But these folk were different.  They’d seen the coups and learned from them.  They set about making Syria coup-proof.

Under the guise of Arab socialism, a popular enough ideology, the Assads doled out ministries, key command positions, and other favors to a handful of favorites.  A lot of the time, this was based on tribe or family.  But mostly, it was just a reward for grotesque loyalty.  The Assads did what nobody up until that point could – they lasted.  Hafez al Assad, the founder of the regime, even got to die peacefully in his bed in 2000, bequeathing the government to his son.

The Assads were confronting familiar problems common to these new Arab countries – tribalism that corroded government, poverty that made people susceptible to corruption, stupidity in the elites who had never had been given the chance to actually run things under the empires that came before.  These were the same problems that made Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, and Algeria unstable places.  Their solutions were the same as those countries – picking key winners in society based on the litmus test of blind loyalty.  Like Saddam in Iraq and Ghaddafi in Libya, this worked because it was essentially the same imperial system that had provided stability as provinces or colonies.

But it was fucking terrible for making a country

A country is a political community where the majority of people participate in the success or failure of a defined geographic area.  In Syria, the Assads formally educated everyone that they were part of this country called “Syria” while at the same time excluding them from making any decisions about such a place.  It was a contradiction that was doomed to fail.

Unlike an empire, where you’re told to shut the fuck up and pay your tax, a country is supposed to be part of you.  When it bleeds, you bleed.  When it triumphs, you triumph.  The Assads were running Syria like an empire but pretending it was a country.  For nearly 40 years, they got away with it, slowly changing thinking from “My family, my tribe,” to “my country” as they tried to balance the forces that had, from ’46 – ’70, been overthrowing governments.

You could tell that it wasn’t always working.  When the Muslim Brotherhood launched an uprising in Homs in 1982, Syria responded as any good empire would and leveled the place. Also like a good empire, the Assads managed to hide the incident pretty well from most of their countrymen, preventing the uprising from spreading further.  By the time people knew about it, Homs had been butchered and the lesson had been learnt.

The bomb was already set, however.  A country is, by definition, a place where the majority is part of the ruling system.  But Syria had no real “majority” because its people were divided by tribe, region, class, and religion.  Syrians were slowly being convinced that these divisions didn’t matter.

That is, until they actually tried uniting for a common cause

When Hosni Mubarak, long seen as the toughest of Arab dictators, fell in February 2011, a rather large number of Syrians thought they could do the same.  United by the 40 years of propaganda the Assads had been spouting, ordinary Syrians took to the streets and demanded a say in their country.

Except the idea of Syria as a country was a blatant lie.  Syria was still being run as though it was a province or colony of some far-off imperial power.  The Assads could never share power.  They knew, eventually, their own power would be eroded and they’d be ousted, liable to the serial prosecutions bound to happen because of all their human rights violations.  So the Assads shot first, then shot again, hoping that if they kept shooting their grumbling underclasses would remember their place and the tried and true neo-imperial system could reassert itself.

Then the Syrians started to shoot back

Alas, the Assads had done too good a job with their propaganda.  To the Syrians, their lives didn’t matter; what mattered was the dignity and freedom of their country, the exact line the Assads had been using for 41 years.  Except now, instead of Israel, it was the Assads themselves who were standing in the way.

It really took until November of 2011 for the Syrian protesters to militarize.  By then hundreds were dead and the Syrian army was bludgeoning its way through villages and cities.  The rebels organized into local brigades, though some high level defectors tried to set up the Free Syrian Army.  The Assads, paranoid as ever, stopped trusting people with ties to the countryside and kept soldiers from those areas in their barracks, relying on troops from the coast and the major cities.  Because of the lack of a unifying culture, city people were less likely to be Sunni or, if they were, to have a secular, nationalistic bent.

It didn’t take long, what with the recent sectarian war in Iraq, for people to see this as contest of Shi’a vs. Sunni.  That wasn’t the whole truth – some people held on to the idea they were fighting for a united Syria against a brutal despot.  But for the Shi’a, Druze, and Christian minorities in Syria, afraid that a new government would mean they’d be less safe (and having the natural contempt city-dwellers do for country folk), the uprising was not a fight to birth a proper nation but a power grab by jihadists, hicks, and other scum.

But this fight is still a new one

This isn’t a struggle going back a thousand years.  It’s a fight going back to 2011.  Syria doesn’t have a long, horrible history of struggle between Sunni and Shi’a.  It’s got a long, relatively peaceful history of being dominated by outsiders.  Syria’s problem is not that everyone wants to get even for grudges a billion years old.  Its problem is that no Syrian has ever figured out a way to run their own country properly.

English: Flag of Syria, from 1932-58 and 1961-63.

Flag of Syria, from 1932-58 and 1961-63.  Now used as the flag of the Free Syrian Army. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Enter the outsiders

Syria wasn’t swallowed up by some foreign power after 1946 solely because the age of colonialism was dying.  Empires were to be dismantled, post-haste, under the aegis of the United States and Soviet Union, who both benefited from the deaths of the European empires.  Left alone, one of its bigger neighbors would eventually have taken over.  But Syria wasn’t alone.  The faraway Americans and Soviets guaranteed its borders against its neighbors.

Eventually, the Assads had to make a choice between the two superpowers and backed the Soviets.  In exchange, they got shitloads of tanks, planes, and weapons to both protect their own power inside the country and face down the Israelis.  Even when the Soviet Union fell, Russia remained as the main arms supplier and supporter of the Assads. For little strategic gain, Russia continued to play at being a great power, perhaps hoping that someday Syria might come in handy.  It seemed a cheap purchase of influence until the uprising happened.

Now Assad’s outnumbered but not outgunned

Assad can’t rely on his whole army and needs to keep divisions on the border with Israel.  The forces he can use are outnumbered, but have tanks, jet fighters, etc., that have a great deal more killing power than the equipment used by the rebels. It’s a bit like those scenes in a zombie movie where the heavily armed survivors are nevertheless on the run from hordes of unarmed undead.  The rebels can lose people and replace them; in a tribal society, every dead rebel guarantees more recruits from his family eager for revenge.  Assad and his faction can as well, but have a far shallower well to pull from.

Killing Assad won’t end the war, though

Even if Assad dies, the conflict is no longer about an oppressed people fighting an evil dictator, like Star Wars.  It’s about one group racing to butcher their enemies at a high enough rate as to cow them into surrender, like Gangs of New York.  Assad isn’t important.  Either the majority rules and (probably) oppresses the minorities, like in Iraq.  Or the minority stays in power and oppresses the majority, as has been the case.  Either way, it doesn’t end well and democracy as Europe and America knows it won’t be in the cards for a long, long time.

The race is on to grab as many allies as possible

So far, Assad is winning.  He’s got Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah in his column.  The rebels have Saudi and Qatar and, to a certain extent, Turkey.  If all things remain the same, Assad can (probably) win a stalemate and hold on to a divided country.  But if the Europeans or Americans firmly pick a side, his forces will soon discover themselves both outnumbered and outgunned.

The end game is when one sides’ morale breaks or until foreigners come in to settle things

Thus both sides must kill large numbers of the other.  It’s a classic civil war.  There are two finales for this story – either one side gives up because it’s lost too much, or some outside power joins the fray and imposes a settlement.  In American history, the Confederacy surrendered after being utterly devastated by the military depredations of the Union.  However, had Britain entered the war on the South’s side, American history would have been very different.

In conventional wars, quite often, only the elites have a stake in winning or losing – they gain prestige, honor, access to resources, etc.  But in a civil war, whole societies are changed and affected.  Like it or not, by now everyone in Syria is on one side or another, simply by virtue of where they were born.  Since whole communities are now involved, the body count must be higher.  Every community must reach a point where they’re unwilling to bury any more people.

Why the fuck should America bother?

It’s a good question.  There’s little oil in Syria, so no money to be made.  America has no emotional relationship with Syria or its people, like Israel.  It cannot guarantee a friendly government afterwards.  So why do anything?

The answer is simple: precedent and perception.  Precedent in that America wants it known that when A happens, America will do B.  This then leads into perception.  America wants all small and medium sized powers to be afraid of American power.  This makes them more pliable and helps America achieve its interests faster and cheaper.  As Governor Tarkin of the Death Star once famously stated, “Rule through fear of force rather than force itself.”  America doesn’t need to win elections or even be liked in foreign countries.  It needs to be respected and feared.

Despite the unpopularity of a Syrian war, America will, eventually, get involved in one way or another.  Because of its domestic unpopularity, the president will try to do this with as little cash and as few troops as possible.  But he must do it regardless.  It will go to show just how powerful America really is when it eventually applies this “light touch” to devastating effect.

Even if Barack Obama manages to hold his line of non-intervention until after his second term ends, you can bet the next president – Republican or Democrat – will make ending the Syrian civil war a priority.  In geopolitics, personalities don’t matter for the grand sweep of things.  Presidents come and go; only interests remain.  America has an interest in being seen as powerful.  It therefore must occasionally exercise that power to remain credible.

So America will do something eventually

And that something remains up in the air.

And it might blow up in America’s dumb face

And Syria could be another Afghanistan, a failed state requiring intervention after intervention as its society atomizes.

Or it might be another Iraq

And be unstable but essentially still running.

But regardless, America’s goals will be achieved

And that’s to remind everybody out there that it’s not to be fucked with.