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.


Julian Assange Is Not Your Friend

Greenwald has a pretty good summary of the philosophy of Wikileaks (start here) — but he misses something I think is critically important.  I find this transcript of Assange’s Berkely video a lot more informative than the famous “state terrorism” essay Greenwald cites.  From the essential @zunguzungu of course.

Julian Assange in Berkeley

by zunguzungu

This is from a forum Julian Assange participated in when he was in Berkeley in April of this year. It’s quite illuminating — after his initial somewhat unfortunate effort at humor — sufficiently illuminating, in fact, that I’ve transcribed it and pasted the transcript below.

Moderator: The question has to do with the shift, alleged shift at Wikileaks from simply posting the material, having it crowdsourced, and people interpreting it, to actually interpreting what it means. Is that a change?

Julian Assange: No. That’s part of the right-wing reality distortion field (some laughs in audience). Mother Jones has had some changes in the past few years.

No, there hasn’t been a change, whatsoever. Although of course it was our hope that, initially, that because we had vastly more material than we could possibly go through, if we just put it out there, people would summarize it themselves. That very interestingly didn’t happen. Quite an extraordinary thing.

Our initial idea — which never got implemented — our initial idea was that, look at all those people editing Wikipedia. Look at all the junk that they’re working on. Surely, if you give them a fresh classified document about the human rights atrocities in Falluja, that the rest of the world has not seen before, that, you know, that’s a secret document, surely all those people that are busy working on articles about history and mathematics and so on, and all those bloggers that are busy pontificating about the abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries and other human rights disasters, who are complaining that they can only respond to the NY Times, because they don’t have sources of their own, surely those people will step forward, given fresh source material and do something.

No. It’s all bullshit. It’s ALL bullshit. In fact, people write about things, in general (if it’s not part of their career) because they want to display their values to their peers, who are already in the same group. Actually, they don’t give a fuck about the material. That’s the reality.

And its true.  So the Russian acquired DNC leaks presented Assange with a unique opportunity– a ready made citizen megaphone of low-information Trump supporters, easily churned by Alt-right edgelords and neonazis and the Russian troll army.

Here is another important part of WL philosophy– WL doesnt hack– they receive leaked data and maximize the impact.

But, we’re also, we’re an activist organization. The method is transparency, the goal is justice. Part of the method is journalism. But it is our end-goal to achieve justice, and it’s our sources’ goals, usually, to also achieve justice. So, when they give us material, what we promise is not just that we will protect them, but we will try and get maximum impact from the material. Whether that’s working with other journalists, whether that’s summarizing things ourselves, in the case of the video, whether that’s putting context in the initial part of the video, even if we then also provide the full thing.

In this case, working with Russia and the Trump election campaign.  Julian Assange’s idea of justice is not the same as yours.

Assange has predicted that data overcollection and overclassification will ultimately ossify the OODA loops of the US covert ops system and cause US to become a police state on the way to nonlinear system collapse.  Certainly (post Snowden & WL) USG has been wholly focused on internal leakage and paranoic spying on its own citizens– prioritized  over Russian and Chinese attacks.   Assange wanted Trump to be elected for the same reason that Russia and KSA and ISIS did– to accelerate the NLS collapse of American government.

Moderator: The raw data…

Julian Assange: You cannot do it. It will just fall into the gutter. In cases where I’ve understood the material is more complex, or other people in our group have understood the material is more complex (especially military material which has lots of acronyms), you understand, it’s not even enough to do a summary. You have to do an article, or we have to liaise with other journalists to give the material to them, some sort of exclusive basis, or semi-exclusive basis, to get them to extract it into easily understandable human readable form. Otherwise it goes nowhere.

In the run-up to the election Assange discovered an audience he didn’t need to summarize or curate for– low-information Trump supporters, massive consumers of fake-news.  An audience that became a megaphone.

So no, Julian Assange is not your friend.  And he may be correct in his prediction.  Perhaps he had noble goals in the beginning…or perhaps not.  But WL has evolved to maximize penetration and spread of selected data— and its brilliant how he got the red tribe to be his megaphone.  Assange’s exploitation of MAGA is actually a stealth plan for destroying US democratic institutions, a long term goal of Russia, and a new goal of Assanges.

Prince Reckless

My favorite pic of Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, aka MBS, aka Prince Reckless.  Tall and handsome, young yet poised and accomplished, intelligent and cunning.  The perfect representative of a Kingdom of 70% youth.

I didn’t start out as a fan.  I thought he actually wanted to be another Ataturk!  But that was just a headfake to win support from DC lobbyists.  One thing MBS isnt doing is any return to “moderate islam”.  In fact, there is an intensive KSA program to spread wahhabism in Indonesia, home to 202 million “moderate” muslims.

I do not think the joint US/Saud program to sanitize ahadith can possibly be successful– largely because of secular science and the internet, although there is also an islamic argument– but I will cover the n-gram (shannon) entropy of sacred texts in another post devoted to information theory.

MBS support of the rewriting ahadith program is consistent with throwing a sop to the Americans.  A “return to moderate Islam” is not even on the table.  Its something MBS used to get American support.  From the Intercept article–

The move marks a moment of reckoning for Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which struck a bargain of sorts with Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, and Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the U.S. who has been MBS’s leading advocate in Washington. The unspoken arrangement was clear: The UAE and Saudi Arabia would pump millions into Washington’s political ecosystem while mouthing a belief in “reform,” and Washington would pretend to believe that they meant it. MBS has won praise for some policies, like an openness to reconsidering Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers.

The always excellent Dr. Davidson– from the Qatar rift— it is sheer brilliance how Trump was manipulated by MBS and amusing how Tillerson et al have to scurry to mend fences.

Trump pointedly chose Saudi Arabia for his first official overseas visit, on which he signed several big-ticket arms deals. And just hours after Riyadh severed relations with Doha, he tweeted that, when it comes to terrorism funding, “all reference was pointing to Qatar” and that “perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism”.But the White House was soon apprised of the full extent of the US’s military facilities in Qatar, including the difficult-to-move forward headquarters of US Central Command (CENTCOM), and the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, hurriedly attempted to strike a more conciliatory tone. For a moment, it seemed any immediate danger to Doha had subsided. Indeed, as recently reported, Trump had apparently given an emphatic “no” to any military action, preferring to leave the quarrelling Gulf states to their own devices.

But its too late.  Trump has been more than happy to blowup any Obama legacy policy he could, and so has been wholly invested in the strategy to roll back Iranian influence, wreck the “concert” system of balance of power Obama was working on for the ME, and possibly withdraw from the Iran treaty.

The sheer genius of the MBS approach, to leave US and Israel with the Crown Prince as their only option, is breathtaking.  A proto-sovereign sunni bloc…can that happen?  A KSA independent of US yoke of servitude…an automous entity in MENA.  Plus, an entity equipped with all latest mecha…mirable dictu.

I don’t think Prince Reckless wants to be Ataturk… I think he wants to be Saladdin.

The Ataturk Gambit


So Nadim said this in a convo about MBS and it started me thinking.

This Ataturk one hundred years out of sync

There are not one, but TWO! wannabe Ataturks right now– CP Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS, aka Prince Reckless) of KSA and Sisi (military dictator and putzchist-in-chief of Egypt).

Here they are, having laffs at an official function.   Ataturk was a handsome charismatic military dictator who forced a western style constitution on his people and outlawed the arabic alphabet.  Kemalism lasted a glorious ninety years or so, but then the basal islamic composition of turkish citizens began to assert itself through the rise of AKP.  The 21st century has witnessed the re-islamicization of Turkey.  eg: Erdogan has restored the teaching of arabic in schools.  And as we now know from the Rise of ISIS, arabic is just a gateway drug for Quran.

In Egypt, during the “Arab Spring”, Muhammed Morsi won a democratic election and then was promptly couped by Sisi, who was bankrolled and supported by KSA.   Sisi immediately jailed the opposition (40k of the Muslim Brotherhood), massacred protestors, set about suppressing student protests at al-Azhar, removing “radical” imams and  promoting a statist brand of Islam.  Sis is on record as saying that it could take “60 years” to moderate “radical Islam” in Egypt.

MBS is already operating from the Ataturk playbook in KSA.   There is a joint US/Saud program to “sanitize” the ahadith.  KSA will recall all the old textbooks and replace them with new textbooks with sanitized, western friendly  ahadith.  And any academic or religious teacher will face the new anti-terrorism law if they refuse or dissent.  Much like Ataturk banned the arabic alphabet to discourage quranic study.

The current newly minted KSA law has nothing to do with corruption — that is just a headfake.  Its an anti-dissent law, and any dissent can and will be framed as terrorism.

I’m not at all convinced an Ataturk Gambit can work in the 21st century.  Ataturk controlled the news media of the time, the printing presses, the military and the police.  And 100 years to implement the plan.  Sisi is on record as saying it could take 60 years in Egypt.  Sounds about right– 30 years of Mubarek stacking al-Azhar appointments + 60 years of Sisi style military junta.  Except I don’t think it will work.

The problem for wannabe Ataturks is twofold– the internet puts everything on high speed, and social media connections ensure the aggregation of shared ideologies.  There are already secret societies starting up to use tech to preserve ahadith.  And the constitution of the Kingdom is actually the Quran.   How does MBS escape being branded  an apostate and a poodle of Kushner and Trump?  In Gulf I, the US great error was in trying to establish US base on KSA soil, in the land of Mecca and Medina– the result of this botched attempt was Osama bin Laden and 9/11.  The US wars in Iraq and A-stan have given us the endless supersoldiers of ISIS and the Taliban.

This is really interesting am to me…the memetic integrity of ahadith and Quran have been fiercely guarded for a thousand years… I am not so sure meaning of ahadith can be bent or corrupted.   But I guess we shall see.


A Constructed Complex Adaptive Invasive Strategy for Cultural Transmission

Here is a really salient article from Nadim Shehadi on the current KSA v Qatar confrontation, where he breaks down the nuances of the conflict.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia, between whom the conflict is most bitter, are also the closest: they share the same Wahhabi beliefs, and Qatar’s ruling family, the Al-Thani, claim direct descent from Imam Abdul Wahhab himself.

While Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, together with Egypt, are leading the charge against Qatar this time, they also have their own differences. A conference in Chechnya last year, in which the UAE played a prominent part, brought together about 100 Islamic scholars including ones sponsored by the Egyptian government, who declared that Salafi and Wahhabi doctrines are not part of mainstream Sunni Islam, effectively excluding both Saudi Arabia and Qatar from the definition. This is equivalent to delegitimizing the Al-Saud’s claim to their rule, much worse than any sin that Qatar has committed.

Their disagreements are serious. At the root of the dispute is a policy debate on how to deal with issues such as the various forms of radical Islam. Their similarity lies in that they all firmly believe that they are the main target of Islamist radicalism whether Sunni or Shia. Where they differ is in how to deal with the phenomenon, with approaches ranging from appeasement to co-option and suppression. They have different policies wherever the Muslim Brotherhood is involved, so they support opposing sides in Egypt, Libya, Turkey, Syria and Palestine. Qatar acts much like marginal states in Europe, such as Norway or Switzerland, maintaining relations with all sides while trying to play a mediating role.

The problem with salafi and wahhabi doctrines is that they provide a nourishing intellectual, cultural and emotional substrate for jihadism, and also that they are an integral part of Islam.  Jihad is in the DNA of the Quran…and oppression of the ummah acts like a trigger for the expression of salafi-jihadism.  And its impossible to get rid of jihad without rewriting the Quran.  Currently the GCC countries are pointing the finger at each other over the spread of islamic terrorism– who is the biggest terrorist enabler.  I think it depends if spreading wahhabism is equivalent to spreading salafi-jihad (aka islamic terrorism)?  Since it is the basic substrate.

The biggest challenge the Gulf states face is not invasion by Iran, it is their population’s growing sympathy with radicalism and this is linked to Iran’s actions in the region. Images of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp together with Hezbollah and other Iranian-sponsored militias ethnically cleansing areas of Sunnis in Iraq or participating in starvation sieges in Syria expose the failure of the rich Gulf states. This in turn serves to delegitimize Saudi claims to leadership of the Sunni Muslim world that radical movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State group are challenging.

I think Shehadi’s analysis is very cogent in the restricted neighborhood of the ME, where there is a Shia/Sunni conflict, but its interesting to observe what is happening in the broader theater of dar ul Islam.

In the broader theater, Sunnis are massively dominant in places like Indonesia and Africa, where the Shia/IRG is not a neighborhood threat.  There are for example, 80 million sunni muslims in Nigeria, and there are 202.9 million sunni muslims in Indonesia.


I thought these comments from Dr. Davidson were very interesting.

He is citing data from this article about Jakarta’s recent election.

JUST A FEW months ago, the governor of Indonesia’s largest city, Jakarta, seemed headed for easy re-election despite the fact that he is a Christian in a mostly Muslim country. Suddenly everything went violently wrong. Using the pretext of an offhand remark the governor made about the Koran, masses of enraged Muslims took to the streets to denounce him. In short order he lost the election, was arrested, charged with blasphemy, and sentenced to two years in prison.

This episode is especially alarming because Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, has long been one of its most tolerant. Indonesian Islam, like most belief systems on that vast archipelago, is syncretic, gentle, and open-minded. The stunning fall of Jakarta’s governor reflects the opposite: intolerance, sectarian hatred, and contempt for democracy. Fundamentalism is surging in Indonesia. This did not happen naturally.

This is a persistant adaptive strategy of invasive cultural transmission.

Saudi Arabia has been working for decades to pull Indonesia away from moderate Islam and toward the austere Wahhabi form that is state religion in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis’ campaign has been patient, multi-faceted, and lavishly financed. It mirrors others they have waged in Muslim countries across Asia and Africa.

“The educational network spreads itself.”  That’s very good.  Indonesia has a large “malleable muslim majority”– 202.9 million muslims.

In his book, Shadow Wars, Dr. Davidson also writes about how KSA exploits the hajj to fund terror groups.

This shows that KSA’s demonization of Qatar as a terrorist-funder is really just misdirection.  What Qatar does sponser is anti-KSA dissent.  Like Shehadi’s description of Qatar as the Switzerland of the GCC, Qatar hosts al Jazeerha, saudi dissidents, bahraini and yemeni dissidents, and the MB.  This is also an example of  how KSA’s physical possession of the ka’bah is used to exploit the hajj as a conduit to fund minority or sectarian muslim demographies to destabilize the ruling regime, (Dr. Davidson’s second strategy).

Here we have House Muslim & perpetually wrong pundit Shadi Hamid on Whats Different About Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia — not going to be that way much longer IMHO.  Actually, doesnt the Jakarta election blow up his whole thesis?  Indonesians used the blasphemy law on the books to sentence the ex-governor to 2 years in prison.

What distinguishes Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as their electorates, isn’t some readiness to embrace the gradual privatization of religion. The difference is that their brand of Islamic politics garners much less attention in the West, in part because they aren’t seen as strategically vital and, perhaps more importantly, because the passage of Islamic legislation is simply less controversial domestically. There has been a coming to terms with Islam’s role in public life, where in much of the Middle East, there hasn’t — at least not yet.

This is entirely wrong– KSA is exploiting the shariah “on the books” to transform univerisities to wahhabist institutions, to sentence the ex-governor, to pull Indonesian culture and society in the direction they want it to go.

I would love to have data to measure the spread of wahhabism through Indonesian culture– in contemporary Indonesia KSA is employing the first strategy…seeding the large malleable muslim population with wahhabism using educational and clerical networks.  This is a complex adaptive strategy using a mixed system of oblique, lateral and vertical transmission, and its condensed and amplified by the convolution of education and religion.  KSA is funding universities and mosques– two primary and co-dependent centers of social influence.  The strategy of offering scholarships and study in Mecca to the brightest students– brilliant.  An engineered meritocracy where wahhabism becomes the highest layer of the clerical class structure.

I would employ Cavalli-Sforza’s useful criteria-

Relationship of teacher and taught.

Age differences of cultural generations

Numerical relation between teacher and taught

Complexity of society, social structure and hierarchial layers

If I could get a capture I could build the transmission matrices to do generational iterations.  How cool would that be?  We are entering A Golden Age of Data, where data is going to be cheap and abundant and available to all.

Even to Shadi Hamid.

Editor’s note:  I’m told the Chechnya conference that UAE participated in was organized by Kadirov (Putin), and run by largely Sufi scholars.  Probably not very influential on the main [sunni] population of dar ul Islam, and directed explicitly at Putin’s current growing problems in Chechnya and Inghusetia.