It must be exciting to wake up on a gilded bed somewhere in Riyadh and realize that you are Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, mover and shaker of Middle East order. Actually, exciting just to have woken up at all. Perhaps Prince MBS checks to make sure that there aren’t seventy-two virgins in the room before he rises to prayers, state business, and the prospect of World War Three.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has been a giant gasoline bomb waiting to explode for decades. It occupies one of the geographically least hospitable corners of the earth. Its existence as a modern (cough cough) state relies strictly on the reserves of oil discovered as recently as the late 1930s, that is, within the lifetime of people still reading this blog. The oil supply is in steep decline, and so, of course, is the stability of the kingdom.
Politically, it’s a super-medieval operation, an absolute monarchy tied to a severe religious order with the law floating precariously between the two, and old-fashioned customs such as the public beheading of criminals (for misdeeds such as “adultery,” “atheism,” and “sorcery”). The Saud clan has controlled the throne all these years, and its grip on power is slipping as the country itself slips into the prospective next era of its history, minus the endless gusher of oil that has made its existence possible — hence, a true existential crisis without the usual pseudo-intellectual bullshit.
How are they going to support the thirty or forty million people who will still be there when the oil exports dribble down? Most of the work done in the country is performed by foreign “guests.” The indigenous folk don’t even remember how to milk a camel, let alone run routine maintenance on a desalinization plant. (And what are you going to run the de-sal plant on when the oil runs down?) These are questions that must drive thoughtful Saudi royalty mad.
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Hence, the Kingdom is going mad. The current king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is the latest in a line of geriatric monarchs. His brother and predecessor, Abdullah, spent his last years in a limbo of medical life-support (virgins standing by), and Salman is reputed to be dotty. Crown Prince MBS has assumed more of the king’s duties by necessity, but the land is filled with thousands of other princes, many of them frustrated, angry, and jealous of the Crown Prince’s prerogatives.
One can only imagine the clouds of intrigue wafting through the ornate corridors of wealth and power. Crown Prince MBS is lately out to deprive his many royal rivals of those two critical assets, and a couple of said rival princes — Abdul Aziz bin Fahd and Mansour bin Muqrin — were offed altogether (gunfight, helicopter crash) two weeks back. A score of non-royal public officials and business poobahs have also been arrested, including top ministers (Finance, Economy & Planning), the former CEO of the national airline, and a brother of Osama bin Laden, whose family ran the country’s biggest construction company.
It really amounts to a nascent civil war and it comes around at exactly the moment that the Kingdom’s arch-enemy, Iran, is feeling comfortably aggressive. Iran, formerly known as Persia, is a much sturdier old polity that has been around long before there was much ado about oil. They were fighting the ancient Greeks and Romans back in the day, and won a few rounds. But, of course, Iran has a good deal of oil, too. And having pissed off the Americans not so long ago by overrunning the US embassy and all, our country has been striving to punish them ever since — especially making it difficult for them to sell oil to our “friends” in Europe. As it happens, there are plenty of customers elsewhere for Iran’s oil — and, yes, they will eventually face their own depletion problems, but they do have the world’s largest untapped reserve stash next door in Iraq, which they are steadily and increasingly coming to control. And they do have that millennium-and-a-half beef with Arabia’s Sunni branch of Islam headquartered in KSA.
Crown Prince MBS may see war as a unifying theme for his domestic difficulties. He has a fifty-plus years’ stock of American war toys that have hardly been used — except for turning neighboring Yemen into a landfill. The USA has been KSA’s staunch ally all these years, and MBS has every reason to believe we have his back, as Iran probably believes Russia has its back. And then there is Israel in the background with its nuclear-armed subs… Israel, which actually took seriously Iran’s declaration a few years ago to wipe it off the face of the earth — and which now much of the world castigates Israel for so doing.
And in the middle of all this, poor, feckless, Hezbollah-haunted Lebanon, and the boneyard formerly known as Syria. The region is seriously coming apart. Someone is going to make a dangerous misstep. The Golden Golem of Greatness has been off far away sampling General Tsao’s chicken and Singapore noodles. And this country is completely preoccupied with Sex Among the Stars. Thank goodness the stock market only goes up.
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