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Saudi Arabia: Gambler in Charge

By the end of 2015 the BND, the German foreign intelligence service, had grown so concerned that it warned the government about Saudi Arabia’s new Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister, 30-year-old Muhammad bin Salman. “The previous cautious diplomatic stance of older leading members of the royal family,” it wrote, “is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention.”

At that point Prince bin Salman had been defence minister for just one year, but he had already launched a major military intervention in the civil war in Yemen and committed Saudi Arabia to open support for the rebels in the Syrian civil war. He had also taken the bold decision to let oil production rip and the oil price crash.

No wonder the BND characterised Prince bin Salman as “a political gambler who is destabilising the Arab world through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.” Not just a gambler, but one who was betting on the wrong horses.

The first bet to fail was his intervention in the Yemeni civil war, with an aerial bombing campaign that has killed at least 10,000 Yemenis (around half of them civilians) and cost Saudi Arabia tens of billions of dollars.

Prince Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS, as he is known in diplomatic circles) sold the war as a short, sharp intervention that would defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen and put Saudi Arabia’s own choice for the presidency, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, back in power. It has turned into a long, exhausting war of attrition: the Houthis still control of the capital, Sana’a, and Hadi will not be going home any time soon.

Then the Deputy Crown Prince’s second big bet, an open commitment to support the Syrian rebels, failed when the Syrian army, with Russian and Iranian help, reconquered eastern Aleppo last December. Not one of Syria’s big cities is now under rebel control, and Saudi Arabia will have to live with a victorious and vengeful Assad regime.

MBS’s biggest gamble was his plan to restore the Saudi kingdom’s dominance in global oil markets by driving the new competition, the American producers who get oil out of shale rock by fracking, into bankruptcy.

The frackers had doubled American oil production in eight years, but the extra US production was creating an over-supply in the market and depressing the price of oil. Then the prince decided to make matters worse.

He reckoned that the frackers were high-cost producers who would go broke if the price of oil stayed low enough for long enough. So Saudi Arabia kept its own oil production high and persuaded its partners in the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) to do the same.

At several points in the past two years the oil price fell below $30 per barrel, compared to a peak of $114 in 2014, but the strategy didn’t work as MBS had planned.

The US frackers shut down their less profitable operations temporarily and some
smaller players went bankrupt, but the survivors are ready to ramp production up again as soon as the oil price improves. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been burning through $100 billion a year in cash reserves to keep government services and subsidies going.

Last November the prince admitted defeat. Saudi Arabia and its OPEC partners agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day, and Russia and Kazakhstan chipped in with another half million barrels. The oil price is up to $55 per barrel, Saudi Arabia’s cash flow has improved, and the political stresses at home due to wage and subsidy cuts have eased off.
But many people are asking: “What was all that about, then?”

The prince is not a fool. He should have known that foreign interventions in Yemen rarely succeed, that the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war meant that Assad was likely to win, and that the American frackers could probably wait him out. In fact, he probably did know.

The problem is that Muhammad bin Salman is in a hurry to produce some positive results. His prominence at such an early age owes everything to the support of his father, King Salman, who ascended to the throne just two years ago. But the king is 81 and in poor health (suffering from mild dementia, according to some), and his son is not his obvious successor.

Normally the successor to the Saudi throne is not the current king’s son, but a senior prince chosen by his peers as best fitted to rule. The current Crown Prince is 57-year-old Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Even the title of Deputy Crown Prince is new, and MBS owes it entirely to his father.

So to have any hope of succeeding to the throne when King Salman dies, Prince Muhammad bin Salman must prove his worth quickly. That’s why he was open to such high-stakes, long-odds gambles: one big success could do the trick for him.

He is probably still up for another roll of the dice.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 10, and 15. (“The frackers…worse”; At several…planned”; and “Normally…father”)

The Crowd and the Law

In Romania, after five straight nights of mass demonstration in Bucharest’s main square, the government agreed to withdraw an emergency decree that decriminalised various abuses of political power (on the grounds that the jails were too crowded). If you defrauded the state of less than $47,500, under the new rules, you might have to pay it back, but you wouldn’t go to jail.

More to the point, those already serving sentences or facing charges for stealing, say, $47, 499 would be released from jail or see the charges dismissed – including the leader of the governing Social Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, who was convicted of stealing only $27,000. (That’s not necessarily how much he stole; just how much they could PROVE he stole.)

Romania used to be one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, but since it joined the European Union in 2007 it has been under great pressure from Brussels to clean up its act. There was also huge domestic pressure from ordinary Romanians who are sick of their venal politicians, and the anti-corruption drive was making real progress.

Then last Tuesday Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu’s government issued its decree freeing hundreds of jailed politicians, officials and even judges. It was due to go into effect next Friday, but right away the crowd came pouring out into the streets in Bucharest and all the other big cities.

After five nights of mass demonstrations, the government cancelled its decree on Saturday. The Crowd won, and both justice and democracy were well served.

The other very dodgy decree of recent days was in Washington, where President Trump signed an “executive order” imposing a 90-day ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries seeking to enter the United States (even if they were legal US residents or had been issued visas after vetting by US embassies) and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.

Like the Romanian decree, its legality was doubtful. As in Romania, the protesting crowds came out in large numbers in the United States (though proportionally in much smaller numbers, and certainly not for five successive nights). But what really brought Trump’s plan grinding to a halt, at least for the moment, was a judge.

U.S. District Senior Judge James Robarts of Seattle issued an order suspending the Trump ban – and even President Trump obeyed it (although he did refer to Robarts, with typical graciousness, as a “so-called judge”). The whole machinery of government went into reverse, entry visas are being re-validated, and even Syrian immigrants are being admitted to the United States again. The rule of law has prevailed.

Two crises in two democratic countries, and two reasonably satisfactory resolutions. It was the Crowd that did the heavy lifting in Romania, and the Law that did the crucial work in the United States. But they should not be seen as alternatives; sometimes you need them both.

Robarts was not required to make a full legal case for his action at this stage in the proceedings: he simply ordered the ban suspended to avoid serious harm being done to individuals by an executive order that may contravene the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

When the case goes to the appeals court, and possibly then to the Supreme Court, the argument of those opposing the ban will doubtless be that it flouts the First Amendment requirement that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.

This may persuade the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court in San Francisco, which is relatively liberal, and even to the Supreme Court, which will continue to be split evenly between liberals and conservatives until Trump’s nominee for the ninth seat on the Court is approved by Congress. Or it may not.

Even if the appeal courts ultimately rejects Robarts’s argument and reimposes the ban, the Law will have successfully curbed the abuse of executive power. It always has to be curbed, because even with the best of intentions those who hold power will inevitably try to expand it – and sometimes they do not have the best of intentions.

The US Constitution has won the first round of the battle against Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Full marks to James Robarts (who was nominated, by the way, by George W. Bush’s Republican administration).

But four years is a long time, and there will be occasions when lawyers won’t be enough. The Crowd will be needed as well: demonstrations as large, as disciplined and as patient as those in Romania. And as suspicious of being betrayed once they have gone home.

The night after the Romanian government cancelled its “emergency decree”, there was the biggest demonstration of all: half a million people in Victory Square in Bucharest. Why? Because the government had muttered something about addressing the same “issue” of allegedly crowded jails through normal legislation in parliament, which would still really be about getting crooked politicians out of jail.
So they won’t go home until Prime Minister Grindeanu promises not to bring the subject up again.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Two…Constitution”)

Doomsday Deferred

“Without a proper sense of urgency, we will be eventually defeated, dominated and very likely destroyed,” wrote former general Michael Flynn, President Trump’s National Security Adviser, last year. “They are dead set on taking us over and drinking our blood.”

It’s so early in the new year that nominations for Year’s Most Ridiculous Statement are not even officially open yet, but this has to be a strong contender. Flynn was talking, believe it or not, about the “Islamic terrorist threat”.

He was predicting that the United States, despite having the world’s biggest economy, 325 million people, the world’s most advanced technology, and more than 4,000 nuclear weapons, faces defeat, domination and probably destruction at the hands of ten or twenty thousand Islamist terrorists – unless, presumably, it gets serious and starts torturing people again.

Even if all of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims were politically and militarily united – a event less likely than their mass conversion to the Jedi faith – and they were all committed to a cold or even a hot war against America, the United States would survive. This is not just Doomsday talk. It is extremely stupid Doomsday talk. But there is a lot of it around at the moment.

Take, for example, the famous Doomsday Clock, a metaphorical device concocted by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947 to signal how close we are to the end of the world. Midnight was the apocalypse, all-out nuclear war. Last week the Bulletin moved the minute hand of the Clock to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since the depths of the “Second Cold War” in 1984.

I was already a journalist in 1984 (a much better-looking one than I am now), and I had already interviewed the commanders and the operators of the nuclear forces on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And I was ten times more frightened then than I am now.

What’s going on here is simply inflation. Terrorism is strategically a mere nuisance, and in terms of your personal threat level it is statistically irrelevant. An American, for example, is ten times likelier to drown in the bath than to die in a terrorist attack.

Yet terrorism gets as much media attention today as the threat of a global nuclear war got back in the Cold War. To paraphrase Parkinson’s Law, threats expand to fill the (media) space available.

The scientists who calibrate the Doomsday Clock are serious and sincere people, but they are not immune to the inflationary trend. The Clock was set at seven minutes to midnight during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (which came close to triggering global nuclear war and killing hundreds of millions of people). Now, they say, it’s only two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Really? Are you sure?

Nonsense. The world is a bit more dangerous than it was just after the end of the Cold War in 1991, when the Clock was set back to seventeen minutes to midnight, but no year in the past 25 has been as dangerous as any of the years before 1991. Nuclear war between great powers is still the real Big Deal.

However, the people who run the Clock have greatly expanded the range of threats they worry about since the risk of a nuclear war declined. They include climate change now, and the resurgence of old-fashioned nationalism from America and Britain to India and Japan, and pretty well everything else down to acne and hangnail. There is no fate worse than being ignored.

That’s how we got to this point, allegedly two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. From seventeen minutes after the end of the Cold War, they pushed the minute hand forward every time anything worrisome happened – and only once pushed it back, by one minute, for only two years.

It went forward three minutes in 1995 because there were still 40,000 nuclear weapons in the world. It jumped forward another five minutes in 1998 because Indian and Pakistan had tested nuclear weapons (although the total number of weapons in the world had halved). And another two minutes in 2002 because the Bush administration in the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Another two minutes forward in 2007 because North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and Iran was rumoured to be working on one (it wasn’t). Then a two-minute jump forward in 2015 because of “unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals.”

So when Donald Trump came to power two weeks ago, frightening people with his reckless talk and impulsive actions, the Clock was already at three minutes to midnight, and they could only push it forward by another 30 seconds.

That’s about right in terms of the extra threat Trump represents. It’s completely wrong in terms of where the global threat level is now. Trump is a loose cannon, but he’s not the Apocalypse, and most other world leaders are still grown-ups. Let’s say ten minutes to midnight.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“It went…arsenals”)

Trump and Trade

Like Mexico, Canada is in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Donald Trump has described as “the worst trade deal…ever signed in this country.” Unlike Mexico, Canada thinks that Trump is not planning to hurt it. But no good deed goes unpunished, so Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should be very careful.

Canadians felt good when Trudeau responded to Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees by tweeting: “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. Welcome to Canada.” Feeling morally superior to Americans is one of Canadians’ favourite pastimes, and in this case it is self-evidently true.

The United States took in 12,587 Syrian refugees last year; Canada, with one-ninth of America’s population, accepted almost 40,000. Yet there have been only two “lone wolf” Islamist attacks in Canada in this century, each killing one person and neither carried out by an immigrant. Terrorists have just murdered six Canadian Muslims in Quebec City, but Muslim immigrants pose no appreciable danger to non-Muslim Canadians.

In reality, there is no significant danger from Muslim immigrants to America either. Most of the 28 major massacres in the United States since 9/11 were carried out by white right-wing extremists, and those that did involve Muslims were almost all committed by native-born Americans.

But Trump’s “executive orders” are not just driven by ignorance and panic. He is consciously manipulating public opinion, and Canada’s response to his ban on Muslim immigrants undermines the script he is working from.

If Trump’s domestic opponents use the Canadian example to discredit Trump’s story about the mortal danger posed by Muslim immigrants, the man might claim that lax Canadian immigration policy is a threat to the United States and apply “extreme vetting” measures to Muslim Canadians who want to cross the border.

He might even ban Muslim Canadians from the United States entirely, or require visas for all Canadians. That would impose huge inconvenience and cost on Canadians, but Donald Trump can basically do whatever he wants to his next-door neighbours. So Justin Trudeau would be wiser to do good by stealth and not attract too much attention in the US.

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto has a much bigger problem. He was well aware of Trump’s campaign promise to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” to keep out illegal Mexican immigrants, and to make Mexico pay for it. But like most people, he couldn’t believe that Trump meant it literally.

After all, who in their right mind would want to build a 10-metre high concrete wall, also extending a couple of metres underground, along more than half of the 3,100-km US-Mexican border? (The rest is mountains and rivers.) It would cost between $10 billion (Trump’s estimate) and $30 billion plus (construction consultants Gleeds Worldwide).

Building the wall isn’t going to stop the estimated 45 percent of illegal Mexican immigrants who arrive quite legally by car, bus or plane, but overstay their visas. It isn’t exactly urgent either, given that the net flow is now southward: since 2014 more Mexicans have been going home each year than arriving in the US.

The wall is really just symbolic, a demonstration of political will, but Trump has promised to build it and he will. Can he also make Mexico pay for it? Actually, he probably can.

Last Thursday Mexican officials were in Washington preparing for President Peña Nieto’s visit when Trump suddenly tweeted: “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.” Peña Nieto, deeply humiliated, did cancel the meeting. He had no choice.

But on Friday, the two presidents had an hour-long phone call that the joint statement described as “productive and constructive”. There were no details, but they did discuss “the current trade deficit the United States has with Mexico,” among other things. “Fixing” that trade deficit is probably how the circle will ultimately be squared.

Mexico’s exports to the US were $271 billion last year; its imports were only $213 billion. Trump wants to change that, and Peña Nieto has no option but to submit. And somewhere in the deal that there will probably be a clause that lets Trump claim Mexico is paying for the wall while Mexico can still deny it.

Canada-US trade is roughly in balance, so Canadians will probably not suffer severe pressure unless Trudeau really irritates The Man. The total volume of US-China trade is about the same, but China sells the US four times more than it buys from it.

That can’t be “fixed”, and Trump cannot be persuaded to let it ride. There will be tears before bedtime.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“After…Worldwide”)