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Saudi Arabia: gambler in charge

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By the end of 2015 the BND, the German foreign intelligence service, had grown so concerned that it warned the government about Saudi Arabia’s new Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister, 30-year-old Muhammad bin Salman.

“The previous cautious diplomatic stance of older leading members of the royal family,” it wrote, “is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention.”
At that point Prince bin Salman had been defence minister for just one year, but he had already launched a major military intervention in the civil war in Yemen and committed Saudi Arabia to open support for the rebels in the Syrian civil war.

He had also taken the bold decision to let oil production rip and the oil price crash.
No wonder the BND characterised Prince bin Salman as “a political gambler who is destabilising the Arab world through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.”
Not just a gambler, but one who was betting on the wrong horses.

The first bet to fail was his intervention in the Yemeni civil war, with an aerial bombing campaign that has killed at least 10 000 Yemenis (around half of them civilians) and cost Saudi Arabia tens of billions of dollars. Prince Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS, as he is known in diplomatic circles) sold the war as a short, sharp intervention that would defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen and put Saudi Arabia’s own choice for the presidency, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, back in power.

It has turned into a long, exhausting war of attrition: the Houthis still control the capital, Sana’a, and Hadi will not be going home any time soon.
Then the Deputy Crown Prince’s second big bet, an open commitment to support the Syrian rebels, failed when the Syrian army, with Russian and Iranian help, reconquered eastern Aleppo last December.

Not one of Syria’s big cities is now under rebel control, and Saudi Arabia will have to live with a victorious and vengeful Assad regime.
MBS’s biggest gamble was his plan to restore the Saudi kingdom’s dominance in global oil markets by driving the new competition, the American producers who get oil out of shale rock by fracking, into bankruptcy.

The frackers had doubled American oil production in eight years, but the extra US production was creating an over-supply in the market and depressing the price of oil. Then the prince decided to make matters worse.

He reckoned that the frackers were high-cost producers who would go broke if the price of oil stayed low enough for long enough.
So Saudi Arabia kept its own oil production high and persuaded its partners in the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) to do the same.
At several points in the past two years the oil price fell below $30 per barrel, compared to a peak of $114 in 2014, but the strategy didn’t work as MBS had planned.
The US frackers shut down their less profitable operations temporarily and some smaller players went bankrupt, but the survivors are ready to ramp production up again as soon as the oil price improves.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been burning through $100 billion a year in cash reserves to keep government services and subsidies going.
Last November the prince admitted defeat. Saudi Arabia and its OPEC partners agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day, and Russia and Kazakhstan chipped in with another half million barrels.

The oil price is up to $55 per barrel, Saudi Arabia’s cash flow has improved, and the political stresses at home due to wage and subsidy cuts have eased off.
But many people are asking: “What was all that about, then?”

The prince is not a fool. He should have known that foreign interventions in Yemen rarely succeed, that the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war meant that Assad was likely to win, and that the American frackers could probably wait him out. In fact, he probably did know.

The problem is that Muhammad bin Salman is in a hurry to produce some positive results. His prominence at such an early age owes everything to the support of his father, King Salman, who ascended to the throne just two years ago.

But the king is 81 and in poor health (suffering from mild dementia, according to some), and his son is not his obvious successor. Normally the successor to the Saudi throne is not the current king’s son, but a senior prince chosen by his peers as best fitted to rule.

The current Crown Prince is 57-year-old Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Even the title of Deputy Crown Prince is new, and MBS owes it entirely to his father.
So to have any hope of succeeding to the throne when King Salman dies, Prince Muhammad bin Salman must prove his worth quickly.
That’s why he was open to such high-stakes, long-odds gambles: one big success could do the trick for him. He is probably still up for another roll of the dice.

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Trump and Iran

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“ . . . One orb to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”
Five months ago, during Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he was invited to open the “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology”. (I’m not making that up.)

The huge, darkened room they were in looked like a cross between a starship bridge and a television control room.
And there was a photo op, as there always is at these events, but this one was different.
There was a glowing orb on a pedestal, with the continents in black and the seas in pale grey.

Trump, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian dictator General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi all put their hands on it as if they owned it – and held the pose for almost two minutes.

The radiant globe (and the illuminated floor) lit their faces from below.
If you want to make somebody look evil, light the scene dramatically from underneath, and they did look evil in a comic-book sort of way.
Like the three witches in Macbeth, suggested conservative commentator Bill Kristol. And everybody knew that their curses were aimed at Iran.
Now Trump has directed more curses at Iran, declaring that he will pull the United States out of the 2015 agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years.

Or rather, he has announced that Congress will do that – but the Republicans probably don’t have enough votes in the Senate to make it happen.
Why didn’t he do it himself? Maybe he just wanted to share the blame. Every one of Trump’s senior officials and advisers has told him not to do it, and so have all of America’s allies.

Every other signatory to the treaty – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union – also says it will continue to abide by it no matter what the United States does.
Trump says Iran is cheating on the deal, but Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran is implementing it faithfully, and all the other signatories agree.

Trump doesn’t like the fact that Iran tests ballistic missiles, or supports dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and says they are against the “spirit” of the treaty, but those things were not part of the deal. If there is one thing Trump understands, it’s contracts. If the words are in the contract, then it’s part of the deal.

If they aren’t, then it’s not part of the deal. There is nothing in the treaty with Iran that says it has to do everything the US wants, and nothing either that says it must not do things that Washington does not like.

It’s strictly about Iran not working on nuclear weapons, and the other countries dropping their sanctions against Iran.
And why does Trump want to kill the treaty anyway? One reason is that he is pursuing a bizarre vendetta against ex-president Barack Obama, seeking to erase every one of his legislative and diplomatic achievements regardless of their value.
But he has also fallen in with bad company.

Trump really is one of the three witches now: he has joined the alliance of conservative Arab states against Iran, although it doesn’t serve any imaginable US interest to get involved in a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
You can blame that choice on Trump’s ignorance, perhaps, but Saudi Arabia and Israel are run by well-informed and intelligent people. Why do they want to cancel the nuclear deal?

On the face of it, it makes no sense. If your choice is between Iranian nuclear weapons some time after 2025 (if the treaty isn’t renewed or extended before then), or Iranian nuclear weapons in one or two years’ time (if it is abrogated now), why would they prefer the latter?
Yet they do. Their unspoken calculation may be that if the nuclear agreement does get trashed, then there will eventually be a war – but the United States will be on their side.

There is no doubt that Trump can pull out of the treaty even if Congress will not do it for him. He just has to declare new sanctions against Iran, which is well within his power.  And if he does, other Western companies trading in Iran will find themselves banned from the huge American market unless they go along with the ban, so they will probably comply no matter what their governments say now.

But even if all that comes to pass, Trump cannot stop Iran from making nuclear weapons once the treaty is gone.
The United States would probably suffer no grave damage as a result, as it is a long way from Iran. The Arab states and Israel could suffer greatly, but turkeys vote for Christmas all the time.

Gwynne Dyer

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Africa

keep on moving

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The recurring image of the bus as a universal motif representative of the political landscape on the African continent has proven itself true time and time again. Only the drivers change, the bus however remains the same, and the African voter, diligent in the attendance of the polls and the selection of the next leader/driver: is the driver’s passenger for all seasons of time and history.

How some choose to take the back seat and others choose to chase the seat in the house on top of the hill is a mystery that is quite easy to fathom; it is a choice to be led on the basis of commitments to other professions or some other means of ‘subsistence’ (for the truth remains that most of the African population live below the poverty line, and therefore, many of those one sees are not existing, but rather, droves of individuals are forced to swallow the bitter pill of subsistence to survive the day and have some guarantee that they will see the next day).

Why these masses that subsist for the sake of seeing someone succeed and go on into the house where they will either choose to parley in parliament for the needs of those that elected them into the house, or, to nod the day off in disinterest vexes my understanding.

The politics of the land are the most prominent aspect of the daily life of the state, and when the politics follow a path that is unclear, the citizens of the land are bound to be one confused mass whose opinions do not answer the questions that serve the questions on how best we can progress. What one is bound to hear as an observer is not what can lead the country forward, but rather, the polarised view of the fanatic that holds their leader on the same pedestal as pagans put their deity on: and when the masses become fanatical instead of being objective on the discussion of core and salient aspects of appropriate governance such as the determination of peace and stability, then the state is doomed to failure as an entity that drives the citizens towards progress.

The process of progress is not influenced by the exalted speeches from podiums; it is not advanced by unfulfilled lobbyist promises. The process of progress is driven by the politician’s commitment to the development of the land and the people, and not only a certain sector that supports or supported the politician in the years of their rise to the high seats of power where the ease of access to stipends and per diems drives many an individual insane and renders them megalomaniac. Progress needs a calm environment to fully blossom, for progress demands total peace and calm to reveal its full potential.

Lesotho has to this day never explored its full potential largely due to the politician’s view that they are some tribal chief, and not civil servants that are supposed to the needs of the masses that elect them into office. The supporters of the ‘ruling party’ often hold the false notion that they have the right of access to even the most basic of services; before the others that came before them, before all of those that may or may not have elected the ruling party into power.

The politician thus works hard to answer the demands of those that elected them into power, and in so doing, the politician loses the true purpose of their office in parliament (playing marionette to the crowd of puppeteers posing as supporters). I think not that the office of the president or the prime minister should be the kind of turf where the interests of only a given sector of society are given heed. This office is there to serve the needs of the all of society political and apolitical.

A friend of mine recently told me that this is the season when all the hoes and the boats are cleaned, the former have their blades given a thorough sharpening, and the latter have their hulls polished. There is a new government in power, and its ascent to the top of the house should mean that the new season when new strategies shall be implemented is in; the rites of spring should be sung! The slight hitches and the glitches in the wheels of progress should be oiled away, because the truth is that this country has not enjoyed a single year of comfort since independence in 1966!

All that has been is a sugar-coated kind of democracy where the winning party followers proclaim their Pyrrhic victories amidst a cacophony of election losers murmuring in the background. Basotho have since time immemorial been a nation of murmurers, and none that is bold enough to complain is given due ear. The complainer is often hated for voicing their opinion, and this makes one to form the question: why should issues that affect the nation be treated like hushed wrongs? Being diplomatic about matters that have up to this stage served as fuel for division, polarisation, and continued rivalry will in the long term do this nation a disservice (that is, we shall never progress as a society, state, and nation).

Not everyone understands the true purpose of modern politics, but every John thinks they discuss the matters that are of great concern to every citizen of this here land from the john. Matters that should have long ago been discussed in the house where those that are elected, those that are paid to discuss them, and those who have a clearer understanding on how to deal with matters of national concern, are finding their way into little moot courts of the blind and pseudo-parliaments on street corner radio stations as hot topics of discussion.

Whether the matter should be handled on such open platforms is not the concern, for the main focus for most of these untaught disc jockeys is self-aggrandisement at the expense of the rest of the nation and the blind polarised listeners. Every issue has its own kind of platform in a democracy, not everything can be discussed everywhere, and not all things are suitable for every ear everytime (those that disagree might just have to allow me to put a strip dancer’s pole where their preacher has his podium). The world we live in is now full of figures that think they know, and personally speaking, I do not think it wise for anyone to declare that they know; for there is never a point in the life of man when one fully knows: we are forced to keep on moving in search of more knowledge.

A song by a band that I follow to the heart has the lyrics:

Everyday, wheels are turning, and the cry still returning

Never having created an environment for healthy politics where there shall be no pointing of fingers but true commitment to seeing this country that once was the beacon of Southern Africa get out of the political mess (rut) it is in, the Basotho are now stuck with a monster that they created by thinking that addressing issues head-on was a sin. In the 1950’s, Lesotho was economically sound and had one of the best universities in the region. Fifty years later, countries whose students used to attend the same university have better stories of progress to tell in terms of the developments they have contributed towards in their home nations.

Those Lesotho graduates that had the opportunity to go to school come back with disappointment and uncertainty (getting an occupation matching with the letter earned at varsity is lotto). And the Basotho still grumble on, forcing themselves to be content with little, increasing the poverty pool with the measly salaries and bloated senses of pride. These kinds of aspects have ensured that Botswana leads the pack despite being a late bloomer.

Movement in pursuit of a clear goal is never fettered by the booing of the jealous and often conceited watchers. The goal is more important than the jeers of the spectators, for they are only there to watch the game move on whilst they sit warming their seats at a cost. This country has always adopted the attitude of the man and the donkey, who after listening to the remarks from people without donkeys, ends up carrying the donkey to impress them.

Since 1998, one sees a state that has listened more to external intervention than being a country where neighbour can talk to neighbour to discuss matters that regard their picket fence borders. The sweet political lie is that Basotho are a peaceful people, I think the reality is that they are good at putting on masks that deceive the gullible. One does not have to go far to get the evidence on the true brutality of these ‘peaceful’ people that have not hesitated to mow each other down over matters of political affiliation and blanket colours. To move, one needs to be true to their breathing pattern, their heart rate, and most importantly, their feet.

Countless souls have been killed in the name of politics in this country, but still, the goon that gets the opportunity to speak to some international organisation/s has the audacity to declare, ‘all is well’. I often think that the problem with Africa is not in the people or the politicians; the problem lies in the fact that the average African leader of the present day is a product of the colonial system: and they are finding it hard to let go of the habits their colonial masters taught them.

Every part of Africa that has had a leader that in any way offended the neo-colonial lords of the modern times has had that leader killed. Lumumba, Biko, Sankara, Gaddafi, the list is long. These ones that survive only attain it because they still agree to shine some colonial leader’s knob at the expense of their country never moving forward in terms of real progress. Foreign aid is not a sign of progress…it is a sure symptom of continued dependency on the colonial lords of old (sort of like a 51-year-old ‘toddler’ that still has to beg for their nappy stipend). Maturity means that for a while, one will go so poor that even getting mere salt will prove impossibility, the African leader of the modern times does not agree with this view. Rather, the lavish lifestyles of Hollywood are envied, ignorant of the simple fact that most of these lifestyles are mere acts.

Moving forward does not require the delusional idealist that believes that they can dream everything into life. Movement is a real act that requires real effort from all the parties involved. There is just no fixing an entity as big as a country one-sidedly, that is, to come forward and to think that one can correct all the wrongs of the past without the involvement of all of those that were present when all that was done was done. Adopting the witch-hunt mentality has never worked, will never work, for at a certain point, even hardened criminals stop running and fight back as cornered dogs do.

I am sad that this land with potential will soon be lost simply because fools think violence solves problems when it does not. In actual fact, violence begets more violence, and what we dreamt of yesterday soon fades as the nightmare we created grows to leviathan proportions. The man that thinks they can sort things out using violence is similar in countenance to the fool that thinks they can kill the Hydra, well, the Hydra grows two heads in the place of each of the nine heads lost!

The battle cry of late is that information can be beaten out of suspects and what I think is the government will have more cases of police violence than they can deal with tomorrow. Monies that could be funnelled towards lasting economic and social development projects will be used in the compensation of those brutalised. To move, you have to think before you leap.

Tsepiso S Mothibi

 

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World

Dutch election

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The Dutch political system may not have been deliberately designed to produce middle-of-the-road outcomes, but it certainly works that way in practice: many small parties, multi-party coalitions to create a majority government, perpetual compromise. It is almost impossible to radicalise a system like this, but Geert Wilders is going to try.
Wilders is the founder and leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), which currently holds only twelve seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament.

But he is aiming to make it the largest single party in the March 15 election — which, in ordinary times, would probably give it the leading role in the next coalition government.
But these are not normal times, and the PVV is far from a normal party. It really only has one policy — stop the immigrants — and it is unshamedly racist and anti-Muslim in its rhetoric. Wilders recently called Dutch residents of Moroccan origin “scum”.

He vows to close mosques and Islamic schools, ban the sale of the Koran, and stop all further immigrants or asylum seekers from Muslim countries.
He is the Dutch Donald Trump, a silver-maned provocateur who deploys the maximum possible nastiness in his campaign talk and his frequent abusive tweets.
In fact, some people argue that Trump must have taken lessons from Wilders, who has been working this side of the street for at least a decade already, but the concept of convergent evolution probably applies.

Populists are almost always racists too. Which brings us to the question that is most interesting for people who don’t live in the Netherlands.
Can racism and xenophobia alone, without any help from economic desperation, persuade a traditionally liberal Western electorate to cast its values aside and vote for an authoritarian bully with an anti-Muslim obsession?

Trump had lots of help from economic despair.
The key voters who gave him an electoral college victory last November were in the Rust Belt states: men (they were mostly men) who would usually have backed Democratic candidates, but switched to Trump because he promised to “bring back the jobs” and stop the non-white immigration.
There was certainly a large element of racial panic in the American vote.

A survey by Zack Beauchamp of the opinion polling and recent academic research on the topic, entitled “White Riot” and published on Vox on 20 January, documented the argument that “the real sources of the far-right’s appeal are anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance.”
On the other hand, the Rust Belt states south of the Great Lakes, the former industrial heartland of the United States, are the places that have suffered the greatest job losses over the past few decades, which is why cities like Cleveland and Detroit are decaying and partly abandoned.
And they are emphatically NOT major destinations for new immigrants to the US.

Trump himself always ensures that he hits on both immigration and job losses in his speeches and tweets, and he is the world’s expert on the fears and prejudices of his supporters.
Could we perhaps speculate that his supporters say that they are frightened about immigration and especially Muslim immigration, but that their racism is really driven in large part by their anger at the steep decline in the number of well-paid industrial jobs?

Of the six states with over a million immigrants — California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey — only Florida (where Trump won by a whisker) and Texas (which has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980) voted for Trump.

California, whose ten million immigrants make up 27 percent of the state population, voted two-to-one for Hillary Clinton.
It would seem that, in the words of the old Phil Spector song, to know, know, know them is to love, love, love them (the immigrants), or at least not to fear them.
Whereas Michigan, a Rust-Belt state that voted Democratic in the previous six elections and where only 6 percent of the population are immigrants, voted for Trump.
You can see the same pattern in the Brexit vote in England last June.

The prosperous big cities are where the immigrants are, and every one of them except Birmingham voted Remain (in the European Union).
London, where half the school population is non-white, voted Remain by a 60-40 majority, as did Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.
The narrow Leave majority countrywide was won in depressed northern industrial cities where immigrant populations are low, and in prosperous rural areas where there are virtually no immigrants at all.

So there was again racial panic at the changing ethnic face of England in areas where immigrants were largely absent, but especially in post-industrial areas where they are (wrongly) blamed for the loss of well-paying jobs.

In populist revolts elsewhere, the manifest racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that dominated in the opinion polls masked a deeper resentment about the loss of jobs.
In the Netherlands, where unemployment is only 5 percent, Geert Wilders is depending on racism alone, and he is not heading for a Brexit- or Trump-style victory.
The latest opinion poll gives him just 15 percent of the vote.

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