Week of November 10, 2017

The Saudi Crisis as Seen From America

Although there is a major crisis brewing in Saudi Arabia and the whole region, it is hardly registering in America and amongst its voters. Even “news literate” voters are unaware of the events in Saudi Arabia and the repercussions in Lebanon and elsewhere.

If Americans are focused on anything, they are looking at Trump and his major trip to Asia. They are also focused on North Korea and the three aircraft carrier task forces around that nation.

Domestically, there is the usual fuss about a mass shooting in a church in Texas and gun control.

The Middle East isn’t registering now that ISIS is being defeated on the battlefield. In fact, the major Middle Eastern concern for Americans is if someone inspired by ISIS will carry out a suicide attack.

The average American is unaware and unconcerned so far…

This will impact America’s response to the events as politicians will be unwilling to address the issue. It will be then being left up to the Washington bureaucracy and the Trump Administration to decide policy – something that they will be unable to do as they disagree on what steps to take.

The Trump Administration is focused on the total defeat of ISIS and curtailing Iranian influence in the region and their alleged development of a nuclear bomb. Although the US and Saudis have been on differing sides in the past few years, it appears that Trump and Saudi King Salman (or more accurately Crown Prince MBS) are in agreement now.

Under Crown Prince MBS, Saudi Arabia has become a more active regional power – moving from using its financial power to attempts of employing its military muscle.

Although Trump likes this Saudi policy, it finds little support amongst parts of the Washington bureaucracy. Former Crown Prince Nayef was close to the Washington bureaucracy and extremely popular in the CIA and other counter terrorism agencies due to his anti-terrorism activities. His arrest earlier this year angered the CIA and quite a few factions of the House of Saud – as it was interpreted as Crown Prince MBS forcing his hand in the power struggle.

According to a source speaking to the Asia Times, “he [Crown Prince] might have gotten away with the arrest of CIA favorite Mohammed bin Nayef if he smoothed it over but MBS has now crossed the Rubicon though he is no Caesar. The CIA regards him as totally worthless.”

But, Crown Prince MBS also has other key support in the US. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman wrote, “I spent an evening with Mohammed bin Salman at his office, and he wore me out. With staccato energy bursts, he laid out in detail his plans. His main projects are an online government dashboard that will transparently display the goals of each ministry, with monthly KPIs – key performance indicators – for which each minister will be held accountable. His idea is to get the whole country engaged in government performance. Ministers tell you: Since Mohammed arrived, big decisions that took two years to make now happen in two weeks.”

However, the Washington foreign policy and anti-terrorism bureaucracy will respond by saying that the German intelligence agency, the BND, issued a candid one-and-a-half-page memo in December 2015 portraying the Crown Prince as a reckless gambler with too much power. It stated that financial circles in the European Union are afraid that his geopolitical gambles may end up spending millions of retirement accounts into the dust.

This difference in opinions means that American policy towards Saudi Arabia will be somewhat schizophrenic. President Trump will likely continue his support of the King and Crown Prince, while the bureaucracy in Washington and at the US Embassy in Riyadh, may be reluctant or slow to follow such approach.


Is a Coup Possible?

Some observers maintain that a coup was already attempted. Caught up in the purge was Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the last of the late King Abdullah’s sons to hold a position of real power. Until last weekend, he was head of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard, which accounts for about one third of the country’s military manpower (and less than that in terms of equipment). Obviously, a rumored coup attempt would have led to Prince Miteb’s ouster.

But, it’s important to remember that the rest of the military answers directly Crown Prince MBS.

With dozens of influential Saudi princes, ministers and billionaires “imprisoned” in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, a coup staged by dissatisfied factions of the Saudi Royal family is a distinct possibility at some time in the future.

However, successful coups aren’t easy.  A Saudi backed military coup was staged against the regime of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani with no success.

There are two factors standing in the way of a potential coup in Saudi Arabia. The first is King Salman. The second is who controls the military (Saudi Army and the Saudi National Guard).

There are three major royal family groups aligning against the Crown Prince: the family of former King Abdullah, the family of former King Fahd, and the family of former Crown Prince Nayef. However, King Salman is well regarded and is a unifying factor.

If the King were to die, or withdraw his support for his son, or otherwise become incapacitated (by whatever means), Crown Prince MBS might be facing some political isolation, which is why there are rumors that the King will try to avoid this by passing all his powers to the Crown Prince in the near future.

If the Crown Prince is politically isolated in a post-King Salmon period, then there is likely to be an attempt to project some form of power sharing between the Sudairis (without Crown Prince) and the Chamars (the tribe of deceased King Abdullah). Some of the power would probably then be entrusted to the other Prince Mohammed Nayef and Prince Miteb or their supporters.

The result would probably be relatively bloodless.

The problem is if the King remains in power and continues to support his son. Then military action if to take place, a bloodbath may occur.

Rumors have been swirling for months about a coup against Crown Prince in the making and the arrests of major figures in the Saudi military and National Guard is seen as an attempt by the Crown Prince to counter a coup attempt.

However, that hasn’t quieted unrest in the military and National Guard. One unknown person said that Crown Prince would have to arrest the whole Saudi Army to feel secure.

But, for a coup to succeed, it depends not on who doesn’t like the Crown Prince, but where they are located. Riyadh is the key city to control and forces elsewhere, especially near Yemen will not have any impact.

The key unit is The Saudi Arabian Royal Guard Regiment, which is stationed in and around Riyadh. Although part of the Saudi Army, the Royal Guards are tasked with protecting the King and Crown Prince. The Royal Guard Regiment consists of three light infantry battalions. The Royal Guards report directly to the king and maintain a separate communications network from the regular Army in order to prevent their being used against the King in a coup.

The most likely armed forces to oppose Crown Prince are the Saudi National Guard. However, they are half the size of the Saudi regular military and don’t have the same military equipment as the regular army.

Since the National Guard is tasked with stopping a coup, there are some units near Riyadh. They include the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Mechanized Brigade, which controls four battalions as well as the 1st Artillery Battalion and Prince Saad Abdulrahman Mechanized Brigade, which controls four combined-armed battalions, and is based in Riyadh.

One problem is that the National Guard doesn’t have any tanks – just lighter armored fighting vehicles. If this is a case of a coup backed by the National Guard, with the Saudi armed forces backing the King, the better equipped Saudi armed forces should prevail, unless there is active, widespread refusal to obey the King and his commanders.

Another factor could be the UAE and its close relationship with the “Blackwater” mercenaries. Given the UAE’s close relationship with Crown Prince MBS, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that trained mercenaries could be moved into Riyadh to protect the King and Crown Prince.

Even if the coup backers have military forces to support them, the King and Crown Prince hold the key targets in Riyadh with loyal forces. They are also at a heightened state of alert against a coup. They also control the military communications system and have greater firepower to bring to bear if fighting continues around the capital and other loyal army units head to Riyadh.

Coup supporters have no unified command structure and will have to rely upon coup units acting according to a plan. They will also have to rely upon their forces actually carrying out attacks on critical installations like the Royal Palace. However, the history of coups shows that military units are loath to carry out such attacks unless they are assured of eventual victory. Any hitch in the plans usually means some coup commanders will hesitate, refuse to attack, or try to leave the country to save their own skin.

If Crown Prince MBS does become king, he will be a dramatic change from the Saudi kings who have usually been very old and in poor health. He could rule for decades, which means that those who oppose him may have a better opportunity to challenge him or overthrow him at a later date.

Given Crown Prince aggressive foreign policy, military operations, and spending, there may be a better time, when there is greater unrest to challenge him.

In other words, just because MBS gains the crown doesn’t mean that he will continue to keep it easily as it looks currently.