The Daily Mail is reporting that SaudiKing Salman is about to abdicate in favor of his sonMohammed bin Salman. This report should be taken with the biggest grain of salt you can lay your hands on. Taking nothing away from the fine work of the Daily Mail, we should be skeptical about claims from anyone regarding something as specific as Saudi King Salman stepping down.
(If nothing else, the effect to be achieved by promoting such a rumor is motive enough for someone to do it maliciously. Might as well paint a big bull’s eye on Mohammed bin Salman.)
Nevertheless, the size of the Saudi “purge” in November 2017, which has been orchestrated by Mohammed bin Salman (AKA “MBS”), King Salman’s son by his third wife and officially Deputy Crown Prince, has argued all along for it being about more than merely modernizing the kingdom and preparing it for a bright economic future.
I would urge caution in interpreting the potential of the various signals about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia. It – what’s going on – is inseparable from the regional security situation the Saudis face, a point that seems difficult to get Western commentators to focus on. The Saudis do nothing in 2017 for abstract reasons. Their movers and shakers are making all decisions with their eyes firmly locked on something Western analysts would benefit greatly from looking at themselves: the map.
In the West, we have the luxury of thinking the map still looks the same as it did six or seven years ago. The Saudis don’t.
The map’s tale of worsening danger is encroaching within tactical-missile and attack-aircraft range of their territory and has been for some months (or even years) now. The missile threat from Yemen is only one aspect of that. The greater concern is what is happening to the north, with Iran’s effective military occupation of much of Iraq and Syria.
Iran’s near-completion of her land bridge to Syria and the Mediterranean, and the new verbiage of the U.S.-Russia dialogue on Syria – settling inevitably into themes of increasingly permanent “zones,” and the obvious prospect of a settlement, with a Syrian vote of some kind – are signals that a new geopolitical reality is on the horizon.
Instead of reality being about “fighting ISIS,” as the pre-2011 order continues to break up, reality will shortly be about drawing the new lines of “order”: of power, control, and international respect for boundaries, the latter having been sorely disrupted since the Arab Spring began.
The Saudis aren’t going to sit and watch an incipiently nuclear Iran take over the region, as the main outcome of this process. At least, Mohammed bin Salman isn’t.
I note also that the oil and gas industry is, of course, important to all Saudi strategic decisions. But it is a profound error in 2017 to think that it is more important than Iranian (and Iran-backed) fighters and guns. Oil has absolute primacy only if the geopolitical situation can be expected to remain stable overall.
The MBS faction in Saudi Arabia sees more clearly than many in the West do that the geopolitical situation today is extremely unstable. That’s why the Saudis have been arming up so rapidly over the last seven years, and in particular, expanding the role and capabilities of the Saudi National Guard in the last three.
Parallel strategic moves
Although there is a great deal to say on this head, I want to focus here on just one feature of these developments. The significance of it is that it is something of a companion to the Iranian development I wrote about last week.
In Iran, the development was an obscure bureaucratic maneuver whose effect will be to resubordinate the power-projection forces of the Iranian national army to the Revolutionary Guard, or IRGC. This will put an integrated suite of joint forces under the unified command of the supreme ayatollah, Khamenei: a suite with the combined capability to project military power for aggression outside Iran’s borders.
Such a force has not existed up to now. The divided command arrangement has acted since the 1979 revolution as a check on the IRGC’s political latitude to act aggressively abroad. Although the IRGC can exploit proxy forces, Iran hasn’t had the internal command unity to employ the conventional Iranian armed forces for “offense” abroad, as opposed to “defense.”