Friday, April 7, 2023

THE MIDDLE EAST IN TRANSITION

 While the Russia/Ukraine war dominates the news there are significant events occurring in other regions and in today's highly integrated world, these events have links to the Ukrainian conflict and to the related and larger power evolutions between Russia, China, and the United States.

For decades the U.S has had a positive relationship with two important though quite different nations in the volatile Middle East. Israel has survived four major conflicts with Arab states and a continuous conflict with Palestinian militias and terrorist groups, all with U.S. assistance. Israel is the only western style  democracy in the region. Its' highly efficient military, superior intelligence apparatus and thriving free market economy, serve as an important counter weight in an often unstable and conflictual neighborhood.  

Since the end of World War II and the rapid exploitation of the enormous crude oil reserves in the area of the Arabian peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been a key player in the politics of the region.  First granted diplomatic recognition by the U.S. in 1940, American oil companies stepped in to develop Saudi Arabia's oil when the Kingdom lacked the technical expertise and investment capital to do it internally.  Since then a mutually beneficial diplomatic, security and economic relationship has been a staple of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia has been supportive during the Cold War years (1947-1991), and the post Iran revolution (1979) establishment of the anti-West Iranian  Islamic Republic. 

In spite of the long history of cooperation, the Kingdom has maintained a level of independence and occasional opposition to U.S. regional policies especially with relation to  U.S. support for Israel.  During the Arab/Israeli "Yom Kippur war" in 1973, U.S. support for Israel resulted in a Saudi led oil embargo on the U.S. which quadrupled oil prices and led President Jimmy Carter to declare that access to international oil markets was a "vital" U.S. security interest and the embargo was tantamount to economic warfare.  This episode, although occurring fifty years ago, is demonstrative of the cautious "fence sitting" need that the Saudi leadership has followed through the years do to its' position in a volatile region of Islamic fundamentalism, and ambitious authoritarian leaders. 

Saudia Arabia is home and "protector" of the two most important of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca, the birthplace of Islam's founder the Prophet Mohammed and the location of the Ka'ba', a small structure purported .to be a mosque built by Abraham, a foundational figure in the history of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The city of Medina, is Mohammed's  burial place.  

As such, although the Kingdom practices and enforces a fundamentalist approach to Islam, called Wahhabism and adherence to Koranic Shariah theocratic law, Saudi Arabia's friendly relationship with the U.S. and European states has created tensions with other fundamentalist Islamic groups in both of Islam's major sects, the Shi'a and Sunni theocracies. Iran, a Shi'a dominated nation, has been particularly hostile to the Saudi government and has been a regional rival since Iran's Islamic revolution. 

U.S. administrations have tried to keep Saudi Arabia and its' huge oil production and reserves out of the Soviet/Russian sphere of influence and protect it as a counter balance to Iran's regional ambitions.  Thus Saudi Arabia has been a major customer of  American made military equipment for many years.

Consequently, the U.S./Saudi relationship has been one of supporting mutual interests while realistically acknowledging and accepting as necessary, differences in culture and perceptions of regional threats and the proper responses to those threats. The diplomatic reality and context of U.S. relations with the Kingdom is that Saudi Arabia is not a constitutional democratic republic.  It is a hereditary, theocratic, autocratic monarchy. 

The U.S. Saudi relationship has suffered since the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign when then Democrat candidate Joe Biden promising to build "the most progressive administration since FDR" engaged in unrehearsed "shoot from the lip" one liners, first promising to "shut down the major American oil and gas companies" as part of his new environmental crusader image with the obvious implied threats to the international fossil fuel industry as whole which represents the majority of the Saudi national income.  Shortly after his election to President,  Biden decided to play the role of leading international critic of the Saudi regime. One issue was the Saudi Arabia's involvement in the civil war in Yemen which borders the Kingdom on the south.  The Saudi Air Force had been flying missions against the Houthi insurgents, a Shi'a client group of Iran trying to overthrow the Yemeni government. The war was devastating to the Yemeni civilian population but instead of assuming a diplomatic role of trying to sponsor negotiations to end the conflict Biden decided to take sides. The fact that the U.S. was supplying the weapons the Saudi Air Force was deploying became an issue for the American political Left which of course ignored the role of the insurgency in the war, or Saudi Arabia's security interests in the conflict on their border. President Biden declared:  "I would like to make it very clear, we are not going to in fact, sell more weapons to them (Saudi Arabia). "I will end the sale of materiel where they are going in and murdering children" 

Biden then decided to return to an incident in which a Saudi journalist who was a critic of the Saudi government was murdered in 2018,  The journalist, Jamal Kashoggi was a Saudi citizen, and political opinion contributor to regional journals and to the Washington Post. Kashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.  Because he had been a critic of the Saudi government it was generally assumed that Saudi officials were behind the murder. It was later reported in the U.S. that CIA officials had confirmed that theory.  For some reason, newly elected President Biden decided to make the incident a political cause celebre' and implied that the de facto head of the Saudi government, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmin had given the order for the assassination.  

The long history of Saudi/American cooperation then took a further plunge when Biden made series of politically arbitrary public statements that seemed not to be the product of any consultation with experienced State Department officials.  

"We are going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are."

"There is very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia."  He then imposed sanctions on high ranking Saudi intelligence officials.

Mohammed bin Salman, at 37 years of age and the Crown Prince and son of the aging King  with essentially absolute powers, will be an important player in the critical Middle East region and in the world for future decades because of Saudi Arabia's dominant role in the OPEC-Plus 13 member oil cartel which produces 37% of the world's oil. President Bidens's extraordinary insults had demonstrated a kind of morally superior attitude and when speaking of the government of Saudi Arabia they were clearly directed at it's leader. Biden, if indeed he knew what he was doing, was speaking to his domestic progressive political core but has struck a serious blow to an eighty-three year cooperative relationship with an important ally. 

Biden quickly was forced to confront reality as oil prices soared with the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Facing political opposition at the price of gasoline at the pump in the U.S. he naively  elected to make several phone calls to bin Salman to ask him to use his influence in OPEC to increase oil production in order to lower prices.  Understandably as the "pariah" and "murderer of children" and "lack of socially redeeming values " the Crown Prince and head of the Saudi government, refused to take the calls.  Biden then made an embarrassing trip "hat in hand" trip to Saudi Arabia in July, 2022 to personally ask for an increase in oil production and was summarily rebuffed.

The damaged relationship with Saudi Arabia has since had wider implications.  Saudi Arabia has not joined in the U.S. led economic sanctions program against Russia nor has it publicly condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.  In March of this year, China brokered a return of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and its' long time foe Iran, giving China another step forward in its' influence in the region, as the U.S. role diminishes.

In April of this year Saudi Arabia led several key members of the OPEC Plus cartel in a surprise announcement to cut oil production in May, 2023, by 1.2 million barrels per day.  The Kingdom and Russia (the Plus in the cartel) will each cut production by half a million barrels per day to raise prices. In addition Saudi Arabia announced an agreement to supply refineries in China with 690 thousand barrels of oil per day.  

But the diplomacy challenged Biden wasn't through reducing the influence of the U.S. in the Middle East.   The new conservative government in Israel, the major ally of the U.S. in the region since its' creation as a state in 1948, announced significant changes in the Israeli judicial system which would give the conservative controlled parliament the Knesset, powers to appoint members of the Supreme Court and even to overrule Court decisions.  Such changes of course would if applied for the U.S. would upset the vital Constitutional "separation of powers" fundamental to U.S. democracy so they were a shocking proposal even in a democratic ally. The proposals did predictably stimulate significant public protests in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has since delayed the planned changes but the issue remains a highly controversial possibility.  

President Biden, who claims to have known Netanyahu for decades, attempted to lecture him publicly about the "threat to democracy" he was imposing.  That of course is true as an independent judiciary is vital to the democratic process to avoid concentration of powers.  But the issue is an internal one and will be settled politically within the Israeli system. In parliamentary systems, Prime Ministers and their cabinets are much more vulnerable to dismissal than in the U.S. presidential system.  They need not be impeached and removed they simply need to lose support of a majority in the parliament and be subject to a vote of lack of "confidence" which would require a resignation or a new election.  That procedure has given Israel five elections in the last four years.  Biden's intervention and public judgements along with his terse statement that Netanyahu would not be invited to the White House in the "near term", did not help Netanyahu and he responded as would be expected by pointing out that Israel is a sovereign nation and governed by its' citizens and not outside nations.  A member of Netanyahu's cabinet made it even clearer when he stated that "Israel was not another star on the American flag."  Still, Biden seems personally offended by how Netanyahu and his far Right coalition government is running their nation.  Part of it might be the members of the government's outright hostility to the Palestinians in the Israeli controlled West Bank and the apparent complete loss of any possible negotiation for a Palestinian State in that territory.  That was President Obama's stated position when Biden was his Vice President and Netanyahu was also then the Prime Minister of Israel.  But with Biden's loss of influence with Saudi Arabia, a similar move by Israel away from the U.S. would be seriously damaging to U.S. interests.  Iran has not diminished its' hatred for the "Great Satan" U.S  and is still pursuing nuclear weapons.  Hamas, the terrorist local government of Gaza has not given up its' goal of "wiping Israel off the map", Hezbollah, the Iranian supported Shi'a terrorist militia which controls Lebanon and is intervening in support of Syria' dictator Assad in that country's civil war, and the remnants of the Islamic State terrorist group all remain major threats to the region.  The U.S needs Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as clearer heads in Washington. Unfortunately, if the current trends in play for the 2024 presidential election hold true and a replay of the 2020 election is in store, clearer heads will be in short supply no matter the outcome. 


 

 



 



 

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