This report should be taken with the biggest grain of salt you can lay your hands on. Taking nothing away from the fine work of the Daily Mail, we should be skeptical about claims from anyone regarding something as specific as Saudi King Salman stepping down.
(If nothing else, the effect to be achieved by promoting such a rumor is motive enough for someone to do it maliciously. Might as well paint a big bull’s eye on Mohammed bin Salman.)
Nevertheless, the size of the Saudi “purge” in November 2017, which has been orchestrated by Mohammed bin Salman (AKA “MBS”), King Salman’s son by his third wife and officially Deputy Crown Prince, has argued all along for it being about more than merely modernizing the kingdom and preparing it for a bright economic future.
I would urge caution in interpreting the potential of the various signals about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia. It – what’s going on – is inseparable from the regional security situation the Saudis face, a point that seems difficult to get Western commentators to focus on. The Saudis do nothing in 2017 for abstract reasons. Their movers and shakers are making all decisions with their eyes firmly locked on something Western analysts would benefit greatly from looking at themselves: the map.
In the West, we have the luxury of thinking the map still looks the same as it did six or seven years ago. The Saudis don’t.
The map’s tale of worsening danger is encroaching within tactical-missile and attack-aircraft range of their territory, and has been for some months (or even years) now. The missile threat from Yemen is only one aspect of that. The greater concern is what is happening to the north, with Iran’s effective military occupation of much of Iraq and Syria.
Iran’s near-completion of her land bridge to Syria and the Mediterranean, and the new verbiage of the U.S.-Russia dialogue on Syria – settling inevitably into themes of increasingly permanent “zones,” and the obvious prospect of a settlement, with a Syrian vote of some kind – are signals that a new geopolitical reality is on the horizon.
Instead of reality being about “fighting ISIS,” as the pre-2011 order continues to break up, reality will shortly be about drawing the new lines of “order”: of power, control, and international respect for boundaries, the latter having been sorely disrupted since the Arab Spring began.
The Saudis aren’t going to sit and watch an incipiently nuclear Iran take over the region, as the main outcome of this process. At least, Mohammed bin Salman isn’t.
I note also that the oil and gas industry is, of course, important to all Saudi strategic decisions. But it is a profound error in 2017 to think that it is more important than Iranian (and Iran-backed) fighters and guns. Oil has absolute primacy only if the geopolitical situation can be expected to remain stable overall.
The MBS faction in Saudi Arabia sees more clearly than many in the West do that the geopolitical situation today is extremely unstable. That’s why the Saudis have been arming up so rapidly over the last seven years, and in particular, expanding the role and capabilities of the Saudi National Guard in the last three.
Parallel strategic moves
Although there is a great deal to say on this head, I want to focus here on just one feature of these developments. The significance of it is that it is something of a companion to the Iranian development I wrote about last week.
In Iran, the development was an obscure bureaucratic maneuver whose effect will be to resubordinate the power-projection forces of the Iranian national army to the Revolutionary Guard, or IRGC. This will put an integrated suite of joint forces under the unified command of the supreme ayatollah, Khamenei: a suite with the combined capability to project military power for aggression outside Iran’s borders.
Such a force has not existed up to now. The divided command arrangement has acted since the 1979 revolution as a check on the IRGC’s political latitude to act aggressively abroad. Although the IRGC can exploit proxy forces, Iran hasn’t had the internal command unity to employ the conventional Iranian armed forces for “offense” abroad, as opposed to “defense.”
In the purge in Saudi Arabia, there is a structural analogue to this Iranian move, if not an exact one. The signature development heralding it is the removal of Prince Mutaib (also spelled Miteb) bin Abdullah as the minister in charge of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, or SANG.
The SANG is known in the West chiefly as the protection force of the royal family – i.e., the power structure of the regime – and the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. But this understanding is somewhat outdated since the Arab Spring began.
The SANG, which is separate from the Saudi Land Force (the national army), was the force used to support the Emir of Bahrain in 2011 in putting down the Shia rebellion there. And the SANG has been deployed to defend the Saudi border with Yemen since early 2015, operating in conjunction with the Saudi Land Force.
The SANG, a force of about 100,000, is also getting the lion’s share of the Saudis’ tremendous purchase of (some 180) combat helicopters since 2010, including the AH-64D Apache Longbow and AH-6 gunship, for which latter the Saudis and Jordanians are the only foreign clients at the moment.
The SANG – not the aviation arm of the Saudi Land Force – is developing a central military helicopter base to support a combat aviation brigade outside Riyadh. This point is especially noteworthy given that the SANG wasn’t in the helicopter business only three years ago. Indeed, except for the fixed-wing air force and navy assets, much of what the Saudis have been busy buying since 2010, including their $110 billion buy in 2017, has been going to the SANG.
From artillery to specialty ordnance, combat helos, and light armored vehicles, that’s a lot of plus-up. It is interesting to note, although not dispositive, that the most rapid expansion of the SANG’s inventory began at the same time MBS became defense minister (in 2015).
The SANG is a separate ministry in a deliberately divided power arrangement, so Mohammed bin Salman presumably did not directly make decisions about its structure and procurement.
But there’s a good chance he’s been wanting to. And after nearly three years of SANG’s unabated expansion and improvement – in terms of roles as well as armaments – MBS was reportedly behind removing its old ministerial chief 13 days ago.
In any situation throughout history, that particular move is made with intent. You don’t build up an armed force as fast as you can just because it seems like a bright idea, and then replace its boss because you get bored one day. You do both because you have a changing vision of strategic necessity, and specific intentions to go with it.
Keep in mind, the internal security situation in Saudi Arabia hasn’t changed so much that it suddenly requires all this new hardware to deal with it. The shifting Saudi vision for SANG, as for armed force in general, has in view Iran, and the larger geopolitical security challenges created by Iran’s post-2011 career across the Middle East and South Asia. That’s what Riyadh is arming for now.
Changing who’s in charge of SANG is not solely about internal security; in fact, in 2017, it’s probably not even mostly about internal security.
Some ephemeral clues suggest that an old-guard view of SANG’s role may have been an obstacle to the political unity needed to make the emerging strategic vision successful. This is where the analogue with the recent Iranian development would be the strongest.
For the Saudis, SANG has the readiest political loyalty to the regime, with its roots in tribal affinities and tradition. The national Land Force draws more from the Hijazis who have less of that traditional, tribal connection. As in Iran, the Saudi regime has to incorporate less-invested ethnic and class elements in the armed forces, in order to have their buy-in to continued central government. The modus vivendi between a national army and a regime-invested guard is typical across much of Asia and the Middle East, and the inherent power-checking arrangement generally limits the political latitude of the regime for adventurism.
The two clues I have in mind are the following. One is that Mohammed bin Salman, early in his tenure as defense minister, launched the initiative of a multinational, Islamic-nations anti-terrorism force, dubbed the Islamic Military Alliance against Terrorism (IMAT). Many foreign observers were dubious at the time. (The Washington Post conveyed quite faithfully the perspective of Iran, in fact.)
And an interesting thing about IMAT is that its charter had the potential to marshal forces and fill roles that would have some features similar to those of the Iranian IRGC’s paramilitary arm, the Qods Force.
I stress that neither MBS nor any other Saudi ever billed the IMAT as having an Islamic revolutionary purpose. It was not meant to foster terrorism or insurgency; it was meant to combat them.
But it is hard to miss the implication that IMAT would result in multinational armed cadre operating in Islamic nations for essentially paramilitary security missions. (A retired Pakistani general, Raheel Sharif, was named as military commander of this force, although the force’s status, and his, seem to be up in the air at the moment.)
Minus the purpose, that is the profile of Iran’s Qods force proxies in Iraq and Syria, and has been since – respectively – 2014 and 2011.
Note that the operation of such forces has been a feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics for millennia.
MBS’s IMAT initiative is informative also in the aftermath of the 2011 intervention in Bahrain. It gives a firmer outline to what we can suppose about differences of vision for Saudi armed forces and the use of military power, inside the regime that has just been purged.
In particular, we can imagine that SANG minister-commander Mutaib bin Abdullah – known to be a rival of MBS – was a frustrating factor for MBS’s strategic vision. In that regard, the timing of the second clue is especially interesting.
In early October 2017 – a little over a month ago – the Saudis prepared to deploy assets from their newly developed SANG combat helicopter brigade to operate on the border with Yemen. As noted at the time (by blogger Marc Simms and his source, Foreign Policy), this represented SANG’s first combat aviation deployment: the first time the newly acquired hardware and the programmatically, doctrinally new force would be put to operational use.
It is very unlikely that the “firing” of Mutaib bin Abdullah just happened to occur shortly after that mission was undertaken, and immediately following the projected consequence of it: an escalation with the Houthis (i.e., the launch of an Iranian missile from Yemen at Riyadh).
Given MBS’s own activism, Mutaib probably wasn’t removed because he was too bold, but because he was too timid, or at least perhaps a heel-dragger in terms of where the heavily-armed SANG and its new toys were headed.
Regarding Prince Mutaib, we can also take note that his wife comes from a Lebanese family with other connections to the Abdullah branch of the Saud dynasty. In general, Mutaib’s profile is old-style Saudi, socially connected and suited for the Pax Americana way of life – but probably not so much for a new era of receding U.S. power and Iranian activism throughout the region.
All that said, however, the overriding factor is the urgency for the Saudi regime of gaining the internal political unity to act regionally, with an effectiveness and momentum the kingdom has never achieved up to now. Obstacles to that goal are not vague frustrations, but specific ones. And wielding military power will be a key to effectiveness.
We can take heart, at least, from this point: that Mohammed bin Salman has no background as a radical ideologue, and there is no reason to think he will start out with the fire of “revolution” in his eye – whether or not, indeed, the end game here is his near-term installation as ruler of Saudi Arabia.
The mullahs of Qom are another story. A military build-up followed by a period of internal strong-arm maneuvers to gain unified control of the armed forces is a pattern as old as history. It’s happening this fall in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. I recommend not missing that.