In recent months I’ve realized that there’s a gaping hole in my “Yemen’s Disaster” series. The series does a good job laying out the many different divisions within Yemen, and between the sponsors of differing sides in Yemen’s civil war. But it leaves out the very important role of divisions within the “Saudi Coalition” that has been destroying the country. The United Arab Emirates, supposedly allied with Saudi Arabia, has been pursuing a very different strategy, which is laid out in this video.
I don’t necessarily have too much trouble with hypocrisy. Any adult realizes that we’re all hypocrites to some degree. But we should know what we’re doing. And the level of hypocrisy illustrated in today’s video is pretty extraordinary. Yemen and Ukraine are two of the world’s hot spots. Essentially the same thing is happening in both countries. A more powerful neighbor is trying to invade and change them. If we care about international law, we should be more willing to make these comparisons more often.
Also, watching today’s video, I realized that I’m being deeply hypocritical in the video. I was so excited to make this comparison that I left my own country out of the analysis. The United States invades countries more frequently than anybody else does. The vid should definitely have mentioned that. But I think the point still stands. One day the US might be able to be constrained by international law as well. If we’re going to get there, we have to be willing to try to look at all conflicts with a little more objectivity. Which is hard for hypocrites like us…
One of the most important aspects of development in Saudi Arabia, and in the Gulf more broadly, is the fact that it often doesn’t happen. The Gulf countries are mostly run by monarchs, and they all have pharaonic ambitions. They want to build monuments, cities, and other great works that illustrate their magnificence. If it’s something as simple as a museum or giving a foreign university a local campus it happens. But the great ambitions that mix local development, innovation, or anything else that requires real buy-in from the people of the country, either never happen, or happen in such a small way as to make the initial announcements look ridiculous.
When NEOM, the 500 billion USD sustainable city was announced, I couldn’t help but think of the UAE’s Masdar city. It was announced with similar fanfare back in 2006. It was going to be green, it was going to be amazing, there were going to be tons of people there! Parts of Masdar did end up being built, but most of the plan was scrapped, and the Guardian now describes it as in danger of becoming a ghost town. Masdar isn’t the only hi-tech wonderland city that never was. Saudi Arabia has one too. Anybody remember King Abdullah Technology City? It was the last king’s NEOM. It was still moving along, or at least reported to be so back in 2015.
And that’s the important bit here. All of this constant churn of projects seems to be done more for a foreign press audience than to create real change in Saudi Arabia. I don’t doubt the sincerity of any of the Saudi Royal reformers, I just doubt their ability. The world press gives them a free pass on all of this. Almost none of the articles reporting on NEOM mentioned King Abdullah city or Masdar. Actually, now that Abdullah is dead, his city seems to have disappeared from the news completely. It’s clear that it’s now longer a public relations priority, and I’d guess that the 100 billion that is supposed to build that city is now quickly moving on to MBS’s NEOM. This is not a good way to run anything. But the Saudis get a pass from the world press. Today’s video, on the ridiculousness of the Saudi Aramco IPO is an attempt to push back on that a bit.
Over the past year Saudi Arabia has experienced a perfect storm of factors in its favor. Asset prices in the US economy and elsewhere have gone nuts. Saudi Arabia is a country that owns a lot of stock, land and everything else, so that’s been very helpful. On the oil market front, the most important front there is for Saudi Arabia, they’ve had unprecedented cooperation on the OPEC production slow-down, and a series of competitors have given up millions of barrels a day in production due to sundry wars and dictatorships.
If Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plans for the future were ever going to work, 2017 would have been the year for it. But as this video shows, some of the key metrics that illustrate the hole Saudi Arabia is in haven’t changed much at all. As I said in last year’s video, and as I repeat in today’s video… Saudi Arabia is still finished.
Occasionally I’ll embark on the 15-20 hour process of making a video, and then something happens that throws things in a new light. I still stand 100% behind today’s video, but if I’d known that Secretary of Defense James Mattis was going to weigh in, I probably would have incorporated a response. He’s a serious guy. I’ll have to respond here.
It’s easy for me to dismiss a lot of Mattis’s letter due to some pretty fundamental strategic and philosophical differences I have with him that regular viewers of this channel will be familiar with. Mattis believes that Saudi Arabia is a worthwhile partner in counter-terrorism. I do not believe that. Mattis believes that Iran is more of a threat to the US and the world than Saudi Arabia is. I do not believe that. Because Mattis believes these things I do not believe, he presents a narrative for the Yemeni war that strikes me as deeply flawed. If you’ve got a half hour or so, I set out a counter-narrative, that actually reckons with Yemeni history, unlike the standard Iran-Saudi proxy war fairy tale we’re told.
But there’s one concern that Mattis brings up that I can’t dismiss. He claims that ending US cooperation with Saudi Arabia in Yemen will make the humanitarian situation worse. I’m worried about this as well. Taking the US out of the equation is likely to degrade Saudi Arabia’s ability to continue the war long term, but I suspect it is also likely to make the Saudis more brutal. The 5,295 civilians that have been killed so far (Human Rights Watch), are probably the result of fairly targeted bombing. Saudi bombing is likely to have killed most of these civilians, but US expertise has probably put a bit of a cap on the body count. I’m no expert on warfare, but I was already worried about this. Having Mattis, one of the world’s greatest experts on warfare, express this opinion makes me more worried. But it does not give me pause.
More people may die by bombing, but Saudi Arabia’s ability to besiege the country will be seriously degraded. Millions are less likely to be at risk of starvation or cholera. And if Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen becomes more brutal it will also become less sustainable. A key point that I neglected to include in this video, and rarely gets included in the standard litany (“refueling, targeting, intelligence”) of goods the US provides to Saudi Arabia is diplomatic cover. It is a profoundly weird thing that Saudi Arabia is doing. Saudi Arabia is invading and destroying its neighbor. This sort of thing doesn’t happen much in the 21st century, or even in the second half of the 20th century. Most wars are civil. The few examples of cross-border invasion I can think of post Cold War are only possible because of US support. If the resolution passes in the Senate next week, and gets through the House, Saudi Arabia won’t just lose technical support, it will lose that diplomatic cover.
Without US support the war in Yemen will instantly become exponentially more cancerous for the Saudi re-branding effort than it already is. MBS and the Saudi government desperately need investors for their oil company’s years-delayed IPO, and that new tech city they announced last fall. Try doing that when US media and government are no longer covering up the war in Yemen.
I’m afraid that Mattis may be right about the immediate humanitarian costs of cutting off US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. But continuing on the way we have for another two years would be much, much worse.
I wanted to address another aspect of the comparison between Pakistan and Turkey that the cursed article I talk about in today’s video mentions briefly. The article does concede that Pakistan’s dictator led Islamification under Zia ul-Haq was a completely different example than the attempts at Islamification currently being carried out by Turkey’s elected president Erdogan. As I point out in the video, Pakistan remains desperately poor today and this was even more the case in the 1980’s. Zia was using Islam as tool for nation-building. It remains a key part of Pakistan’s sense of itself as a nation today.
As I laid out in my other twovideos on Islam in Turkey, Erdogan does not have the blank slate to work with that Pakistan’s Zia did. Pakistan of course, unlike Saudi Arabia, has an endlessly rich and varied history. But very few among a population that mostly couldn’t read, and was living on the brink of starvation, were able to benefit from that history and culture. Turkey has a very distinct sense of nationalism that is quite separate from Islam, and that is internalized across the population. No matter how powerful Erdogan becomes, he will not be able to eradicate those underpinnings.
The fall of Christian Constantinople to the Muslim Turks is one of the most significant events in Eurasian history. Some use the date it happened, 1453, as the break point between “Medieval” times and the “Early Modern” era. The threat of the Ottoman Empire was an important thing too. It motivated a lot of the state consolidation and military advancement that gave us modern Western Civilization. The threat of “the Turk” is long passed, but we don’t challenge the basic assumptions that that struggle has left us with. We don’t need the dream of a fallen Constantinople for propaganda purposes anymore. We should acknowledge what actually happened. That’s what this week’s video aims to do.
You all may have noticed that I consciously avoid the term “Byzantine Empire” here. The Byzantines did too. In fact the term wasn’t even invented until centuries after they had gone. They knew themselves as Romans, so that’s how I try to refer to them as well. This confusion has its origin in a bit of archaic racism. The Enlightenment thinkers that drew European History together didn’t like the Greeks much. For them Rome was based in Rome. It was the great civilization of Cicero and Augustus, it spoke Latin and it ended in 476.
The Western bits of the Empire did in fact fall in 476. But the Eastern Half had a full 1,000 years of history ahead of it. The Western European historians of the 1700s found this kind of thing distasteful. Altogether too Eastern. The Eastern Roman Emperors, with their constant murdering of each other, their pretensions to imperial divinity, and tasteless bling weren’t really their sort of Romans. So they invented a whole new name for them, the Byzantines, based on the original Greek name of Constantinople. I’m a big fan of Rome, and I have some of the same prejudices, but I don’t feel the need to distinguish the way the folks in the 1700s did. So I tend to use the term “Eastern Roman Empire” rather than “Byzantine Empire”.
Back when I started doing this channel full time, I put out a series called “Notes From The Golden Age“. Today’s video, on the defeat of OPEC, is a long delayed addition to the series. In the six minutes of the video itself, I just laid out the facts as I understand them: The fact that OPEC did its level best to raise the price of oil, and they failed. If you want to hear more about why that is, and hear some discussion of the revolution in petroleum affairs we’ve experienced over the past five years, you could do worse than this video here.
Put briefly, oil doesn’t cost what it used to. The origin of this development is probably OPEC itself. That cartel drastically reduced the oil on the market on a couple occasions in the 1970s, driving the price through the roof. Much has, quite rightly, been made of the Shale revolution in the United States. A range of technological advances has made oil extraction easier, cheaper, and viable in places that it wasn’t before. This revolution has made US production competitive with Saudi Arabia again, and caused the plummet in prices that started in mid 2014. But the Shale revolution is only the most dramatic cause.
The plummet in oil prices is the result of a range of reactions to OPEC’s obscene market power. An under-heralded one is energy efficiency. We have finally reached a point where economic growth is decoupling from growth in petrochemical use. Some of this is renewables, but more of it is the very, very unsexy business of making cars and air conditioning units run more efficiently. Another reaction to OPEC was the broadening of the search for petroleum. Coupled with Technological advances, a staggering range of countries now produce significant amounts of oil and gas. OPEC has been beaten. They largely did it to themselves.
A lot of Saudi Arabia coverage focuses on the loose cannon effect the country has been having on Middle East politics for the past year. Little attention has been paid to the promises that have been made to the country, and the way those promises have not been honored. I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of 2017 from the perspective of Saudi Arabia’s rulers for once. I think it illuminates something many have been missing.
This video started out as a central idea I wanted to deliver about the Trump administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Then it evolved into more of a Saudi Arabia year in review thing. This video is different from the recent ones in a number of ways. It tries to cover a lot, quickly. Not sure whether it’s worthwhile or not. Let me know @robbolaw
War Sucks. This is something we’ve lost touch with in the United States. It’s a central truth that’s become further and further from us since the middle of the 20th century. Not that our World War II experience was all that bruising either, compared to almost anybody else in Europe and Asia. Since Vietnam our military has been all-volunteer, and in the 21st century our death-dealing has become more remote, thanks to drones and smarter weapons. Our insulation from all of the consequences of war has made us more willing to use it as a tool of policy or economic stimulus.
Not for Lebanon. They don’t have that luxury. For fifteen years, it was their tiny country that was torn apart by the political fantasies of foreign countries. This video lays out how that horror has allowed them to save us from a broader war, both over the past six years and in the past month in particular.