Saudi Arabia Heading for Turmoil: US Analyst

Saudi Arabia Heading for Turmoil: US Analyst

TEHRAN (Tasnim) – An American political expert predicted a turbulent future for Saudi Arabia given the growing internal discontent in the kingdom and its engagement in wars against Yemen and Syria, saying the purchase of huge amounts of foreign arms does not bring Riyadh military power.

In an interview with Tasnim, Brian M Downing highlighted the dire situation that Saudi Arabia is heading for, considering regional and international developments.

He also made comments about the US foreign policy with an eye to the upcoming presidential elections and about police brutality that has triggered widespread protests in the US.

Mr. Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.

Following is the full text of his interview with the Tasnim News Agency:

Tasnim: Saudi Arabia is growing anxious about losing US support as an old ally after the US Congress overturned President Obama’s veto of a bill that allows families of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is also entangled in a costly war on Yemen and faces a huge budget deficit. What do you think about the Saudi conduct in the future and the fate of Yemen’s war with regard to Iran’s regional influence and support for the Yemeni and Syrian people?

Downing: Saudi Arabia is heading for turmoil, perhaps worse. Oil prices are low and expected to remain so for many years. This of course is due to lower world demand and higher American production. The Saudis are funding wars in Yemen and Syria, bankrolling the army and state in Egypt, and otherwise trying to buy influence in the volatile region. They buy huge amounts of military equipment from the US, UK, and Russia, but without building a competent military. The purchases bring diplomatic power, not military power.

The Saudi princes also disburse oil revenue to various tribes and groups inside the country. Lower prices mean lower disbursements. It also means unrest, especially among the large youth population. Many will think that Riyadh spends too much money abroad and not enough at home.

ISIL (Daesh) has been able to strike in several parts of the country and that is likely to continue. There are thousands of Saudis serving with al Qaeda and ISIL in Syria and Iraq. They will come home one day. The wars in Syria and Iraq will continue for quite a while. Even with the defeat of ISIL and al Qaeda, there will be fighting between Sunni and Shia in eastern Syria and western Iraq. The Saudis will try to create a “Sunnistan” in those areas to separate Syria and Lebanon from Iraq and Iran. This effort will be central to the region for years to come.

There is a “perfect storm” coming: a large and restive youth population with bleak outlooks, ongoing deep budget cuts, sectarian tensions, terrorism, and most importantly, a crucial succession from an aged clique to a younger generation. Many Saudis will be unhappy if they don't get a say in their country’s future.

What will come of this perfect storm? Libya, Syria, Iraq, and other countries are breaking up; Saudi Arabia may follow. Paradoxically, two rivals, Iran and Israel, would like to see the fragmentation of Saudi Arabia. Those two powers were once strong allies against Sunni powers. Maybe they will cooperate again in the future. The region is changing fast.

Saudi Arabia is getting closer to Russia in order to be less reliant on the US for arms and support. This is in part because of US support for the nuclear deal. Russia also has good relations with Iran, so perhaps it can help keep the peace. If not, Russia will back the more numerous and wealthier Sunni powers. Iran will become secondary.

Tasnim: As an expert in military developments, what scenarios do you imagine for the US policy towards the Middle East under the next president? There are public concerns that the nuclear agreement with Iran would be scrapped if Donald Trump takes the office, with occasional speculations about military action against Iran. What is your stand on it?

Downing: The nuclear agreement, which was signed by several powers, will not be scrapped in the absence of a break with the agreement on Iran’s part, say, by restarting the centrifuges at Fordo and Natanz, and/or the breeder reactor at Arak. A strike by Israel is unlikely as so many Israeli military and intelligence chiefs opposed it even before the agreement. Paradoxical as it may sound, Israeli security officials (eg, Meir Dagan) were the biggest obstacle to airstrikes.

A more likely scenario would be an engagement between Iran and the US in the Persian Gulf. There have already been close calls. A few such engagements took place during the Iran-Iraq War but did not escalate into serious conflict. I don’t think Iran or the US wants a serious conflict now either.

Donald Trump sounds very belligerent at times, yet at others he questions the usefulness of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – both supported by his adversary, Hillary Clinton. He asks what the wars gave us besides casualties and debt. This might suggest a less vigorous foreign policy if he were to become president. However, Trump is an unknown figure – one that causes concern around the world.

Tasnim: A new wave of protests has gripped various states in the US after unarmed African American Keith Scott was shot dead by police in Charlotte. As you know, the United States has been a self-declared champion of human rights across the globe. However, the recent killings of African-Americans by the US police have raised questions about Washington's own record. What is your take on the human rights situation in the US?

Downing: The shooting deaths were done by local police, not by national ones or under their direction. The national government has been critical of the reckless use of force by local police and has used the Justice Department and FBI to look into the conduct and procedures of local police departments. An unfortunate consequence is that police are increasingly reluctant to perform their duties in high-crime areas, as it might ruin their careers. This will lead to greater crime.

There is a growing sense among African Americans that they are not accepted in the country. I expect this to continue in coming years and take the form of demanding autonomy for many major cities.

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