Riyadh May be left Alone with an Economy in Tatters
Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
From the beginning of the “Arab Spring”, Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and Turkey, is one of the main disturbers of peace in the Middle East, remodelling the region to its image with significant overexertion of its forces and considerable risk for its own future. The problem of succession on the threshold of generational change and the coming to power not of sons but, for the first time in the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, of grandsons of the founder of the dynasty which creates separate variables for destabilisation of the situation in the monarchy, right down to its disintegration in the not too distant future.
The press draws the attention firstly to the actions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in the Syrian civil war, where the Saudis support the radical Islamist opposition, lobbying in the West for the overthrow of President Assad. In addition the policies of Riyadh stall more not only in Syria but in Yemen as well, colliding with increasing irritation from its neighbours and allies, including Oman and Egypt. And for the monarchy, the heirs can be unpredictable, which fully concerns Iran. We will look into the situation with the current positions and Saudi Arabia’s regional projects, with the support of the work of experts of the Institute, P.P. Riabov and Y.B. Scheglovin.
Militants leave, but remain
According to local experts, American and Saudi Special Forces reached an agreement on providing the militants of the banned in the Russian Federation Islamic State a safe conduit from Mosul before the beginning of the assault. Mass media announced that the terrorists (more than nine thousand) will be transferred to Syria for the capture of Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra. What corresponds to reality in all this? Talks between the tribal Sunni leadership in Iraq (and not IS) and the Americans were known since the spring. The sides tried to negotiate as many advantages for themselves as possible, which explains the constant postponements of the date for the beginning of the assault.
In reality the assault in the classic meaning of the term originally was not planned. In Mosul a plan was being worked out for a peaceful surrender of the city on the example of Ramadi and El-Falluja. The main drawback of this plan is the preservation of the IS fighting potential, which will deploy besides the “liberated” city, despite the fact that no one was going to attack them. The main advantage for Bagdad and Washington in the negotiations was the absence in the ranks of the attacking Shiites, providing Sunni tribes a wide autonomy and truly nominal representation of a central government in the municipal administration. In addition, the question of civilian casualties came up. All this brought the search for a compromise.
The idea of pushing out the militants with their families from the city is the right one, but the majority of them will not go anywhere. They are natives of Mosul or melt into the streets of the city. Having in their reserves capable IS fighters able to quickly mobilise, the Sunni leadership of Iraq is planning to begin their incorporation into its governing structure. The Islamic State (IS) is the result of Sunni discontent from its removal from economic levers of the administration, which happened as a result of the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime and the usurpation of power in Iraq of Shiites and Kurds. All the while giving the process an appropriate religious-ideological form.
The “movement” of 9000 fighters to Syria is doubtful, it is the available contingent in Iraq. The taking of Deir ez-Zor or Palmyra by them does not have any military or economic effect. Oil and fuel, which are produced in Deir ez-Zor in half-destroyed refineries, is already sent to Iraq and to the central regions of Syria. In Iraq itself IS lost the control of oilfields. The Iraqi Sunnis will not do a risky march, in order to “discredit the Russian Aerospace Forces”, exposing the rear in Iraq. The role of the USA in this process is to work through Sunnis in the Iraqi army and Saudi emissaries with the goal of “liberating Mosul”, which is needed and leaving a new administration as proof that the “USA defeated IS”. There is no talk about the actions of Iraqi members of IS against Russia and Syria: the Americans have no levers of influence or additional funds.
From a military point of view the assault that the Americans practiced, did not work out. The launching airport at the former Iraqi Air Force base near Mosul is not yet refurbished, the Kurds in Mosul do not want to leave and the Iraqi army simply will not fight. The Pentagon did not succeed by the end of the year to take Mosul, although Obama allowed the deployment to Iraq of another five thousand Special Forces troops. Because of this it became necessary to use tribal diplomacy, which obviously was generously paid. The mention of Saudi intelligence is logical given the attempts of the KSA lately to actively influence the Sunni community of Iraq.
Intercession is possible here only through one channel, through the new KSA ambassador in Iraq. He is from the Samarra tribe, native of the KSA and Iraq. The ambassador immediately began to establish contacts with the tribe. The Saudi motives, which the Qatari experiment with the IS was a threat, is clear. They decide the strategic question of maintaining the Sunni nucleus as a counteraction to Shiite Bagdad and the influence of Tehran in Iraq.
Saudi influence is practically non-existent in the IS. Qataris and Turks, without declaring it publicly, distanced themselves from the IS, which is correctly tactical and strategic. Maintaining the Sunni fighting potential in Iraq for the KSA will be a Pyrrhic victory, the Iraqi Sunnis, under whichever name did not fight, remembering well the role Riyadh played in the defeat in Saddam’s Iraq…
Yemeni Exchange of Fire
A situation is developing in Yemen, where the KSA plays a leading role in the “Arabian coalition”, fighting with the Northerners-Houthis and supporters of the ex-president A. Saleh. On the Yemeni coast on October 10 and 12, a destroyer of the US Navy was bombarded. The Houthis (supporters of the “Ansar Allah” movement) deny their involvement in the bombardment. A military source stated this event to the SABA news agency. The destroyer “Mason” answered with a “defensive volley”. Three radar stations in Yemen were destroyed.
The attacks were carried out with anti-ship missiles (ASM) S-802 of Chinese production, upgraded in Iran. It appears that the Iranians tested a trial batch of the ASMs in combat situations on targets with powerful protection. This exercise was likely to determine the calculation for protecting the shots and performance. Moreover the same ship was bombarded twice. It is obvious that the initiators of the volleys were studying the functioning of the defence systems of ships escorting the aviation. Despite all the denials, the Americans talk about the participation of the Houthis in the shooting, basing, obviously, on material intercepted through radio transmissions.
One of the main conditions of the American plan on the pacification of Yemen is the rejection of combat action in Sana’a and the governorate of Saad, where live Zaidis and Houthis. Washington believes that they must agree to a voluntary withdrawal of their forces from the capital on the terms of incorporation into the government. This is not organised by Riyadh, who does not want to acquire a Shiite enclave in its backyard with a strong Iranian influence. The elimination of Sana’a’s mayor, which, according to American convictions, was the result of an air strike at a funeral ceremony the week before, was a strike against American plans, as he was named their mediator who was supposed to secure the surrender of heavy weaponry from the Houthis.
On October 12 a limited contingent of Saudi forces, through the governorate of Al-Jawf, entered the governorate of Saad. The Saudi military personnel do not want to risk entering deeply into Saad and the analysts conclude that it was a demonstrative response by the KSA on the numerous raids by the Houthis in Najran and missile bombardments of the Saudi territory. This is a blow to the American initiative that violated the Saudi integrity. At the same time there is exploration for the use by the Saudis of a foothold in Al-Jawf to expand the offensive towards Saad and Sana’a.
The bombing episodes of the destroyer “Mason” in the White House was regarded as attempts to draw in the USA into military action in Yemen against the Houthis. Formally Washington supports the actions of the coalition led by the KSA. But envoys from Houthis and the ex-president A. Saleh are often hosted there. From 2015, the USA froze consulting and military-technical support to the Saudis in military operations in Yemen. With the number of casualties among the civilian population as a result of the latest KSA Air Force strikes and the harsh anti-Saudi position of the American Congress, to talk about its renewal in the medium term will not occur.
The main objective of American interests in Yemen is still “Al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP), against who work their ground troops and the UAV squadron, based in Hadhramaut. According to the statement from the Director of CIA John Brennan, Saudi intelligence actively uses AQAP groups for its goals. This demands from the Americans a careful position in their actions against the Houthis, who do not sympathise with the Islamist-Salafis. The US is unlikely to start active operations against the Houthis. It is possible to destroy a few radar stations or a battery of missiles, but not more. The use of ground troops is fraught with losses for them. It is better to be neutral, not associating themselves with one or another opposing force.
The complicated Saudi-Omani relations were the centre of attention at the October 3 meeting of the representative of the member countries of the Council Cooperation of Arab States of the Persian Gulf (GCC) in Sohar (Oman). This meeting, presided by the representative of Kuwait, was used by Riyadh to emphasis the “wrong politics” of Muscat. The Kuwaitis were planning to lower the tension and improve the Saudi-Omani relations but this attempt was not successful because of the aggressive behaviour of the representative of the king of the KSA, hitting Oman with critiques.
The main charges, the Saudis put forward against the “insufficient” efforts of Muscat in the struggle against weapons smuggling on the border with Yemen. We will note that in Dohar, whom are talked about, the ability of the Omani security forces to control the border is nominal. This is due to Muscat’s policies on decentralisation of this once rebellious region and the provision of actual autonomy.
Traditional weapons smuggling on this path is a source of revenue for the local tribal leadership, quarrelling with them is not what the Omani leadership wants. In the civil war in Dhofar camps of local partisans were in South Yemen, from where flowed the help in weapons and volunteers, so the channels of contraband are well developed. The end of the civil was in Dhofar in its time became possible after the informal consent of Muscat for broad autonomy of the region and the incorporation of the local tribal leadership in the executive authority in the sultanate at all levels.
A few days before the mini-summit of those loyal to Riyadh parts of the people’s militia of Yemen caught six trucks with weapons, arriving in the country from the Omani governorate Salalah. Tactical surface-to-surface missiles of medium range produced in Iran were discovered In the middle of the load. Such missiles recently struck the positions of the “Arabian Coalition” forces in Northern Yemen, killing dozens of Saudi soldiers. It is true that the Houthis then announced that this new missile is of Yemeni production. These are the same missiles the Houthis regularly strike KSA ground forces with and shell the headquarters of the Coalition in Khamis Mushayt.
At the mini-summit in Oman the representative of the KSA disclosed information on the transport of weapons from Oman into Yemen. According to his data, the Omani territory is used not only for delivery of Iranian weapons through the airport in Salalah and the islands in the Indian Ocean, but also for the storage with further transportation to Yemen. The heir to the Crown Prince and Minister of Defence of the KSA Mohammad bin Salman asked the Emir of Kuwait to exert pressure on Sultan Qaboos, the result of which was the meeting in Oman of the member countries of the GCC.
Bin Salman’s treatment of Sultan Qaboos is based on the analysis of the situation conducted by the Saudi Special Forces. As suggested by the Directorate of General Intelligence (DGI) of the KSA, Sultan Qaboos does not know about Iranian shipments of weapons through Dohar, and the head of the Omani Intelligence Services and Security M. Al-Nooman carries out the operations. The DGI of the Saudi kingdom believes that the Omani Special Forces are “clogged” with Shiite and pro-Iranian elements and it cannot be trusted. The exchange of information in the special services between governments has not existed for a long time, which reflects negatively on the work of the centre on coordination of activities of law enforcement of the member countries of the GCC.
With the same success the Saudi Special Forces could stop and control this with the help of British MI5, since their operatives sit in the Omani intelligence headquarters and, without a doubt, are up to date on transportation operations of Iranian weapons. According to experts of the Middle East Institute, Sultan Qaboos, regardless of the state of his health, is aware of the situation in the region. The head of the Omani Special Services is a member of his inner circle and does nothing without his approval. The more so, such operations as transportation of weapons, which, it seems, Tehran pays very well for.
The cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran maintains for Muskat the role of unofficial facilitator between the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and Iran, which Muscat will not give up, as well as allows the support of trustworthy relations with the Houthis and with authoritative people in South Yemen, who traditionally carry out this business. It is noteworthy that Muskat does not succumb to Riyadh’s pressure, which shows that Saudi Arabia’s grip in the region is weakening amidst economic turmoil and the struggle for power within the ruling elite of the KSA.
Cairo’s vote at the UN Security Council for a different meaning of the resolution regarding Aleppo, proposed by France and Russia, clearly angered Riyadh. The Minister of Finance of the KSA threatened his Egyptian colleagues of freezing the support of the Egyptian pound and cut oil export on preferential prices through the Saudi company Aramco. It is thanks to the help of the KSA that the Egyptians keep the rate of the pound and avoid serious devaluation. For import-oriented Egypt this matter is key. Attempts to get a credit line at the IMF or the World Bank come with requirements of fiscal tightening, including reducing subsidies in the purchase of food.
The issue of food security for Egypt is very urgent. The scandal in relations with Moscow, tied with the refusal of purchasing Russian grain because of violations of sanitary norms, in reality, meant that the Treasury needed money. The Egyptians for the same motives refused to buy wheat from the Ukraine, selling at dumping prices. So the Saudi threat is the more real, especially if we remember the recent Saudi refusal to lend three billion dollars to Beirut for the modernisation of the Lebanese army because of its vague position in relation to the burning of the KSA embassy in Tehran.
As far as can be judged, the reduction in budget financing of Egypt from Saudi Arabia’s side happened at the beginning of summer. The grain crisis indicates it as much. Meanwhile Cairo managed to complete a deal to buy the French helicopter carrier “Mistral”. So talks go on about the sequestration of help to Egypt and not a full freeze. Most likely the project and plans of the KSA to invest in the construction of infrastructure project in the Sinai will stay, which must secure the employment of the local population and lower the social tension.
Riyadh so far is not overstrained but starts to experience serious financial discomfort. The delays in paying foreign employees of the “bin Laden” group, who after protests were forced to pay from the KSA budget, is unprecedented and a very alarming signal. Another more telling change of the KSA’s position is the question of freezing oil production within OPEC without regard to Iran’s position. The impression is that the Saudi economy is starting to struggle against expensive military campaigns in Syria and Yemen that Riyadh hides.
With respect with Egypt the Saudi tactic started to change on a number of foreign policy points. It was clear initially that the alliance of the two countries is temporary and the support of the Egyptian military of Riyadh is tied with the regional struggle of influence in the Muslim world with Doha, which uses the Muslim Brotherhood. The KSA considers them the main threat after Iran, but that does not prevent the Saudis of supporting the Wahhabi jihadist groups in Syria. The Egyptian regime is secular and does not welcome any Islamists; consequently it is on the side of Damascus. Cairo does not care who will oppose Assad, whether it is al-Sisi, the Wahhabis or the “Brothers”. Herein lies a deep contradiction between Egypt and Saudi Arabia that sooner or later will shatter the alliance.
We are not talking about ambitions in the relations of regional leaderships, which is present in Riyadh and Cairo. The monarchy has accumulated a few pretensions over Egypt, starting with Libya, where the Egyptians conduct a clearly different policy from the Saudis, and finishing with the passive participation of the Egyptian military in the Yemeni campaign. In this regard Cairo increasingly drifts into Abu Dhabi’s orbit, with which it has many similar concerns, foremost in common with the UAE the unpleasantness of the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the region.
The KSA is going for a compromise with Turkey and Qatar on the question of tolerance on the future of the Brotherhood in the political life of Syria. Moreover, Riyadh is trying to reach an agreement with the Yemeni branch of the Brotherhood represented by the party “Islah” on the start of active military actions against the Houthis, which for Egypt, who is participating in operations in Yemen on the side of the KSA, is a poor incentive to continue the military campaign. These contradictions between the UAE and Saudi Arabia are starting to become obvious. They are stimulated by the deficit of free financial means in the KSA. Most likely a real crisis in the relations with the UAE can be expected in the medium term.
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute