Arrias on Politics: A Coming Collision?

Saudi Arabia’s heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), sent an interesting signal last week: in a startling – but not unprecedented – action, MBS arrested 18 rich, powerful Saudis. Of course, this kind of activity isn’t unprecedented, kings and other absolute or near absolute rulers have been purging their courts for thousands of year.

While many analysts have read it as MBS consolidating his position and eliminating would-be opposition to the throne, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that MBS (and the King, this didn’t happen without the King’s approval) is engaged in a much more important effort, one we need watch with interest. Let me explain.

Saudi Arabia faces a host of problems: an unemployment rate of nearly 13% (for those under 25, perhaps as high as 30%); lower oil revenues (prices have stabilized below $60/bbl, yet government spending – have been based on oil prices of $70 or more); an economy overwhelmingly based on oil – plans to diversify require hundreds of billions in capital investment, money to be underwritten by oil revenue; and Saudi public welfare programs and government subsidies that were all estimated based on higher oil prices.

And then there’s Iran. Consider:

The Saudi war in Yemen is now in its third year, with no end in sight. Iran supports the Houthi rebels; last week a long-range rocket – provided by Iran – was launched from Yemen towards the Saudi capital of Riyadh. A Saudi Patriot missile intercepted the rocket and there were no casualties. But the fact remains that an Iranian proxy fired an Iranian missile at the Saudi capital.

Iran has a very close relationship with Qatar – based on oil interests. Qatar has used its oil money to support a number of radical Islamic groups that the Saudis (and others – Egypt, for example) see as destabilizing the entire region.

In Iraq, Iran has used the fighting with ISIS to expand its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Recently it has become clear that Iran has reinforced and re-supplied Hezballah with weapons.

This isn’t simply the “normal” interweaving of overlapping issues: a power struggle, economics, demographics, geo-politics. Rather, at its root is the Iranian effort to take advantage of the religious rift at the center of Islam, the Sunni – Shia schism.

While about 13% of the world’s Muslims are Shia, the bulk live in or near Iran. The collective populations of Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and the nations of the Arabian Peninsula total roughly 215 million people; 125 million of them are Shia. Iran – 98% Shia, is extending its influence into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, already has influence in Yemen (it’s underwriting that war, after all), has substantial political and economic presence in Oman, and is economically and politically closely aligned with Qatar. As ISIS has been pushed back in Iraq and Syria, Iran has expanded its presence, working closely with the Iraq government. Iranian influence continues to grow in Qatar as well, the real reason the Saudis are sanctioning Qatar.

With its own large Shia minority (at least several million Shia, mainly in the oil-rich eastern province) MBS recognizes that Saudi Arabia has little room for more trouble.

From Riyadh’s perspective Saudi Arabia is being “surrounded” by Iran. The growing Iranian influence in Lebanon, the Iranian backed Iraq actions in Kirkuk, and finally the firing of an Iranian built rocket at Riyadh paint the problem in stark relief: Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni Arab world, are under assault by Iran and it’s proxies. MBS recognizes the time to act is now.

Years after the fact, Winston Churchill wrote of the start of the First World War that: “The measured, silent drawing together of gigantic forces, the uncertainty of their movements and positions, the number of unknown and unknowable facts made the first collision a drama never surpassed.”

That North Korea continues its nuclear weapons development, a program a cynic might suggest was funded at least in part by Iran, and as China and Russia continue to expand their presence in the Middle East, East Africa, Central Asia, and South East Asia, it’s easy to believe that forces are now in motion that are both massive and ones we don’t fully understand.

Indeed, it would seem that silent, gigantic forces are once again moving, in the Mid East, and across Asia and Africa. Preparedness, and support of our allies may prevent another collision. Perhaps if we act now we might avoid our own cataclysmic drama.

Copyright 2017 Arrias

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