Tag: saudi arabia

ISIS and Saudi Sectarianism

This morning, a car bomb exploded outside a mosque in Saudi Arabia, the second such attack in a week. The attacks, which have killed at least 25 people, were aimed at the minority Saudi Shi’a community. In doing so, ISIS is expertly capitalizing on Saudi Arabia’s internal sectarian divide, which is worsened not only by domestic repression, but by the propaganda supporting Saudi Arabia’s activist foreign policy in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Saudi rulers should remember that sectarianism, though convenient for political purposes, also carries substantial risk.

In an interview shortly before the recent Camp David summit, President Obama committed the faux-pas of pointing out the internal problems faced by many of the GCC states. He noted that these states contain “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances… The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”

He’s not wrong. Saudi Arabia is well-known as one of the world’s most repressive states, with little political representation and no rights for women or minorities. Further, oil prices remain low, and while the Saudi state has massive cash reserves, the rise of shale oil has diminished its role as the world’s main oil producer. Saudi Arabia also has a growing youth population, with 51% of the population under the age of twenty five.

This is itself less concerning than the inability of the oil-dependent Saudi state to provide stable employment opportunities; the unemployment rate for those between fifteen and twenty-five years of age is at least 30%. It is no wonder that many of the unemployed youth of Saudi Arabia are attracted by movements like ISIS. Indeed, by some estimates, more than 2,500 of the foreign fighters in Syria come from Saudi Arabia. The newest iteration of this threat is seen in attacks like those of the last week, as young men susceptible to ISIS avoid travel to Syria, and instead carry out attacks inside Saudi borders.

Yet the ISIS attacks also highlight the pernicious influence of state-supported sectarianism. The bombers astutely aimed the bombings not at Sunnis, but at the state’s minority Shi’a population. While targeting Sunnis would likely have increased resolve among Saudi citizens, targeting Shi’a mosques instead served to cast worshippers as heretics, highlighting domestic sectarian tensions.

The attacks remind Saudi Shi’ites that their own government uses sectarian messaging on state TV, and has close ties to clerics which rail against Shi’a heretics. Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia don’t even enjoy the same minimal political rights that their Sunni compatriots do, and the state has repeatedly cracked down on calls for increased representation.

These tensions are being further inflamed by the war in Yemen, which is being presented by Saudi state TV as a crusade against Houthi Shi’ites. The same applies to the state’s newly activist foreign policy, which is portrayed broadly as a challenge to Iranian and Shi’a interests across the region. The high civilian death toll in Yemen – as many as 2,000 people – and the reticence of the Saudi government to seek a political settlement with the Houthis also contributes.

In short, the ISIS attacks targeted a potential cause of instability within the Saudi state, requiring Saudi rulers to strike a delicate balancing act. They must show support for the attacked communities, while avoiding upsetting the hardline Sunni clerics which support the royal family. Balancing these factors while continuing to use sectarian language to justify the state’s wars in Yemen and elsewhere may prove impossible.

As the Arab Spring illustrated, even states which appear relatively stable can suffer from instability and chaos. It also showed that once the Pandora’s Box of sectarianism has been opened, it is extremely difficult to shut. As ISIS attacks within Saudi Arabia seek to increase tensions between Sunni and Shi’a populations, this is a lesson Saudi Arabia’s rulers would be wise to bear in mind.  

Operation Decisive Failure

A front page story in today’s Washington Post highlights that the failure of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen is already becoming apparent:

Two weeks into a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, airstrikes appear to have accelerated the country’s fragmentation into warring tribes and militias while doing little to accomplish the goal of returning the ousted Yemeni president to power, analysts and residents say.

Foreign Policy makes similar points:

Through its backing of Saudi Arabia—with bombs, intelligence, refueling, and search-and-rescue capabilities—and Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen, the United States is effectively at war with the impoverished land that occupies the southwestern heel of the Arabian Peninsula. That war is going spectacularly badly.

None of this should be surprising. Yemen’s history is replete with tribal conflict and failed invasions, as I highlighted yesterday in the New York Times. Yemeni insurgencies have defeated the British, the Egyptians, and the Saudis in the last 50 years alone.

Confused about the Middle East? So Is the United States

Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries have fallen into political chaos like dominoes. This week’s explosion of conflict in Yemen is just the most recent example. Though many of these conflicts are based on local grievances, they are being exacerbated by the involvement of the region’s larger states, and by the United States.

America’s leaders denounce intervention by unfriendly states like Iran. Yet the United States ignores or even enables such actions by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In doing so, America is simply contributing to the mess in the Middle East. Washington should back off and refuse to get more deeply involved in further Middle Eastern conflicts.

Yemen’s conflict is nothing new; the Houthi rebels have been active in Yemen for more than a decade, and captured the capital in January, forcing President Hadi to flee south. This week, as the rebels finally reached the southern city of Aden, Hadi fled, and apparently appealed to Saudi Arabia for help in combatting the Iranian-backed insurgency.

Yesterday evening, that help arrived in the form of a massive Saudi air campaign and a reported 150,000 troops. The Saudi efforts are supported by a number of other GCC and Arab states, as well as U.S. logistical and intelligence support.

But like everything in the Middle East today, this conflict isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The Houthis are indeed aligned with Iran, and probably receive monetary support. But they also represent a sizeable fraction of the Yemeni population, and many of their policies – such as opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen – are widely popular. Even more confusing, the Houthis are also adamantly opposed to Al Qaeda, and have spent substantial time and resources fighting AQAP fighters inside Yemen.

This conflict fits with a broader pattern of post-Arab Spring clashes in the Middle East, conflicts which are complex and local in nature, but which are treated as simply proxy wars or sectarian conflicts. The fear that Iran might make gains in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere drives Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to respond militarily, increasing tensions and conflict.

The U.S. response to this complex reality has been to reflexively back traditional U.S. allies. But in doing so, American policy has become confused, contradictory and overleveraged. We’re working towards similar goals as Iran inside Iraq, opposing them in Syria and Yemen, all while trying to reach a nuclear deal before the March 31st deadline. How this mess of policy contradictions is supposed to produce viable results is anybody’s guess.

Yemen has a long history of instability, and any military solution to the crisis will likely fail to produce a long-term solution; it will just paper over the problem. It’s not even clear whether the reinstallation of the Hadi government would be best for U.S. interests: though a Houthi government is unlikely to allow U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda, they might prove more effective at fighting the group than the government has.

America should stop reflexively backing traditional U.S. allies in the region, and refrain from deeper involvement in these conflicts. Instead, we should think more clearly about when (and whether) the United States should be involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and about how such actions fit our overall strategic goals. Because one thing is certain: further U.S. intervention in the Middle East would be an exceedingly bad choice.   

Yemen’s Chronic Instability

The last few days have brought dramatic news from Yemen: rebels occupied the presidential palace, initially forcing constitutional concessions and then the resignation of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. The president was, at least nominally, a U.S. ally, cooperating with U.S. forces on drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).

Yemen itself had even been hailed as one of the few successes of the Arab Spring, with a negotiated transition resulting in steps toward democracy. But such an interpretation glosses over Yemen’s long history of instability, as well as intervention by foreign powers. The current conflict is not only a popular uprising, it’s a proxy war, one that has been worsened by U.S. policy in Yemen.

Yemen has experienced chronic instability throughout its history, in large part because of interference from Saudi Arabia, which has long been worried about Yemeni influence. The first Saudi king, Abdulaziz, is reputed to have called his senior sons to his deathbed, admonishing them to “keep Yemen weak.” The Kingdom has at various times provided funds not only to the Yemeni government, but also to various opposing tribal leaders.

The most recent iteration of Yemeni instability is a decade-long civil conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, Sunni militias, and a Zaidi Shi’a militia group known as the Houthis. This latter is also known as the Shabaab al-Marmineen (or the Believing Youth), and is believed to receive large quantities of funding and arms from Iran (and formerly Syria). The insurgency has spanned a decade, with only sporadic ceasefires, resulting in widespread death and displacement. The Houthis even initiated cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2009, which led to a large-scale Saudi invasion of Northern Yemen.

The Houthis were also heavily involved in the 2011 protests against Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, although they rejected the Saudi-negotiated transfer of power to then–Vice President Hadi. Since late last year, the Houthis have controlled large parts of the capital Sanaa, although power has remained nominally vested in the hands of the Hadi government.

The crisis in Yemen is thus not only a civil conflict, but also a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this, it is similar to the early Syrian civil war, which was initially driven by Saudi support for rebel groups and Iranian support for the Assad regime. While the situation in Yemen is unlikely to deteriorate in this way, it is worth focusing on the fact that many conflicts in the Middle East are actually driven by larger regional actors, some of them U.S. allies.

U.S. involvement in Yemen has also helped to worsen this crisis. The Hadi government’s support for U.S. drone strikes against AQAP contrasts strongly with Yemeni popular opinion, which has been widely outraged by the killing of innocents. Such unfortunate killings are driven by U.S. reliance on Yemeni targeting data: Yemeni leaders have a tendency to present political rivals as terrorists in order to engineer their demise. These deaths have driven growing anger at the Hadi government.

Ironically, the Houthi fighters are themselves strongly opposed to AQAP and actively engage in combat against the group. There is even evidence that the United States has cooperated with the Houthis on targeting AQAP.

The situation in Yemen remains fluid. The country appears to have no leader, and it is unclear whether the Houthi occupation of the capital constitutes a coup or not. But in either case, the United States should stay out of the conflict, evacuating the embassy if Sanaa becomes too dangerous. The crisis in Yemen is typical of the country’s long-running instability, and the pressures it faces from regional powers. U.S. involvement won’t help.

Falling Oil Prices Put Producers Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Over the last few months, the price of Brent crude oil lost over 20% of its value, dropping below $90 just yesterday and hitting its lowest level in over two years. In consequence, oil producers will no longer be able to rely on oil revenues to pay their bills. The fiscal break-even price – a metric that determines the price per barrel of oil required for a nation to balance its budget at current levels of production – puts the problem into perspective.

Using data from Bloomberg and Deutsche Bank, I prepared a chart showing the break-even prices for the world’s major oil producers and the price on Brent crude. Over the past six months, Brent crude fell far below the break-even price for eleven of the top oil producers in the world; Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, and even Saudi Arabia can no longer finance their governments’ largess through oil revenues.

The combination of oil markets flying into a perfect storm and excessive government spending puts most of the world’s oil producers between a rock and a hard place, where they will stay for some time.

Remembrances of Prof. M.A. Adelman

As Peter noted, M.A. “Morry” Adelman—a great economist, mentor, and friend—passed away last month at the age of 96. The first paragraph of The New York Times obituary (June 8, 2014) had this to say of Professor Adelman’s passing.

Morris A. Adelman, an energy economist who marshaled free-market principles and hard data in arguing that the world’s oil supply was not running out, died May 8 at his home in Newton, Mass. He was 96. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught and researched for 65 years, announced the death on May 15.

I first had the pleasure of meeting Morry in June of 1967, shortly after I had joined the faculty at the Colorado School of Mines. The Rocky Mountain Petroleum Economics Institute had convened a meeting at Mines; Morry was one of the speakers on a star-studded program. I had been invited to edit a book, Essays in Petroleum Economics, of the conference papers.

As a rookie facing what was, at the time, an array of the most notable petroleum economists in the world (Adelman, Richard Gonzalez, Minor Jameson, John Lichtblau, Milton Lipton, Wallace Lovejoy, Stephen McDonald, James McKie, and Frank Young), I was, to put it mildly, anxious. But, thanks to the likes of Adelman, that problem was quickly put to rest.

Morry knew how to mentor young rookies. He also knew more about the oil industry–even the institutional details–than most of the conference representatives from the industry. He was not only a master of applied economics and detailed, sharp pencil work, but was an economist with a personality–a very sharp wit, very sharp indeed. This wit and his personality come through loud and clear in his writings. So, Morry remains with us, fortunately.

As I reread “Trends in Cost of Finding and Developing Oil and Gas in the U.S.”, which was Adelman’s chapter in Essays in Petroleum Economics, I am struck by just how careful he was to protect his text–a master of rhetoric, too. He paid the most careful and anxious attention to stressing that he was not making predictions, but only presenting short-term projections. As for intermediate projections, beyond 1980, Adelman thought (in 1967) they “only were of minor interest.” And “projections past the year 2000 are funny because it is better to laugh than to weep in the vain presumption of thinking we can see that far ahead.”

That said, Adelman’s chapter does suggest that he had what turned out to be very clear ideas about the possible long-run scenarios:

Nobody can tell what will happen either to energy demand or supply. All we need mention are a decisive breakthrough on: shale oil extraction, or direct finding of conventional crude oil, or coal conversion to liquids, or nuclear power, particularly the fast breeder reactor, or the fuel cell and other methods of energy conversion, not to mention the electric automobile. A major change in any one of these would put altogether new perspectives on developments in oil supply and cost.

Washington Post Defines Worst Fears Down

“Al-Qaeda bombmaker represents CIA’s worst fears.”

That’s the headline of a Washington Post story on Yemeni terrorists’ attempt to down a U.S. bound flight by placing a bomb on the body of an operative that turned out to be a CIA and Saudi agent. By straining to alarm readers about the bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the story makes three errors.

First, by defining the CIA’s “worst fears” as “a highly skilled terrorist determined to attack the United States,” the Post underestimates the imaginative capacity of intelligence officials and overrates Asiri’s prowess. The article uncritically quotes House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King’s claim that “Asiri is an evil genius. He is constantly expanding, he is constantly adjusting.” Whatever King means by “expanding,” “failing” would have been a better choice of words. In just one of the four Asiri plots mentioned in article did his bomb detonate properly. That one killed only its bearer, al-Asiri’s brother. The nearby target, Saudi’s Prince Nayef, suffered only minor wounds.

Second, the article dubiously claims that two of those plots nearly wreaked great damage:

If it were not for a technical problem (Abdulmutallab’s device failed to detonate) or solid intelligence tips (Saudi counterterrorism officials alerted authorities in Dubai and Britain to intercept the cargo planes), Asiri would have succeeded in staging a catastrophic disaster in American skies.

It is, however, questionable whether Abdulmutallab’s bomb, had it properly detonated, was powerful enough to cause his plane to crash. Even if it opened a hole, the plane might not have crashed.

In the second case, where bombs were hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes, authorities tell us the detonators probably would have worked and could have downed the planes. But there remains a decent chance that detonation would have occurred while the planes were on the ground. Also, one reason that the devices made it on to cargo planes without detection is that they contain few people and thus justify less security. The death of a crew would have been tragic, of course, but “catastrophic disaster” is a stretch.

The likely success of terrorist plots can’t be assessed simply by looking at the stage of the plot that caused its failure. As Jim Harper argues, plots require success in a series of tasks, each of which drives down the odds of overall success. Bombs that are both difficult to detect and easy to detonate are tough to make, and competent bombers are hard to find. Borders have guards. Intelligence services employ double agents.

The article’s third error is its assertion that the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda has “taken advantage of Yemen’s political turmoil and seized large swaths of territory in the south.” That language conflates the terrorist group with a broader insurgency, confuses their goals, and overstates the group’s potency. The misperception invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.

Let’s review the record of the bombmaker who is labeled our “worst fear.” His organization has made no discernible progress towards its murky political objectives—though its Islamist protectors have gained territory amid a power vacuum. He has never produced mass violence nor apparently come close, and his most successful act of terrorism was to help his brother blow himself up. His next best effort resulted in a severe crotch burn for the bomber, who survived, talked to U.S. authorities for months, and is serving a life sentence.

That is “success” only under an exceedingly capacious definition. Bin Laden and his acolytes are being grandiose when they talk about bankrupting us. But their boasts show that “terrorism” remains a good label for their misbegotten efforts. They sustain their endeavors by imagining that violence, by generating fear and cost, will cause their enemy to fold and to accommodate their goals. By hyping their menace, we help them cling to that fantasy.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.