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Saudi Arabia

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The Democratisation of Airpower

Big shifts in the military balance happen quietly over many years, and then leap suddenly into focus when the shooting starts.

It happened to classic blitzkrieg tactics in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when both sides lost half their tanks, mostly to cheap, infantry-fired anti-tank missiles, in just three weeks. And it happened to ‘air superiority’, in the sense that it has been understood for the past 75 years, in Saudi Arabia last week.

Tanks ruled the battlefield from the German blitzkrieg of 1940 until 1973. Only more or better tanks could stop them. Tanks have got a lot more sophisticated since 1973, but so have the anti-tank weapons, which are a lot cheaper and therefore a lot more plentiful. There is no longer a single, simple equation for battlefield success.

Air superiority, the other main component of blitzkrieg, had a much longer run of success. The powers that could afford to design and build the most advanced combat aircraft controlled not only the sky but the land beneath it, and could batter weaker states into submission (NATO against Serbia, the US twice against Iraq, NATO again in Libya, etc.) with few casualties of their own.

Fast forward to September 2019 in Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich kingdom should be among the privileged, invulnerable few, for it has a very high-tech air force and the best air defences money can buy. It can also call on the immense power of the United States, which maintains military bases in a number of Gulf states and has promised to protect it. What could possibly go wrong?

What went wrong was a swarm of cheap drones and cruise missiles that the Saudis didn’t even see coming. According to the Houthi rebels in Yemenis, who claim to have launched them, there were at least ten Samad 3 drones (the Saudis say eighteen drones hit the Abqaiq oil processing site) and an undisclosed number of Qasif K-2 cruise missiles (the Saudis say four cruise missiles struck the Khurais facility).

The Saudis didn’t see them because they flew nap of the earth, so low they were hidden from Saudi radars. They were launched from three different sites, but timed to reach their targets simultaneously from three different angles. They took out half the oil-processing capability of the world’s second-biggest producer for at least some weeks – and the whole swarm of them only cost one or two million dollars.

That’s assuming they were built in low-wage Yemen. They’d cost twice that to build in Iran, and at least ten times as much in the United States. But that’s still pretty cheap when you consider that a single F-35 fighter costs $122 million. You get a very capable airplane for your money, and a couple of them could do equal damage to those oil processing facilities – but they wouldn’t do a much better job.

They could also get shot down, which would be a very large amount of money (plus maybe the pilots’ lives) down the drain. The drones and cruise missiles can also be shot down, of course, but they’re cheap, they have no pilots, and if there are enough of them, some are likely to get through. If they don’t get through today, send more tomorrow.

The Saudis made it extra-easy for the Houthis (or the Iranians, if you believe the Saudi-American version of the story) by not having any short-range air defences for their most important economic assets, or at least none facing in the right direction. But this is because Saudi Arabia doesn’t plan to do its own fighting in any confrontation with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s defence budget ($67.6 billion last year) goes mostly on buying very expensive military equipment from the United States, but what it is really buying is American military support. In return for all that money, the Kingdom expects Americans to do the actual fighting for it, just as it hires Sudanese and Pakistanis to do the ground combat in its war in Yemen.

The Saudis shouldn’t count on that. Donald Trump knows nothing about foreign affairs or military strategy, but this is the sort of deal he has spent a lifetime imposing on others. He’ll make the sales, but he won’t deliver the services.

The big question that is finally going to be asked, in countries rich and poor, is why the air forces insist on buying ultra-expensive manned aircraft instead of flocks, swarms and fleets of small, cheap, disposable unmanned vehicles. The truth is that air forces are run by pilots, and they like to fly planes, but what happened in Saudi Arabia last week will finally give the civilian authorities arguments that the aviators cannot resist or ignore.

So the shift to primary reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for offensive action will get underway at last, and the result will be the democratisation of air power. Only rich countries with a mastery of high technology can own F-35s. Even the smallest, poorest country (and some non-state actors too) can afford to build or buy a few thousand drones and a couple of hundred basic cruise missiles.

Democratisation is a double-edged sword.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“The Saudis…services”)

Saudi Game of Thrones

Now is the moment of maximum danger for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS).

He has weathered the immediate storm over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi two months ago. He even went to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires a week ago and persuaded several other national leaders to stand beside him for photographs. But the real threat to his power (and maybe his life) is at home.

It’s not the Saudi public he must fear. He’s quite popular with young Saudis, who are a large majority of the population. He’s relatively young himself (33). He has loosened some of the tight social and religious controls (women can drive now, and you can even go to see a movie). And most of them don’t even believe that he is responsible for the killing.

MbS’s problem is his family, who know perfectly well that he ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and understand what that crime means for the kingdom’s standing in the world. They also realise that his foreign policy has been an unmitigated disaster, from the futile war in Yemen to the blockade of Qatar, and that his economic policy hasn’t been much better.

Many prominent Saudis also have personal reasons to hate him. Some were pushed roughly aside in order to facilitate his rapid rise to supreme power. Others were kidnapped, jailed and even tortured in order to extort billions of dollars from them, on the often shaky pretext that their money was the fruit of corruption. If you held a secret ballot among the ten thousand most influential Saudis, MbS would be gone in a flash.

It doesn’t work like that, of course. This is still an absolute monarchy, and so long as MbS has the support of his elderly father, King Salman, he has absolute power – in theory. In practice, he must also have at least the grudging support of the royal family, which sees the Saudi state as a family business in which they all have a stake.

It is a remarkable family, if only for its sheer size: an estimated 15,000 members, many of whom are direct descendants of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud. When he died in 1953 he left 36 sons, and there are literally hundreds of grandsons.

All these men, their spouses and their children and grandchildren are supported (quite lavishly) by the family business, but there are only a few hundred people who really matter. They matter a great deal, however, and by now they would be close to unanimous in seeing Muhammad bin Salman as a wrecker who is endangering their own futures.

So how to get rid of him? In the past, the family’s rule has survived the abrupt removal of kings: one king was forced to abdicate in 1964, another was assassinated by his own nephew in 1975. The princes closed ranks, and the dynasty carried on with a new king. In theory, it should be even easier when you are only trying to remove the crown prince.

Why not just work through his father, King Salman? After all, the king has already appointed and then dismissed two other crown princes; maybe he could be persuaded to do it again. The problem with this approach is that MbS zealously controls access to the 82-year-old king, who is believed to be suffering from mild dementia (Alzheimer’s).

An alternative would be for the Allegiance Committee, a family-run institution created in 2006 which adjudicates on succession issues, to declare King Salman incompetent because of illness, dismiss the Crown Prince, and appoint someone else as his successor. In the absence of more formal rules, any prince descended from Abdul-Aziz would be eligible.

Plotters hoping to use this device would be risking their lives, of course, for MbS is a ruthless man who would strike first if he got wind of the plan. However, they may be emboldened by the fact that he has now arrested his own chief enforcers in an attempt to shift the blame for Khashoggi’s murder. This betrayal will certainly have shaken the loyalty of their colleagues who still serve the crown prince.

But there is one further consideration that is bound to give even the boldest plotters pause. If MbS concludes that he has decisively lost the support of the royal family, he still has a last card to play: war with Iran.

It’s what he wants in the long term anyway, but his preferred option has been to get the United States and Israel to do the actual fighting for him. If he had no other way of heading off a family-backed coup against him, however, he might take Saudi Arabia into such a war unilaterally, counting on the US and/or Israel to bail the country out. In the midst of a war, nobody at home would dare attack him.

So on balance, MbS is likely to stay in power, perhaps to the ultimate ruin of the country he rules.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“He has…killing”)

Khashoggi: Worse Than a Crime

If Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), really did sent a hit team to Turkey to murder dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul ten days ago, what will happen next? Perhaps history can help us here.

A little over two centuries ago, in 1804, the armies of the French Revolution had won all the key battles and the wars seemed to be over. The rest of Europe had decided in 1801 that it would have to live with the French Revolution and made peace with Napoleon. Everything was going so well – and then he made a little mistake.

Many members of the French nobility had gone into exile and fought against the armies of the Revolution, and the Duke of Enghien was one of them. In 1804 he was living across the Rhine river on German territory.

Napoleon heard an (untrue) report that Enghien was part of a conspiracy to assassinate him, and sent a hit team – sorry, a cavalry squadron – across the Rhine to kidnap him. They brought him back to Paris, gave him a perfunctory military trial, and shot him. After that things did not go well for Napoleon.

The idea that Napoleon would violate foreign territory in peacetime in order to murder an opponent was so horrifying, so repellent that opinion turned against peace with France everywhere. As his own chief of police, Joseph Fouché, said, “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.”

By the end of the year every major power in Europe was back at war with Napoleon. After a decade of war he was defeated at Waterloo and sent into exile on St. Helena for the rest of his life. So is something like that going to happen to MbS too?

Nobody’s going to invade Saudi Arabia, of course. (Not even Iran, despite MbS’s paranoia on the subject.) But will they stop investing in the country, stop selling it weapons and buying its oil, maybe even slap trade embargoes on it.

Since it seems almost certain that Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi government – Turkish government officials have even told journalists off the record that they have audio and partial video recordings of Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture and killing – all of Saudi Arabia’s ‘friends’ and trading partners have some choices to make.

Donald Trump immediately rose to the occasion, declaring that he would be “very upset and angry” if Saudi Arabia was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, and that there would be “severe punishment” for the crime.

He even boasted that Saudi Arabia “would not last two weeks” without American military support. Presumably Trump was talking about the survival of the Saudi regime, not the country’s independence, but he was still wrong. He is as prone to overestimate his power as MbS himself.

The Saudis struck right back, saying that “The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats or attempts to undermine it whether through threats to impose economic sanctions or the use of political pressure. The kingdom also affirms that it will respond to any (punitive) action with a bigger one.”

But Trump was only bluffing. He really had no intention of cancelling the $110 billion of contracts that Saudi Arabia has signed to buy American-made weapons, because “we’d be punishing ourselves if we did that. If they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or… China.”

People have been turning a blind eye to the weekly hundreds of civilian deaths caused by Saudi bombing in Yemen for three years now. Why would they respond any differently to murder of one pesky Saudi journalist in Istanbul, even if he did write for the ‘Washington Post’?

The difference is that it’s intensely personal – this is an absolute monarch ordering the killing of a critic who annoyed him but posed no threat to his power – and it’s brazenly, breathtakingly arrogant. MbS really thinks he can do something like this and make everybody shut up about it.

He is probably right, so far as the craven, money-grubbing foreigners are concerned – like former British prime minister Tony Blair, who could barely even bring himself to say that Saudi Arabia should investigate and explain the issue, because “otherwise it runs completely contrary to the process of modernisation.”

But if the foreigners will not or cannot bring Mohammed bin Salman down, his own family (all seven thousand princes, or however many there are now) probably will. It is a family business, and his amateurish strategies, his impulsiveness and his regular resort to violence are ruining the firm’s already not very good name.

He rose rapidly out of the multitudinous ranks of anonymous princes through the favour of his failing father, King Salman, but he could fall as fast as he rose. Killing Khashoggi was definitely a blunder.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“The difference…modernisation”)

Another Gulf War – The First Shots?

The men who carried out Saturday’s attack on the parade in Ahvaz, in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan, were well trained: four of them killed 25 people and wounded 70 others before they were shot dead. The question is whether they were trained by ‘Islamic State’, or by the backers of the low-profile Ahvaz National Resistance, which also claimed credit for the attack.

‘Islamic State’ is an independent ultra-extremist Sunni Muslim movement that kills Shias (most Iranians are Shia) on principle, so there are no big political implications if it was IS that planned the attack.

If it was the Ahvaz National Resistance, however, then these were the opening shots in the Fourth Gulf War, because the ANR is backed by Saudi Arabia and its smaller Arab allies like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein.

Iran is convinced that it was the latter. “It is absolutely clear to us who committed this crime… and whom they are linked to,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “The small [Arab] puppet countries in the region are backed by America, and the US is provoking them and giving them the necessary capabilities.”

There is reason to suspect that this is true. The Arab countries of the Gulf are smaller and weaker than Iran, and have talked themselves into the paranoid conviction that Iran intends to destroy them, perhaps even to replace Sunni with Shia Islam. They talk of war with Iran as inevitable, and dream of drawing America into such a war to even up the odds.

President Donald Trump is also paranoid about Iran, and openly talks about overthrowing the Iranian regime. Indeed his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, boasted on Saturday that US sanctions are really hurting Iran: “I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen.”

So this could be a marriage made in heaven (or somewhere else in the supernatural world, perhaps). But first there has to be a spark, some Iranian action that gives both Trump and the Arab Gulf states a pretext for attacking Iran – for they both think in terms of attacking Iran first, not of defending against a (highly improbable) Iranian attack.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, said last year that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.” If they get their war, both leaders expect that most of the heavy lifting will be done by the US Air Force, but something bad has to happen on the ground first. Iran has to do something stupid.

How do you get it to do something stupid? Well, you could try supporting separatist movements in the various ethnic minority areas that ring the country: Arabs in the southwest, Kurds in the northwest, Turkmen in the northeast and Baloch in the southeast. With luck, the Iranian regime will over-react and massacre enough of the separatists (and innocent bystanders) to provide the pretext for an Arab-US attack.

After Saturday’s attack in Ahvaz, Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent United Arab Emirates scholar who tends to say what other people don’t dare, tweeted that the attack wasn’t really a terrorist incident at all. He pointed out that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option”, and predicted that the number of such attacks “will increase during the next phase.”

If that’s the Saudi/American strategy, then sooner or later they will manage to goad the Iranian regime into committing some atrocity in return, and then we’re away to the races.

It would the fourth Gulf war in less than forty years. The first was the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, in which the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked the new revolutionary regime in Iran with the warm support of the United States. Up to a million people were killed, most of them Iranian, but the only direct US support was to give Saddam’s forces intelligence and targeting information for their attacks.

The second was the 1990-91 war between Iraq and most of its Arab neighbours, plus large numbers of American and other Western troops, after Saddam invaded Kuwait.

The third was in 2003, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq in the mistaken belief that Saddam had links with the al-Qaeda terrorists who made the 9/11 attacks and/or was working on weapons of mass destruction.

And the fourth, coming soon to a theatre quite a long distance from you, will be the US/Gulf Arab attack on Iran.

Of course, the attack in Ahvaz on Saturday could just have been another meaningless spasm of hatred by Islamic State, and not a Saudi/American initiative at all. But if not now, then soon.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 12-15. (“It would…Iran”)