Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Go to the Heart of the Middle East Problem

The latest Middle-East news makes one almost hope for an invasion by actual intelligent life. Did the Saudis think that executing 47 dissenters on one day, including beheading a prominent Shiite cleric and civil rights activist, would advance their goals? Did the Revolutionary Guard in Iran not realize they were falling for a trap, when they encouraged a mob to sack the Saudi embassy?

In this context, I'd like to step aside (mostly) and offer you guest lecture on aspects of the tragic cluster-frag that just keeps on giving... in the region that gave birth to civilization.

I will surrender the lectern this time to one of the legends of international economics, Mr. Charles Gave, reprinting his essay about the “vanished Middle East” that appeared in John Mauldin’s newsletter. In this piece you will learn from this elderly sage some historical insights that you never knew, about how well-meaning western powers sowed the seeds for today’s horror story… but that for decades another world power has been directly and intentionally fertilizing hate.

To be clear, Mr. Gave is not the only one presenting this long-delayed point (that I have made for fifteen years).  Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer and author of the best-seller “Sleeping With The Devil: How Washington Sold our Soul for Saudi Crude,” has dissected America’s 'selective and insincere outrage against Islamic terrorism' while conveniently ignoring the central role of the Saudi Royal House in fomenting that very threat.  On Salon, David Masciotra makes it political with "Republicans shield these radical Islamists: Why the GOP field won’t talk honestly about Saudi Arabia," starting with one of countless images of former President George W. Bush laughing and holding hands with petro-princes -- and asking why no GOP candidate ever mentions the family that co-owns Fox News.

But let's give the floor to Charles Gave. I’ll chime in, at the end, with some perspective.
== Lament for a Vanished Middle East ==
By Charles Gave
It is desperately saddening to see the terrified population of the Middle East fleeing for refuge towards a Europe that has utterly forgotten what the region looked like just a few decades ago. Yet nobody can hope to understand the disaster that is unfolding if he knows nothing of the events that shaped the modern Middle East.

Through an accident of family history, I was born in the Syrian city of Aleppo 72 years ago, my father having been one of the few French army officers stationed in Syria at the time – 12 out of 500 – to have sided with the Free French forces of Charles de Gaulle, rather than with the Vichy regime of Philippe Pétain.

How can I possibly describe the Syria of my birth? It was a marvel of diversity, a true kaleidoscope of races and religions. All the great empires of the past – from the Mesopotamians to the Ottomans – had passed through, and all had left their traces. Clustered around the citadel of Aleppo, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, one found the Armenian quarter, next to the Jewish district, itself next to the Greek settlement. All were surrounded by Muslim areas, variously inhabited by Druze, Kurds, Alawites, Sunni, and Shia. And for the most part all these various peoples lived peaceably together, doing business with each other in good faith. Education was provided by the religious orders. Boys attended schools run by the Jesuits, and the girls were taught by Christian nuns – regardless of denomination.

Before the Conquest

Really “Most of the Christian sects had lived in the region since long before the Moslem conquest, and felt a perfect moral right to live in what was, after all, their home. In the Iraqi capital Baghdad, for example, half the 18th century population was Christian. The Assyrians of Northern Iraq claimed to have been converted to Christianity in the 1st century by Saint Thomas. In the mid-20th century they were a strong community – a true nation. Today there are almost none left. The survivors are in Sweden. In Egypt, the minority Copts, descendants of the original Egyptian population, held important positions in trade, the universities and in politics, with more than a few appointed ministers.

Throughout the region, the Jews were absolutely essential to society and commerce. Of course, Jews had lived in Iraq since the time of Nebuchadnezzar II. But they had also made up much of the population of Alexandria in Egypt ever since it was founded by Alexander the Great – it was in Alexandria that the Old Testament was first translated from Hebrew to Greek. Elsewhere, in all the great historic cities of the region – Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus, Aleppo – Jewish communities made up the network through which different peoples traded with each other.

Each community was an intrinsic part of the social system, and the result was a diverse and resilient society. Of course, once in a while there were problems, such as the Damascus pogroms at the end of the 19th century. But the authorities had little patience with trouble-makers, and quickly restored order.

Today, however, for the first time in history, there are no longer any Jews on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and, outside Israel, few in the Levant. Christians of all denominations have either disappeared, or are under severe pressure, with the Egyptian Copts facing daily attacks. The old social order has broken down completely. The question is: Why?

Family History

To answer, it will be necessary to highlight two historical missteps that have been slowly destroying the Middle East since at least the middle of the 20th century. The first concerns my family history. My grandfather, Ernest Schoeffler, was governor of the predominately Alawite province of Latakia during the French mandate. The Alawites, who are concentrated in north western Syria, are an offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam. Today, they control the political power in Syria, or whatever is left of it.

Conscious of the extreme diversity of the local population, my grandfather promised the Alawites that when the mandate ended they would have their own independent, or at least autonomous, state. Indeed, he lobbied hard in Paris for each Middle Eastern population to have its own “state” as far as possible. He envisaged a Kurdish state, a Christian state centered on Beirut, a Jewish state around Jerusalem, a Druze state, an Armenian state and so on. The idea was that none of these mini-states would be powerful enough to dominate the others. And if there was trouble, the regional policemen – France, Britain, or even Turkey – would step in to re-establish order.

However, in 1936, the leftist Front Populaire was elected in France. My grandfather was summoned to Paris by the Minister of the Colonies, who informed him that thenceforth French policy would be to create a “Greater Syria”. And of course this Greater Syria would be a secular state, because the French left had one overriding obsession: to destroy religion. In response, my grandfather did something few people do today: he stuck to his principles and resigned.

Disastrous Policy

The French government proceeded with its plan to create a unitary state in Syria, with centralized institutions for the army, police, civil administration, justice, education, and health. The consequences of this policy were all too foreseeable. The main goal of each and every different community became to seize control of the apparatus of the state in order to protect its own community. In Syria, by far the largest community, at 60% of the population, was Sunni. To prevent the Sunnis, with their strength of numbers, establishing total dominance over the country, the Alawites, with the tacit approval of the other minority groups, established their own control over the state, which they have ruled ever since.

I have no doubt at all that the refugees fleeing Syria today are minorities terrified that the Alawites will lose power, which up until the Russian intervention looked highly likely. They know full well that if the Alawites were to fall, the Sunni reprisals would fall on all Syria’s minority communities, not just on the Alawites.

The fundamental historical error here was the attempt by the French and the British to create centralized states in the Middle East, states which both the Quai d’Orsay and the Foreign Office believed would, with a little diplomatic maneuvering, do their bidding. This was a total break with the Ottoman tradition. The Turks generally took a hands-off approach to running their empire, intervening only when someone did something especially silly. When that happened, the Janissaries were quickly sent in, and the old order promptly restored. By imposing centralized structures on communities with little in common, the European powers ensured that every local lunatic would attempt to take control of these structures and use them to impose their vision on the other minorities, all too often through “ethnic purification”. It was a recipe for chaos and civil war if ever there was one.

A Wahhabi Project

This brings me to the second historical misstep. For most of their history the Sunnis of Syria and Egypt were peaceful, tolerant people, who lived in tribal groups under the authority of elders who did a reasonable job of maintaining order. This tradition crumbled in no time in the face of the pan-Arab socialism propounded by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Syria’s Baath Party. As a result, the Sunnis were easy prey for the puritan Wahhabism exported by Saudi Arabia in reaction to the rise of pan–Arab Socialism. Wahhabism is by far the most retrograde of all the different sects of Islam. When Ibn Saud created Saudi Arabia by federating the tribes of the Nejd and Hijaz, he did so with help of the Wahhabi clergy. 

Now, for the last 50 years, money has flowed in a torrent from Saudi Arabia to the rest of the Middle East, Africa, South East Asia, and Europe to build Wahhabi mosques: “schools” where the only things taught – and only to boys – are the Koran and religious extremism.

The goal of this project is to “purify” the Middle East, returning the region, and eventually the rest of the world, to an “original” form of Islam unpolluted by non-Wahhabi religion, or indeed by any influences from the last 1,400 years. Isis is nothing but a Wahhabi project.

Extraordinarily, this project has enjoyed the unstinting support of French diplomacy under the guidance of Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and now François Hollande. I cannot imagine that this support for the most regressive of Sunni religious movements is due to the fact that close to 10% of the French electorate is Sunni, and that 90% of those vote for the left. That may explain French policy under Hollande, but it cannot account for the policy stance under Sarkozy and Chirac. There can only be two explanations: sheer stupidity, or that French presidents, both of the right and left, have been “captured” by France’s arms exporters.

At the end of this little historical survey – very much influenced by the family history of the writer – the reader must ask what can be done to stop the rot. The answer is simple. First, the West must clearly identify the enemy, which is not the Muslim religion, but the Wahhabi sect. And it must immediately break off all relationships with the states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are exporting this virulent form of extremism.

That means closing western embassies in those countries and expelling their citizens from ours. Of course we will have to stop accepting donations from these countries to finance our electoral campaigns, which require ever-increasing amounts of money to win votes for candidates of ever-decreasing legitimacy. That would be very bad news for our media industry, so it may never happen. And needless to say, we must also stop selling these countries warplanes, helicopters, missiles, radars, tanks and other weaponry. That might be sad for our defense industries, but one does not prosper by selling weapons to one’s enemies. As Lenin said: “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”. Plus ça change…

== Some perspectives ==

Charles Gave is not the only one who is declaring that a time has come to look with clear eyes at what the Saudis have done to our world. Earlier, I linked to the Baer book and the Masciotra article. This NY Times feature article explains in clear detail the differences among Shi'ites. regular Sunnis and the radical Wahhabi Sunni sect pushed hard by the Saudi Royal House.   Here’s another recent essay that I find troublesome and radical in unpleasant ways, yet it expresses a rising sense that people are getting fed-up.  

Do you doubt my assertion that they have meddled in U.S. politics, notably through co-ownership of Fox News and full-ownership of the Bush Family?  Would the American right's full-pitch War on Science have burgeoned so, without Saudi subsidy? Not only to keep us hooked on the oil teat, but also since anti-science is consistent with the teachings of Wahhabi madrassas?

See here how the desert princes fought hard to obstruct the recent Paris Summit from reaching any agreement to address carbon burning and resulting climate change.  Do they actually think that is still in their best interests? In 2030, when half a billion climate refugees flood the world, do they actually imagine that blame won't land where it's deserved?

Do those of you out there, who have helped them in this War on Science and rationality suffer from the same delusion?

It makes me wonder... are so many people finally waking up... because oil prices have plummeted and the U.S. is finally (under Barack Obama) approaching energy independence, no longer reliant upon Middle Eastern oil?  To this awakening, I can only say better late than never.

Dig it. When Saudi citizen Osama bin Laden sent a mostly-Saudi team of radicals (15 out of 19) to commit the attacks of 9/11 on innocent Americans, the reaction of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney was to immediately fly every well-connected Saudi out of the U.S. in luxury charters, at taxpayer expense, to keep them away from questioning by the FBI… all during a week when U.S. airlines were operating under 90% lockdown and very few U.S. citizens were able to fly.  

Barack Obama was ridiculed for wearing a turban once as a teenager and for bowing a bit too low when he first met arab royalty… but photo after photo of GW Bush physically holding hands with Saudi princes – and his statement that “Prince Bandie helped raise me" – do not seem to interest Fox-viewers.

Nor should we expect them to react, given that Rupert Murdoch’s top partners and co-owners of Fox are Saudi princes. Welcome to the American Madrassa.  


Catfish N. Cod said...

"Did the Saudis think that executing 47 dissenters on one day, including beheading a prominent Shiite cleric and civil rights activist, would advance their goals?"

Let it first be pointed out that 43 of them were al-Qaeda. But that wasn't because they weren't Sunni Wahhabist: it's because al-Qaeda refused to stay bought.

And yes, it advanced their (most recent) goals: to force anti-Shiism down the diplomatic throats of the entire Gulf, and to distract from the cuts to subsidies and disastrous intervention in Yemen, both of which are blasting away at the popular support of the last large absolute monarchy. Others might soon refuse to stay bought, too.

Treebeard said...

“By imposing centralized structures on communities with little in common.” This sounds strangely familiar. But I guess we are talking about evil Communists, Baathists and Fascists here. Our progressive democracy (like the coming Federation) only has the best interests at heart for the retrograde, anti-science, tribal communities of Red America, whose children (as you yourself have reminded us) we musn't easily abandon to their primitive local cultures.

reason said...

"The Turks generally took a hands-off approach to running their empire, intervening only when someone did something especially silly. When that happened, the Janissaries were quickly sent in, and the old order promptly restored."

I can't say that I find this sort of divide and conquer imperialism appealing. But we have seen repeatedly that there is demand for group self-determinism which if thwarted can lead to horrific violence. Promoters of extreme individualism (e.g. Libertarians) beware.

reason said...

But I also find this piece unsatisfying, because ultimately the problem is not the big state including lots of different groups, but the tribalism of the groups. It is hard to see how the problem is not fundamentally a problem of Wahhabism (and to a lesser extent Zionism), full stop. Iran is looking increasingly like a moderating force in the region.

Anonymous said...

I'm shocked, shocked that a Saudi monarch would execute an agent who tried to overthrow him!

Andy said...

Read this on someone's facebook, I think it is pretty accurate analysis:

"I've been chewing on it for the last 24 hours, and this is my theory about what just happened in Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud have been dealing with an ongoing crisis over plummeting oil prices, and they haven't been in a position to halt production in order to curb supply, because 80+% of the Saudi government's annual revenue comes from crude sales. On the contrary, they've been flooding the market to combat fracking and...you guessed it, stick it to Iran, for whom international sanctions (including those on oil exports) will soon be lifted as a result of the recent nuclear deal. Additionally, the Saudis are currently engaged in conflict in Yemen, and are surreptitiously engaged elsewhere (I'll let you draw your own conclusions about where I mean). Stability at home has been tenuous for some time, as there is mixed support at best for the Saudi regime at home. They have been shoring up their defenses via generous arms deals with the West, but the revenues are still compromised. So what do you do? Take advantage of the Middle Eastern powder keg and stir up even more sectarian violence in an effort to scare up oil prices. You behead al-Nimr and deliberately piss off Iran, your sworn enemy, knowing full well that the West will have your back."

Jumper said...

Treebeard acts as if we don't know how many of the most vicious fights are so often within these remote (from us) communities that look so much alike to an outsider. Paradoxically, perhaps, not every small community is split with rancor among themselves at all times. Only some, some of the time. And also not always are the meeting points of very different cultures rancorous, either. In other words, haters gonna hate, and that's history and that's life, so what other brilliant realizations you got?

Marino said...

Sorry, I won't buy into mr. Gave's narrative, where the current troubles in Middle East are to be blamed on the French left-wing Popular Front in the '30s.
On such grounds I may say that it's Italy to blame: Lybian war in 1912, that was another and maybe final nail in the coffin of the Ottoman empire, with Ataturk beginning there his military and political career, Turkey pushed on the losing side in WW1. At this point one could blame anyone: Islam, Byzantium, the Romans, back to Ur and Niniveh.

Splitting the whole Middle East into a bunch of small statelets based on ethno-religious cleavages, Christians there, Alawite here, Jews up, Sunnis down...sounds like the former Yougoslavia, that renowed place of freedom and tolerance that gave us statesmen like Arkan the Tiger and Milosevic. The dynamics is a simple one: once you estabilish a sectarian, ethno/national/religious state, you therefore purge everyone that doesn't fit in the mold: mass expulsions, state religion, national tradition (probably invented, see Hobsbawm on nations). And such states would either be pawns for any European power meddling there or be swallowed by pan-Islamic (Sunni or Shi'ite) movements.
As a solution, it's worse than the problem

Marino said...

Treebeard, have you even heard about an evil supporter of nefarious centralization policies forced upon communities with little in common? you know, one Alexander Hamilton. Who wrote a book to be kept together with Mein Kampf, that treatise about a booth crushing an human face forever, titled The Federalist papers?

And a worse one, who used armed force up to scorched earth policies upon such communities fiercely loyal to their peculiar institutions? The evil tyrant rightfully put to death by one John Wilkes Booth, that Abraham Lincoln that the evil Blue propaganda machine has turned into an hero in a recent movie?


Acacia H. said...

I feel the need to go off on a tangent. ;)

I'm fairly certain most of us here have encountered various memes, cartoons, and the like for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in which Kylo Ren encounters General Leia and is sent packing. You never see the converse with Ren's encounter with Han Solo - pretty much what happens in the film is what people have accepted at this point (please note, I didn't spoil it anyway as I may be evil, but I do have some class).

So among the Star Wars film fanbase... it is the general consensus that Leia > Han "I Shot First" Solo.

I hope Carrie Fisher is flattered by that. :)

Rob H.

A.F. Rey said...

She probably won't notice. I think she's still pissed that they made her look as old as Harrison Ford. :)

LarryHart said...


Treebeard acts as if we don't know how many of the most vicious fights are so often within these remote (from us) communities that look so much alike to an outsider.

His standard response also acts as if America is just another Eastern-hemisphere tribal nation (belonging to his tribe, natch), instead of a deliberately-constructed refuge for all as long as they are good citizens.

I used to live near a street in Chicago which has become an Indian and Pakistani neighborhood of shops and restaurants. The two cultures may be in a cold war back east, but here in America, they're more like cousins. To me, that's American exceptionalism. And anyone who says "We should take a lesson and be more like Pakistan" is missing the entire point of what America is.

Anonymous said...

There's also a very strong similarity between the Wahhabi faction of the Saudi royal house and the neo-Fascist base that's now dominating the Republican Party in the US.

I mentioned it a few years ago in a "Blogging against theocracy" blogstorm post at https://mikegalos.wordpress.com/2007/04/08/blogging-against-theocracy-or-a-little-international-history-lesson/

LarryHart said...


Who wrote a book to be kept together with Mein Kampf, that treatise about a booth crushing an human face forever, titled The Federalist papers?

Remember the scene in "The Postman" where the Holnists talk about "that evil genius, Benjamin Franklin", and later refer snidely to "Franklin-stein civilization"?

LarryHart said...

A F Rey:

She [Carrie Fischer] probably won't notice. I think she's still pissed that they made her look as old as Harrison Ford. :)

I thought they deliberately made her look like Hillary Clinton.

Anonymous said...

A peaceful revolution towards democracy in Iran is truly what keeps the secret alliance of Saudi Royals and Likud apparatchiks from sleeping well. Fossil fuels are losing to solar at a quick pace, making the addition of Iranian oil on the market merely the harbinger of the end of Saudi Arabia. I have known many Persian peoples and can unequivocally say that the citizens of Tehran have much more in common with the West than those in Riyadh. Many have stated that there is an unavoidable war brewing between the Shi'a and Sunni, one I hope does not end up including the rest of us. Unfortunately both the Jewish Nationalists and the Wahhabist Oil Barons have deep hooks in the American government. Luckily it has been largely isolated to the Grande Olde Confederate Party. Look to Foxy News to see the eventual, and hilarious, double-speak on how terrifying ISIS is, but how tame and noble Saudis are. In the Neo-Con mind the true Enemy is Iran, who is also enemies with the hated ISIS, who are funded by our loyal friends in the Saudi Royal Family, who are almost certainly in a secret alliance with Bibi Netanyahu, who thumbs his nose at our sitting President. Throw in the murky alliances and antagonisms of the Turks, the Chinese Capitalist Party and those sneaky Rooskies with all of the previously mentioned actors and this looks a hell of a lot like the run up to the Great War.

We need to stay the hell out of it. If such a conflict is truly inevitable, I hope all the bad guys kill each other. The only group I have any sympathy for is the Kurds. They might just come out of all this with a Kurdish state in the end. As for all the refugees fleeing into Europe, I hope they all take a good look at the prosperity that comes from secularism and discard any real belief in Islam. I hope the Persians and the Kurds learn the same lessons.


Marty said...

Reason, The problem isn't really the creation of multi ethnic states (or the tribalism of those groups), it has more to do with how the borders were drawn for these multi ethnic states, specifically the ideas of economic imperialism. The idea is that a foreign power can maintain controll of an area by drawing borders that split ethnic groups into different countries. Ideally any created country would have a signifigant majority (60% or so) of one ethnicity, and a bunch of minorities (one of which would be left in control). In order to maintain control, this minority has deal with the majority (usually opressivly) Ideally this would lead to a set of states that can be played against each other to enforce the desires of the imperialistic powers. Of course, this leads to the current problems described above: unstable warlike states that hate eachother. (It also probally creates a fertal breading ground for radical ideologies).

Marty said...

One brief sidenote, when I say "ideally" I don't mean that this is good, only that economic imperialism considers it "ideal". It is in fact evil and bad.

Anonymous said...

These is more than a passing similarity between the apocalyptic minded evangelicals of the Confederate Party, the Jewish Nationalists of the Likud Party, the Orthodox Nationalists of Russia and Belarus, the conservative/repressed-homosexual wing of the Vatican, and the various right-wing nationalists of Europe. They all have same goal of being princes of their own fiefdoms, in constant (but ineffectual) war with each other (ala Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia). Well, that and unfettered sexual access to any boy or girl that catches their eye.


David Brin said...

reason: Certainly the Turkish method of governance was ‘divide and rule” and obscene… as was the Sykes-Pcot betrayal setting up arbitrary states that ignored ethnicities. The third alternative would have been federation, with ethnic majority regions firmly held responsible for both running their own affairs but also protecting their minorities. That indeed would have been the only justification for the presence of a colonial force.

Re the Saud-Iran feud, the ci fi author within is always looking for the what-if minority lesser-odds possibility… like that the whole thing is (at some very high level) a put-on show. I admit, lately it has seemed even less likely.

A delayed reply to LarryHart — recall everyone who has a job in Player Piano is “Doctor____”? There is an academic whose title is not doctor but magister.

I love how the ent uses OUR standards to accuse the Western enlightenment of oppressing others, by establishing overall rules against oppressing others. If you hate our standards, stop adopting them in order to whine that macro-civilization is denying you the right to reinstate horrid-abusive-racist-persecuting feudalism.

Answer. This is war. Those who want to re-establish the nasty/brutal way of life that cauterized all hope and ruined the lives of 99% of our ancestors and kept us mired in darkness while always delivering wretched statecraft… those promoters of feudalism would not rest with having enclaves, wherein they can treat women however they like. They know that our zeitgeist will leak across any border to cause unrest among their oppressed. They must destroy the Enlightenment, or see their own children individually choose Star Trek over Mad Max.

Even if we wanted to leave them free to brutalize their women and minorities, we can’t afford to. They will zero sum seek to destroy us. Because that is the ancient way. Our macro-civilization has to be strong enough that they never dare.

There must be over-arching rules, sitting above the “let a thousand flowers bloom” tolerance of manicolored diversity. And among those rules must be: “if your women want to leave, then can.” Oh, then? Let’s see how long your feudal enclave lasts.

Alierias said...

I've seen several photos of W kissing Saudi Royals full on the mouth.
here's just one example

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

A delayed reply to LarryHart — recall everyone who has a job in Player Piano is “Doctor____”? There is an academic whose title is not doctor but magister.

I don't remember that, but I'll look for it the next time I re-read the book.

LarryHart please... when he [locumranch] talks like a normal person, raising interesting points and conceding others... ENCOURAGE IT!!

I thought I was engaging in civilized debate. My "Help me, Jesus!" was directed specifically at his "I agree with Larry H and Dr Brin that..." which had a 100% chance of being followed up by a middle-schoolishly ironic .disagreement, and did not disappoint in that regard. I'm all for finding common ground with those I usually disagree with. Not so much for the pretend "agreement". It gets old fast.

"If I gave everyone in this room $100 and locked you in this room all night, [by] morning some of you would be broke."

Yes and some would be pregnant. And some would need shots.


Seriously, though, there is a tendency among those arguing economics to assume that people mostly create wealth by making use of plentiful raw materials, and that one harms no one else by creating billions of dollars for oneself because everyone has the same opportunity if they only put in the effort required. That may have been an accurate model when we lived on a scarcely-populated virgin continent. It is not so much any more on a crowded planet where most of value is already someone else's private property. Perhaps Hank Rearden can earn a billion dollars without harming a hair on anyone else's head, even those poorer than he is. But Mitt Romney "makes" his money by bleeding it from other individuals and institutions. The harder he works and the more he earns for himself, the poorer everyone else is and the poorer the commons is.

In the latter model, income inequality really is a problem. It's not just a case of the wealthy working harder than the poor. And a certain amount of redistribution--not necessarily to individuals, but at least to the commons--is necessary, either by progressive taxation or by guillotine.

Anonymous said...

Part of what's missing is the ongoing intra-family feud between the religious wing and the modernist wing in the Saudi royal house. This got particularly bad during the period of the old King's coma when there was serious contention for power.

The end result was that while the "modernists" kept control of the economy and the oil, they did so by paying increasingly huge amounts in cash and non-governmental power to the religious wing who pushed their "defenders of the holy places" role and threatened to have the "modernists" ousted for their impious ways.

This vast power was what funded a large part of the expansion of the Wahhabi branch of Islam around the world as that was the sop given to them to stay out of the oil business.

learner said...

As usual I agree with most of your opinions, David, but I think you may be giving the Turks a free pass on their response to the Armenian population.
I also think George W.'s position towards the Saudi is not a Machievellian position but rather that of an unreasoning acceptance of a child to an "uncle". George H. on the other hand is a different kettle of fish or perhaps boiling oil. It was a different world back in the 1970's. Our relationship with the USSR was changing and oil was the fuel of our economy and US supplies were drying up(fracking research just beginning). Looking on past events from today, it is sometimes easy to forget what drove decisions at the time. George H.'s decisions may not have just been based on personal financial wealth. I am willing to give him a pass though it is easy to build a conspiracy position. And, of course, I know your opinion of most conspiracies, David:-)

As a side story I remember trying to get on board with Aramco in 1978 when I left the Army. Interestingly Saudi Arabia was taking control of Aramco and did not want any ex US military on board. Wonder why?

Alfred Differ said...

@AtomicZeppelinMan: I don't want to dash your slim hope, but the Kurds don't get along with themselves either. They've been divided between the Persians and Ottomans for long enough to have real differences. Carve out a territory for them, and they'd probably split into two or three nations.

There is a difference between a tribal nation and a Westphalian nation. The mistake made with the collapse of Europe's colonial empires was to try to fashion the latter out of the former. What fraction of today's nations are the latter?

Acacia H. said...

Don't delude yourself that Europe is united. East Europe is rather fractional, and West Europe barely less so. Heck, look at the situation with the Basque, the Catalonians, the Scots, the Irish, and on down the line.

There was one thing uniting countries in the past - the fear of Russia on one side, and the United States on the other. With Russia in disrepair, that is less viable now. Nations are seeing more and more in the way of separatists. The split up of Yugoslavia and the old Soviet Union was just the start. You will see other nations start to break apart.

The question is: is it a peaceful divorce, or a bloodied one.

Rob H,.

Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott said...

Related to your previous post(s), Dr Brin, I just saw this article and thought of you: http://www.vox.com/polyarchy/2016/1/6/10725086/promise-of-disharmony

A 1981 book predicting that there's a 60-year cycle of distrust of organized power, institutions, and yes, a war on science and the professional class. Prior cycles gave us the American Revolution (1770s), Jacksonian Democracy (1830s), Suffrage and direct elections (1900s), Civil Rights (1960s), and ?? (2020s).

Might have been ghostwritten by Hari Seldon....

I found it oddly comforting that what we're going through may A) not be new and B) not mirror the worst period in American History - the Civil War.

Shawn Oueinsteen said...

That His Royal Highness Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud owns a chunk of Fox news scares me less than that Alwaleed (he personally told me to call him Alwaleed) donates many millions of dollars to American colleges with the understanding that the schools will teach the next generation of American leaders that radical Islamists are angels trod upon by Jewish devils.

And, incidentally, Alwaleed, far and away, is the largest stockholder in Citigroup. The US bailed out Citigroup (under Alwaleed's control) because it was too big to fail and too important to the US economy for Obama to let it fail.

Alwaleed has the reputation of being the most pro-American of all the Saudi royalty (with the possible exception of his father, the Red Prince). This is depite the fact that Alwaleed's money has gone to support families of suicide murderers, obviously encouraging others to become suicide murderers.

I have been following Alwaleed's career closely ever since he sat next to me at my parents' family Passover when he was about seventeen years old. At the time, he came across as a rather polite, nice, and very smart young man. Today he is known as the world's second most brilliant investor, just barely behind Warren Buffet

David Brin said...

Wow Shawn O. Amazing.
Alas, given the intensity with which Fox & co have sought to destroy science, reason and political negotiation, as great American strengths, one can only draw conclusions.

The greatest crime, of course, was insisting after 1948 that all Palestinian Arabs remain sequestered in camps, and not allowed to migrate to cities in Arab lands. Sure, they had grievances worthy of addressing. But forcing 3 generations to be pity-pawns, disallowed to leave and try rebuilding their lives elsewhere? That was a crime against humanity.

Jumper said...

A murderous feud erupted not so long ago in an Amish community. I'm just not seeing the innate advantages of tribalism here.

Brendan said...

In the Eighties there was a western policy to arm religious fundamentalists to gain their support against "Goddless" communism. The US supported the Mujahedin through Pakistan(Operation Cyclone) allowing the radical sects into the Indian subcontinent and Israel supported Hamas given they were enemies of the PLO.

Salon talks about it here.

Paul SB said...

Ah, Jumper, that would be because tribalism is politics, and politics is about power. Brendan's example of Operation Cyclone is one of different tribes using each other for political gain. To have power you must have enemies to exert it over. Your Amish community is a case where they isolate themselves from other tribes, but when you do that, leaders within the community compete with each other by dividing the community against itself, a logical consequence of the Law of Segmentary Opposition. People who naively believe that they would be so much better off if "those people" weren't there have simply fallen for political propaganda. Get rid of "those people" and they will soon find people to fear and loathe among their own. They create a new set of "those people."

Ayman Hossam Fadel said...

How does one write about the violence in Syria & Iraq and not mention the USA-led coalitions' two wars in Iraq, the USA-supported Iran-Iraq war & the USA support of the Zionist colonialist project? I've left out some other items, but just some of the big ones.

Now, having said that, USA intervention is not the only reason for the region's problems and perhaps not even the most important. But it's certainly more important than French colonial policy vis-a-vis religious minorities in Greater Syria.

locumranch said...

Although rife with anti-colonial sentiment, if Gave's account of peaceable pre-colonial Middle Eastern diversity is to be believed, then we must also accept that the imposition of centralized conformity (aka 'federalism') is, by nature, antithetical & incompatible with peaceable diversity, so much so that you must support smaller, balkanized, regional governments if you well & truly support 'diversity' with more than lip-service.

Realise also that the West's lapsed infatuation with the Cultural 'Melting Pot' (wherein individual cultural, tribal, ethnic & religious differences are supposed to 'melt together' into a bland conformity of cultural sameness) is similarly antithetical & incompatible to what amounts to the Religion of Diversity.

Of course, one could argue (as I would) that pre-colonial Middle Eastern diversity is (was) a mirage based on the NON-EXISTENT pre-colonial Middle Eastern expectation of conformity, intergroup cooperation and/or 'fairness' and, since this federalised (and/or 'civilised') expectation now exists in the Middle East, that intertribal warfare for the express purpose of FORCING universal conformity on these artificial nation states is all but inevitable.

My Middle East prediction? The Sunni royal families, who continue to exist only because of western military support, will (shortly) go into eclipse, only to be overwhelmed & subjugated by a unified Shiite force led by Iran (but tacitly supported by the West's new anti-ISIS ant-Sunni coalition), the only Sunni hope being the acquisition of a nuclear weapon as a deterrent, which (most likely) is already in the possession of the Saudi Royal family (or soon will be), purchased from an impoverished ex-Soviet nation by the Saudi billions.

Most certainly, we live in interesting times.


LarryHart said...

Paul SB:

People who naively believe that they would be so much better off if "those people" weren't there have simply fallen for political propaganda. Get rid of "those people" and they will soon find people to fear and loathe among their own. They create a new set of "those people."

We see this at work in the Republican Party, where Eric Cantor, John Boener, Mitch McConnel, and now even Paul Ryan in turn are deemed "too liberal" for the party.

David Brin said...

How lame. Sure, one can hope the current Sunni radicals decline. But to posit a Shia steamroller leaves out how small a minority they are, in the Muslim world, with nuclear armed Pakistan and Vast-modern Indonesia unlikely to sit idly by. Sure Indonesia is sane and unlikely to support Wahhabis. But they'll not stand for a vast Shia steamroller and neither would we. Pure fantasy.

Acacia H. said...

That said, I could easily see Saudi Arabia gaining nuclear weapons if it looked like Iran was becoming more ascendant in the region "just to protect ourselves, of course." Even if Iran didn't go nuclear first... and never did.

Rob H.

Paul451 said...

LR's scenario makes no sense. Iran lacks the numbers or the wealth to expand.

If the House Saud declined... well, no. Their position is so precarious that they couldn't simply decline. If their power slipped, they would be overthrown by religious uprising, or taken over entirely by their own religious wing.

So the scenario is: if the House Saud was overthrown. Then the opposite of LR's scenario would occur. The current game is soft-power expansion by funding the growth of Wahhabi extremism. The new game would be... cashing in on that. The direct attempt to establish a pan-Arab state under Saudi/Wahhabi control. Ie, the steam-roller would be running the other way.

locumranch said...

According to the BBC, Shiites only make up about 10% of the world's Muslims and only about 20% of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims reside in the Middle East & North Africa, of which there are almost 78 million Shiites in Iran, 30 million Sunnis in Saudi Arabia & 80 million in Egypt (the other countries are more mixed).

That said, Middle Eastern Muslims prefer to avoid conflict rather than engage (hence their rather ineffectual militaries & the flood of EU refugees); Sunnis are NOT necessarily fraternal, mutually supportive, interchangeable or culturally homologous; Common Sunnis absolutely HATE the Monied Royals & would cut their throats for a penny; and, the Indonesians (who are not sane) are fractious & will be too busy fighting among themselves to give a dump about the Wahhabis.

And, very soon, Iran will have nukes -- in less than two years according to Israeli Intelligence -- and then very few survival-minded Sunni or Western countries EXCEPT Iran will desire to engage in a faith-based war at the bequest of a few hated Sunni royals.

Either way, the Saudis are screwed.


Jumper said...

The further you get from the USA and Australia, the less those long straight-line political borders are trouble-free. Odd, that.

Bettega said...

If Saudi "feudalism" was really that bad, there would be more emigration, instead there is almost none, in fact, Saudi Arabia receives plenty of migrants from more centralized states such as Egypt or the state of Kerala in India, which is governed by the Communist Party.

Of course, you could say it's because of oil, but there is also plenty of oil in Algeria, and Venezuela has just collapsed even though they have the biggest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia itself. And there is also Jordan, which is another traditional Arab monarchy where bedouin tribes still have a lot of political power. It doesn't have oil, but it does receives migrants from more centralized countries in the region.

Follow where people are willing to vote with their feet. I may not like the Swedish political model, but I have to admit it works quite well for them, otherwise so many people wouldn't be willing to live there, likewise the greatest indictment of communism is that so many people wanted to leave that communist states had to create barriers to prevent people from leaving.

Traditional Arab monarchies, and that include Saudi Arabia, can't be so bad if so many people are willing to live there, and so few are willing to leave.

Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: If Gave’s account is accurate, one is not forced to accept that the imposition of federalism is incompatible with peace and diversity. It is only one of the possibilities. IF the tribes benefit from trade between each other, there is a chance they will peacefully accept federalism. History shows they did not. They fought to dominate each other. That is not a necessary result from the initial conditions, though. Your IF-THEN statement fails because there are multiple possibilities.

What’s happening over there is they don’t have the western enlightenment experience where our wars of religion killed off extremists and toppled an empire. We are the survivors of a nasty history we are choosing not to repeat. They haven’t grokked the solution we’ve found.

You should put money and odds up with your prediction. Others here are putting it down, but I partially agree with it. I don’t believe the power in Iran (formerly known as Persia) is going to dominate, but they WILL be a regional power. The Turks (formerly known as the Ottomans) will keep them in check, but won’t be able to remove them. Both will exist long into this century because it is in US best interests to ensure they balance each other. ISIS and others who currently fight are proxies. This will continue and might even help provide them with their very own enlightenment experience. Painful and Bloody.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Bettega

Your "voting with their feet" idea is OK
BUT there are problems

(1) You have know there is somewhere better
(2) You have to be able to go
(3) Your destination has to accept you

(2) In Saudi means that half of the population can't (women can't travel on their own)

(3) Which countries would accept a migrant (not a refugee) ??
Everywhere worth living has strict controls on who can enter and all of the available slots are used up

So overall the
"can't be so bad if so many people are willing to live there, and so few are willing to leave."
Loses the sniff test

Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: If you believe Israeli 'intelligence', I have a bridge to sell you. If they TRULY believed this scare tactic, there would be military evidence of their actions because they won't wait for others to remove the threat. They'd do it themselves.

@David: I'm not as concerned about the Saudi's as you, but that's mostly due to the fact that we don't have the GOP in power right now. The Saudi's are being forced to spend money in Yemen and elsewhere because we shifted the power balance under them with a potential détente with Iran. With the price of oil so low and us making it blatantly clear we intend our energy independence, they know they are going to have to face the local hatreds of olde without an umbrella for cover or even a paddle in the rapids. If the GOP DOES win... well... we need to make sure they don't halt the push toward energy independence. Ambiguous US foreign policy still undermines the Saudi's.

Alfred Differ said...

Another thing that undermines the sniff test is people ARE known to follow the money. That form of voting with our feet often overrules political niceties.

David Brin said...

Yes, the Saudis can see that their plan will fail and their influence decline if 10 the Fox-GOP madness declines and 2) the US gains energy independence, and 3) the US plays it smart and makes guarded/careful peace with Iran and 4) the US regains its ability to engage in pragmatic, problem solving negotiation-politics and 5) we invest in further energy saving and efficiency technologies.

ALL of those things will happen if the blue Union wins this phase of civil war. NONE of them will happen if the confederacy continues to sabotage our Great Experiment.

Alfred Differ said...

I'm not convinced ALL of them have to happen to undermine the Saudi's influence upon us, but I'm with you in wanting them all to happen.

I suspect we can continue to suffer with a lack of pragmatic politics for a while. When Congress can't disengage the clutch, political influence of rich people matters less.

I suspect energy independence is going to happen anyway. I'm having a hard time believing Bush clan policies will be tolerated by people who are currently making money as we move toward independence. It CAN happen, of course, but I think there would be a fight this time... within the GOP. Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I wouldn't put money on the pessimistic bet unless I was given 3 for 1 odds or better.

When it comes to investments in energy savings and efficiencies, the US isn't the only market, so I'm not overly worried. What I'd watch out for from the bad guys is subsidies to the old guard that make importing new tech from the other markets a losing bet. Keeping the clutch engaged would help stop that, but only as a last ditch effort.

locumranch said...

@Paul451: 'Numbers' are not as important as you think, either here or in the Middle East, elsewise the Israeli nation of a mere 8 million would (or could) not hold off 250 million hateful neighbours bent on their individual destruction.

@Alfred: Although obviously biased & self-serving, Israel displays a level of intelligence ten magnitudes greater than those displayed by the most pragmatic of the West's self-deluding idealists, elsewise they would not exhibit the degree of success they must in order to preserve the security of a mere 8 million in the face of two hundred million (plus) hateful multitudes.

@David: As above. The New American Civil War will proceed apace, despite rough numerical equivalence, because the relatively impoverished Rural Reds have relatively less & more to lose (depending on how you choose to keep score) than a host of Urban Blues who are most concerned with washer-driers, cable TVs & credit scores than decaying personal liberty.

The imminent death of the Saudi Monarch has the succession-minded Saudi Royals close to fratricide; Iran & its Shiite majority represent the sole unfractured force within the Middle East Entire; the EU collapses under the weight of its failed hippy-dippy humanist polices; both China (PRC) & Japan implode in the face of ongoing democalypse; and the USA & Australia deny reality in fantastic favour of failed globalist narrative.

Most certainly, we live in interesting times.


Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: Unless you are privy to sensitive material, I'm doubting your estimate of how much more pragmatic their intelligence service is compared to ours or other western nations. Intelligence people tend to be VERY pragmatic even when the people giving them orders aren't. Don't compare the ignorant masses in the US and the candidates fishing for them to the intelligence staff. That's an apples and broccoli comparison. They aren't even fruits.

I'm not knocking Israel's capabilities when it comes to survival. Quite the opposite. It is a well established fact that they are good at what they do. THAT'S why I think they are trying to manipulate us with this 2 years to a bomb nonsense. It's a scare tactic designed to get an amygdala (BNST) response from us. Iran Bad! Side with Us! (pfft!)

locumranch said...

@Alfred: I agree completely. Israel is trying to manipulate us, increasing the likelihood that the Western 'We' will allow Iran to enforce its own version of Pax on the Middle East, leading to the destruction of the Sunni Royals, the elimination of anarchic cultural chaos & the simplification of Middle Eastern foreign policy, which (in turn) will allow Israel to deal with singular adversaries susceptible to a MAD-dependent détente.


Paul SB said...

It should be reasonably obvious that nations almost universally manipulate each other. Way back in olden times old Thomas Hobbes wrote that all nations are in a "state of nature" with respect to each other, by which he meant a predatory state. They all have machinations against each other. Even old allies spy on each other. Of course Hobbes was wrong about most things. He grossly misrepresented what "nature" means, but he was correct about nations manipulating each other. It can be taken for granted and our energies spent on discovering how each of the players on their field are manipulating each other.

But assuming that every nation will treat every other as a predator treats prey is a mistake. Just as people need other people to survive (except, maybe, sociopaths, and even that's only a maybe), nations need other nations, as allies and trading partners, to survive. There isn't a nation in the Middle East that I would trust to be ally right now, not with the turmoil since the Arab Spring began, and that includes Israel (and I would be keeping an eye on Turkey, too). The whole 'two years until they have the bomb' only shows that they know how to push our buttons. But then, paranoia is such an easy button to push, especially when our local, mostly conservative and religious, politicians stoke the flames of paranoia on a daily basis to promote their own careers.

Jumper said...

I'd put it that that all nations are in a 'state of anarchy' with respect to each other. With "international law" all treaty-based, and often not much of that, such as maritime treaties.

LarryHart said...

I'd also assert that quite often, allies manipulate each other with the consent of the manipulated. For example, the US "believed" Israeli intelligence claiming Saddam Hussein has yellowcake uranium even though we knew the intelligence was suspect, because it gave us an excuse to do something we already wanted to do.

David Brin said...



Paul451 said...

" 'Numbers' are not as important as you think, either here or in the Middle East, elsewise the Israeli nation of a mere 8 million would (or could) not hold off 250 million hateful neighbours bent on their individual destruction."

Yes, because "survive against" is exactly the same as "invade and control".