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Trouble in the Kingdom
The 1,002nd Arabian Night?

Mohammed bin Salman’s coup from above may have an even more profound impact on the region than the rise of ISIS.

Published on: November 8, 2017
Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest. This essay was originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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  • Fat_Man

    Saudi Arabia will always be opaque to outsiders. It is not really a state in the modern sense. It is more like Family Business. See: “The
    Saudi Monarchy as a Family Firm” by Xavier Marquez on January 29, 2015

    I have often said that to understand the KSA, you should study the History plays of Shakespeare:

    “Shakespeare: King & Country” [Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V] Royal Shakespeare Company w/ David Tennant as Richard II

    “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” [Henry VI, Richard III] w/ Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III

    This could prove very interesting.

  • FriendlyGoat

    We should hope with Salman that (among other things) he views ISIS as having literally tried to steal Sunni Islam and that he intends to take it back and make it more respectable. As for us, it’s not like we haven’t been playing patsy for decades with a lot worse in the KSA.

  • animalmother

    And Israel? They must have a horse in this race. So far they’re backing MbS – is that real or are they playing at something else?

  • David_Meyer

    An excellent and very thought-provoking read, although I nearly quit reading when I got to the gratuitous slap-

    “No one is sure about that either, and that certainly includes the clueless President of the United States.”.

    What is it about President Trump that causes otherwise nuanced, articulate and disciplined writers to reflexively bash the sitting President, alienating half of the intended audience, perhaps the half that the writer most wants to win over? It seems juvenile, sophomoric and unnecessary to automatically alienate half your audience, even if it feels good.

    To be fair, the term “clueless” could apply, in whole or in part, to the foreign affairs policies of any the last four or five Presidents.

    • D4x

      “condition of permanent cognitive dissonance” applies to this writer, whose brain files are so full he can not learn any new
      information, especially if it contradicts his own Infallible Dogma regarding President Trump, and his Senior Advisor Jared Kushner. Garfinkle’s dogma is based on the Sin No Credentials, and whatever bigotry prevails in his circle of friends.

      Unfortunate for the reader is he is also missing/misreading a few “dots” to connect in his ‘nuanced’ analysis
      of what he labels “Mohammed bin Salman’s coup from above”.

      Example of how Garfinkle misreads two of his “dots”: “promising women the right to drive, which is a highly symbolic issue”, https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c699251c6534fb75ab75350e1d745e3747e1c18f307f2cfd2dffd7eed445d6de.jpg

      and also imagines “All kinds of interesting if improbable larger scenarios can be spun, too: Pakistan supporting Saudi Arabia
      by attacking and seizing Iranian Baluchistan,” That reveals considerable ignorance of Balochistan: both halves are members of Unrepresnted Nations and Peoples.org, https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/dfb68898135660fd301263bfe6918c35ccc44828b6cecbdd6d9878be546a38c2.png one of the least known institutions that should be high on the awareness scale of anyone who cares about the Liberal International Order: human rights, democracy. The District of Columbia joined on December 4, 2015!

      The British occupied the Baloch State of Kalat in 1839.
      http://unpo.org/members/8014 East Balochistan UNPO member since 04 14 2008
      http://unpo.org/members/7922 West Balochistan: Annexed to Iran, 1928; UNPO member since 06 26 2005
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9TIQ25cW9E Totally unreported in the news.
      10 05 2017 DC Conference: “Scales of Injustice: The Geopolitics of Business, State-Sponsored Extremism and the Absence of Democracy in Balochistan” http://unpo.org/article/20352

      “promising women the right to drive, which is a highly symbolic issue” is the conclusion of someone who is incurious, or unable
      to consider the economic impact on KSA, or the educational achievements in KSA in one generation:
      09 27 2017 “Saudi Royal decree will help families save money currently spent on private drivers” http://www.arabnews.com/node/1168406/saudi-arabia
      10 01 2017: “…The expense of foreign drivers is a $7bn annual drain on Saudi households. …Female literacy soared from 7 per cent in the mid-1970s to approaching 100 percent ahead of the millennium…” http://www.arabnews.com/node/1170761
      10 01 2017 “Saudi companies and families plan to hire expat female drivers” http://www.arabnews.com/node/1170351/saudi-arabia

      Garfinkle’s ignorance extends to oblivion on India’s bilateral relationship with KSA:
      04 25 2017 “…today Indian workers constitute the largest expatriate community in the Kingdom, totaling about 3.06 million …” India-Saudi Arabia Relations: New Bilateral Dynamics By Zakir Hussain | Research Fellow – Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) – New Delhi | Apr 25, 2017 http://www.mei.edu/content/map/india-saudi-arabia-relations-new-bilateral-dynamics

      A quick look at the embassy websites of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia reveals why.
      India has employment contracts, and a bilateral agreement online. The others: nothing.
      “Recruitment of Domestic Service Workers from India Last Updated: July 9 2017, Domestic Service Workers (DSWs): Drivers, Maids, Guards, Cooks, etc. Standard Employment Contract”
      India-Saudi Arabia Business Relations Last Updated: September 19 2017
      I did that research in late September, posted at https://www.the-american-interest.com/2017/09/27/saudi-women-drivers-seat-last/

      My dot-connecting sees a bright future for Saudi women, their families, and the Saudi economy.
      More driving cooks from India, and Bangladesh and Indonesia if their governments can learn from India how to handle employment contracts. KSA’s Avon Ladies will lead the way.

      Pakistan’s Punjabis better learn Chinese.
      The future of Pakistan’s Pashtuns and Sindhis are beyond the scope of “Mohammed bin Salman’s coup from above”.

      • ——————————

        “Helps to ameliorate my cognitive dissonance in 2017”

        Yep! Couldn’t have said it better myself!
        I ameliorated myself clear out of all news (incl. TAI) and political cycles because of this type of nonsense….

    • Ellen

      Indeed, clueless is the motto of American presidents today when it comes to foreign policy. The biggest dunce of them all, John Kerry, recently stated that the Iran nuclear deal is working! Proof of that must be the fact that Iran is conquering and destroying four Arab countries, and threatening to destroy Saudi Arabia and Israel, to boot. Great work, John and Barack! Iran has held everybody hostage to its imperialistic behavior for fear that the Obama legacy deal would be repudiated. In the end, the deal will die and Iran will be destroyed by imperial overreach, but at what cost?

      On top of that, Kerry recently stated that if Israel doesn’t make concessions to the Palestinians, there will be another violent uprising on the West Bank. Why would that be a bad thing, pray tell? All the conflicts in the Middle East will be resolved on the battle field, because none of them are “solvable” by diplomacy. Please read your Spengler (David Goldman, that is). Existential conflicts are never solved at a negotiating table in Geneva, where the upper crust fools – like Kerry and European diplomats – prefer to go skiing or hold themselves hostage in the Ritz Carlton. Much like Prince Alwaleed in the Riyadh Ritz. If there were justice in this world, the whole lot of them would be hauled off to stand in front of a firing squad.

      The Palestinians will fight on until death, and it will be their death and expulsion from the West Bank that will end the conflict, not Kerry’s fool’s paradise. Existential conflicts can end with only two results: victory for one side and defeat for the other. One hundred years after Balfour’s declaration, the Palestinians have been defeated and they know it. It took 70 years for them to realize the obvious truth, because they were encouraged to indulge in psychotic hallucinations of future victory by the likes of Western liberals and Arab despots. The Arab despots have finally given up. Their existential conflict is with Iran, and they need the help of Israel. If you doubt this, read the pages of Al Arabiyya or the Arab News. The Palestinians are now being forced to drink the bitter pill of humiliation and defeat. Kerry is the last fool in the village who hasn’t figured out the truth.

      • tms5510

        Iran destroyed ISIS is that a country? the rest asking Iran help (iraq, syria and Lebanon) . Saudi wants its own destruction

        • Ellen

          Iran created ISIS. It was the Kurds and the US who have destroyed ISIS in Syria.

          Saudi is headed toward its own destruction, I totally agree. So are Iran and Hezbollah. Iran is trying to recreate the ancient Persian Empire but without the economic, military, or cultural means to do so. They are seriously overextended, just like the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, and will end up falling to pieces, just like the Soviet Union in the 1980’s.

          I am looking forward to it!

          • tms5510

            lol you are joke. Even Barazni said Iran was the first country helped kurds to fight ISIS. google it.

  • WigWag

    Here’s what I don’t think Adam gets; positive change, at least consequential positive change, rarely happens slowly or incrementally. It is practically never delivered by thoughtful or moderate leaders who tread carefully.

    Consequential change is delivered by iconoclasts who are almost invariably brazen, reckless and boorish. These change-agents are risk takers who’s credo was first articulated by Admiral David Farragut; “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

    Donald Trump is one of these change-agents; it would appear that the young Saudi Crown Prince is one as well. In today’s parlance, these men are disrupters.

    More often than not, these men (they are almost always men) end up self-destructing. Their volatility is not conducive to permanence. The question is whether they succeed in generating the dramatic change they desire before they implode.

    It’s too soon to know whether the young Saudi Royal (or Donald Trump for that matter) will succeed before they self-destruct. Hopefully they will.

    What we do know is that swamp creatures, whether of the Saudi variety or the American variety, are inevitably horrified when one of these iconoclasts assumes power and threatens the cushy, indulgent privileges that they have become used to over the decades.

    That’s why Adam is so angry with Donald Trump. His attachment to everything he’s gotten comfortable with during the four decades of his adult life may or may not explain his suspicion of the new developments in Saudi Arabia.

    • solstice

      Excellent analysis. Irrespective of whether MBS succeeds or fails, he deserves credit for having the balls to take major risks to affect major change.

    • Pait

      He’s a friend of Trump’s so he cannot do any wrong. Just like Putin.

      Now the fact that MbS is getting into a collision route with Putin’s friends in the region complicates the analysis, but trust in Trump will make this problem disappear.

      • WigWag

        Plenty could go wrong, Pait. The coup from above instigated by MbS could fail and Saudi Arabia could be thrown into turmoil. The Gulf States allied with Saudi Arabia would themselves be weakened by chaos in Saudi Arabia.

        If this comes to pass, Iran would be immeasurably strengthened which could easily leave the United States with no choice but to go to war or accept Iranian hegemony in the Middle East.

        Big decisions have big consequences. My point is that big decisions are always made by daring risk-takers not status quo adoring functionaries.

        Adam is not the only foreign policy expert to point out the risks MbS is taking. Aaron David Miller has recently made the same point. See,


        We already know that the Middle East is ripe for disaster. While the recent Saudi imbroglio is a coup from above, the Arab Spring of a few years back was a coup from below. Coups in the Middle East tend to be disastrous.

        The problem with experts like Garfinkle and Miller is that they’re permanently inclined to kick the can down the road. Like the hollow men in T.S. Eliot’s poem, they’re devoid of originality, entrepreneurialism or audacity. They’re fondest wish is never to have to crawl out of the intellectual shell they’ve constructed for themselves.

        But it doesn’t matter what they want. History isn’t made by men like them. It’s made by men like MbS.

        The rest of us would be wise to fasten our seat belts and get ready for the ride.

        • Ellen

          “The problem with experts like Garfinkle and Miller is that they’re permanently inclined to kick the can down the road. Ironically, their expertise has turned them into somnambulists who awaken only when they bump into a brick wall. Like the hollow men in T.S. Eliot’s poem, they’re devoid of originality, entrepreneurialism or audacity. They’re fondest wish is never to have to crawl out of the intellectual shell they’ve constructed for themselves.”

          Totally correct, Wigwag. That is why every initiative they engage in – every peace process, and in fact every “process” of whatever type – is designed to produce no result except kicking cans down the road, usually toward a blowup. The Oslo “process” was like the Syrian peace “process”. They always meet in Geneva, too, which must be a symbol of what these creeps are really interested in, including their microphones like Miller, Garfinkle, Goldberg, and Friedman. They want publicity, they want their 15 minutes of fame to extend to 15 years (which is the length of the typical failed “process”). Nothing they do is based on a semblance of reality or the balance of forces.

          They are the opposite of a great leader and analyst of history like Churchill.

          Churchill never offered the British people a “process”. What he offered was war; specifically a determined counterattack against the German campaigns, which required “blood, sweat, toil and tears.” Every great event in history requires those attributes. Any exercise that begins and ends in Geneva, will produce absolutely nothing of consequence, except a predictable blowup at the end. The negotiators will then exit the Ritz Carlton proclaiming that a continuation of the “process” is better than war. It isn’t. War produces a definitive conclusion, and a winner and loser. “Processes” produce no conclusion, just endless employment for liberal parasites and their talking heads in the media, followed by…..WAR.

  • jburack

    A lot of useful information here. But for the promise of connecting the dots and providing context, it seems remarkable that the word “Israel” appears nowhere in this entire piece. I guess bashing the Trump administration’s style or Kushner’s college grades is more contextually relevant. In fact, the real war likely to ensue here is an Israeli-Hezbollah war. I imagine MbS has contextualized that somewhere in his thinking. It would be nice to some analyst or other do likewise.

  • Anthony

    The Saudi Royal Family at war with itself: a young thirty something (MBS – Mohammed bin Salman) with limited experience in governance is making an unprecedented bid for control; is there a reckoning in Saudi Arabia. Here’s a couple of views: nationalinterest.org/feature/reckoning-saudi-arabia-23132 and https://geopoliticalfutures.com/saudi-arabia-war/

  • Trajan Fanzine

    SA was coming apart,financially&socially the bills were coming due- period, in the next decade, period.

    I think all of the Princes and the king knew or sensed it and the foreboding that comes with facing the tidal wave that was always ‘out there somewhere’ but is now in plain sight and heading straight for your shores created actionable energy.

    The King stepped back and MbS stepped up….it could have been a full blown fundie, the ones whom worked for decades and still do to fund Madrasahs and carry Wahab and, still do ……those were the choices; so beating up Trump for supporting MbS when in affect, he had exactly zero choice sounds phony to me and Adam should know better.

    Heres the rub; they are ALL clueless, going back decades, no one can name a president that has truly understood say, when an arab says ‘Inshallah’ and shrugs his shoulders, what that truly signifies,( or can portend) for not just himself but the entire region…… The truly unfortunate thing is; Bush 2 blew up our ability to influence or support via naked hard power, you only get one of those were in you come down with both Feet. Bush 1 went in , in a situation so blindingly obvious even Fundies got it, then left. Thats gimme….

    Bush 2, Afghanistan aside ( even fundies get that one too) blew our wad in Iraq. So military support of any heft for SA is going to be nearly impossible ( and should be imho)

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