Thought Experiment: Can MBS Succeed in Forming a Sovereign Sunni Bloc?

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.


14 thoughts on “Thought Experiment: Can MBS Succeed in Forming a Sovereign Sunni Bloc?

  1. Elsewhere you’re asking what MBS says about the US moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. I guess he’ll say something eventually, but meanwhile his father is still the king, and his father *has* said that it’s dangerous, harmful, etc. And I would expect him to support his father’s line.


    • Turns out KSA has a lot to say.
      What I’m asking is how the Jerusalem announcement affects MBS plans and goals. It may be just Trump trying to bully KSA– an hour after the announcement Trump asked KSA to lift the Yemen blockade.
      I think Jerusalem is bad for MBS plans because it publicizes the alliance with Israel, my extreme risk point.
      This is what I mean.

      For someone who prides himself on being the consummate deal maker it is odd that he should surrender this card before negotiations have even begun.
      It is odd too because it complicates life for Saudi Arabia, Mr Trump’s chosen interlocutors in the region. The Saudis, who have been playing a role in the evolution of the latest US peace plans, are also strongly opposed. They have little choice. The ruling al-Saud family are not only royals. The Saudi king is the self-styled leader of Sunni Islam and al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is considered the third holiest site in Islam, after the mosques at Mecca and Medina.
      This can only be a blow to the Saudis, especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been acting as go between with the Palestinians and Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and envoy to the region.

      Perhaps Trump thinks Kushner is going to be indicted and wants to get some points on the board before he is. Thus the hurry. Or perhaps hes just impatient and thinks he can bully KSA into progress.


      • I’m using 2002 as an analogy for 2017. In that year, KSA’s Abdullah (then crown prince!) offered Israel recognition and security, in return for withdrawal to 1967 borders, recognition of a Palestinian state, and justice for Palestinian refugees. That was endorsed by the Arab League. A few months later, Bush called Ariel Sharon “a man of peace”, and everyone bristled at that, but the offer was not withdrawn, and in fact it remains in place.

        Now maybe a US embassy in Israeli Jerusalem is an even more bitter pill than regarding Ariel Sharon as partner in the peace process, but my argument is that once again, KSA will complain and that’s it; and that they will probably bring the Arab League with them. The Arab leader who most steadfastly opposes Israel is Bashar Assad, and he’s de facto not in the League, he’s in Iran’s bloc.

        At this point, I think the more serious resistance to the embassy move will come from non-Arab countries like Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Erdogan said he might break relations with Israel again.

        Trump saying that KSA should lift the Yemen blockade is interesting. I don’t know the timing, but I think that has to be “punishment” for KSA criticizing him over the embassy move, unless Saleh’s death has somehow changed the balance of forces in a way that I don’t understand.

        Trump knows very well that KSA’s involvement in Yemen is to prevent Iranian-backed insurgency from creeping into KSA itself, he already hinted as much during his presidential campaign. (And of course, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is just another campaign promise that he is fulfilling, something that is true of far more of his actions than the liberal establishment can apparently bring themselves to admit.)

        So for him to say, time to end the blockade, is an attack on KSA’s security strategy. It’s like he’s creating his own concert system now, using the threat from Iran to push KSA into line with his Jerusalem policy.


      • Iranian and Qatari sympathizers are putting out that MBS knew and approved 6 weeks ago. I simply dont believe that. MBS strat relies on a quiet alliance with Israel for reasons Trump is too intellectually challenged to comprehend. I think Trump is trying to bully MBS into accepting Jerusalem statement with his Yemen request.
        Both Jordan and Turkey are threatening to break the treaty.
        Also Kushner and Don Jr could be indicted and that would remove Kushner as “special envoy”. Trump is impatient to solve the ME problem and claim glory for himself and Kushner.
        The Mueller investigation is having an effect.
        Its just a case of Trump being the ignorant bully he is and his sycophants sucking up to him.
        The core problem is still that there only 8.8 million Israeli jews in a sea of 100s of millions of arabs, the migration pressure out of Africa is going to increase massively over the next 20 years– out of warzones, climate change ecologies, economic wastelands. Think of 1 billion youth, more than half sunni muslim. A depthless recruitment pool for islamic insurgencies.
        Assad is not an arab. He is an alawhite, a sect of shiism, and presumeably persian.
        This is typical trumpish behavior. He made Tillerson kiss the ring, now he is going to make MBS kiss it.
        He is just a low IQ bully, and perhaps embarassed by how KSA manipulated him into kicking off the Qatar crisis. The Qatar crisis is why Tillerson called him a moron.
        Impeachment cant start until the dems take back the House. Maybe after 2018.
        But this could also be an attempt at a Reichstag moment. One way to consolidate support in advance of Mueller’s findings would be a shooting war in the ME.
        I do not think “KSA will complain and thats it”.
        I think MBS is a lot more intelligent than Trump…please note that KSA is still vigorously spreading wahhabism in Indonesia while making cosmetic reforms in Riyadh.
        But we will see if he kisses the ring.
        He could kiss the ring and still be forced to go Full Ottoman.
        That would be interesting.


  2. Just thought of something… Israel working with MbS has survival value *for Israel*, in the event of a future in which the Middle East is ruled by a sovereign Sunni entity. To be specific, the future I glimpsed is one where Israel is allied with the Sunni bloc and Jewish Democrats, against an alt-right America. Or maybe some people already see it that way?


    • i dont think so.
      because this:
      Israel is demographically unsustainable– everyone knows this. I think MbS wants into the nuke club. he will be super compliant until he gets there.
      eventually Israel will become too expensive for any nation to support– the tsunami out of Africa is coming. Think about what 100 million refugees would look like– eu couldnt even handle 1 million.
      and not just muslim, but BLACK muslims– 53% of africa is Sunni, and especially concentrated in North Africa and sub-sahara.


      • joke?
        think about what 1 billion youth in Africa by 2050 actually means.
        back to ur Israel question, look at MbS and King Salman playing goodcop/badcop on the Palestinians.
        The King gives full throated support to the two state & palestinian rights while MbS panders to Western desires. Two different audiences, approached in two different languages. the two state is the only thing that could potentially save Israel– but i think israelis are unable to get there. Remember, Hitler wiped out half the breeding population of jews. that fact still amazes me. there are only 8.8 million jews in Israel.


      • If Israel’s neighborhood became Africanized (for why would this Afro-tsunami spare Egypt and the Gulf states), they could survive by blending in and having their own black ruling class too.

        Closer to the present, they could become Afro-friendly by facilitating African migration through Israel to lands beyond.

        So in my opinion, the African demographic bulge is not inherently the end of Israel. They are a small country and can avoid being trampled by making appropriate changes of alliance and identity.

        I think the real challenges to Israel’s continued existence are the Arab population, and the Islamic claim to sovereignty over Palestine, because there you have the makings of an alternative polity and ideology.


      • i disagree… Israel’s bunker mentality will prevent becoming “afro-friendly”.
        Israel has had a white only policy– and increased African migration pressure will only lead to increasing confrontation and empowerment of extreme rightwing actors.
        this is how Israel reacted to increased ethiopian refugee flow in 2015–
        think of 200million refugees…EU couldnt handle a million.
        And yes, the real challenge to Israel is Islam, both Sunni and Shia brands. Israel is demographically unsustainable, both Arabs and Persians are far more populous.
        Think about what Trump’s new mafia-style protection racket means for the ME. Its not going to make Israel any safer. Strong Arab militaries translate to coups.
        How better to become the next Saladin or Suleiman than to declare a holy war on Israel? What Arab or Persian nation will rush to protect Israel? That is why i think MbS might have to go full-Ottoman to retain custody of the Land of the Two Holy Sites.
        This is where US meddling in the region verges into crazy pants thinking.
        Making a Kurdistan to protect Israel. Using Arab armies.


  3. It’s enormously more likely that increasingly-desperate Arabs from the Persian Gulf will be invading the increasingly-prosperous African states of Sub Saharan Africa, in a decade or two, than vice-versa.

    This is the inevitable consequence of the collapse of the fossil fuel order, and the emergence of ultra-cheap solar power, with its bottom-up microgrids that just happen to be extremely well-suited to rural, village economies.

    Not to mention increasing investment in Africa from emerging Gigapowers China and India.


  4. What is the biggest thing that holds back development of Sub Saharan Africa? It is the high cost of fossil-fuel-based energy and the extreme cost of extending national electricity grids into highly-dispersed rural economies.

    The solar revolution directly addresses those two issues. It is now cheaper for new investments than fossil fuels, especially in daytime when people need to work. Also it allows scalable bottom-up grids.

    Hence the explosion in the developing world’s investment in solar:


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