Small World: Yet another big, big worry


Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

I read the other day that a moderate dose of anxiety is good for you. It might help to sharpen you physically and mentally. Prepares you to deal with stress, with life’s surprises.

The major price to pay is a furrowed brow and loss of sleep. Still, all of us expend considerable resources and energy to relieve worry, even when the remedy is far beyond the reach of our talents. Worried about how the USA will fare in the Olympics? Others, not you, will answer that. Worried about the winner in the American elections? Again, you have to hope that others will act wisely — if in fact there is a wise choice.

It’s in the Middle East where most of our pointless concerns are focused. Can “little” Israel survive in a sea of Arabs? Can ISIS be defeated? Can Afghanistan settle down into a peaceful, (slowly) developing nation?  Some think they know the answers and most know they are (mostly) beyond our ability to influence.

But there is one conundrum that we pay scant attention to. One with enormous consequences for our wellbeing as individuals, as a nation — indeed as citizens of the world. That is the future of Saudi Arabia. For decades, Washington has been keenly aware of the risks there, but fearful of taking action that might make things worse.

We all — that is, those of us who can raise our sights above the November vote — we all know of the importance of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA as they say in the State Department): The world’s largest oil reserves and the ability to influence production of other Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf. Enormous reserves of financial wealth: maybe between $600 and $700 billon in the bank and invested.

Most of the time since World War II, KSA has been our supportive, call it dutiful, friend. Its internal politics have never won our approval: an absolute monarchy, scant rights for women or human rights in general, a tight alliance with the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam which promotes an intolerant, rigid and austere faith in mosques and schools established with KSA funds from Kosovo to Pakistan and beyond. These Sunnis hate the minority Shia sect of Islam and its principal leader Iran.

When much of the Arab world was swept with the democracy-seeking Arab Spring, KSA hunkered down with munificent payoffs to its youth, pretending to hire many of them in government enterprises while the real work is done by imported Arabs and South Asians. Now comes the day of reckoning promoted by a quite young royal, Mohamed bin Salman (MSB), newly become Deputy Crown Prince who appears to be calling the shots.

This has meant greater repression of dissent at home (executions) and start-up funds and arms for ISIS in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. It has also meant the merciless pursuit of a war against Yemen, the region’s poorest state, deemed (incorrectly) to be an agent of Iranian influence. The KSA forces are not the most skilled, so we find Americans helping with armaments, intelligence and who knows what other chores beyond KSA capabilities. Why is the Obama administration doing this contrary to its peaceful principles? Because KSA was powerfully offended by the U.S. agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions — seen as the United States cozying up to Tehran.

Meanwhile, KSA has maintained excess petroleum production to force prices down and damage Iran’s post-sanctions resumption of oil exports and the competitive American shale and renewable energy industries. An imprudent waste of a limited resource? Alas, not if you are motivated by traditional values and fanatical animosity.

Add to the long-standing list of coming agonies, MBS’s ambition to replace the foreign-staffed and cumbersome state domination of the economy with to-be-trained Saudi youth. The ambition to erect a Western-style, technically adroit economy on top of a religiously controlled realm may well lie beyond KSA capabilities. Think of the turmoil that has been visited on Arab autocracies during the past half decade. KSA has tried to buy peace with funds for Egypt, but how long can that continue?

Back to the tossing and turning you ought to be experiencing over the prospect of a KSA torn by internal strife, beyond the ken of Washington to repair (think of our record in Iraq and Afghanistan). If Washington had any sort of answer for the KSA conundrum, they would have prescribed it years ago. Instead we wait for events to dictate. What kind of future lies ahead for us if a medieval KSA collides with the 21st Century?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer. 

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