Sunday, April 30, 2023

Sudan and the Crisis of Failed States in the Arab World

Fighting in the Sudanese capital Khartoum

The Arab world is well known for its "democracy deficit."  This problematic state of affairs may be soon surpassed by an even more dubious distinction, namely the crisis of failed states.  Across the Arab world, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Lebanon are all failed states.  Given the intense fighting between two rival generals in Sudan may lead the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa to soon join the list. It is not a stretch to envision Tunisia joining the list as well.

Why are so many Arab states unable to preserve their sovereignty and national security?  More ominously, does the Arab experience suggest that the problems the region is facing are spreading to other regions of Africa and South Asia as well? The answer is that the problems undermining politvial authority in the Arab world are larger than the region. Thus, an analysis of the region helps us comprehend a larger dynamic in much of the Global South.

In explaining failed states in the Arab world, we need to focus on three stages: the collapse of secular ideology, the onset of foreign direct investment, and the development of neoliberalism accompanied by criminality. 

The collapse of secular ideology                                                                                                              The legacy of colonial rule shows that the collaborative regimes which Great Britain, France and other European powers established after ceding independence lacked legitimacy. Despite the pretense of democratic elections, these post-WWI regimes were dominated by landowners and merchants and incipient industrialists and did little or nothing to improve the conditions of the mass publics over which they ruled.

The military and single party coups which began after WWII promised revolutionary change, especially under the banner of Pan-Arabism.  The Pan-Arabist slogan of "unity, democracy and socialism" failed to materialize.  As Egyptians noted with their ingrained sense of humor, all Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Nasser)'s revolution accomplished was to spread the poverty more evenly.

The Pan-Arab social contract offered political stability and economic security in return for political quiescence.  University education would be free and college graduates would be guaranteed a government job. Citizens would receive monthly food rations at minimal cost. Transportation would be subsidized.  To undermine Islamist movements and appear more modern to the West, gender equality was emphasized, although women remained second class citizens.*

The Pan-Arabist Social Contract was short lived.  Repression  of dissent , the institutionalization of the military in nationalized industry, the defeat in the 1967 war, and the struggle between Egypt, Syrai and Iraq for control of the Pan Arabist movement all delegitimized the ideology.  The slow growth of the state public sector prevented regimes from continuing to provide social entitlements, except through accumulating large debts.

The onset of foreign direct investment (FDI)                                                                                    Following the disastrous June 1967 Arab -Israeli War, Egypt found itself cut off from Suez Canal and sizable tourist revenues, while bearing the burden of residents forced to leave the Suez Canal and move west to Cairo and other urban areas.  When Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir dies in September 1970, his Vice-President, Anar Sadat, replaced him.  

Sadat, as is well known, put Egypt on a very different foreign policy and domestic trajectory than that of al-Nasir.  He terminated military ties with the Soviet Union, releasedNasir's arch enemies, the Muslim Brothers, from jail (so they could attack the left-wing of the Nasserite movement), and proclaimed his al-infitah - the "Open Door" policy to the US and the West.  The Open Door was an attempt to return foreign investment to Egypt to overcome its sluggish economic growth.

At the Eighth Party Congress of Iraq's Ba'th Party in 1974, Saddam Husayn moved away from the socialism and began to seek foreign investment in the Iraq's economy.  When I arrived in Iraq for a two month stay in May and June of 1980, my minders at the Ministry of Information took me to a number of Western projects, such as a steel miil being built by San Francisco based Bechtel Corporation and France's Creusot-Loire engineering conglomerate.

Syria waited longer to seek Western FDI.  Between 2000 and 2010, Syria's legal system underwent significant change, offering tax holidays and other market based incentives.  During the first decade of the 20th century, there was sharp uptick of FDI which reached a peak in 2009.  The primary countries which invested in Syria were Russia and Germany.  The main areas of FDI were the telecommunications, banking and electricity sectors.

The rise of the corporate-criminal state                                                                                                  Pan-Arabism slipped from the Arab collective memory during the 1970s and 1980s.  As globalization spread, Arab elites in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya and elsewhere became increasingly involved with foreign capital. The standard of living and general well-being of mass publics became an afterthought.  State subsidies for food and transportation, and benefits such as government employment based on a university degree, declined as Arab states sought to lower national debt to increase their attraction as investment targets.

Arab leaders of the 1990s lacked the experience of having participated in the anti-colonial struggle of the inter-war and post WWII eras.  In Tunisia, for example, Habib Bourguiba had ruled as an autocrat. Still, he allowed the formation of government controlled labor unions, women's tights and state-supervised civil society. After he was deposed in 1987, his successor Zine al-Din Ben Ali established an incredibly corrupt regime.  In is no coincidence that the Arab Spring began in Tunisia when a frustrated vegetable and fruit vendor, Muhammad Bouazizi, immolated himself when he no longer could afford the brides to conduct his business and support his extended family.

The Arab Spring uprisings quickly spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen.  Only Tunisia experienced any meaningful transition to democracy with Ben Ali's ouster.  Nevertheless, the inability of successive governments to improve Tunisia's economy. combined with the spread of corruption. allowed President Qa'is Sa'id to seize power in 2020, restructure the constitution, and centralize power in his hands.

Shorn of ideology and befitting from lucrative contacts with foreign corporations, an ever widening gap has developed between political elites and the citizenry at large. During the Arab Spring, the Syrian and Egyptian regimes used the argument that the opposition was comprised of radical Islamists and therefore needed to be repressed.  The violent strife which accompanied the Arab Spring led to a large number of displaced persons. In Syria, half of the population has been affected by the ongoing civil war.

The large influx of refugees into neighboring countries has caused additional political turmoil. Over 4 million Syrians moved to Syria.  However, it was the influx of over 2 million Syrians into Lebanon which has pushed it the verge of fiscal collapse.  The storied Lebanese banking system, has run out of funds. The result has been that depositors can't accessing their bank accounts, leading to attempts to "rob" banks to obtain their funds.

Th extent of corruption in Lebanon's political elite became manifest after a huge amount of ammonium nitrate, over 2700 hundred tons, which had been illegally stored in Beirut's post for 6 years, exploded in August 2020. The explosion destroyed a large part of the city, killing 218, injuring 7000 and displacing over 300,00 residents.

Despite determined efforts of Lebanese judges, all efforts to investigate the crime and bring those who caused it to justice have failed.  The political elites from a wide variety of confessional groups - Christian and Muslim - and Hizballah, which controls the most seats in parliament and half the cabinet ministers, have stymied all attempts to move the investigation and trials forward.

Egypt -a Proto-Failed State?                                                                                                                   Egypt represents the archetypical military-corporate state.  In effect, Egypt's is a bifurcated state.  On the one hand, there is the government appointed by the dictator, General ' Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. This consists of the usual array of ministries with their limited budgets.  On the other, there is the military-financial complex in which military officers and business elites close to the al-Sisi regime enjoy all the benefits of Egypt's wealth while leaving millions of their fellow citizens in abject poverty.

The great gap in wealth is combined with spatial segregation. The military-financial elites live in upscale neighborhoods or in gated communities and socialize in exclusive clubs. There is minimal interaction between the elites and the populace at large.  Indeed, only those Egyptian's who possess al-wasta (political influence) have any hopes of entering the ranks of the elites. 

Just like the Rapid Support Forces and the army in Sudan, and the all powerful militias supported by Iran in Iraq, the Egyptian military is deeply compromised by its control of Egypt's economy.  This control is symbolically codified in an Egyptian  law which makes publishing the military's budget a crime.  Estimates are that the military controls at elast 1/3 of Egypt's economy.

Meanwhile, the Sisi regime is doing little to generate the jobs needed for a rapidly growing population, now almost 108 million.  University graduates are frustrated and angry because they can;t find employment based on their merits.  Instead, they see youth who have wasta getting the premium positions.  Poverty is a major problem in Egypt.  


 *Although it should be noted that, when I visited Baghdad in May and June of 1980, the majority of physicians in the capital were female. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

What is the Legacy of the United States' 2003 Invasion of Iraq?

"Shock and Awe" - Baghdad March 20, 2023
Twenty years ago today, the Bush Administration launched the United States invasion of Iraq.  What is the legacy of the invasion?  Was it justified and what was its impact on Iraq?  What are the lessons learned by the invasion and toppling of Saddam Husayn's regime?

To begin, there is no question that Saddam Husayn was one of the world's most notorious war criminals and guilty of massive human rights abuses.  It is estimated that Saddam killed 3 million Iraqis during his rule between 1968 and 2003.  This is equal to 15% of Iraq's population, and doesn't take account of all the Iraqis killed due to Saddam's invasion of Iran in September 1980 and seizure of Kuwait  in August 1990 which killed thousands of Iraqi troops and innocent civilians.

The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq was an illegal operation.  The United Nations dod not authorize the attack.  The time in which to remove Saddam from power was in March 1991 when a majority of the Iraqi population rise up against Saddam.  

The uprising (Intifada) in the Kurdish north and the Arab south at the time would have deposed Saddam had not the United States intervened to allow Iraqi helicopter gunships to take to the air and suppress the Intifada.  Had Saddam's regime been toppled, while United States were in Iraq, would have prevented the brutal United Nations sanctions of 1991-2003.  The sanctions destroyed the Iraqi education system and the professional middle classes.  In short, the first mistake made by Bush the Elder was not to end Saddam's regime in 1991.

The 2003 invasion was based on a lie.  The CIA and Bush administration knew that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Unfortunately, Saddam refused to admit Iraq had no WMD because he was afraid if he did Iran would consider Iraq as weak and be encouraged to invade and overthrow his regime.

The US occupation was initially directed by General Jay Garner, someone who had some knowledge of Iraq and the Arab world.  However, he was considered to "pro-Arab" and soon repealed by an arrogant official, Paul Bremer, who had no experience in the Arab world and was ignorant to navigate complex situation of a country which had suffered 2 major wars and the mist severe sanctions regime ever imposed on a nation-state in the modern era.

Bremer who was appointed to head the new Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in 2003.  As CPA Administrator, his first decisions began a long list of destructive policies.  The dissolution of Iraq's 400,000 man strong conscript army (separate from Saddam's Republican Guards or Special Republican Guards) included large number of soldiers who were battle trained, having fought in the 8 year Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and Gulf War (1991), created the basis for the insurgency which Saddam had planned if US forces were successful in deposing him.

Now that large numbers of soldiers were unemployed, even if they received salaries for a period after having been released from military service, were available for mobilization against US forces. According to a study of the impact of the army's dissolution, the firing of 400,000 troops had a negative impact on an estimated 10 million Iraqis, taking into account the families which these soldiers salaries had supported.

By the fall of 2003, an insurgency was underway, even if Bush's Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, continued to deny its existence. Not only did the insurgency include ex-Ba'thists but also former conscript army members who were paid to fight and kill American troops.  Ominously, it also began to attract radical Islamists and members of al-Qa'ida who saw in Iraq an opportunity to take up arms against the United States. 

The second consequential decision Bremer took was to fire all members of Iraq's Ba'th Party, not taking into account those who were forced to join to maintain their government employment (when included a large segment of the Iraqi population).  This decision deprived Iraq of large numbers of critically needed professionals for the reconstruction of Iraq, whose economy and infrastructure had been destroyed in two wars of bombing of Iraq and the United Nations sanctions regime.

Beyond the CPA's forst 2 decisions, other problematic decision were being made in Washington, DC, primarily by Vice President Dick Cheney and members of the Defense Department, especially Assistant Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz and his assistant, Under Secretary of Policy Planning, Douglass Feith.

The Bush administration's cooperation with Iraqi exiles who had maintained close ties to the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran was. mind boggling.  Had not George w Bush included the Tehran regime as one of three countries who comprised the "Axis of Evil" (the other 2 being Saddam's Iraq and North Korea). Why then would the United States invite someone like Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to visit Paul Wolfowitz in Washington and become a post-2003 power broker in Iraq?

The Bush administration's policies also laid the foundation for the extensive corruption which plagues Iraq today.  Because there was no banking system in 2003, cash in US dollars was flown into Iraq and distributed in large bundles to finance reconstruction projects.  Under these circumstances, huge amount of funds disappeared.  When the amount estimated about $16-18 billion could not be accounted for, George Bush finally agreed to appoint a Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGAR).  

His choice for the position was a friend, Stuart Bowen, who he had know for years. Little did he know that Bowen woulds take his job very seriously. To Bush's chagrin, Bowen discovered massive corruption in both the awarding of contracts for reconstruction projects and further lost funds for many projects once completed. 

Bowen also discovered that many projects were never in Iraq's interests but were intended instead to maximize the profits of American corporations such as Halliburton which they realized.  Others were never completed. Key projects, such as repairing and expanding Iraq's decrepit electric grid, were avoided.  Instead, projects such as a hospital with expensive medical equipment which was difficult to maintain and service which, in any event, was never completed. In short, the bold statements about rebuilding Iraq after the 2003 invasion bore little fruition.

Paul Bremer also contributed to undermining confidence in  democracy in Iraq - one of the purported goal of the toppling of Saddam - by trying to fix the outcome of the first elections held in post-Saddam Iraq in January 2005.  When Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani learned of Bremer's efforts, he intervened to prevent his machinations.  Throughout Bremer'd tenure as CPA Administrator, al-Sistani refused to meet with him.

One of the Bush administration's last but more egregious decisions was to appoint the arch-sectarian Nuri al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister in 2006. This decision would lead to al-Maliki's alienation of Iraq's Sunni Arab population which set the stage for the seizure of Mosul and much of North Central Iraqi in June 2014.

Ironically, the most effective American policy in Iraq was not initiated by the Pentagon but by middle rank officers in the field. What came to be known as the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) was based on a simple idea.  Whenever there was an uptick in violence in an Iraqi town or urban quarter, middle range officers would take money in safes on their bases which had been confiscated from Ba'thists attempting to flee the country in 2003 and use it to put local residents to work in the areas experiencing conflict.

One US Army captain told me that he avoided using small bulldozers and employed shovels instead so that he could give the maximum number of men jobs sand a salary.  Work included repairing sewer and water lines, refurbishing schools, building simple sports centers, and cleaning up the neighborhood.

The United States should have used Saddam's massive human rights abuses to mobilize an international coalition under United Nations auspices to remove Saddam from power and bring to trial in an international court.  However, to single out Saddam would have laid the Bush administration open to the question of why other dictators the US supported were also not removed from power.

Ultimately, the removal of Saddam was not about establishing a true democracy in Iraq.  It seemed instead to be mostly concerneed with intimidating neighboring Iran and Syria, and giving US energy corporations access to high quality Iraq oil.  If there were the true reason for the invasion, they both present one of the worst failures of US foreign policy in modern American history.   

Monday, February 27, 2023

The Fracturing of National Identity: Iran and Israel between Secular Liberalism and Politicized Religion - Part 2

Demonstrations protesting efforts to sideline Israel's Supreme Court
This post represents Part 2 of a two effort to analyze the fracturing of national identity in Iran and Israel and its possible consequences for the MENA region. See Part 1 at: 

As I argued in Part 1 of this post, Iran and Israel are both confronting a fracturing of their respective national identities. In Iran, there is a strong desire among the majority of the population, especially the under 40 demographic which represents 80% of Iranians, for democracy and personal freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom for women not to be forced to wear the hijab, and for the right to develop civil society organizations not under the control of the state.

In Israel, the sociopolitical cleavage is quite different.  Here we find a democracy marching towards majoritarian rule. Having won parliamentary elections this past November by a ew percentage points, the most far right government in Israel's history is quickly pushing through the Knesset (parliament) laws that will in effect end the ability of the country's Supreme Court to declare laws unconstitutional and give politicians greater control over the appointment of judges.

The efforts to radically restructure Israel's democracy has not gone down well among secular Israelis who fear the damage the far right government will do to the country.  It includes many ultra religious ministers and supporters who, in effect, want to make Israel a theocratic state.

From 1948 when the State of Israel was founded, it was dominated by the MAPAI or Labor Party which, in partnership with the much smaller MAPAM Party, represented the dominant political movement under the Yishuv (the pre-state Zionist community in Palestine).  At its founding, a cleavage already existed between secular, left leaning Zionists and the religious community in Israel and, the right wing revisionist parties, which would later coalesce to become the Likud Party.

To address this cleavage, the Labor Party controlled foreign policy, including the post of Prime Minster, and of ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense.  However, the National Religious Party was given control of the Ministry of Education.  This balancing between secular and religious Israelis was sustained until the Likud Party, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, won a stunning victory in 1977.  

While the Labor Party was able to win some subsequent elections, the rise of the right wing has continued since 1977.  Today, a majority of Israelis identify with the right, whether nationalist or religious, while the Labor Party has all but disappeared.

Increasingly, it is almost impossible for a secular center-left coalition to come to power in Israel. The extreme nationalist and religious right control 72 of the Knesset's 120 seats.  Thus, any Israeli government must be established through building some type of coalition with right wing parties. 

How did the right in Israel replace the left of center Labor Party coalition? Already before the Likud's victory in 1977, the Labor Party had been ripe with corruption in state run entities such as the Histradut, the large public sector union.  As in other democracies around the world, Labor governments had moved towards more neoliberal policies which undermined the power of the working class.  It also did little to incorporate Jews from Arab countries, the so-called Mizrachim ("Easterners").

During the 1980s, Israel witnessed increased immigration of Russian Jews.  Having experienced discrimination as Jews and repression for political activities, these immigrants hardly viewed the USSR as a "progressive," Marxist state.  Their experiences in Russia made them more inclined to join right wing parties.  This political tendency set them apart  from the Russian and East European Jews who had immigrated to Palestine during the Yishuv and joined the Labor and MAPAM parties.

The growth of the settler movement in the West Bank after Israel seized it from Jordan in the June 1967 Six Day War created a new constituency which had no interests in seeing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.  As the settlements grew, they increasingly encroached on Palestinian land, which was often seized without compensation and legal redress. At the same time, the Israeli government has refused to issue permits to Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to build new homes. indicating to many Palestinians that their hoped for independent state wasn't in the cards.

Settlements have also gained strength through support from Evangelical Christians in the United States.  Evangelicals believe that the Messiah will reappear in the area currently constituting the Israeli state when Judgment Day occurs.  As a result of shrewd lobbying by the settler movement in the US, the Republican Party, whose social base includes large numbers of Evangelical Christians, has strongly supported the settlement movements retaining their land in the West Bank.  

Settle movement lobbying has been focused on the American Israel Politcal Action Committee (AIPAC) as well.  Also, significant funding for the settlers has come from US donors.  David Friedman, who served as US ambassador to Israel during the Trump administration, is just one of many wealthy Jewish Americans who have contributed to the settler movement.

The right received a political boost from the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.  In elections held after the withdrawal, the more moderate Fatah Party was soundly defeated by the Islamist Hamas movement which seized power and has been ruling it ever since.  On a number of occasions, Hamas has fired rockets into Israel, especially after upsurges of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In 2000, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon which it had occupied since the 1982 invasion designed to destroy Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) bases in the south,  During its occupation of the south, Israeli forces had been in constant conflict with Hizballah, a powerful Shi'a militia backed by Iran. In July 2006, Hizballah killed 8 Israeli soldiers during a cross-border raid into northern Israel. Two other soldiers were kidnapped and later killed. These events led to the 2006 Israeli war.  The Israeli response led to extensive bombing of southern Lebanon and the extensive destruction of infrastructure.  

The Israeli bombing resulted in a fusillade of rockets launched by Hizballah forces from the southern Lebanese mountains.  In the ensuing war, thousands of Israelis were forced to leave the north of the country to be out of range of Hizballah rockets.  The war shook both Lebanon and Israel and raised concerns among civilians on both sides of the conflict about the future of their security in the regions in which they resided.

In May 2021, a simmering crisis in the Shaykh Jarrah section of East Jerusalem came to a head.  Palestinians were worried about an imminent Supreme Court decision which would evict them from their homes.  Demonstration began leading Israeli police to enter the compound of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem where violence broke out between the police and demonstrators. 

Hamas demanded that the police leave the mosque, one of the holiest sits in Islam.. When they didn't, Hamas began a rocket campaign with some rockets reaching far into Israel, some near Jerusalem.  Israel began a bombing campaign of the Gaza strip and fighting broke out in Lod and several other Israeli cities between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis.  

Synagogues and mosques were attacked and businesses burned.  Many Israelis, both Jewish an Arab, were severely wounded.  The inter-ethnic conflict left deep scars` in Israeli society.  For those on the right, the violence provided support for their narrative that Israel's Arab citizens could not be trusted

When studying the rise of the Israeli right wing nationalists, an issue which has not received enough attention is demographic change.  Orthodox Jews in Israel have a much higher birth rate than secular Israelis. Among what is often referred to a "traditional religions," the ultra-orthodox have on average 6.8 children per family, while the orthodox have 3.7 per family.  However, among secular Israelis, the birthrate is only 2.9 children per family. Thus the religious community, much of which supports right-wing nationalism, is becoming an ever larger percentage of the population.

At the same time, education for orthodox students is implicitly politicized.  Because the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, it cannot accommodate the Palestinians.  Further, the orthodox definition of who is Jewish excludes conservative and reform Jews,  thus, threatening to create a deep split in world-wide Jewry.

With the installation of the most far-right government in Israel's history, the trends discussed above have finally come to dominate Israeli politics.  The former government of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, which included right wing centrist and left wing parties, as well as an Arab Islamist party seemed like Israel might have found a formula to bridge the secular-religious divide. However, the Naftali-Lapid government ran afoul of disagreements with the right wing coalition parties and collapsed.

With the far right now ascendant, we can see some of the future outcomes of Israel's politics. Israel investment finds are already leaving Israel. Without a national legal system which enjoys autonomy from political interference, investors are loathe to invest in a financial environment which is overshadowed by uncertainty arising from political conflict and potential instability, e.g., a standoff between the Supreme Court and the Netanyahu government over constitutional authority.

Israel is suffering from an identity crisis.  A growing chasm exists between two visions of the future.  One sees a secular liberal democratic Israel which will try to build a society for all its citizens and hopefully find a solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute.  The other sees an illiberal democracy where a majoritarian rule is the order of the day. and a nationalist politicized form of Judaism determines public policy. 

We already see huge demonstrations on an almost daily basis by Israelis who are fiercely opposed to the changes in the legal system which the Netanyahu regime is attempting to oppose on Israel's judicial system.  While it may be an exaggeration, some Israels speak of a possible civil war as members of the military are threatening not to obey orders if the Supreme Court's authority is drastically curtailed.
Poster opposing Netanyahu's changes to the judicial system 
In Iran, the majority of the country is demanding a dramatic transformation of their political system.  Protestor demands call for a secular democracy with elections and freedom of expression assembly and, for women, of dress.  The existing regime would be dismantled and its phony, politicized version of Islam would be tossed in the trash can of history. 

As the sporadic protests persist and women's refusal to wear the hijab, the legitimacy of the so-called Islamic Republic" sinks to its lowest level since the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution.
The regime has completely lost the younger generation, including many young clerics, who oppose the regime's brutal suppression of protests.

In Israel, what Thomas Friedman calls "messianic religious zealots" seek to impose their own form of a phony, politicized religion.  They seek to establish a far-right nationalist and quasi-theocratic state which is alien to democratic political culture. These zealots, including several sitting cabinet ministers, promote violence as a means to implement the sociopolitical change they seek. 

The recent political protests in Iran and Israel represent stunning developments.  The outcome of these developments will have serious consequences for the MENA regime for years to come


Monday, January 30, 2023

The Fracturing of National Identity: Iran and Israel between Secular Liberalism and Politicized Religion - Part 1

This post represents Part 1 of a two effort to analyze the fracturing of national identity in Iran and Israel and its possible consequences for the MENA region. See Part 2 on Israel: 

No two countries in the MENA region exhibit more hostility to one another than Iran and Israel.  It might seem odd, but both these countries suffer from similar problems which afflicts many countries in the world today, namely the fracturing of national identity. Neither Iran nor Israel possess a unified national political culture. Instead, both societies have been diverging long different paths resulting its sharp cleavages among its citizenry. What are the implications of these developments for the MENA region?

Iran has never had the opportunity to exercise democracy except for a short period after World War 11.  The overthrow of the duly elected Iranian prime minister, Muhammed Mossadegh in 1953 was carried out by a CIA coup supported by Iran's military and much of its clerical class, The coup led to the reinstatement of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi who subsequently developed an extremely repressive regime.

The toppling of the Shah's regime by the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 was never intended by most participants to replace a secular tyrant with a clerical tyrant. However, the most conservative forces in the revolutionary coalition led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were able to consolidate power by1983.  Iran now became an Islamic Republic. 

Iranians mourning Mahsa Zina Amini fired on by the police

For several years after Khomeini's consolidation of power, Irans' economy improved, contributing to the popularity of the regime.  However, this economic improvement didn't last and the regime's increasingly oppressive policies such as mandating that women wear the hijab began to erode its power. 

The one element which gave some Iranians hope that the regime might moderate itself was the existence of periodic elections for the the national parliament and the presidency of the country.  With the emergence of a growing cleavage between moderate and hardline clerics after Khomeini's death, the hope of reform was actualized in the election of Mohammed Khatami as Iran's president in 1997.  

Khatami, who ran on a platform of freedom of expression, strengthening civil society, and a platform of "Dialogue Among Civilizations," in response to Samuel Huntington's well-known book, The Clash of Civilizations, embodied the hopes of liberal minded clerics, professionals, the business sector which wanted to ope the Iranian economy to foreign investment, leftists and youth.  In 2001, the United nations named the year as that of "Dialogue of Civilizations," following Khatami's suggestion.

Despite very little media attention, Khatami defeated his conservative rival winning 70% of the vote.  The election itself saw a remarkable 80% turnout.  Even in the conservative theological seminary city of Qum, Khatami received 70% of the vote.  Clearly the election indicated that Iranians wanted a new, more open and democartic political system.

After winning 2 terms, Khatami stepped down in 2055 after serving the limit of 2 terms. He was succeeded bu a har-liber Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.  In 2009, he threw his support to his colleague, another reformer, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Most observers believe the election was fraudulent and characterized by massive  voting irregularities as Ahmedinejad was proclaimed to have won a second term.  The result was an outpouring of opposition in the streets to the election.  In the repression of the demonstrations, thousands of Iranian protestors, the vast majority of whom were peaceful, were arrested or killed by security forces. The Other Iran

Ahmedinejad's presidency was characterized by increased human rights violations.  The number of death sentences for juveniles tripled under his rule and attacks on the LGBTQ community were commonplace.  Indeed, Ahmedinejad asserted that there were no LGBTQ Iranians at all. His consistent attacks on Israel which threatened to destroy the state raised international fears as Iran continued its nuclear energy program which was viewed by most international analysts to really constitutes an effort to develop nuclear weapons.

In 2006, the United Nations Security Council began imposing sanctions on Iraq when it refused to terminate its uranium enrichment efforts.  These sanctions were increased in 2007 and 2008 and in 2010, Iran was subject to a complete arms embargo. Ahmedinejad argued that the sanctions were "illegal," adding power to his hardline supporters.

The sanctions, combined with widespread corruption among the clerical elite and expenditures on Iran's nuclear program and support for allies in Lebanon and Iraq and Syrian president Bashar al-Asad's regime, undermined the economy.  Youth found it difficult to find employment and careers, even with a university degree, unless they had ties to the regime.

In 2013, centrist reformer, and well respected cleric, Hassan Rouhani, won the presidency. Although he maintained close ties to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Rouhani grained the support from reformers and youth given his promises to open Iran to foreign investment, improve the economy and seek to resolve its conflicts with the international community.  His close ties not just to the regime but to the Green Movement which had contested the 2009 elections results led to a decisive victory.

By 2017, when Rouhani sought a second term, hardliners nominated Ebrahim Raisi to run against him.  Raisi, is infamously known as the "hanging judge" for his brutal repression of dissidents in 1988 when Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the mass executions of members of the opposition group, Mujahidin al-Khalq and large numbers of leftists.  The estimates of those executed were as high as 30,000 people. Raisi ran a lackluster campaign. Rouhani beat him with an impressive 57% of the vote in an elections that saw a 71% voter turnout rate.

Having had enough of reformers, Iran's Guardian Council, which must approve all candidates for public office, disqualified anyone with reformist credential from running in the 2021 presidentail elections.  Meanwhile, Raisi, now seen as a possible successor to Khamenei, who is ill with leukemia, ran for president again,  This time he was successful, winning 65% of the votes but with a voter turnout of 48% and 3,7 million ballots left blank as protests votes.

High school girls are leading protests in Iran

Raisi is part of the gentrifications of Iran's clergy who are increasingly out of touch with the younger generation, 80% of which is under the age of 40.  His support for strict sex segregation and reference to same sex marriage as "savagery" is rejected by large numbers of Iranian youth, especially urban educated youth.  His support for amputation as a punishment for theft and refusal to accept that the Holocaust occurred underscores his hardline and rigid approach to political and social affairs.

On September 9, 2023, a young woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, was traveling to Teheran from her home in Iran's Kurdish region in the northwest, when she was stopped by Iran's "morality police." She was accused of wearing her hijab improperly.  Amini was arrested and taken to prison where she was beaten. Taken to a hospital, she died the next day.Protests in Iran Spread, Including to Oil Sector, Despite Violent Crackdown

Once the news began to circulate, thousands of Iranians too to the streets to protest Amini's death, including large numbers of female youth.  Wide scale demonstrations brought sections of many of Iran's major cities to a halt. As of the writing of this post, security forces still face sporadic protests throughout the country.

In Iran, the majority of the country is demanding a dramatic transformation of their political system.  Protestor demands call for a secular democracy with elections and freedom of expression assembly and, for women, of dress.  The existing regime would be dismantled and its phony, politicized version of Islam would be tossed in the trash can of history. 

As the sporadic protests persist and women's refusal to wear the hijab, the legitimacy of the so-called Islamic Republic" sinks to its lowest level since the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution.
The regime has completely lost the younger generation, including many young clerics, who oppose the regime's brutal suppression of protests.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

From Bad to Worse: The Globalization of Middle East Autocracy

Arab-China Summit, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec 9, 2022

More than any other region of the world, authoritarian rule is pervasive and institutionalized in the Middle East (MENA).  In the one Arab Spring success, Tunisia is now ruled by Ka'is Said, a quasi-dictator who has eviscerated its constitution and created a rubber-stamp parliament.  This week the Algerian military shut down Radio M, the last free media outlet in the country. 

In Egypt, 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi has imprisoned thousands of dissidents for mild criticism of his regime. In the country's notorious prisons, they suffer brutal conditions including torture.  In Iran, youth are hung in public for demonstrating against the government (accused of "warring against God") while young women demonstrators are raped in security forces detention facilities.

Saudi dictator Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) represents a new type of autocrat in the mold of Saddam Husayn. Gone is the norm of consultation among Saudi royals with the king acting as primus inter pares.  After fleecing all Saudi princes who might be future opponents, MBS has offered the Saudi people "bread and circus," such as Western wrestling matches and rock concerts while simultaneously engaging in massive human rights abuses.

MBS has ordered mass executions of Saudi citizens, most of whom are innocent of any crime, and the jailing of dissidents.  The execution of 81 Saudis , 41 of whom were from the Kingdon's Shi'a minority, occurred 3 days before former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's visit in May 2022. During the visit, MBS hypocritically discussed the need for human rights with the British leader. And let's not forget MBS' ordering the murder and dismemberment of the respected Washington Post journalist, Jamal al-Khashoggi, a dual national with US and Saudi citizenship, for which the Saudi dictator has suffered no consequences.

Meanwhile, the few traditional democracies in MENA have collapsed or are in the process of collapsing. Lebanon is a failed state which is under the control of Hizballah, an armed militia supported by Iran. An estimated 80% of the population lives in poverty and Lebanese citizens can't even withdraw funds from their bank accounts.  Grain imports are tenuous and serious food insecurity is on the rise throughout the country. 

In Turkey, Recip Tayyib Erdogan has transitioned from a mild-mannered Islamist who supported the trappings of democracy to a full-on autocratic.  Turkey enjoys the dubious distinction of having the largest per capita imprisonment of journalists of any country in the world.  To ensure that he wins this coming year's presidential elections, Erdogan engineered the 2 and a half year imprisonment of his strongest rival, Ekrem Imamoglu, the popular mayor of Istanbul.

Israel, long touted as the MENA region's only democracy, is now ruled by a hard right government which seeks to marginalize the judiciary by giving parliament the right to override Supreme Court decisions.  Because Israel lacks a formal constitution, the Court has been the main institution in Israel which has protected minority rights and the rule of law. 

With the Ministry of Defense and new Ministry of National Security, which controls the police, under ministers who seek to expel Palestinians from the West bank and East Jerusalem and potentially annul the citizenship of Israel's Palestinian Arab citizens if they engage in "anti-national" behavior, Israel is on the road to autocracy.  Meanwhile, talk of annexing the West Bank - the Palestine National Authority - grows, as do plans for dramatically expanding illegal settlements on Palestinian land.

If these examples of increased authoritarian rule in the MENA region weren't bad enough, a new development threatens to further strengthen the rule of local autocrats.  This threat stems from the increased involvement of Russia and China in MENA region affairs.

Russia has been supporting the scelrotic Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, primarily to protect its sole Mediterranean naval base at Tartus and its Khmeimim airfield near Latakia.  Russia has sent the Wagner Group, a brutal mercenary organization, to help the al-Asad regime fight radical jihadists in Syria.

However, after Putin's invasion of Ukraine, the degree to which Russia and Saudi Arabia under MBS have formed an alliance in OPEC+. is clear.  In a major snub to the United States, one almost unheard of in past Saudi-US relations, MBS refused to increase oil output to dampen rising global energy prices. Instead, the Saudis maintained a small increase in production which helped keep prices high, providing higher revenues for Putin with which to pursue his brutal war in Ukraine.  

Facing an unexpected protracted war in Ukraine, Putin recently turned to Iran (and North Korea) to bolster his forces with munitions and arms as Russian supplies have dwindled. The most serious threat to Ukraine has come from Iran which has supplied hundreds of Shahed 129 drones to Russia.  These drones have been used to attack Ukraine's electrical, water and other infrastructure to devastating effect.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been training Russian forces how to use the drones in occupied Crimea and there is a proposal to build a factory in Russia to produce the drones.  In exchange, Russia has promised  the Iranian regime that it will supply it with fighter aircraft, adversely impacting the balance of military power in the Gulf region. 

As other NATO members have imposed sanctions on Putin's regime following the invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has drawn closer to the Russian dictator.  Russian oil sales to Turkey have dramatically increased, providing Putin with desperately needed revenue to pursue his illegitimate war. Istanbul has become a refuge for Russian oligarchs and their wealth, e,g., their super yachts.

Turkey isn't the only MENA region state to assist Putin in his war making. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the any of the Arab Gulf states have imposed sanctions on Russia.  Indeed, Dubai has become a desired destination for Russian oligarchs who need not worry that their assets will be seized while staying there.

A greater threat is the increased presence of China in the MENA region.  Xi Jinping's recent visit to Saudi Arabia stood out for the extravagance and pageantry with which the Chinese president and his delegation were received by MBS, compared to the much more muted and low-key reception of President Biden during his state visit to the Kingdom this past July.

This year Saudi Arabia made a $10 billion investment through its oil company, Aramco, to develop a refinery and petrochemical complex in China’s northeast.  That Xi's visit led to a joint statement following 3 days of meetings which stressed the future of Saudi-Chinese energy cooperation demonstrates the degree to which the United States has been shoved aside by the kingdom in its traditional role of providing security in exchange for purchasing Saudi oil. 

What was left unsaid in the Saudi-Chinese joint statement at the end of Xi's visit was whether China will supply its highly sophisticated surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states with which it is cultivating relations.  This technology would place a weapon in the hands of MENA region dictators which would greatly enhance their capacity to intensify repression of their respective populations.   

It is ironic that, with the United States emphasizing its "shift to the East," namely to confront growing Chinese power in East Asia, China has moved to fill the vacuum in the MENA region caused the downgrading of American policy in the MENA region. Disturbed by what they see as growing threats from Iran's influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and a feeling that the United States can no longer be trusted to protect their security, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors are looking to China for arms sales.

Are there potential problems with MENA region autocrats shifting their policy towards Russia and China?  First, how is Putin going to reconcile his closer military ties with Iran and the close relations he wants to maintain with Saudi Arabia in the context of OPEC+? Second, neither Russian weaponry, which has performed terribly in Ukraine, nor untested Chinese weaponry, can serve as a substitute for much higher quality American and Western arms.  China likewise will need to find ways to balance its Arab ties with those it maintains with Iran.

Third, will Arabs and Iranians view these new ties favorably? The populations of most MENA region countries are comprised of youth under the age of 30.  Will Russian and Chinese culture and the authoritarian policies they embody be attractive to these highly Westernized demographics?  Will MENA region youth find the Chinese 9/9/6 model acceptable, namely working 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week? 

Could expanded ties with Russia and China, potentially leading to even intensified repression, encourage a large "brain drain" from the region? While a growing brain drain might not harm a country like Egypt, the Arab Gulf states suffer from small populations and can ill afford their youth leaving the country for Europe, the United States and other countries where political and cultural freedoms are less restrictive.

What is clear is that the United States does itself no favors but focusing on China and East Asia to the exclusion of the MENA region.  Xi promised MBS that China would help the Kingdom develop nuclear energy. Could that assistance lead to a nuclear arms race between the Saudi and Iranian regimes?  With the war in Ukraine, global inflation and supply chain problems, and the ongoing Covid pandemic, the Biden administration has a lot on its plate. But its neglecting the MENA region is a policy that is penny-wise and pound foolish.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

World Cup 2022: Profits and Authoritarian Intolerance or Human Rights and Sports Integrity?

Should a new set of rules be developed which will force FIFA, football's international governing body, to follow certain guidelines when awarding a country the right to host the World Cup?  Does the world want the World Cup to be held in intolerant authoritarian nations which do not allow their citizens to practice the freedoms and liberties which those who live in democratic societies take for granted?  

Held every 4 years, the World Cup is a huge celebratory event, highlighting the most popular sport in the world.  A sporting event of such popularity and magnitude, which bestows great international prestige, on the host country should not be compromised by authoritarian rulers.  

A football stadium under construction in Qatar

Authoritarianism, corruption and awarding the 2022 World Cup 

Awarding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was a colossal mistake.  The Arab Gulf state is ruled by an authoritarian regime which tolerates no dissent.  The al-Thani monarchy suppresses women's rights and those of members of the LGBTQ+ community.  One family should not have the type of control it has has wielded prior to and during the 2022 World Cup.

We should ask how and why Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup.  It seems that corruption played a major role as the 22 member FIFA board of directors was wined and dined by the Qatari regime for a lengthy period of time running up to issuing the award.  Two members of the FIFA board were dismissed due to accusations they sold their votes for holding the World Cup in Qatar.  Plot to buy the World Cup

Qatar, a country the size of Connecticut, was the most unlikely venue for the 2022 World Cup when it received the award in 2010.  First, it had no infrastructure where football games could be played.  Second, its national team was virtually unknown in international competition.  Finally, it has a small population (87% of the local residents are migrant workers) who, to this day, show little interest in football.  Indeed, the fans who attended the Qatari team's games (both of which the national team lost), were actually Lebanese who were hired as surrogates for the Qataris who declined to attend their home team's matches.

That Qatar spent more than $220 billion to prepare for the World Cup, including renovating its sole stadium and building 7 new ones, demonstrates the extent to which it sought to use the sporting event to promote its influence in the Arab Gulf and project it onto the world stage. Surrounded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which imposed an embargo on Qatar until recently due to its support of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt in 2012-2013,  the small emirate finds itself largely isolated in the Arab Gulf.  Thus, football was not the motivating factor for Qatar in using its huge fossil fuel wealth to buy local and international influence and prestige.  Qatar has spent well over $220 billion on a flawed world cup

The migrant worker scandal

By the regime's own reckoning, large numbers of migrant workers who were employed to build the stadium and other infrastructure for the World Cup either lost their lives. Other workers suffered heat prostration whose damaging health effects will not become manifest until later in their lives. Only after international pressure did Qatar agree to improve working conditions for migrant labor.   Even so, the pressure to complete preparations for the 2022 World Cup still led migrant labor to be exploited.Fact Check: How many people died for the World Cup in Qatar?

According to Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of economic and social justice, “The continued debate around the number of workers who have died in the preparation of the World Cup exposes the stark reality that so many bereaved families are still waiting for truth and justice. Over the last decade, thousands of workers have returned home in coffins, with no explanation given to their loved ones.” Qatar official says ‘400-500’ migrant workers died on World Cup projects

The Role of FIFA in World Cup awards

FIFA has made huge profits from the 2022 World Cup.  However, these profits were not only made at the expenses fo the health and lives of low paid workers, who were paid as low as $10/hr and labored under abysmal working conditions. It was only after an international outcry and pressure on FIFA, that working conditions were marginally improved by the Qatari regime. FIFA earns record $7.5bn revenue for Qatar World Cup

In an effort to placate the Qatari regime, FIFA outlawed armbands celebrating LGBTQ+ rights.  Indeed, fans who wore such armbands, or any other clothing which indicated support for the LGBTQ+ community, were forced to remove and dispose of the item deemed unacceptable to the regime. There was no tolerance evident at the 2022 World Cup nor was free speech allowed.  These failures are FIFA's responsibility.

The need for a new institutional order for hosting the World Cup

There is already talk that Saudi Arabia would like to host the 2030 World Cup.  The kingdom's ruler, Prime Minister Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), ordered the killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who worked for the Washington Post and also held American citizenship. To award Saudi Arabia the right to host. the 2030 World Cup when MBS has faced no consequences for Khashoggi's murder would be obscene.

The European Union, the United States and other democratic countries should ban together and notify FIFA that their national teams will boycott all future World Cups held in nation-states controlled by authoritarian rulers who suppress democratic freedoms and engage in human rights abuses.

Before the 2022 World Cup recedes from the mass media and global consciousness, new rules should be hammered out with FIFA to make sure that the Qatar model is never used again.  Th World Cup must always be an event that all countries can be proud of, including the citizens of authoritarian dictatorships.


Sunday, October 30, 2022

Saudi Arabia under Muhammad Bin Salman's Regime is No Longer a US Ally: The Need for a New American Foreign Policy in the Gulf

MBS and Putin at G20 Summit, November 2018

Why is United States foreign policy in the Gulf no longer relevant given the region's current political climate? What has changed that requires the United States to adopt a new foreign policy approach?  How should the US confront Saudi Arabia, one of the two major powers in the Gulf? 

United States foreign policy in the Gulf region is facing a crisis.  The two culprits are Saudi Arabia and Iran. While I will write about Iran in my next post, this post focuses on the rule of Saudi Prime Minister and Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS).  He has turned Saudi Arabia from a ally (or perhaps a better characterization is frenemy) to a state whose policies contradict American interests and those of the Western community.

After FDR met with King Abd al-Aziz al-Sa'ud aboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake south of the Suez Canal in February1945, he declared that Saudi oil was critical to American national interests.  Since that meeting, the United States and the Sa'ud family have established a tacit bargain. Saudi Arabia would produce sufficient oil to meet the demands of the US and its Western allies and, through its market dominance, maintain price levels which would not constrainWestern economic growth.  In return, the US would provide for the Kingdom's defense, and Saudi royals and businessmen would benefit from investing in the US economy. What happened when Saudi King Abdul Aziz met US President Roosevelt

Moving to the present, what is often overlooked is the "soft coup" which has taken place in Saudi Arabia.  In 2015, MBS became Minister of Defense.  Gradually, he convinced his father, King Salman, to transfer the everyday running of the kingdom to him. MBS has used that power to consolidate his power by upending the structure of the traditional Saudi political elite.  

Having imprisoned a large number of Saudi princes on charges of corruption in Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton Hotel in November, 2018, he forced them to turn over large amounts of their wealth.  His subsequent behavior, such as intensifying the bombing campaign in Yemen in the war against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, has led to widespread civilian casualties, and created what the United Nations has characterized as one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.  

As Crown Prince, and now Prime Minister, MBS has demonstrated a frequent resort to violence. MBS' treatment of the captive princes at the Ritz-Carlton, e.g., Prince Waleed ibn Talal al-Sa'ud, was brutal, e.g., severe beatings and hanging them by their wrists or upside down. 'Night of the beating': details emerge of Riyadh Ritz-Carlton purge

Saudi prince, al-Waleed ibn Talal al-Sa'ud

The October 2018 murder of Saudi national and Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, after which his body was dismembered, has been widely  condemned as a particularly shocking example of MBS' extensive human rights abuses.  Despite American intelligence agencies having determined that MBS ordered Khashoggi's assassination, the Saudi leader has yet to face any consequences for the murder. CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination

A few days day before former British prime minister Boris Johnson visited Saudi Arabia this past March, MBS ordered the execution of 81 prisoners, the largest such execution in the kingdom's history.  Three weeks before that, MBS had given an interview to foreign journalists indicating that he was in the process of reforming the Saudi criminal code, and reducing the crimes subject to capital punishment, especially for youth. Saudi Arabia: Mass Execution of 81 Men Rampant Abuses in Criminal Justice System Make Fair Trials Highly Implausible

In terms of Saudi foreign policy, MBS' most egregious behavior is his alliance with Russia in OPEC+.  His recent decision to cut Saudi oil production not only raised the price of gasoline, but undermines the ability of Democratic Party candidates to complete in the soon to held US midterm elections, among the most consequential in the country's history.  After Joe Biden's July visit to Riyadh where oil process were a central concern, MBS' decision to cut production just before the American mid-term elections is a slap in the face not just to the Biden administration but the United States as well.

MBS' decision also has had a global effect by increasing gasoline prices worldwide.  It will no doubt be part of the effort by right wing populists in the European Union to try and undermine military and humanitarian support for Ukraine given high inflation. Thus, MBS has not only helped Vladimir Putin continue his brutal, unprovoked war in Ukraine by raising oil prices, but also made it more difficult for those who support Ukraine to continue that support.U.S. Executives Are Flocking to Saudi Davos in the Desert

On. another front, MBS is developing ties with large US banks and corporations as see in the current investment conference being held in Riyadh.  As the New York Times noted, this conference defines the current transactional approach to US foreign policy which was promoted by the Trump administration.  American investors such as former Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, Trump son-in-law, Jared Kushner, JP Morgan CEO, Jamie Diamond, and countless oil executives are being recruited by MBS. Saudis Find More Sympathetic American Ears at Business Forum

MBS' end goal is to develop a powerful group of US corporate executives  - an American power elite - which he can use to lobby members of Congress and thereby make an end run around the Biden administration, and future administrations, who seek to curtail his decision-making in using oil as a political weapon. To further insure the loyalty of this power elite, MBS is rewarding them - as he already had done with Mnuchin and Kushner - with large sums of investment capital from the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund, including joint partnerships in real estate and the tourist industry under development as part of the Crown Prince's Vision 2030. A Saudi official’s harrowing account of torture reveals the regime’s brutality

While there has been no shortage of Saudi lobbying during prior US administrations, MBS' gambit represents a new and much more ambitious effort to mobilize support for him personally in the US.  By developing luxurious tourist hotels and resorts designed for the ultra-rich, MBS seeks to attract a clientele which will fit his emerging foreign policy which seeks to become much less beholden to the United States and the Western countries who disapprove of his human rights abuses which they condemn.

What policies can the United States and the West adopt to counter MBS' support of the rogue Putin regime and his openings to China which is currently the main purchaser of Saudi oil exports?  One of the key cards in the West's hands is arms supplies. Many human rights activists have been calling for years for reducing, if not ending, arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The options available to Saudi Arabia for replacing American with other imported arms are limited.  The Ukraine war has demonstrated the poor quality of Russian arms.  China, on the other hand, may be interested in providing the kingdom with arms.  However, the US supplies not only arms, but significant intelligence assistance to Saudi Arabia.  Loss of arms transfers and intelligence sharing would harm Saudi Arabia more than the United States.

What is the possibility of a possible shift of Saudi Arabia to dependence on China, militarily and economically?  First, the image of China as a growing super power has been seriously eroded by a number of crises and challenges, including the Covid pandemic, the aging of the Chinese population, the reduced interest of Western forms in investing in China, the environmental threats China faces and, most of all, the negative impact of  President Xi Jinping's authoritarian rule.  

All these developments, compared to the strong US dollar, and superiority in technological innovation, would make Saudi and Gulf Arab elites think twice about shifting the Gulf region's dependence from the West to Xi's China.  Xi's confirmation for an unprecedented third term as the Chinese Communist Party's Secretary General led to a sharp decline in the Hong Kong stock exchange. Breakingviews: Xi Jinping’s third term gets markets thumbs-down

Increasingly, Chinese private enterprise has been severely restricted because Xi views powerful private entrepreneurs as a threat to his rule.  That those entrepreneurs who have acquired great wealth over the past decade, and have no recourse to legal protections of their property rights, will also make Saudi and Gulf Arabs think twice about military dependence on China.  Because the Saudi and Arab Gulf model has favored private capital, and will need to continue to assure Western corporations that their investments are secure, developing closer military ties with China would undermine trust in the Saudi and Arab Gulf business climate.

China's close relations with Iran should also raise red flags in the kingdom and among the other Arab Gulf states.  China purchases significant amounts of oil from Iran, thereby allowing the Tehran regime to mitigate the international sanctions which it currently faces. If a crisis arises, would China favor Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states or would it favor Iran? Such ambiguity is another factor undermining a move to replace Western arms with those from China. The 25-year Iran-China agreement, endangering 2,500 years of heritage

Cultural factors also impact a possible shift to dependence on China for arms.  Few Saudis and Gulf Arabs speak Chinese.  There is strong preference among political and economic elites for Western culture which is evident in the types of tourist attractions MBS is developing to lure more Western, not Chinese,  businessmen and potential investors to the kingdom.  As MBS seeks to use his huge sovereign wealth fund to bribe Western investors and celebrities (think also of his LIV golf initiative which competes with the PGA), his efforts to create a powerful lobbying force in the US run counter to developing closer military ties with China. 

What should the Biden administration respond to MBS' decision-making and behavior to date?  How should it confront his working against US national interests, especially supporting Putin's brutal war in Ukraine which threatens world peace and global food supplies, and his ongoing flagrant human rights abuses?

First, the United States should cut off arms transfers to the MBS regime.  Second, it should encourage its European Union and NATO partners to do the same.  Third, it should withdraw the small contingent of US troops in Saudi Arabia.  Fourth, it should seriously downgrade intelligence sharing and technical support for weapons already sold to the MBS regime.  

Fifth, the US State Department should be much more public in its criticisms of the inequities of the Saudi legal system and the persecution of its Shi'a citizens, Saudi activists and Saudi women's rights supporters.  A good place to begin would be to condemn the lashings and excessive prison sentences meted out for those posting critical comments of MBS' regime on social media outlets or blogs. Saudi Arabia sentences US citizen to 16 years over tweets critical of regime

Sixth, the Biden administration should conduct an active behind-the scenes campaign to dissuade US corporations which are considering investing in Saudi Arabia from doing so. The implicit question of such an intervention should be the following: Would your corporation's shareholder agree with investing its funds in a country run by a repressive dictator who kills and executes its citizens at will and supports Putin's unprovoked and destabilizing war in Ukraine? Saudi Arabia: 10-year travel ban for freed blogger Raif Badawi

Finally, the Biden administration should terminate official cultural exchanges with MBS' regime.  Instead, it should offer grants to legitimate Saudi human rights and women's rights organizations, whether they operate inside or outside the kingdom.

Of course, the best way to curtail MBS's authoritarian ambitions and repressive actions is to speed up the transition from fossil fuels to wind and solar energy, and hydrogen to replace natural gas (as Germany has begun to do).  The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act should be used to put thousands of new EVs on the road and dramatically increase EV charging capacity.  Even though difficult, the US should try and improve its refinery capacity so as to reduce its dependence on imported oil. Perhaps a cooperative venture with Canada might overcome some of the current hurdles in refining gasoline in the United States. The Real Reason Gas Is So Expensive? The US Needs More Refineries

The bottom line is that MBS will be ruling Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future. It is not in the United States' interest to continue to rely on a brash, narcissistic and unpredictable dictator. The sooner the Biden administration charts a new foreign policy towards the MBS regime, the sooner it can extract itself from the road to failed expectations and outcomes.