Sunday, March 18, 2007

CFR on the Iran / Saudi Struggle for Leadership

This piece from the Council on Foreign Relations outlines the emergence of Iran and Saudi Arabia as the two countries compete for leadership in the region. It includes these remarkable lines...

Sunni Arab fears of a rising Shiite Iran have only strengthened Saudi Arabia’s position. It has also helped lessen the tension Saudis feel toward Israel. With Iran now the “evil empire,” writes Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Israel almost stops being an enemy and perhaps becomes an ally."

They have managed to knock out half a dozen paragraphs without mentioning Syria. Issues are never as easy to simplify as we would like.
There is a Byzantine complexity to international politics. Most Americans don't have a clue. We can carp all we want about the president's shortage in the articulamation department, but this is not a problem as long as he holds on to power. Political power, not bullshit, is what makes the difference in most of the world. Like it or not, the Vice President and the president's advisors know how to play their cards. This snip is from the link above.
We might be witnessing a transition to the ambitious crown prince and long-serving defence minister, Sultan, one of the so-called Sudairi Seven princes (who have been reduced in number to six since the death of King Fahd in 2005). He has the backing of his full brothers (all sons of a mother from the Sudairi tribe, hence the sobriquet) including Interior Minister Prince Nayef and Governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman.

Such a shift in political fortunes might be of limited significance but for the advanced age of the crucial players. King Abdullah is 84 years old this year; Sultan, his putative successor, is 83 years old. (Other published ages are wrong, particularly for Sultan, who has a Zsa Zsa Gabor-like reputation for trimming years.) Both men have ailments reflecting their age -- Sultan successfully battled colon cancer a few years ago. Both probably have only months, rather than years, to live. (If Abdullah survives this year, he will become the longest-living son of the kingdom's founder, Ibn Saud.) What happens after him is a matter of conjecture: a system of succession announced by Abdullah in October 2006 is, as yet, untested. Senior princes will gather to choose in secret. Given his uncertain health, and a reputation for being grossly corrupt, Sultan's accession cannot be assumed. Indeed, he might pre-decease Abdullah.

As the events and probable dramas of the year play out, remember that the real players in the consensus-driven, decision-making of Saudi Arabia are Abdullah, Sultan, Nayef, Salman et al, the sons of Ibn Saud. Not formally educated and not necessarily intelligent, they have, however, acquired the wisdom of statesmanship over the years. (Nayef's wisdom is questionable, which is why he appears to have been sidelined to some extent.) The likes of Turki, Saud and Bandar, despite being so often in the news, are only grandsons of Ibn Saud. Although they each have years of public service, they are really only advisers. (Oil Minister Naimi is merely a technocrat and has zero power.)

In watching Riyadh, remember that Riyadh is also watching Washington DC, apparently disturbed by Democratic advances in Congress and the growing sharpness of the daily political sniping at the Bush White House. The United States and Saudi Arabia have had their problems over recent years, but the current Saudi leadership appears happier with this administration rather than any alternative prospect. Hence the sudden November invitation to Vice President Cheney to visit Riyadh for a tete-a-tete dinner with Abdullah. It was one hell of a long way to go for a meal. But Abdullah wanted to know Cheney's mind and Cheney found the Saudi monarch "on top of his game" on the issues discussed. Given the year's impending crises, and Saudi Arabia's centrality, it was probably vital. Keeping the kingdom away from any temptation to dabble in the quiet support of any al-Qaeda operation, provided the House of Saud itself is not targeted, would also be worthwhile.

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