Saudi Arabia Has No Idea How to Deal With Iran -New York Times


I think the main point of the article is quite correct: the Saudis are playing a bad hand poorly.

There are a few points that I am not too sure about though. First, the author claims “The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has been more successful. The effort to tame that country’s assertive regional policies has worked and the crisis has now been put on the back burner of international diplomacy.” However, Qatar is now closer to Iran than ever, and at a time when the Saudis needed to be building a durable anti-Iranian front, they have fractured the GCC. I don’t see this as successful, even if only relative to Riyadh’s other attempts to deal with Iran. In fact, I’m pretty sure Iran sees this as a win.

Second, the author warns that the war in Yemen may turn “the Houthi movement into something akin to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.” Even if this is just be a turn of phrase, the Houthis-Iranian relationship is not comparable to Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah. The social/historical/religious connections are not there, and Iran’s military support for the Houthis has been limited.

Third, and finally, the author describes Saudi Arabia as “keen to reach out to Tehran despite provocative Iranian actions” and that “King Abdullah courted Presidents Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami”. This has not been the case. Riyadh has never been keen to court Iran. In fact, it’s been the other way around. Tehran has been the suitor, and Riyadh has played hard to get. Rafsanjani spent most of the 1990s trying to start a dialogue with Riyadh, only to be rebuffed. Before Rafsanjani’s death earlier this year, both he and Rouhani  reached-out to Riyadh, but again with no success. Rightly or wrongly, the Saudis’ strategy for dealing with Tehran has been to try to keep Iran as isolated in the Persian Gulf as possible. Given the regional situation post Arab-Spring, I doubt diplomacy would have worked, but I think the article mischaracterizes this part of their relationship.

A similar article was also published in Foreign Policy entitled, Tehran Is Winning the War for Control of the Middle East ( and I expect there will be more in the near future claiming that the the Iranian-Saudi Cold war is swinging Tehran’s way. Some, like the one above, will cast Iran as the aggressor and the Saudis as the victim, albeit a clumsy self-destructive victim. Others will portray the Saudis as the belligerents and Iran as misunderstood. Both narratives have a grain of truth. But both miss the main point: the rivalry in its present form is being driven by the regional instability caused by the Arab Spring. Ideology and incompetence have only made things worse.

Saudi princes among dozens detained in ‘corruption’ purge -BBC


Anti-corruption campaigns are a tried-and-true mechanism for dealing with opposition in authoritarian regimes. Perhaps the most notable example comes from the Assad regime in Syria during the 1970s. Hafez al-Assad used the tactic to clean house and build legitimacy. The purges allowed him to claim to be a champion of the people. More importantly, because corruption was endemic within the regime, everyone was potentially vulnerable. To a large degree the regime was built around corruption. Without oil money to distribute, the regime used government corruption as a form of patronage. Loyal officers and bureaucrats were given positions where they could extract bribes etc… as their reward. Therefore, almost be definition, if someone was in a position of authority, they were guilty of corruption. Assad could arrest anyone he wanted and everyone else was so terrified they made sure to toe the party line. After Hafez died, his son Basher repeated the exercise to ensure he would not be challenged by any of the old guard.
It should not be surprising then that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is launching a similar campaign. The Saudi political system is somewhat different from Syria’s but the logic of the anti-corruption game remains the same. Almost everyone is vulnerable, and those that escape are usually so relieved they don’t complain.
The initial public reaction has been positive, at least if the twitterverse can be trusted. However, there are a few things the King and Crown Prince should keep in mind. First, the regime is already going through a major transformation. The reforms instituted by the Crown Prince and his Father, King Salman, challenge the complex ruling formula that has held Saudi Arabia together since before the oil boom of the 1970s. As part of the Vision 2030 project, King Salmon and son are cutting back on government spending, privatizing parts of the national oil company, ARAMCO, and adopting an assertive and expensive new foreign policy posture in the region. Even gender roles are being challenged, with women being given the right to drive. The anti-corruption campaign is likely intended to preempt opposition to these changes. However, with so much happening the regime may be too fragile to withstand a major purge.

Second, the regime’s main strength has always been the cohesion of the royal family. Even before the oil boom, the main pillar of the regime was the al Saud itself. The logic was always simple: stay together or hang separately. Backing this logic up were a complex set of rules concerning succession and norms for governing within the family that smoothed out the rough edges and kept disputes to a minimum. However, by promoting the Crown Prince so quickly, the King has already violated most of these rules and norms. Moreover, Saudi specialist Joseph Kechichian suggests the intent is to “modernize the ruling establishment, not just for the 2030 horizon but beyond it too”.  If that is true, they may undermine the logic of maintaining cohesion may also be undermined. If the other members of the al Saud figure they are going to hang anyway, there may not be much incentive for them to stick together.





See also:


Boys Are Not Defective –The Atlantic


This article looks at an interesting development in the Middle East. Across the region, girls and young women do markedly better in school than boys and young men, even in the sciences.

  • “In fact, across the Arab world, women now earn more science degrees on a percentage basis than women in the United States. In Saudi Arabia alone, women earn half of all science degrees. And yet, most of those women are unlikely to put their degrees to paid use for very long.”

The conclusion the article reaches is surprising. It questions the common assumption that Middle Eastern women succeed in education because their lives are controlled and distractions are minimized.  Rather than argue women study harder because they have nothing else to do, this article argues the problem may be in the quality of education boys and young men receive and the dynamics created by gender-segregated class-rooms

  • “…boys’ schools are more violent places, concluded the study, which was funded by USAID. Over half of the boys interviewed said they’d experienced some kind of bullying in school over the previous year. Only 11 percent of girls said the same thing. Two-thirds of male teachers said they’d witnessed physical violence among students in the past year—compared with less than a quarter of female teachers.”
  • Boys also reported worse relationships with their male teachers. Only 40 percent of male students interviewed said they believed their teachers cared about how well they did in school—compared with 74 percent of girls.” “…male teachers in all-boys schools were more likely to belittle or punish students for getting the wrong answer. And boys were much more likely than girls to complain about their male teachers’ tendencies to beat students and shout at them.”

Their explanation for this pattern was a mix of political economy and cultural norms:

  • “Teachers do not earn a lot of money in Jordan, but men are still expected to be the primary breadwinners in families. So male teachers are more likely to work second or third jobs as tutors or even taxi drivers in order to augment their small salaries. One Jordanian student told me about a male biology teacher he’d had who was so exhausted by his two other jobs that he used to close the blinds in first period and go to sleep.”
  • “On average Jordan’s male teachers—who have mostly gone through the same educational system themselves—do worse on the national entry test for teaching, according to Ministry of Education data. This suggests in turn that boys might be encountering less-prepared teachers on average. “Male teachers are hard to come by, and good male teachers are even harder,””
  • “The problem, Osman and his colleagues concluded, was not simply boys’ freedom or male teachers’ preparation. It was all that and more. Through surveys and other analysis, they identified a long list of factors that were interacting like a chemical equation, which is the unsexy secret about how education systems usually work. Not just teacher quality but students’ sense of safety, their study habits, and the subtleties of the boy and girl peer cultures all converge to create a healthy—or toxic—brew.”

Along the way, the article discusses the need to empower men: “We used to say, empowering women, and now we talk about empowering men,” Hamood Khalfan Al Harthi, the undersecretary for education and curriculum in Oman, says. In patriarchal societies this may seem a bit whiny, but it’s not:

  • “Natasha Ridge, the executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in the United Arab Emirates, has studied gender and education around the world. In the United Kingdom and the United States, Ridge believes she can draw a dotted line between the failure of boys to thrive in school and votes for Brexit and for Donald Trump. Disengaged boys grow up to become disillusioned men, Ridge says, left out of the progress they see around them.”

In the context of the Middle East, that disengagement one must wonder if it also leads to political radicalization…



Eight unprecedented hours with “Mr. Everything,” Prince Mohammed bin Salman. -Bloomberg


Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has already been discussed here, see:

However, this article, based on a lengthy interview with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 31 year old Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, provides an unusually candid look at the Kingdom’s economic problems:

  • “Saudi Arabia’s economy will probably expand 1.5 percent in 2016, the slowest pace since the global financial crisis, according to a Bloomberg survey, as government spending—the engine that powers the economy—declines for the first time in more than a decade. The state still employs two-thirds of Saudi workers, while foreigners account for nearly 80 percent of the private-sector payroll.”
  • “During the oil boom from 2010 to 2014, Saudi spending went berserk. Prior requirements that the king approve all contracts over 100 million riyals ($26.7 million) got looser and looser—first to 200 million, then to 300 million, then to 500 million, and then, Al-Sheikh says, the government suspended the rule altogether.”
  • “there was roughly between 80 to 100 billion dollars of inefficient spending” every year, about a quarter of the entire Saudi budget.”
  • “Last year there was near-panic among the prince’s advisers as they discovered Saudi Arabia was burning through its foreign reserves faster than anyone knew, with insolvency only two years away. Plummeting oil revenue had resulted in an almost $200 billion budget shortfall—a preview of a future in which the Saudis’ only viable export can no longer pay the bills, whether because of shale oil flooding the market or climate change policies. Historically, the kingdom has relied on the petroleum sector for 90 percent of the state budget, almost all its export earnings, and more than half its gross domestic product.”

For more on the state of the Saudi economy, see: Can Saudi Arabia’s bold reforms cure growing financial woes? By Michael Stephens



Mohammad Javad Zarif: Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism -New York Times



There is nothing really substantively new in this article. It is the latest in the war of words between the Saudis and Iran. The rhetorical battle has escalated recently because of the start of the Hajj season. At last year’s Hajj 769 pilgrims were killed in a stampede. Iran blames the Saudis for the catastrophe and claims the al Saud are unfit to oversee the pilgrimage. The Saudis, on the other hand, claim Iran exploits the religious event for political purposes.


The article is notable however because it is the second time Iran’s Foreign Minister has taken to the op-ed page of the New York Times to chastise the Saudis. The first time was back in January when the Tehran and Riyadh fought a rhetorical duel on the editorial pages of the American paper/website.


Apparently, courting American public opinion has become a mainstay of Iranian foreign policy.


10 new wars that could be unleashed as a result of the one against ISIS -Washington Post


“The borders of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” are shrinking fast. The group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria are collapsing one by one. The U.S.-led war has reached a point where questions are being raised about what comes next.

So far, the answer seems likely to be: more war.”


This article probably oversimplifies things in the sense that it suggests that these wars are discrete events. Rather, the conflicts being played out in Syria are the product of long submerged tensions that were unleashed first by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then the Arab Spring. Once the state system began to collapse in 2010, they were bound to come to the fore. The article is effective though, in the way it identifies the various schisms and how they have been effected by recent events.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 -Various


The new Saudi King, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have drawn up a plan to reform the Saudi economy and wean the country away from its reliance on oil as the main source of income. The details of the plan are covered in this Bloomberg article:

Economic diversification is not a new idea for the Saudis, political scientists, economists and even Saudi politicians have been talking about it for years. For an economic argument for diversification and neo-liberal reform, see:

The problem has always been that economic reform in Saudi Arabia could be politically destabilizing. Oil is not just the backbone of the Saudi economy, it is one of, if not the most important political pillars of the state. Oil money (referred to in the poli-sci literature as rents) provides approximately 95% of government revenue. This not only provides money for services etc… it provides the regime with a large degree of economic and therefore political independence from society. The al Saudi do not have to tax Saudi citizens. Instead they redistribute money back to society in the form of generous social benefits and patronage spending. While it may be an oversimplification to say no representation without taxation, the re-distributive nature of the Saudi economy reduces a great deal of pressure for democratization. Not only does the government in effect pay it citizens, oil wealth has been used to build a new middle class beholden to the regime for government handouts. The use of foreign workers also means that organized labor has little or no power.

The Saudi political system cannot be reduced to oil rents, but economic reforms are extremely risky. Even if everything works as planned and the result is economic growth, diversification could very well mean more independence for the middle class and labor. Although the al Saud deny it, reform may also lead to taxation. As the country becomes more economically liberal, there may also be calls for social and cultural liberalization, which would threaten one of the regime’s other pillars of political support, its relationship with the conservative religious establishment.

If King Salman actually follows through with his economic plan it will lead to new political dynamics within the regime, dynamics that the institutions of the Saudi state may have a hard time coping with.

For more, see: