Saudi Arabia’s Power Play (Or, the Childishness of Kings)

I’ve let my contempt for Saudi Arabia’s current governing system be known – several times.  This is because it’s a personality-centric system driven by personalities that most of you wouldn’t want to invite to dinner.  In such systems, psychology matters when understanding certain events.  Let’s take a walk through, shall we, and understand Saudi state psychology.

Mixing politics and religion is never a good idea

The primary role of religion is to answer the unanswerable; the primary role of political leadership is to organize societies into groups that can both fend off other organized societies and concurrently enrich a certain elite.  That second part there is important – political systems tilt towards earthly rewards for those at the top.  Heavy is the head that wears the crown, may as well have some virgins thrown in to alleviate, you know?  So goes the thinking.

Glaring for a reason.

Politics inherently perverts religion because the goals are entirely different.  One cannot strive for all the answers to the universe on the same day as one plots against a neighbor.  Those are very different conversations.  Because politics focuses on the earthly and immediate, any system that mixes the two pollutes religion with politics, rather than the other way around.  If a system becomes too religious, in invariably collapses because it takes the eye off the main balls – defending society from other societies and enriching the top elites.

Of course, Saudi Arabia has mixed the two to pure madness

And has created a powerful state psychology hinged on the belief that any culture or religion outside its own is hellfire waiting to happen.  Saudi security forces most likely believe all the tripe they’ve been fed and see anyone but themselves as infidels and impure.  This makes pretty much everyone on Earth the enemy.  Only Saudi royals rise above the fray and embrace infidels to save their kingdom.  Several of them – Prince Bandar especially – are quite aware the existence of the kingdom is contingent on outside support.

This creates a mentality of zero-sum thinking

Saudi state psychology is grappling rather frantically to find footing in the wake of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.  No, that deal’s not finished, and much may fuck up before the day is out, but the precedent – that the two supposedly intractable foes can agree on principles – is a massive threat to Saudi Arabia.  Anything that strengthens a heretical power – Shi’a Iran – concurrently weakens Saudi Arabia.  For those who believe the world should be more like them, there’s no reason for co-existence except when absolutely necessary.

Saudi Arabia would like to see the end of Shi’a Islam – not forcefully necessarily, but through mass conversions as millions wake up and realize Saudi Arabia and not Iran has always had the true version of Islam.  The Iranian state is in the way of that; it stands to reason that its collapse, reduction or weakening would benefit Saudi Arabia’s religious designs.

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Conversely, Saudi Arabia sees Iran engaged in the same game – one for the souls of all Muslims.  There can’t be a formal peace that says, you’re good, I’m good, we all good.  Even if war is eradicated, the struggle for the soul of Islam will carry on through debate, schooling, and religious foundations.  Whoever has the most money will stand a good chance of carrying the day.

And so Saudi Arabia seeks to shore up its power base by encouraging its neighbors to stop existing

In 2011, I asked my Emirati students if they liked King Abullah’s idea of a unified Gulf Co-Operation Council, which would in essence just be a “Greater Saudi Arabia.”  Some of them said they were cool with it, since they were all good Muslims and what could go wrong?  Others wanted to keep their country.  Regardless, the proposal was met with tepid, “Oh, you,” responses from most Gulf capitals, rather than outright “no.”

Now the idea has come up again.  Saudi Arabia has greater incentive than ever to absorb the Gulf states, which would, at a stroke, give it about 2/3rds of the world’s oil reserves.  Even with America coming back into the game as an oil producer, such control would force the world to make sure Saudi Arabia stays stable and protected.  Virtually any incentive to see the royals go would evaporate.  It’s a helluva insurance policy.

As if anyone wants to go quietly into the night

Oman responded with a polite, but firm, fuck off.  The Sultan probably knows his branch of Islam, Ibadism, would get short shrift in this new mega-state.  With a state history much longer than Riyadh’s, Omanis also have a sense of self that wouldn’t be so easily swallowed.

The minority vote.

As for the other states, all of them fledgling in identity (save Bahrain), the idea most likely chills their leaders to the bone.  To say no is dangerous; Saudi Arabia will only see that as a threat.  But to say yes is more so; it means the end of their indigenous development programmes, some of which are decidedly un-Islamic.  The careful nation-building that’s been under construction for over 40 years will come crashing down; moreover, if Saudi Arabia does spiral into chaos, it means these states will be sucked down into it.

It speaks volumes about Saudi Arabia’s state psychology

The rather remarkable arrogance of the move is classic Saudi royal family.  ”We’re big, we’re rich, and nobody should threaten that,” is the thinking.  Co-existence with Iran is quite possible if Saudi Arabia adopts an identity based on plurality and tolerance.  But there’s approximately zero signs of that happening right now.  If anything, they’re battening down the hatches and getting even more intolerant, seeing everything as a conspiracy to undo their shaky power.

It’s also self-defeating 

Even if Saudi Arabia gets away with this power grab, it will only be a success if the United States allows it.  The U.S. could easily neuter it in its early stages just by expressing disapproval.

But say Saudi Arabia manages despite that. All they’ve acquired is a set of states with low populations and high expectations and economies based on massive capital inflows.  They don’t gain strategic depth – Iran could invade the Eastern Province just as easily as Dubai.  If anything, it means expensive semi-occupations, where Saudi Arabia has to keep on bribing their new subjects at levels even greater than their former leaders to ensure their loyalty.  And if one of them decides to quit this federation, how long ’til a contagion of revolution, secession, and state disintegration takes root?

So why bother?

Because Saudi Arabian state psychology won’t allow its leaders to sit still while Iran’s suddenly brought in from the cold.  Any idea must be entertained, even if it’s a bad one.  Alas, it’s the equivalent of a hungry kid grabbing up all the treats and gobbling them down early to prevent anyone else from eating them.  Hardly an ideal scenario for running a state in the 21st century.

The Geopolitical Game of the Persian Gulf (Or, how all the king’s men are increasingly screwed)

Iran’s back in the news – deal or no deal, they ask?  Much of it hinges on internal factors nobody knows except the Iranian government’s higher ups.  You can flip a coin and be just as likely to be right, so we won’t bother.

Across the Gulf, the shiekhs and kings (and one sultan) watch warily.  Some are going so far as to predict their coming doom.  I won’t go quite that far; it seems likely some of the monarchs will survive whatever wrenching change is probably due in the 2020s with at least one palace left to them.  But let’s take a look at their challenges.

Everybody wants a fancy 7 star hotel, but nobody knows how to run one

GCC map

GCC map (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In country after country, governments up the ante with mega-projects.  Part of it’s about prestige; part of it’s about the age-old rule of overawing your subjects with your massive displays of power.  Few of them seem to realize that booms in skyscrapers can precede recessions (though Dubai learned that the hard way in 2009).

Alas, local human capital is terrible.  Girls outperform boys but, in still male-dominated societies, don’t work their way up to calling the shots (yet).  So few locals actually have any idea how to run their modernizing economies, and those that do are too often shunted aside by traditional cultures that say, “Man he first.”

The answer to this problem is, of course, simple – import people and then toss ‘em away.

Except nobody’s tearing down the hotels

And these ex-pat populations are starting to look rather permanent.  Never mind that locals hate that idea (I’ve been told off by people for even suggesting citizenship for those who’ve been here long enough), which is a source of tension and which must be resolved one way or another.  To remove the ex-pats means to de-develop (is that a word?) the country, and though everyone wants to localize their economies, such a thing can’t happen on a scale and speed necessary to stop ex-pats from starting to think they’ve been around enough to have earned a few rights.

In Oman and Saudi Arabia, a crisis of generations is about to erupt

Both have been ruled by monarchs who hearken back to the God-knows-when-times.  Oman’s Sultan hasn’t even bothered to name an heir or have a son (and is rumored to be gay) and nobody knows what form Omani government will take after his looming death.  Oman experienced some unrest during the Arab Spring and Omanis themselves are not above fighting their government.  Oman’s rather unique form of Islam, Ibadism, has given the Sultan some leeway in regards to culture and education, but with dwindling oil reserves Oman’s best-case scenario is to simply hope its natural barriers will keep it safe from the bomb that is Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain WTC

“So, the lights work *all* night?” (Photo credit: JohnConnell)

King Abdullah is super old and super ready to die.  Underneath him are restless youth, rising crime, and the geopolitical nuke that is the oil shale boom.  Saudi Arabia won’t be able to pay its bills forever.  When that happens, the king will have to pick his favorites to bribe and leave out the rest.  While it’s Shias do sit on its oil wealth, from a Wahhabi viewpoint they’re all heretics who are going to Hell, so expect them to miss out on the spoils and to get angrier and angrier.

The next generation of leaders, whoever they are, will have been raised in a period of absolute power for the monarchy.  The likelihood they’ll have the necessary compromise skills that will be needed to guide the kingdom through the 2020s is low.

Security is tied together by a Saudi-United Arab Emirates alliance and backed by a last-resort American guarantee

Iran can’t invade any Gulf statelets because, since the 1970s, the U.S. has guaranteed the borders of all Gulf regimes in exchange for oil.  However, beyond that, the U.S. has little interest in managing or interfering in internal affairs.

The two most status-quo regimes – and therefore the most active in propping up everyone else – are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  The UAE is deeply non-democratic and committed to remaining so; any kind of political change bodes poorly for its still-fragile union of seven ruling families.  The UAE has its own internal differences, but we’ll get to that later.

The two deploy troops or cash to ensue security within the Gulf and beyond it.

All else failing, the U.S., with ample forces in the region, makes sure nobody crosses a line and upsets the oil market.  Saddam learned that to his doom in 1991.

Plucky little Qatar is looking a lot less plucky


Lonely Qatar feels unloved.

Few of Qatar’s foreign policy adventures have turned out well and have pissed off bigger Saudi Arabia.  The new emir, who came of power suddenly in May, seems to have scaled back Qatar’s ambitions, but Qatar faces the same problems as everyone else – too cheap of human capital with too high of demands.  Worse, people are noticing Qatar doesn’t run its labor camps so well, and such a thing matters with the World Cup on the horizon.  Qatar would like everyone to just shut the hell up about it already.  No doubt some pine for the good old quiet days of the 1990s.  But with a horse in the Syrian civil war, Qatar is still punching above its weight – but only because Saudi Arabia is letting it.

The United Arab Emirates is more united that it once was, but don’t let that fool you

Of the seven emirates, only Abu Dhabi and Dubai matter geopolitically.  Abu Dhabi is the security hub, diving deep into the American camp and happily egging on a strike against Iran’s nuclear program.  But Abu Dhabi is a jealous sort.  Its ruling family, the al Nahyans, expect control of the country’s presidency.  With old Sheikh Khalifa rumored to be not so well, the question of the next election comes up.  Dubai is rapidly emerging as the only success story of all the Gulf states.  But that’s because it’s focused relentlessly on internal development and has been unafraid to ditch Emiratis who can’t do the job.  This has largely been the result of Shiekh Mohammed al Maktoum’s drive to modernize Dubai at almost any cost.

Abu Dhabi skyline

The Eye of Abu Dhabi sears the disloyal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But Dubai, unlike Abu Dhabi, has little oil.  Worse, Dubai is rapidly breaking down tribal links and therefore the political system with its rush towards globalized economics.  Abu Dhabi’s not pleased; in Abu Dhabi, police and army jobs are still rewards for tribal flunkies, but in Dubai, police are increasingly expected to do their job or face consequence (and the roads are accordingly safer and far more pleasant to drive on).  Loyalty is not nearly as valuable in Dubai as it once was.  To change the currency of the realm threatens the kingdom.

Alas, appearing to be secure is not the same as actually being secure

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain both have overt tensions that are cutting to the heart of the why the region is headed for a rough time.  Other states have serious problems too, though.  Dubai has set itself up for a future where it can never ditch its ex-pats, since the Emirati population is not growing fast enough to fill all those towers and the capital needed to keep the place glitzy is coming largely from the outside.  One day, they’ll have to be accomodated in a new social contract, if not outright given citizenship.

Oman’s dynasty might end with Sultan Qaboosi; who follows then?  Oman’s just undeveloped enough in portions to make one worry that old tribal tensions could lead to a new round of violence.  Meanwhile, in Kuwait, Parliament is both unstable and increasingly calling into question the legitimacy of the Sheikh Sabah, the ruler.  Everyone appears to have a lid on their problems; but that’s all.

Unlikely this decade, but the 2020s…

When America enters the game as an oil power again, when Saudi has to start importing gasoline to keep up with its subsidies, when youths born today having witnessed the Arab Spring on Twitter come of age better informed than their parents, when Saudi’s derelict rulers are dead and replaced by less capable successors, then, somewhere in the 2020s, the Gulf will experience real, lasting change.  Will the rulers be wise enough to accomodate the flood and turn into consitutional monarchs?  We’ll just have to see.

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