At last: A little realism on Saudi Arabia
The read of the day is Angelo Codevilla's dose of reality about the nature of our "ally" and "friend" Saudi Arabia, titled "What Is Saudi Arabia to Us?"
Unlike virtually all of the commentary on the killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, Codevilla does not pretend that politics in Saudi Arabia are anything but a matter of life-and-death factional conflict among the roughly 5,000 male members of the royal family, descendants of Ibn Saud, the regime's founder, who seized power with the help of hard-line Wahhabi clerics.
It seems that Saudi Arabia's rulers murdered an opponent. The U.S. media and political class is shocked, shocked, to find that murder is going on in such precincts. Who did they imagine the Muslim world's leaders are?
Moreover, our chattering class demands that President Trump do whatever it takes to make sure that they do nothing like that again. Do what? Does anyone really think that swapping sheik A for sheik B would improve their kind's moral standards? Do they have any idea of what keeps A on top of B, what it would take to switch them, or what the repercussions would be in foreign policy? Are they naifs, idiots, or are they just playing with foreign policy to make life a little harder for Trump? ...
Saudi Arabia's rulers are a subspecies of the desert rats endemic in the region. The ones on the cheese now are of the clan of seven sons out of old king Saud's favorite wife, Suda, and hence are known as Sudaris. The previous ruler, Abdullah was the only son of another wife. When Abdullah's birth-order turn came, in 2005, he took the throne thanks only to having mobilized the national guard of bedouins for war against the national army (and everything else) controlled by the Sudaris. Today, when you read about Mohammed bin Salman's "anti-corruption reforms," you should know that they target primarily Abdullah's son and other relatives. In other words, what is going on, including murder, is a purely dynastic power play. But that is Saudi Arabia's nice side.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (credit: White House).
Sure, it would be nice if the Saudis would adopt democratic values, stop oppressing women, and behave like people we are familiar with. But to pretend such a process is well underway only ensures that any actions we take will be based on a fantasy.
Codevilla's essay is astute and economical in presentation. Read the whole thing.
Then, if you have time and want to get a sense of the sort of analysis that Codevilla mocks, read this very long essay in the Washington Post by David Ignatius. He is far from stupid, and he knows a lot, but he is a prisoner of the assumptions Americans like to make about others – that they are simply waiting to become just like us.
Ignatius adopts the fiction that Jamal Khashoggi was a "journalist" rather than an insider power player in that nation's political intrigue (which means Saudi royal family conflicts). His piece has a lot of detailed information on the factional conflicts preceding Khashoggi's assassination and serves as a valuable supplement to Codevilla. But Ignatius still pretends that somehow the Saudis don't have to be what they are and always have been. He concludes:
The House of Saud rules with a sometimes bloody hand. The United States, as the kingdom's key ally, has an obligation to calm this family feud before it does any more damage to Saudi Arabia and the world.
Holding hands and singing kumbaya ain't going to cut it in Riyadh. I recommend that Ignatius read Raymond Ibrahim's outstanding book Sword and Scimitar, which contains accounts of dynastic succession in the Muslim monarchies of the Middle East, where standard operating procedure for a new monarch on the death of his father was to strangle all his brothers. Yes, it's awful. But it has been happening for a very long time. And it's not going to change quickly, no matter how outraged we pretend to be.