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.

Inshallah.

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.