Pro-democracy activism arriving in Saudi Arabia

So this ‘popular movement’ thing is finally making its mark in Saudi Arabia– the only country in the world that is named for one (still-ruling) family.
Today, worldwide oil prices spiked after the markets absorbed news in an Egyptian newspaper yesterday that the Saudi authorities yesterday arrested a Shiite cleric called Tawfic al-Amir, described by the FT’s James Drummond as “a prominent Shia cleric from the east of the Sunni-dominated country.”
The east of the country is where most of its oil reserves are. Bahrain, which has had a resilient, multi-week pro-democracy movement whose participants (both Shiite and Sunni) are challenging the concentration of power in the little country in the hands of a resolutely Sunni, anti-Shia monarch from the Al-Khalifa family, is also, as it happens to the east of Saudi Arabia, and connected to it by a causeway.
The Saudi blogger “Saudi Jeans” had a good roundup post yesterday in which s/he described the latest pro-democracy developments in the country.
Here is how s/he started the blog post:

    I know I said don’t expect what happened in Tunisia and Egypt to happen in Saudi Arabia anytime soon. But I also added that things are happening. In addition to the buzz in social media, the past week has seen the release of several statements and open letters demanding reform…

* * *
I guess I had always assumed that the current pro-democracy (for want of a better term) movement in Yemen was more threatening to the Saudi monarchical elite than that in Bahrain. After all, the rulers of Saudi Arabia (25.4 million) have traditionally– and from an ethical point of view, entirely rightly so– been much more concerned by the gross disparities in economics and living standards between their kingdom and Yemen (population 23.6 million), than they have been concerned about Bahrain (population 776,000) … But I guess this business of “Shiite equality” that is animating the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain touches a very raw nerve in Riyadh…
The Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm yesterday reported that:

    Eyewitnesses have reported seeing an estimated 30 tanks being transported into Bahrain from Saudi Arabia on Monday night at around 6:45pm local time. The tanks were sighted along the King Fahd causeway, which links the small island-nation of Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.
    Commuters traveling along the 25-km causeway were held up due to the presence of “15 tank carriers carrying two tanks each heading towards Bahrain.” Civilian eyewitnesses could not, however, confirm whether the tanks belonged to the Saudi military.

* * *
Saudi Arabia is currently mired in one of the longest-running succession struggles the world has ever known. This just about guarantees that the monarchy’s response to the many challenges that “suddenly” now confront it is almost bound to be hesitant, inept, sloppy, and dangerous for everyone concerned.
The current monarch, King Abdullah, is 87 years old, and not in great physical shape. The designated Crown Prince (and thus immediate successor) is his half brother Prince Sultan, age 82. After Abdullah dies, the “senior princes” of the Al-Saud family are all supposed to come together in something called the “Bayaa 9Allegiance) Council” to come to agreement on who the next “King” will be. Most people think this will be Sultan’s full brother, Prince Nayef, who is a “sprightly” 77 years old.
You may see a pattern emerging here. Basically, ever since the death of the country’s patriarch, King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, in November 1953, the line of succession has been running down through some of the scores of sons sired by that fertile old guy. Throughout his 51-year reign, Abdul-Aziz was using dynastic marriages as a way of winning/cementing the allegiance of disparate tribes to his own royal house. Smart, from one point of view. At the time. But since 1953, that tactic has been a compete deadweight on the ability of the “Saudi” monarchical system to generate and regenerate effective layers of national leaders. Instead, we have had this succession of very competitive brothers and half-brothers, most of them from different mothers, and all hanging onto the perks and privileges of power with an iron grip, whenever they could.
Some of Abdul Aziz’s more competent grandsons are older than many of his sons. I don’t know about the competency of the former King Faisal’s oldest son, Prince Abdullah, but he died in 2007, aged 85. Another of Faisal’s sons, Saud al-Faisal, is a relatively “youthful” 70 years old this year. He’s the world’s longest serving Foreign Minister, and sadly plagued by Parkinson’s and other diseases of old age.
These princes all have access to the most amazing medical and anti-ageing care in the whole world. But that really cannot compensate for the fact of their physical– and in many cases also cognitive– frailty.
Not exactly a sturdy foundation on which to build a pro-American order in the Middle East, I think…. And now, it seems that some of those chickens of increasingly gerontocratic and sclerotic monarchy, easy access to unearned oil wealth, and the virulent anti-Shiite sectarianism of the Saud family’s longtime allies, the Wahhabis, are coming home to roost.
I do feel some sympathy for individual Saudis, including Saudi princes and princesses, who, having been cosseted and pampered from their infancy with the availability of lavishly flowing oil money, the service of indentured and completely rights-less household help and the services of very rights-restricted contracted professional advisers, may have grown up with the idea that they somehow “deserved” all this while Yemeni nationals or those “Godless Shiites” somehow only deserved much less.
But life ain’t like that. All human persons are, it turns out, equal. Maybe it’s time that the Saudi kingdom’s rulers, faced with sudden unexpected challenges from all around, finally figured out how to deal with that?

The return of geography: Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia

I realize I probably haven’t put anything on the blog yet that tells my ever-waiting readership (!) that last week I was in Syria. Well, I was. I went as part of a quiet, non-governmental effort to find ways to improve our country’s currently troubled relations with Syria. More info later, as appropriate.
Anyway, I’ve just finished writing a piece for another publication about Syria’s current diplomatic situation. Y’all will get the link when it is published.
Last night, as I was figuring how to frame the piece, I thought really the most significant thing that has happened for Syria’s situation in recent years was last year’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Along with the excellent rapprochement that Damascus has made with Turkey over the earlier 5-6 years, those two new relationships with significant Middle Eastern powers strengthen Syria’s position considerably, compared with where it was in the dark days of 2003-04 when so many American neocons were confidently predicting that “after Baghdad, Syria will be the next to fall to U.S. power.”
These new relationships also give Syrians a valuable counterweight to the power and influence of Iran. It’s not that anyone in the present Syrian government wants to abandon the ties with Tehran that have been so important to their regime’s survival over the past 30 years. But at least now they can balance those ties with these other new relationships with Turkey and Saudi Arabia…
So this morning, I Googled “Syria Saudi Arabia Turkey” and guess what came up? This fascinating news item from today’s Hurriyet, reporting that,

Continue reading “The return of geography: Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia”

Clumsy US disinfo on Saudi Arabia?

Several people have sent me a copy of this article in today’s London Times, in which journo Hugh Tomlinson breathlessly “reports” that,

    Saudi Arabia has conducted tests to stand down its air defences to enable Israeli jets to make a bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities, The Times can reveal.

It’s crazy. The substance of this is intrinsically non-credible.
So what sources did Tomlinson mention? Two kinds (which might actually be one and the same source?):

    * “a US defence source in the area” and
    * “Sources in Saudi Arabia”

All these source (or all this one source) is/are un-named, and Tomlinson does nothing further to identify them. Naturally.
Just in case anyone might be inclined to take the report seriously, they might want to read this recent piece by the NYT’s David Sanger.
Sanger was trying to figure out what options the Obama administration might be considering the event of the almost-certain “failure” of the latest U.N. sanctions resolution to stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear technology program (routinely described in the western MSM as a nuclear weapons program.)
He writes,

    There is a Plan B — actually, a Plan B, C, and D — parts of which are already unfolding across the Persian Gulf. The administration does not talk about them much, at least publicly, but they include old-style military containment and an operation known informally at the C.I.A. as the Braindrain Project to lure away Iran’s nuclear talent. By all accounts, Mr. Obama has ramped up a Bush-era covert program to undermine Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure, and he has made quiet diplomatic use of Israel’s lurking threat to take military action if diplomacy and pressure fail.

Bingo. But hey, what can you expect from a Rupert Murdoch rag?

Peacemaking with Israel– the Gulf Arab dimension

My latest news analysis for IPS is just out. (Also, here.)
The title the IPS editor gave it was Saudi Arabia May Not Follow Obama’s Plan. Not a bad summary of the main thrust of the text.
I found it interesting and useful, while working on this piece, to catch up with some of the developments in the ‘Gulf Arab states’ dimension of peacemaking.
For example, I went back and gave a closer read to items like the remarks special envoy George Mitchell made when he was in Cairo on July 27 and the op-ed the Bahraini crown prince had in the WaPo on July 16.
In his June 4 speech in Cairo, Obama made some specific– and very preachily worded– requests of the Arab states:

    the Arab states must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state, to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.

It struck me, when writing today’s piece, that he was making two substantive demands of the Arab states there– “to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state, [and] to recognize Israel’s legitimacy”. The day before, he had been in Saudi Arabia meeting the kingdom’s ageing but still apparently very savvy monarch, King Abdullah. So it is fair to assume he most likely gave Abdullah a heads-up on what these demands would be.
The Saudis and their allies in the other (and all much smaller) GCC countries seem since then to have been prepared to cooperate with the first of these requests but quite resistant on the second.
The Bahraini crown prince, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, has been the most responsive of any GCC personality to Obama’s requests/demands. Notable, of course, that it was not the small island state’s King who “authored” the op-ed, but rather, the crown prince.
Shaikh Salman wrote this:

    We must stop the small-minded waiting game in which each side refuses to budge until the other side makes the first move… All sides need to take simultaneous, good-faith action if peace is to have a chance. A real, lasting peace requires comprehensive engagement and reconciliation at the human level. This will happen only if we address and settle the core issues dividing the Arab and the Israeli peoples, the first being the question of Palestine and occupied Arab lands. The fact that this has not yet happened helps to explain why the Jordanian and Egyptian peace accords with Israel are cold. They have not been comprehensive.
    We should move toward real peace now by consulting and educating our people and by reaching out to the Israeli public to highlight the benefits of a genuine peace.
    To be effective, we must acknowledge that, like people everywhere, the average Israeli’s primary window on the world is his or her local and national media. Our job, therefore, is to tell our story more directly to the Israeli people by getting the message out to their media, a message reflecting the hopes of the Arab mainstream that confirms peace as a strategic option and advocates the Arab Peace Initiative as a means to this end. Some conciliatory voices in reply from Israel would help speed the process.
    Some Arabs, simplistically equating communication with normalization, may think we are moving too fast toward normalization. But we all know that dialogue must be enhanced for genuine progress. We all, together, need to take the first crucial step to lay the groundwork to effectively achieve peace. So we must all invest more in communication.

I think this redirection away from Obama’s demand that the Arab states “must” move speedily towards giving the Israeli government “recognition of its legitimacy,” to a focus on urging his fellow Arabs to do more to address the Israeli “public” and their “media” directly is significant, and quite helpful. (Though how Salman expected to bring other Arabs around to his point of view by deriding their viewpoint as “simplistic”, I have no idea… The text in general looks as though it was written by a second-rate Washington PR firm.)
Recognition of the State of Israel as such is an act of state that– along with a bunch of other things– the Arab states have all promised to Israel as part of, or in the wake of, Israel’s conclusion of final peace agreements with all their neighbors. Why should anyone expect them to give it away now?
Anyway, a few more observations on this general topic:

    1. The formulation Mitchell gave in Cairo on July 27 on (a) the need for a “comprehensive” peace, (b) how he defines this comprehensive peace; and (c) how and when he considers it’s realistic to get the Arab states to undertake “confidence-building measures” was significant and important. I don’t think it got anything like sufficient attention at the time… And I can’t even find the text of that on either the State Department or the White House website.
    2. Of course, as I’ve written before, it riles the heck out of many Americans, including AIPAC, that the balance of power/interests between the US and Saudi Arabia– as well as between Washington and several other Gulf states– is such that Washington can never simply “tell” these states what to do, in the same imperialistic way it often tries to tell the big aid recipients like Egypt or Jordan what to do. (Oh, Israel is also a big aid recipient. Couldn’t we tell them what to do, also??) Regarding Saudi Arabia, the US is pathetically dependent on the Al-Saud to keep the oil spigots open and to recycle as much of their petrodollars as possible into propping up the chronically troubled US arms industries… In the case of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, those states are all now vital nodes in the US military’s basing plans in the military campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan– as well as significant oil exporters. Okay, so there is a sort of co-dependence between many of these governments and Washington. But that is still a far cry from the deep dependence that the Mubarak regime or Jordan’s Hashemites have on Washington.
    3. Regarding AIPAC’s recent campaign to gather senatorial signatures on the “Bayh-Risch” letter that urges Obama to “press” the Arab states to consider making “dramatic” confidence-building gestures towards Israel, it strikes me it is really a rather pro-forma effort on AIPAC’s behalf.
    After all, the big confrontation between AIPAC’s buddy-buddy BFFs in the government of Israel and the US president is currently over the issue of Israeli settlements. But we don’t see AIPAC mounting a letter-writing campaign about that one, do we? No, indeed, because for many years now AIPAC has had a strong modus operandi of not even starting campaigns they don’t think they can win handily… And on the settlement-construction issue, their analysts have evidently figured out that that’s an issue on which they wouldn’t get much support in congress.
    4. Regarding the Arab Peace Initiative in general, though it’s a great thing for Obama and all other serious peacemakers to have in their hand, I hope they’re all aware that the prospect of “normalization with the Arab world” is no longer one that sets many Israeli hearts a-beating. You can see some of my comments on this in my recent article in Boston Review.

Finally, my biggest question right now is over timing…. Assuming that Obama and Mitchell are really serious in saying they want to nail down the “comprehensive peace agreements” between Israel and all its Arab neighbors– when the heck are they going to start?
Ramadan is coming up on around August 20. Prior to that, Hosni Mubarak is due in Washington August 18. (One week from today.)
Can we expect a big announcement of the US’s broad diplomatic initiative sometime before Ramadan? If not, then it will probably have to be delayed until the end of September or so. But I hate the thought of that much additional delay…

Fateh conf stormy; Saudi king upset with Abbas

So yesterday, Abu Mazen and his cronies finally got the Fateh conference together in Bethlehem. Today, even the official spinmeister, Nabil Amr, had to describe the proceedings as “stormy.”
Actually, that M’aan report says that “delegates nearly came to blows.”
Hey, at least they didn’t (yet) start throwing the potted plants at each other as participants in some Likud conferences did back in the 1980s.
Guess what: Some of the delegates even wanted Abu Mazen and the rest of the Central Committee to give an account of what they’ve been up to– financially and politically– in the 20 years since the last General Conference was held.
The Central Committee has not presented any reports on its past actions to the conference.
Ma’an wote that after Abu Mazen came in for a lot of criticism about this, he finally told participants,

    that his 46-page speech from the day before, which glossed the history of the movement including the 20 years since the last conference, would be the reference document to replace the non-existent report from the Central Committee.
    Members accused Abbas of protecting members of the Central Committee from accusations that they had failed to do their jobs. Abbas said everyone will be punished for any mistakes they made and no one is being protected or sheltered, adding. Underlying the accusation was the notion that if the conference had been organized outside the West Bank a better conference could have been put together. To this Abbas answered, the “Fatah conference in the homeland is million times better than being held abroad.”

And guess what else. Fateh co-founder, Central committee member, and longtime Oslo critic Abul-Lutf (Farouq al-Qaddoumi), speaking in Algiers, said the conference “has no legitimacy because it’s being held under the shadow of the Israeli occupation.”
He said he wouldn’t recognize any of the decisions that come out of the conference.
Very significant, too: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has sent a telegram to Abu Mazen calling urgently on the Palestinians to unite. From the wording of that report in al-Quds al-Arabi Abdullah seemed to be drawing a stark contrast between Fateh under Arafat (“which went from victory to victory”) and how it is now…
Well, I’m not sure about the “victory to victory” bit. But the contrast he drew was noticeable.
Very bad news for Abu Mazen (and the Americans), I think.

Just how inept is Ross as a ‘Mideast expert’??

Short answer: extremely.
In case anyone is in any doubt, they should read the transcript of what Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said at the end of his meeting with Hillary Clinton in Washington yesterday.
The core of what he said there:

    I would be remiss if I didn’t express our thanks and appreciation to President Obama and to Secretary Clinton for their early and robust focus on trying to bring peace to the Middle East…
    It is time for all people in the Middle East to be able to lead normal lives. Incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and– we believe– will not achieve peace. Temporary security, confidence-building measures will also not bring peace. What is required is a comprehensive approach that defines the final outcome at the outset and launches into negotiations over final status issues: borders, Jerusalem, water, refugees and security.

This is a resounding slap in the face for the approach of using lengthy “interim” periods and “confidence building measures” (CBMs) that was a hallmark of Israeli-Palestinian conflict management (not conflict termination) diplomacy, as practiced by Dennis Ross for eight years under Pres. Clinton.
CBMs, of course, were a concept first developed in great detail in US-Soviet diplomacy in the ramp-down phase of the Cold War. That, indeed, was the field in which Dennis got his core academic training. He later rebranded himself, never terribly credibly, as a “Middle East expert.” His main credential in this new field ended up being the abysmal record he racked up as a failed “peacemaker” for those eight years in the Clinton administration.
Oh, and then there was the term he served as founding president of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute from 2006 through earlier this year… Did that make him a “Middle East expert”, I wonder?
This whole concept of CBMs has made an eery comeback into Washington’s Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy since the arrival of Dennis Ross in the White House at the end of June.
Laura Rozen blogged last week that she had,

    confirmed that President Barack Obama has sent letters to at least seven Arab and Gulf states seeking confidence-building measures toward Israel, which Washington has been pushing to agree to a freeze of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
    One former senior U.S. official who was aware of the letters said they had been sent “recently” to seven Arab states, including the leaders of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The letters reinforce “the Mitchell message re: the need for CBMs [confidence-building measures] in exchange for [settlement] freeze and to [get] peace talks restarted,” the former senior official said by e-mail.
    “These letters were sent some time ago,” a White House official told Foreign Policy Sunday, when asked about them. “The president has always said that everyone will have to take steps for peace. This is just the latest instance of this sentiment.”
    The official declined to provide a date of the letters, but said, “they’d been reported before a month or two ago.”

Coincidentally– or not– one of the big campaigns that AIPAC is currently running is to get US legislators to sign onto a letter “urging” Obama to push Arab states to give up-front CBMs to Israel…
Arab leaders and their citizens have seen this movie before.
In the 1990s, many Arab states moved to end the “secondary boycott” they had previously maintained against international companies doing business with Israel; and some, like Qatar, even took some other small steps toward “normalization” like opening an Israeli trade office in their capitals. That was entirely predicated on Israel making the real progress that was mandated by the Oslo Accord to concluding a final-status peace agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), before the defined deadline of May 1999.
Never happened. The deadline came and went. The Israeli government just went on waffling, with the ever-eager help of Dennis Ross in the White house. And the Israeli government also kept on shoe-horning additional tens of thousands of new illegal settlers into the occupied territories each year…
In the piece that Roger Cohen has in tomorrow’s NYT magazine on US policy toward Iran, there is a telling vignette that reveals just how deeply Dennis Ross does not qualify as anything even approaching a “Middle East expert”:

    On April 29, in Dammam, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Ross sat down with King Abdullah. He talked to a skeptical monarch about the Obama administration’s engagement policy with Iran — and talked and talked and talked. When the king finally got to speak, according to one U.S. official fully briefed on the exchange, he began by telling Ross: “I am a man of action. Unlike you, I prefer not to talk a lot.” Then he posed several pointed questions about U.S. policy toward Iran: What is your goal? What will you do if this does not work? What will you do if the Chinese and the Russians are not with you? How will you deal with Iran’s nuclear program if there is not a united response? Ross, a little flustered, tried to explain that policy was still being fleshed out.

Dennis Ross, let’s remember, supposedly dealt closely with the Saudis throughout the eight years he was Pres. Clinton’s chief Middle East adviser. He also dealt closely with them, though in a subordinate role, when he worked for Sec. of State James Baker during and after the 1990-91 Gulf crisis and war.
But then, he didn’t even really know to deal with them at all, come 2009? He just talked (and talked and talked…) at the Saudi monarch– and couldn’t even deal with the few, to-the-point questions that the king came back to him with?
I don’t know if he tried to raise the issue of CBMs-for-Israel with King Abdullah during that meeting. But evidently, this issue has been pitched to Riyadh as well as other Arab capitals in recent weeks.
And now, Prince Saud has come to Washington to give a definitive and very public answer on the CBMs question.
Of course, it riles the heck out of many Americans, including especially many members of Congress, that they can’t just wave the wand of economic aid over the big Arab oil-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia to get to do what they (and AIPAC) want them to do….
Also significant: In that same State Department transcript, Sec. Clinton uses a significant– and in my view, significantly flawed– way to describe the US’s role in the current Israeli-Palestinian pre-negotiation.
She said,

    There is no substitute for a comprehensive resolution. That is our ultimate objective. In order to get to the negotiating table, we have to persuade both sides that they can trust the other side enough to reach that comprehensive agreement.

This is completely, still, that same “trust-building” or “confidence-building” approach to mediation/negotiation that was used to such dismally unsuccessful effect during the Bill Clinton administration when– acting on Dennis’s advice– Pres. Clinton saw his role as only that of a facilitator trying to build “trust” between the two parties.
No. The US is not just a “facilitator”. The US is a party with a strong and direct national interest in getting all the strands of the Arab-Israeli conflict speedily and finally resolved in a way that is sufficiently fair to all sides that the outcome is sustainable for many generations to come.
So the role of the US “mediator” is not just to “persuade” and nudge the countries to the point where they can “trust each other” (and to do this prior to the negotiation starting???) But rather, the US role should be to:

    1. Reaffirm its own strong interest in a speedy, fair and sustainable end to all dimensions of the Israeli-Arab conflict;
    2. Reaffirm that the outcome it seeks is one based on international law and the longstanding resolutions 242 and 338 of the UN Security Council;
    3. Affirm (for the first time in many decades) its readiness to use all the instruments of national power at its disposal to win the speedy, fair, and sustainable final peace agreements between Israel and all its Arab neighbors; and
    4. Reaffirm that it stands ready to work with its partners in the Quartet to provide all the guarantees the parties might need regarding monitoring all steps of the (most likely phased) implementation of these peace agreements.

In other words, it is at that stage– the stage of implementing the different phases of a final peace whose full content has already been agreed– that the sides themselves can really start to build the “confidence” or trust of the other side…. And the US and its peace-monitoring partners can certainly help that process along.
But to imply that you need full trust between the two sides to the dispute before you expect them even to sit down at the peace table?? That’s nuts!
The process of so-called “confidence building” that Dennis Ross was so happy to see dragging on for years and years in the 1990s did not end up building up any trust at all. Just the opposite. It built mistrust– on both sides. Not least, because people still locked into the dispute on the ground had no idea where the final process was heading– so every little altercation between them became a huge existential issue that had to be fought over “to the death.”
And meanwhile, Ross’s good friends in the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute were able to implant thousands of additional settlers into occupied Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. How “lucky” for them, eh?
This time, someone should tell Sec. Clinton– and best of all her boss, the president– that you don’t need to build full trust between the sides before the negotiation starts.
What you need to build is a healthy and realistic recognition from each of the parties that:

    * the US has its own strong interest in the success of this peacemaking project,
    * the US is prepared to use its national power to secure fair and sustainable final peace agreements between all the parties, and
    * the US stands ready to use its national power to help guarantee the implementation of these agreements.

So now, Pres. Obama, let’s get on with it.
I also note, parenthetically, that Saud al-Faisal seemed to be placing more emphasis on getting the final peace negotiations started than on getting Obama’s demand for a complete Israeli settlement freeze implemented. I think that’s the right emphasis.

‘Sensitive’ developments in Saudi Arabia? Succession-related?

Steve Clemons wrote on his blog Saturday that Dennis Ross was due to arrive in Saudi Arabia today on a big (and possibly hastily scheduled?) trip today.
He added that the Kingdom’s ambassador to the US, Adel Jubair, was due to hurry to Riyadh to help prepare King Abdullah for the Ross meetings.
Clemons also wrote:

    A source in the White House has shared with me that there is a lot underway right now with Saudi Arabia — and things are “sensitive.” I have no idea what is sensitive–

He then suggested quite a few items on the regional diplomatic agenda that might be “sensitive.’
I would say “sensitive” could well be some big development in the Kingdom’s slowly unfolding succession struggle.
To recap: Abdullah is 86. His half-brother Crown Prince Sultan is 82 and in very poor health– reportedly in a hospital in New York. When Abdullah traveled to Doha for the Arab summit at the end of the month, he appointed Sultan’s full brother, the “sprightly”, 75-year-old Prince Nayef, to be “second deputy prime minister”. First deputy PM is always, in this sui generis system, the Crown Prince. Previously the position of 2-DPM has been the stepping stone for successive sons of long-deceased patriarch King Abdul-Aziz to become later, 1-DPM (i.e. Crown prince), and later King.
When Nayef got the 2-DPM appointment, the well-informed Saudi expert Greg Gause wrote this about the development and about Nayef.
Bottom line: No non-prince ever really understands princely politics inside Saudi Arabia; but Nayef is extremely conservative on social issues and reform issues.
Early this month, the Guardian’s Middle East editor, Ian Black, had this article about Saudi succession issues.
He wrote there:

    the technical-sounding news about Nayef’s new job was something of a bombshell because it implied he was next in line for the throne.
    Taking into account the advanced ages of both Abdullah and Sultan, he could be sitting on it sooner rather than later.
    Experts point out that this is not certain. Formally, the choice is down to a secretive body called the Allegiance council, set up in 2006 and made up of the most prominent members of the royal family (all the sons or grandsons of the late King Abdulaziz, or Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom), who vote to appoint crown princes.
    Gregory Gause, of the University of Vermont, calls this a “wild card” in the succession process.
    Other Saudi-watchers predict that Nayef will eventually take over.
    “The question is still open but, most probably, Nayef will be king,” Mai Yamani, a London-based Saudi political analyst, said. “He is too powerful to be ignored.”
    Nayef’s claim to fame is more than 30 years of service as the interior minister.
    He organised the attack that ended the traumatic siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca 1979, and has led the fight against al-Qaida since the 9/11 attacks (having first blamed Israel’s Mossad and denied that any Saudis were involved).
    Brute force has been combined with a sophisticated rehabilitation programme to coax repentant “deviants” or jihadis back into the fold.
    With his son, Prince Mohammed, as the deputy minister, Nayef runs a classic and powerful Saudi fiefdom.
    He is also a social conservative who declared, days before his appointment, that there was no need for either elections or for female members of the advisory Shura council.
    Nayef rarely travels overseas, and is one of the few Saudi princes never to have visited Washington…

Anyway, at a time when the Saudis may well be dealing with some extremely sensitive succession-related issues, I imagine the presence of the extremely pro-Israeli Ross might be somewhat unwelcome.
Of course, there is a lot to discuss with the Saudis on the foreign policy agenda– including the collapse in Pakistan, where they are huge players, and the ever-simmering Palestine Question. But those two issues each have their own US special envoys, not Ross. (Steve Clemons wrote in that blog post that Palestine-Israeli envoy George Mitchell is also expected in Saudi Arabia this week.)
Oh, I see Xinhua is reporting about Dennis’s trip that he’ll also be going to Egypt. (As well as the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar.)
Egypt?? That’s not part of the weird region of “South-west Asia” that is supposed to be Ross’s bailiwick. I wonder what all this is truly about?

My IPS piece on Egypt’s role, and related observations

My latest IPS analysis, ” Egypt’s Star Rising in Regional Politics”, is here.
The key judgment I made there was this one:

    If, as all the polls indicate, U.S. ally Fatah was weakened politically by the Gaza war, by contrast Mubarak’s Egypt seems to have emerged from the war with its political position in the region stronger than before.

This was my considered judgment, reached in light of the discussions I held with a small but high-quality and politically broad sample of Egyptian analysts, and the general observations I made as I moved around the city. Including, in the latter category, the fact that the general level of security-forces presence in and around downtown Cairo seemed notably lower than it was when I was last in Cairo, in February 2007.
Those I talked with included Dr. Esam el-Erian, the spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, a couple of retired high-level officials, Fahmy Howeidy (who’s a veteran, well-informed commentatorial icon of, broadly, the left Nasserists), etc etc. However, the judgment I reached about Egypt having emerged from the war “stronger than before” is not one I heard expressed in those terms by any of the people I talked to. It is my judgment, only; and one to which I gave much careful consideration before I reached it.
To me the clinching piece of evidence was that– for all the harsh criticisms that Hamas’s allies launched against the Mubarak regime during and even before the war– at the end of the day, when the Hamas leaders decided they wanted/needed a ceasefire, it was to Egypt that they turned. And now, as I noted in the IPS piece, Egypt has emerged as the crucial intermediary in the many complex negotiations being conducted in the post-war period: between Hamas and Israel over consolidating the ceasefire; between Hamas and Israel over the possible prisoner exchange; and between Hamas and Fateh over finding their own long over-due rapprochement.
One other key little piece of evidence that I didn’t have room to mention in the IPS piece was the series of large posters I saw plastered on the walls of a couple of the large military encampments that are strategically placed to buffer Cairo International Airport from any oppositional mobs that might gather in the extremely densely populated downtown: Some of them said, quite explicitly, in large white letters “Al-Misr Awalan”– “Egypt First.” This is a sentiment I have never seen so publicly flaunted in Egypt, a country that under Gamal Abdel-Nasser prided itself on being the beating heart of Arab nationalism, third-worldism, pan-African liberation, you name it…
That sentiment of “Egypt First” was certainly broadly promulgated by Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, in the late 1970s as he broke with the Arab consensus and launched his own very personal (and Egypt-first-ish) peace diplomacy with Israel. Then, it was used– though never, I think as explicitly and in-your-face-ishly as today– to shuck off all the criticism that Sadat engendered from the Palestinians and many or most other Arab parties. Later, Sadat– and even more so Mubarak, after he came to power following Sadat’s assassination in 1981– worked to rebuild the country’s ties with the other Arab nations. But now, an explicit version of Egypt-first-ism is back with a vengeance; and Hamas, like everyone else, seems to have little alternative but to carry on working with Egypt.
However, as it pursues its new calling of “regional fulcrum”, the Mubarak regime still faces numerous stiff challenges. One is that Mubarak and his advisers have evidently decided that, to have any chance of success (or perhaps, even just to survive) they need to carve out, and maintain in public, a position that is notably distinct from the one that was Washington’s orthodoxy– at least until last January 20th. Hence, for example, the statement that Egyptian FM Aboul-Gheit made about his hosts in the US State Department yesterday, that I quoted in the IPS piece:

    “They understand very well the situation. They know they will have to exert pressure on all sides to achieve the objective of peace…They say that they understand the problem of settlement activities and it has to come to an end.”

Now frankly, who knows if that was exactly what Hillary Clinton and the others who hosted Aboul-Gheit there had told him? But whether it was or not, for Aboul-Gheit to say that– and thereby publicly put the Obama administration somewhat on the spot on the settlements issue– showed a degree of Egyptian boldness in the public pursuit of the pan-Arab peace agenda that I haven’t seen for quite some time.
So if Egypt is to continue to be successful in playing an active, calming, and pro-peace diplomatic role in the region, it is going to require increasing amounts of solid, substantive US support for that role. Most importantly, in terms of some real US activism in “exerting pressure on all parties”, and not just on one party, and in taking substantive steps to end Israel’s continued pursuit of its settlement-construction project in the West Bank (and Golan.)
If such much-needed support for the pro-peace agenda is not forthcoming from Washington, or if– heaven forbid– the Obama people should just continue on diplomatic auto-pilot and not make “a clean break” with the divisive, exclusionary, and blatantly anti-Arab policies of President Bush, then Mubarak’s Egypt could yet, very easily, crash and burn in its new, notably out-front role in regional diplomacy.
Will the Obama administration be up to doing this? Let’s see.
A second challenge the Mubarak regime faces– which I also didn’t have time to delve into in the IPS piece– is the simple, one might even say “age-old”, problem of anno domini. Mubarak is now 80 (not 81 yet, as I’d written in the piece: that doesn’t happen till May.) His current six-year term as President runs through 2011. He has remained in power ever since, as Sadat’s existing vice-president, he easily and constitutionally stepped into Sadat’s shoes after Sadat was brutally assassinated by an Islamist extremist faction in October 1981.
Mubarak himself has never named a vice-president. Since 2000 there has been much speculation the President has been grooming his younger son, Gamal, now 44, to succeed him. In 2002, the Prez named Gamal the General Secretary of the Policy Committee in the ruling National Democratic Party. It’s a pretty safe bet that several figures in the country’s still very powerful and well-funded military– from which Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak all emerged into politics– are fairly strongly opposed to any such “dyanstic” concept of political succession in a country that is, after all, supposed to be a republic. (Bush family dynasty in the US, anyone?)
We can note, though, that almost exactly the same dynamics were at work in republican Syria in 2000, when Hafez al-Asad died and his son Bashar was named his successor within hours of his death. In the Syrian case, many analysts at first saw Bashar as only a compromise or transitional figure, and speculated that behind the scenes the powerful generals would soon determine which among them would politely (or otherwise) elbow him aside. But that never happened. Instead, Bashar has not only survived as president for nearly nine years, but has also weathered numerous perilous political storms and built himself a significant nationwide political base… So who knows about Gamal Mubarak?
But anyway– as Fahmy Howeidi and others noted while I was in Cairo– the senescence/succession question is currently an inescapable fact of political life both in Egypt and in another key US ally in the region, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah ibn Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, will be 85 this year. And though he seems to spend just about as much as Hosni Mubarak on hair-coloring products, no amount of boot-blacking on his follicles can hide the fact of his gathering senescence; and there, the succession issue is possibly even harder to predict, and therefore, a cause for even greater uncertainty. Saudi succession story in short: unlike Hosni Mubarak, Abdullah does have a designated successor, in his case Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz etc. But Sultan is only two years younger than the king; and once he goes it seems very likely there will be huge pressure from the next generation of Saudi princes– many of whom are in their 60s and 70s already– for the crown to pass to one of them. (That, though there would probably still be a few more sons of Abdul-Aziz to consider… remember that these Saudi princes, by taking massive numbers of wives in rapdi succession, have a reproductive life that can span 50 or 60 years.)
Of course, you could always say that it would be good thing if all or most of the literally thousands of people who now consider themselves to be “Saudi princes” got a proper job and started contributing productively to human betterment. Yes, you could say that. But for now it seems that most Saudi citizens have not (yet) rallied behind that point of view.
You could also perhaps predict that the advances made in high-end, and very well-funded geriatric care could keep both Abdullah and Sultan ticking over, in a condition that is semi-presentable in public, for another 15 or 20 years. Yes, their health-care system has indeed been very heavily invested in… mainly, one supposes, as a way to try to postpone as long as possible the tsunami of succession conflicts that is almost bound to arrive when these two doughty old survivors exit the scene.
But this does not, I submit, look anything like a stable system of governance in the modern world…
Bottom line, therefore, on the memo to Barack Obama and George Mitchell: Nail down the final portions of this Israeli-Arab peace business before these two weighty pro-US countries enter the shoals of real succession crises. That is, do it as fast as you can!

And now for the “Right to Drive” Movement

Recently, I waxed airily about the “right to dry” movement and the “answer blowing in the wind.” Can’t resist noting, in the same (ironic) spirit, the budding “right to drive” movement in our erstwhile ally, Saudi Arabia.
Nascar dudes, check this out: (from The Independent)

“Women in the only country in the world which still bans women from driving want to put their best foot forward – on the accelerator.
Saudi Arabia’s newly established League of Demanders of Women’s Right to Drive Cars plans to deliver a petition to King Abdallah Bin Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud, calling for their “stolen” entitlement of free movement to be restored.
In a statement on the Arab website Aafaq, (note – from Sept. 4th) the women said: “This is a right that was enjoyed by our mothers and grandmothers in complete freedom, through the means of transportation available.”

One wonders what “means” the grandmothers then had ?
By the way, MEMRI ‘s translation of the statement includes this curious statement:

“We Would Like to Remind Everyone That Rights Are Not Given or Earned – They Are Taken”

Taken? I wonder if something here still “got lost in the translation.” (I haven’t yet found the original or an OSC rendering.) Might there be a Jefferson echo here, that rights are “inalienable” — as in God given, but “men” take them away, and now women beseech the men to give them back?
See also yesterday’s Arab News (Jeddah) for further insights into this “social” issue. Legally speaking, “there is no law in the Kingdom that explicitly states that women cannot drive.”
Side subject:
One might also ponder just where the American publishing houses have been on Saudi women’s issues? And how about that unique literary genre of the American “true story” — the “captivity narrative?” Or are those best-selling formula books reserved just for women in countries currently on the bad guy list? (fill in the blank, Iraq, then Afghanistan, and now Iran….)
Here via jwn, I’ve previously mentioned Farzaneh Milani’s ongoing investigations into this realm of American publishing, that of the “hostage narrative.”
For those who missed it, we also featured (via the delic sidebar) a recent compelling oped on the subject by Susan Faludi, entitled “America’s Guardian Myths.”
If you’re not familiar with what 1675 might have to do with 2001, read it. Hint:

“Our original “war on terrorism” bequeathed us a heritage that haunts our reaction to crises like the one that struck on that crisp, clear morning in the late summer of 2001.”

Riyadh: current center of Middle East diplomacy

We should note, first, who is at the current Arab summit meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Not merely the heads of state of just about all the Arab countries (which is no trivial achievement), but also: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, etc.
Note that this includes authoritative representatives of two of the four members of the US-led so-called “Quartet”. (Here‘s the text of what Ban said. It’s worth reading.)
Note that no high-level representative from the US attended. (I wonder if any were invited?)
Then, note what Saudi King Abdullah said in his opening address.
The main headline-grabber there: the part where he termed the US troop presence in Iraq “an illegitimate foreign occupation.”
Here, by the way, are some key excerpts from the draft of the statement that will be discussed and then adopted by the summit. Since the minister-level sherpas already did a lot of work Tuesday refining this Saudi-provided draft, it is expected that it will get adopted substantially as it is.
My, goodness, how the world has changed!!
Used to be that Saudi diplomacy was timid, very unclear, and conducted behind the closed doors of places of influence– mainly inside the United States. Now, suddenly, it looks both clear and amazingly robust and well-conducted.
Back when King Abdullah brokered the Mecca Agreement between Fateh and Hamas in early February, I wrote that the Kingdom seemed seriously to have “gone off the [US-delimited] reservation” in terms of the content of its diplomacy. At the time, some people said that– in light of many long decades Saudi kowtowing to Washington–they could not believe Saudi Arabia would do that. They argued that maybe in their diplomacy over the Mecca Agreement the Saudis were still acting, effectively, as “agents” of a US plot that was particuarly heinous because it’s content and shape could not even fathomed. I said, “No! There is no way the Bushites would willingly be part of any diplomacy that involved the inclusion of Hamas rather than its continued exclusion.”
I surmised, then, that Saudi diplomacy was entering a completely new era of acting independently from the will of Washington; and since then, considerable additional evidence of this has come to light. That includes the exchange of high-level visits between the Kingdom and Iran (including Pres. Ahmedinejad’s recent visit to Riyadh); the fact and content of the joint Saudi-Iranian diplomatic initiative in Lebanon; many other strands of Riyadh’s diplomacy in the region (including regarding Syria); the King’s most recent snub of President Bush, when he abruptly turned down an invitation from Bush to host a state dinner in Washington in his honor… And now, this speech at the summit.
When I was in Egypt at the beginning of this month, many people there were remarking on the fact that suddenly it seems as if Saudi Arabia is playing the leading role in regional diplomacy that Egypt for a long time used to play. Actually, to me it now looks bigger than that: it looks as if the Saudis are now– partly through their own intent, born of desperation, and partly also because of the almost complete absence of US power or decisiveness in the region– poised to replace the even larger role in the region that the US played for many decades…
If I were King Abdullah, I’d be very attentive to issues of personal security. Many Saudi decisionmakers still harbor their own clear analyses and fears regarding the death in 1975 of the last of the Saudi monarchs to stand up to US power, Abdullah’s older half-brother King Faisal bin Abdel-Aziz. Faisal was shot dead at a family gathering by a reportedly deranged nephew who had just recently returned home from the United States.
But for now, we need mainly to understand that the Middle East is entering a significantly different era. Of course US power is not absent from the region. (And nor is Israeli power.) But the US is still led by a man of extremely limited vision and understanding, who presides over an administration at odds with itself and under growing attack from the new majority in Congress.
Back in 1975, the US and Saudi Arabia shared one vast overarching concern, which was to contain Soviet power and influence in the region. Now, many in Washington (and Israel) have tried to make the argument that Washington and the Arabs share a new overarching concern: the containment of Iranian power…. Well, maybe the Saudis and other Arabs do have some concern about Iran’s growing influence. But the way they are choosing to act on that concern is very, very different from what the Americans want them to do.
The Americans want the Arab regimes to agree with them (and the Israelis) that Iran is “the biggest” threat in and to the region– and also, if possible, to forget or at least downplay their concern for the Palestinian question. But the Arab regimes have a different view of the region and their interests in it. They consider that finding a way to manage the growing threat posed to all them by militant Islamists of all stripes– people from both inside and outside their own societies– is their first priority. And that’s a threat that would only increase if they lined up with the anti-Iran, forget-about-the-Palestinians agenda being offered to them by Washington.
Condi Rice, who has systematically insulated herself from being able to have any real understanding of regional dynamics or concerns by surrounding herself with high-level neocons like the two Elliotts, seems to have no clue how to respond to all this. And neither, of course, does her boss the President. To me, this makes the situation significantly more unstable and scary than it might otherwise be.
But anyway, the permafrost of diplomatic inactivity that settled over all strands of Arab-Israeli diplomacy with the advent of the Bushites to power in early 2001 now seems suddenly to be melting. Fascinating times ahead.