Reality trumps the US in Saudi Arabia
The US government apparently thinks it has people at the US State Department and the CIA who understand the Arab world. Some call themselves “Arabists.”
These Arab region experts are the same people who said Saddam Hussein would not invade Kuwait. They failed to predict the “Arab spring” and its devastating effects and are misjudging the degree to which they can influence events in Saudi Arabia.
The New York Times reported that the US government has been under the impression Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz would be vulnerable to pressure after the mess brought on by the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Times said this led US officials to consider “pressuring the crown prince for steps to resolve the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar and the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen.” US Secretary of Defence James Mattis and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a cease-fire in Yemen “as part of that plan.”
There were even some in Washington, the newspaper said, who toyed with the idea of pushing the Saudis to dilute Crown Prince Mohammed’s position and having him share power with other members of the royal family and newly created top positions in the Saudi government.
However, almost counter-intuitively, things seem to be working the other way around. Despite the US administration’s calls for a ceasefire, the pace of the war in Yemen has accelerated, especially around Hodeidah. There is no sign that the pressure of sanctions against Qatar is relenting. The ostracism of Doha by its Saudi neighbours and their allies seems unlikely to be lifted and it is instead Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani who is showing signs of anguish.
One of the main reasons for the US failure to pressure Saudi Arabia into new policies is that contrary to expectations, Crown Prince Mohammed’s hold on power has not weakened. Despite the international uproar over the grisly fate of Khashoggi, the crown prince is still the epicentre of power in Riyadh. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is not dropping his 33-year-old son, who is consolidating his hold on power.
Stratfor, the geopolitical intelligence firm, wrote: “Speculation that the Saudi royal family could alter the current plan of succession appears unfounded given Mohammed bin Salman’s entrenchment.”
Another factor has been the sway carried by US groups with vested interests in Saudi Arabia. These include American arms manufacturers but also large corporations that shielded the Washington-Riyadh axis from repercussions of the Khashoggi case.
This should come as bad news to the Turks, who bet on using
the fallout of the Khashoggi killing to destabilise Crown Prince Mohammed and prevent what they saw as the nightmarish scenario of having to live with the young Saudi crown prince for the next five decades or so.
Turkish officials’ relentless drip-by-drip feeding of the media beast since Khashoggi’s disappearance was aimed at pointing the blame at the Saudi crown prince. It did do that but it also drew attention to the hypocrisy of Ankara’s sudden interest on the well-being of journalists.
The resilience of the US-Saudi axis despite the Khashoggi catastrophe shows that some interest-based alliances in the region are impervious to political pressures. It also serves as a word of caution against the wishful thinking that tends to drive many in the halls of power in Washington, particularly the Arab region’s US experts.
Hopes of re-engineering the Middle East after the “Arab spring” have been dashed by the region’s deep-rooted reluctance to address its flawed present mores according to the pace and shape of what Washington wishes. That’s something neither the United States nor the rest of the West can do anything about. The Arab world moves at its own pace and no amount of pushing can accomplish anything.
Part of the reason the United States seems to fall on its face when dealing with the Arab world is it thinks it knows how the “Arab mind” works. Any change, if it comes, must be from within.
However, those with power in the Arab world need to take lessons in humility and learn the difference between serving the people and expecting the people to serve them.