BOSTON — Watching the flurry of developments across the Middle East from the United States, as I have done this week, makes me more concerned for the well-being of the region and its people than I have been for many years. This is mainly because we are witnessing the convergence of several destructive forces that are troubling on their own, but collectively devastating when together they drive regional events.
They include most importantly five elements: the domestic and regional policies of the new Saudi Arabian leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; the explicit support for these policies by United States President Donald Trump and his Mideast maestro Jared Kushner (aka Junior Moron); an aggressive, colonial, right-wing government in Israel that seeks to get closer to Saudi Arabia and also to knock back Iran and Hezbollah; half a dozen fragmenting and unpredictable countries in the region that are wracked by sectarian and political conflicts; and intrusive regional actions by Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates.
By far the most important dynamic within this broad regional picture is the convergence between the policies of the United States and Saudi Arabia, which essentially means the policies of President Trump and Mohammad bin Salman, with Junior Moron greasing the wheels that bring these two men together. Not surprisingly, for both the United States and Saudi Arabia, their policies reflect a combination of dramatic initiatives as well as deeply perplexed global and local audiences. What are these men trying to achieve, people ask throughout Arabia and America?
The answer is not clear, but a few certainties are: Both men are woefully inexperienced in the business of statecraft, yet take on gigantic projects to transform their states and others. Both men have massive egos that make them feel they know what is best for their people and the world, and they repeatedly make dramatic decisions in the realm of social engineering based mainly on their instincts. These broad personal values coincide with the policy lines that both men seem to adhere to: push back Iran and its allies in the region, support Israel, beat the terrorists, promote big commercial deals, and affirm the rule of autocratic, family-anchored regimes. So it’s no surprise that Trump tells the Saudi leaders in a phone call a few days ago that he has full confidence in the Saudi policies now being implemented.
This unprecedented phenomenon of two inexperienced, brash leaderships in two of the world’s most important countries working together to change the world is troubling and dangerous, primarily because the available evidence to date suggests that in their policy-making worlds they are mostly serial failures. Neither Trump nor Mohammad bin Salman have achieved any significant successes, and most of what they have attempted at home and abroad has failed, or even backfired.
The most glaring example of this is their shared desire to push back against what they see as Iran’s dangerous projection of its power, alliances, and interests across the Middle East region. The awkward reality is that for the past 15 years or more, Saudi- and American-led efforts to reduce Iran’s regional strategic assets have failed miserably, and in fact in situations like Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon the Iranians are much stronger today because of inept American and Saudi policies. Lebanon may join this list soon.
A critical question is whether this is due to the ill-conceived policies of the United States and Saudi Arabia, or the more clever capabilities of the Iranians in working the regional geo-strategic landscape. A hint is perhaps to be found in their relative experience levels: Mohammad bin Salman has been active in statecraft for about two years or so. Trump has been active for ten months, and Iran (and its predecessor Persian cultures) has been active for around 2,600 years.
We might now see efforts to forge overt or covert cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, though this will hit against the major obstacle of Arab public opinion being seriously against such a move until the Palestine-Israel conflict is resolved. There is also much speculation about a new war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel, due to the chaos Lebanon might experience from the apparently Saudi-induced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. I doubt this war will happen, but I leave open the wild possibility that we might see a combined Saudi-Israeli-American military operation against some combination of Iranian and Hezbollah interests. This sounds crazy, but the policies now emanating from the Israeli-Saudi-American combine make the crazy very possible.
The bottom line for my concerns stems from what I see in the bigger picture of events in Saudi Arabia in the past few months, as Mohammad bin Salman assumes almost total, unchecked, power in all spheres of state and society. We are witnessing the third historic phase of the capture of Arab states by family-based, security-anchored leaderships personified in a single man. The Egyptians introduced this durable and ugly governance model to the Arab region in 1952; the Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Tunisians, Sudanese, and Yemenis adopted it in their countries in the 1970s and 80s; and now we see it taking hold for the first time in a wealthy Arab monarchy that, like all Arab monarchies, used to rule by promoting a minimum of consultations and consensus across the various power groups in society.
We might have cause to worry that the two powerful countries of the United States and Saudi Arabia are each led by a single person who assumed power legitimately (according to local traditions), and whose large ego and grandiose plans are offset by very little experience or appreciation for nuance.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 08 November 2017
Word Count: 937
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for Le Monde diplomatique, and The Washington Spectator, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Rami G. Khouri and Immanuel Wallerstein.