The Desperate Saudi Bid to Prepare the State for All-Out War

The Desperate Saudi Bid to Prepare the State for All-Out War, by Professor Hillel Frisch.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman knows he has to transform the state into a war machine if the kingdom is to survive the Iranian onslaught. To do that, he has to amass power by removing the system of checks and balances of rival princely factions and tribal affiliations as well as a security system that is weakened by both. The question is whether he will be able to avoid the fate of the Shah, who transformed Iran into a regional power but fell victim to wall-to-wall opposition bred by his concentration of power. …

Even in the US, a nation that enshrines its system of checks and balances, … a War Powers Act must be passed to allow the executive great powers to face the challenge….

Saudi Arabia is facing just such an external threat. In response, young Muhammad Bin Salman (also known as MBS), the Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, is determined to transform the kingdom. … Because as was recently demonstrated when Houthi forces in Yemen launched a ballistic missile at the state’s largest airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is fighting an all-out war for survival.

Few states have been so beset by geostrategic misfortune as Saudi Arabia over the past two decades. Mainstays of the Saudi security environment that had allowed that unique and archaic state to thrive simply evaporated into thin air one after another as Iran, its formidable nemesis, went on the ascendant.

One of those mainstays was the US. The Saudis no longer consider the US to be a reliable policeman who can be relied upon to stave off external threats and maintain the sovereignty of states, as it did in 1991 when it amassed a coalition of half a million (mostly American) troops to roll back Iraqi forces from occupied Kuwait. …

Regionally, the Saudis have had to face the realization that though there are plenty of Sunni Arab states in the area, it is the only such entity with the potential power to meet the Iranian challenge. This solitary position stems from the sharp decline of Egyptian power in the region. …

To the east, the Saudis could once rely on Iraq to be a buffer between themselves and Iranian imperial ambitions – though they loathed both the Hashemites who ruled it when it was a kingdom and the Baathists who came in their wake. This is why Riyadh financed Saddam Hussein, a man it intensely detested, in his long, grueling war with Iran during the 1980s. That buffer has not only ceased to exist, but Iraq has come under Shiite rule. …

Worse still has been the failure of Saudi financial soft power to promote proxies to wage war against the Iranians on the kingdom’s behalf. Financing proxies was the central mainstay of the Saudi security architecture for decades, but especially since the so-called Arab Spring. …

MBS understands that Saudi Arabia has no choice but to wage this war directly.  … Can MBS galvanize Saudi youth to meet the danger? Equally pressing, will he be able to centralize power and become the leading regional power in the manner of the Shah, yet avoid the Shah’s fate? Making bold moves like entering the air war in Yemen or jailing a dozen or so political celebrities in Saudi Arabia might be a promising beginning, but they in no way indicate how successful MBS will be in meeting the challenges ahead.

Scott writes:

I remember thinking in the 1980’s how wonderful it was for the backward Iranian’s and Iraqi’s to be at what seemed a never ending perpetual war between the houses of Shia and Suuni Islam. Not from the perspective of the loss of life, which was clearly a horror story, but from the perspective of keeping the two evil empires away from the West.

It looks like the 1400 year old conflict is getting near to raising its head again. The Iranians are betting the Russians have their backs and that the Turks will at least stay out. The Saudis are betting the US has its back and that the Israelis see the Shiites as at least the current greater threat.

This is shaping up to be a battle of the second class titans.

hat-tip Scott of the Pacific