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Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia: A Populist Dictatorship

Joy and pride among Saudi women who are at last allowed to drive. Delight in the car dealerships that anticipate a lot of new business. And dismay in the families of the 1.4 million chauffeurs, almost all from South Asia, who have been earning around $1,000 a month driving Saudi women around. But it will take a lot more than this to change Saudi Arabia.

Just before driving became legal for women, seventeen women activists who have been campaigning for years against the driving ban were arrested. Eight have now been released, but the others are facing possible trial in a counter-terrorism court and long prison sentences for their activism. Does the right hand know what the left is doing?

Yes, it does. Letting women drive is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s project to win popular support by modernising some aspects of daily life. Looking like he is giving in to popular pressure is definitely not part of his programme. The change must look like a free gift from his hand, not a retreat in the face of public protest.

It’s a less dramatic initiative than last winter’s three-month anti-corruption campaign, which detained 56 high-profile royal family members and prominent businessman (in the capital’s best hotel) until they had ‘paid back’ some of their ill-gotten gains.

The exercise allegedly yielded $100 billion to the government, although none of the thieves saw the inside of a courtroom, let alone went to jail. But the message was the same: I’m on the side of ordinary people and I’m doing the right things, but I make the decisions when and as I choose.

The notion that Mohammed bin Salman is liberalising the Saudi system is a fantasy. Having ruthlessly sidelined all rival claimants to the throne – his father, King Salman, is 82 and ailing – he has now centralised power to an unprecedented extent. Saudi Arabia was a traditional, deeply conservative monarchy that always ensured there was a fair degree of consensus among the elite. It is now a dictatorship.

MbS, as he is known, is an impulsive man, and one of his bigger mistakes was to invite the UN’s special rapporteur on anti-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, to visit the country to report on how it was reconciling the need to prevent terrorism with respect for human rights. Emmerson came back in early May. His report was unusually frank for a diplomatic document, and in a subsequent media interview he went well beyond that.

The Saudi anti-terrorism law is written in a way that criminalises all dissent, he told The Guardian. Torture in Saudi jails is commonplace, the guilty officials go unpunished, and Saudi Arabia “is undergoing the most ruthless crackdown on political dissent that the country has experienced in decades.”

“Reports that Saudi Arabia is liberalising are completely wide of the mark,” Emmerson said. “The judiciary has now been brought entirely under the control of the King, and lacks any semblance of independence from the executive. Put simply, there is no separation of power in Saudi Arabia, no freedom of expression, no free press, no effective trade unions, and no functioning civil society.”

Moreover, MbS’s successes in crushing dissent within the country have made him over-confident about his skill in foreign policy. He summoned Lebanese Prime Minister to Riyadh and forced him to resign, only to see Hariri get his job back in alliance with Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist group that MbS utterly detests.

He declared a blockade of Saudi Arabia’s small but wealthy neighbour, Qatar, to force it to close down the Al-Jazeera network, the most influential Arabic-language news service, and to break its ties with Iran, the country that MbS fears most. One year later Al-Jazeera is still alive and kicking, and Qatar has moved closer to Iran.

And in his biggest blunder, he launched a military intervention in the Yemeni civil war to defeat the Houthis, a Shia tribe that has captured most of Yemen and that he believes (wrongly) is controlled and armed by Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s air strikes have killed thousands, its ally the United Arab Emirates has thousands of troops on the ground – and three years later the Houthis still control most of the heavily populated parts of Yemen, including the capital.

It’s not exactly Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam – the Saudis have no troops on the ground, and the Emiratis are mostly using foreign mercenaries – but the Yemeni intervention is very expensive, deeply embarrassing, and probably unwinnable. In the long run, it may be MbS’s undoing.

The wealth has been more widely shared in Saudi Arabia than in most oil-rich countries, and for the non-political majority life is still pretty good. Even for women, things are very gradually getting better: 60 percent of Saudi university graduates are female, and now they can drive too. But the country is now being run by an erratic and over-confident dictator.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“it’s…choose)

Trump and Iran

“…One orb to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Five months ago, during Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he was invited to open the “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology”. (I’m not making that up.) The huge, darkened room they were in looked like a cross between a starship bridge and a television control room. And there was a photo op, as there always is at these events, but this one was different.

There was a glowing orb on a pedestal, with the continents in black and the seas in pale grey. Trump, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian dictator General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi all put their hands on it as if they owned it – and held the pose for almost two minutes.

The radiant globe (and the illuminated floor) lit their faces from below. If you want to make somebody look evil, light the scene dramatically from underneath, and they did look evil in a comic-book sort of way. Like the three witches in Macbeth, suggested conservative commentator Bill Kristol. And everybody knew that their curses were aimed at Iran.

Now Trump has directed more curses at Iran, declaring that he will pull the United States out of the 2015 agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. Or rather, he has announced that Congress will do that – but the Republicans probably don’t have enough votes in the Senate to make it happen.

Why didn’t he do it himself? Maybe he just wanted to share the blame. Every one of Trump’s senior officials and advisers has told him not to do it, and so have all of America’s allies. Every other signatory to the treaty – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union – also says it will continue to abide by it no matter what the United States does.

Trump says Iran is cheating on the deal, but Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran is implementing it faithfully, and all the other signatories agree. Trump doesn’t like the fact that Iran tests ballistic missiles, or supports dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and says they are against the “spirit” of the treaty, but those things were not part of the deal.

If there is one thing Trump understands, it’s contracts. If the words are in the contract, then it’s part of the deal. If they aren’t, then it’s not part of the deal. There is nothing in the treaty with Iran that says it has to do everything the US wants, and nothing either that says it must not do things that Washington does not like. It’s strictly about Iran not working on nuclear weapons, and the other countries dropping their sanctions against Iran.

And why does Trump want to kill the treaty anyway? One reason is that he is pursuing a bizarre vendetta against ex-president Barack Obama, seeking to erase every one of his legislative and diplomatic achievements regardless of their value. But he has also fallen in with bad company.

Trump really is one of the three witches now: he has joined the alliance of conservative Arab states against Iran, although it doesn’t serve any imaginable US interest to get involved in a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. You can blame that choice on Trump’s ignorance, perhaps, but Saudi Arabia and Israel are run by well-informed and intelligent people. Why do they want to cancel the nuclear deal?

On the face of it, it makes no sense. If your choice is between Iranian nuclear weapons some time after 2025 (if the treaty isn’t renewed or extended before then), or Iranian nuclear weapons in one or two years’ time (if it is abrogated now), why would they prefer the latter? Yet they do. Their unspoken calculation may be that if the nuclear agreement does get trashed, then there will eventually be a war – but the United States will be on their side.

There is no doubt that Trump can pull out of the treaty even if Congress will not do it for him. He just has to declare new sanctions against Iran, which is well within his power. And if he does, other Western companies trading in Iran will find themselves banned from the huge American market unless they go along with the ban, so they will probably comply no matter what their governments say now.

But even if all that comes to pass, Trump cannot stop Iran from making nuclear weapons once the treaty is gone. The United States would probably suffer no grave damage as a result, as it is a long way from Iran. The Arab states and Israel could suffer greatly, but turkeys vote for Christmas all the time.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 8. (“If there…Iran”)

Principled Realism

The media mostly missed it (or chose to ignore it as a piece of meaningless rhetoric), but Donald Trump proclaimed a new doctrine in his speech to the assembled leaders of the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. It goes by the name of Principled Realism, although it didn’t offer much by way of either principles or realism. In practice, it mostly boiled down to a declaration of (proxy) war against Iran.

After rambling on for twenty minutes about the wonders of Islam and the evils of “extremism” and “terrorism”, Trump finally got to the point: “No discussion of stamping out this (terrorist) threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists…safe harbour, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment….I am speaking, of course, of Iran.”

No mention of the fact that every single terrorist attack in the West from 9/11 down to the bomb in Manchester Arena on Monday night was carried out by Sunni fanatics, most of them of Arab origin, whereas Iran’s population is overwhelmingly Shia and not Arab at all.

No mention either of the fact that it was Sunni-majority allies of the United States, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, that enabled the two most powerful Sunni extremist groups, Islamic State and al-Qaeda, to seize large amounts of territory in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Qatar gave the extremists direct and indirect financial aid, and Turkey kept its border open so that weapons, money and recruits could reach them in Syria.

And no mention of the fact that the only approved form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, the fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine, is almost identical to the version of Islam espoused by the terrorists. Bringing up such awkward subjects would have upset his audience, and the last thing Trump wants to do is hurt people’s feelings.

Iran, to hear Trump tell it, is the source of all the region’s problems. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region….It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many nations and leaders in this room….”

“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a parter for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”

Trump delivered this remarkable farrago of lies and half-truths two days after Iran, the only Middle Eastern state apart from Israel and Turkey to hold relatively free elections, re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, who has worked hard to reduce the influence of his hard-line opponents. He also signed the deal freezing Iranian work on nuclear weapons for ten years, and he clearly has popular support for his policies.

The “militias” Iran trains and supports include those in Iraq that are fighting to free the city of Mosul from the clutches of Islamic State (they also have tacit American support), and the Hezbollah movement in southern Lebanon, which has been part of the Lebanese government since 2005. There is no evidence that Iran has supplied weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, despite frequent allegations to that effect by Arab and American sources.

The Iranian goverment does not “speak openly about mass murder”, and the one Iranian leader who spoke about the eventual destruction of Israel (although he did not promise to do it personally) was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was defeated by Rouhani in the 2013 election, and was banned from running again in the one just past. “Death to America!” was a nationalist slogan popular in the 1980s.

Iran, like most large countries, has many conflicting political trends, and with careful selection and enough ill-will you can find enough extreme and ignorant comments to demonise the country. (You could certainly do it with Trump’s America.) But the Islamic Republic of Iran has never invaded anybody, and it certainly does not support terrorist attacks against either the West or the Arab world.

Trump has drunk the Kool-Aid. He has bought into a partisan Arab narrative whose theme is an inevitable (and ultimately military) conflict between Iran and the Arab world, and has all but promised that the United States would fight on the Arab side in that putative war.

This is probably the stupidest foreign policy commitment any American administration has made since the decision 60 years ago to take France’s place in fighting the “Communist menace” in Vietnam. Iran has almost as many people as Vietnam, it’s five times as big, and it’s mostly mountains and deserts – plus some very big cities.

Maybe it is inevitable that Sunni Arab leaders will see Shia Iran through the lens of their own fears and stereotypes, and start making self-fulfilling prophecies of apocalyptic conflict. Trump has no such excuse – and ‘Principled Realism’ really is the wrong slogan. How about ‘Reckless Complicity’?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“No mention either …feelings”)

Yemen: The Stupidest War

“They hit everything, hospitals, orphanages, schools,” Hisham al-Omeisy told The Guardian newspaper six months ago. “You live in constant fear that your kids’ school could be the next target.”

No, he’s not talking about the wicked Russians bombing the eastern side of Aleppo in Syria, which is stirring up so much synthetic indignation in Washington and London these days. He was talking about the air force of Saudi Arabia, that great friend of the West, bombing his friends and neighbours in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

The Saudi Arabian bombing campaign in Yemen is now eighteen months old, and is responsible for the great majority of the estimated 5,000 civilian fatal casualties in that time. The Saudi authorities swear that it wasn’t them every time there is an especially high death toll – “(our) forces have clear instructions not to target populated areas and to avoid civilians” is the familiar refrain – but they are the only side in the conflict that has aircraft.

A case in point is last Sunday’s strike on the Great Hall in Sana’a, a very large and distinctive building of no military importance whatever. Last Sunday it was crowded with hundred of people attending the funeral of Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the current interior minister, Galal al-Rawishan.

The younger al-Rawishan is the interior minister in the government that sits in the capital, which is supported by “rebel” Houthi tribesmen from the north of Yemen and by the part of the army that still backs the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His father’s funeral was therefore attended by many senior Houthi officials and supporters of the former president, as well as large numbers of other people.

By the sheerest coincidence, we are asked to believe, an air-strike accidentally hit the Great Hall at just the right time on just the right day to kill 150 people and wound 525, among whom there would probably have been a dozen or so “rebel” government officials.

Even the White House, which has loyally backed Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, said that it is launching an immediate review of its policy. US National Security Council spokesman Ned Simon said it was part of a “troubling” pattern of Saudi air attacks on civilians, and warned that “US security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque.” But it is, actually.

This war is really about Saudi Arabia’s ability to control Yemen’s government. The two neighbours have about the same population but Saudi Arabia is thirty times richer, so that should be easy.

Yemen’s long-ruling dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hostile to Saudi Arabia, so the latter took advantage of popular protests against him in 2011-12 (part of the “Arab Spring”) to engineer his replacement by a Saudi puppet, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Saleh then made an alliance with his former enemies, the Houthi tribes of northern Yemen, and struck back. When the rebel forces seized Sana’a in late 2014 and eventually drove Hadi out of the country, Saudi Arabia put together a “coalition” of conservative Arab states and launched the current military intervention to put Hadi back in power.

However, none of the “coalition” members wants to risk the casualties and the consequent unpopularity at home that would come from fighting a major ground war in Yemen. The intervention therefore consists mostly of air strikes, which produce lots of civilian casualties – some deliberate, some not.

The other motive behind this foolish war is the Saudi belief (or at least claim) that Iran, its great rival in the Gulf, is the secret power behind the rebel forces in Yemen. No doubt Iran does sympathise with the Yemeni rebels, since they are mostly fellow Shias, but for all the talk of “Iran-allied Houthis”, faithfully repeated in Western media, there is no evidence that Iran has given them either military or financial aid.

So, then, three conclusions. First, the Saudi-led coalition will not get its way in Yemen if it remains unwilling to put large numbers of troops on the ground – and it might not win even if it did. Second, the relentless bombing of civilians is largely due to the coalition’s frustration at the failure of its political strategy (although the sheer lack of useful military targets also plays a part).

And third, this is the stupidest of all the wars now being fought across the Middle East. Who runs Yemen is not a matter of vital strategic importance to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi obsession with the Iranian “threat” is absurd.

Yemen is of no imaginable strategic value to Iran, nor could the Iranians help the rebel government there in any concrete way even if they wanted to. And while Iranian influence has undoubtedly grown in the Gulf region in the past decade, that is entirely a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, not of some nefarious Iranian plot.

Does the Washington foreign policy establishment finally understand all this? Only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Old habits die hard, and it’s all too easy to condemn Russian air strikes in Syria while condoning similar Saudi air strikes in Yemen.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 11 and 15. (“Even…actually”; “However…not”; and “Yemen…plot”)