After reading dozens of articles on the current situ in KSA, I think I am beginning to see the nebulous shape of MBS plan for MENA. Consider this as a thought experiment exploring whether MBS design for a sovereign Sunni bloc can work. Obama’s plan for the ME was a “concert” system, a balance of powers to reduce the need for US to police the region. Because, Africa is coming and US has already spent 5.6 trillion WoT taxpayer dollars in the region over the last 15 years with essentially nothing to show for it.
The chaos of the US election and the resultant divided country have offered a unique opportunity for MBS to wreck Obama’s plan. Trump is eager to destroy Obama’s legacy, insecure about his presidency, desperate for some policy wins, and thirsty for flattery and praise. MBS is exploiting all these weaknesses as rapidly as he can, because Trump’s presidency may be shortlived, the generals and State are not going to support MBS plan, and also to roll back Iran before it really becomes entrenched. For example, Trump believed it was his idea to blockade Qatar, and the damage was done before Tillerson and the generals could stop it. It looks like the blockade of Qatar may succeed, a win for MBS.
To gain Trump’s support MBS has to go full-frontal Rambo on “terrorism”, has to successfully headfake western style “reforms” while continuing to spread the approved version of wahhabism, and has to ally with Israel. That is why Kushner was there for the mass arrests. Kushner is tasked with solving the Palestine problem. Alliance with Israel is part of the cost of US support.
But MBS idea of reform is not cultural reform. Thats a sop to the americans and the 70% youth population of the Kingdom, and its just another tool for consolidating power. MBS is going for economic reform. If Trump gained power through populism, why shouldnt MBS be able to pull it off? Only it is youth populism in KSA, not old white people populism like the US. Here is a good article on the situation, which should be be read in entirety.
Most efforts to comprehend the dynamics of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing political earthquake have focused on the psychology of the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. But there are also structural reasons for Prince Mohammed’s brand of populism. Understanding these factors is key to finding a better path forward. In the past, political stability in Saudi Arabia rested on three separate deals: within the royal family; between the royal family and the Kingdom’s traditional elites; and between the state and the population.
The deal within the Al Saud family is rooted in asabiyya – the ability of an ambitious tribe to stick together to monopolize power. But the royal family has grown too large and become too divided to justify the cost of maintaining its unity. Loosely estimated, the 5,000 or so third-generation princes and their entourage consume $30-50 billion per year.
The deal among traditional elites is also rooted in the Kingdom’s genesis. These notable families were encouraged to accumulate economic power. Privileged access to government contracts, subsidies, capital, protection from competition, and the ability to import labor freely have embedded their companies deeply in the economy. This protected elite private sector grew to represent over 50% of Saudi GDP. But, because it is largely staffed by expats, it generates no trickle-down benefits to the local population, only negative externalities.
The population, meanwhile, was offered economic security in exchange for loyalty – an arrangement institutionalized through a patronage network of high-paying public-sector jobs and a broad array of generous welfare benefits and consumer subsidies. As a result, more than 75% of Saudi citizens work for the state, and much of the rest of the public budget is spent on cradle-to-grave social support.
But with per capita revenue from oil exports now only $5,000 a year for Saudi Arabia’s 20 million nationals, the system has become too costly. The challenge for Prince Mohammed is to oversee a transition to a less expensive political order, while generating sufficient economic efficiency gains to prevent the necessary adjustment from fueling instability and civil unrest.
Other autocratic regimes in the region, with larger populations and less oil – such as Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, and Syria – followed a “republican strategy” that appeased the poor with various forms of patronage, and repressed economic elites. This blocked the rise of any credible opposition, at the cost of entrenching an anemic, largely informal, and consumption-based economy.
Its true that most pundits are in the pearl clutching phase of their MBS analysis. But I think MBS plan has a good chance of working, although there are many risks. I think the alliance with Israel is the biggest risk.
But there are other reasons why MbS is naïve about the benefits of an alliance with Israel. After taking care of Iran, Israel will certainly not allow Saudi Arabia to become the de facto hegemon of the Middle East. According to the logic of balance of power, alliances made against a common enemy collapse once the enemy is eliminated. Saudi Arabia would not feel the same need for Israel once Iran is gone. It might even resume the Arab plan of liberating Palestine. Even worse, war might extend into Saudi territory itself, endangering and possibly even scuttling the current political order established on the basis of the supremacy of MbS.
Part of the Israel risk is it may generate a whole new bumper crop of outraged islamic insurgents. Remember, the way we got Bin Laden and al Qaeda was the US attempt to put an airbase in the Land of the Two Holy Sites. That is why the US has airbases in Qatar. But Sisi has managed to control Egypt’s anti-Israel sentiments with extreme authoritarianism, so perhaps the greater risk is to Israel. The only way US gets out of MENA is for KSA to become Israel’s partner and protector, but KSA has no AIPAC or jewish population to shape a pro-Israel position. KSA does have palestinian sympathies and so may force a two-state solution on Israel once Iran is crushed. Or throw Israel under the bus if it becomes necessary.
The next biggest risk is that Trump’s presidency ends too quickly, or that the Generals and State are able to restrain Trumps impulsive and chaotic FP style. This is why Tillerson called Trump a moron.
Things MBS has going for him:
1) the internet– the ‘net is why populist movements can succeed in the 21st century, like Trump’s election. Muslims are about to become 1/4 of the global population, and they all read the same book. The internet connects them.
2) an internally weak and easily manipulated US president who desperately wants to look strong on FP and destroy all of Obama’s policies.
3) custodianship of Mecca and Medina
4) demographics– 70% youth population and popular support for anti-corruption programs
This route is feasible, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s abundance of low-hanging fruit: a youthful society clamoring for social emancipation, better-educated women yearning for more participation, and millions of jobs created for expats available for nationals to fill.
What clouds this scenario is the low productivity of the elite private sector. To break free of its middle-income trap, Saudi Arabia needs to democratize, if not its politics, then at least its markets, through greater reliance on the rule of law and fair competition. Viewed from this perspective, Prince Mohammed’s current anti-corruption campaign will need to be followed by efforts to establish more inclusive rules for the private sector.
If the Kingdom’s private sector can be made to work, the economic challenge becomes modest. About 200,000 young people enter the labor market every year. If as many jobs are needed to allow women to join and to slowly wind down the public sector, two million new jobs would be needed over the next five years. To put this in perspective, there are now nine million foreign workers employed in the Kingdom.
5) In the Visual Age, appearance is all– MBS looks the part. I originally thought MBS wanted to be a new Ataturk…I no longer believe that. I think he wants to be a new Salahudeen, a 21st century Salahudeen. And maybe he will be.