Middle East update: November 6 2017


This is a bit “oh, now you tell us,” but on Monday Iraq’s Supreme Court ruled that no part of the country can legally secede. It’s unlikely any other Iraqi region would have made the attempt after seeing what happened to the Kurds, but the ruling opens the door to an even more robust Iraqi move to quash Kurdish separatism. To wit, Iraq’s 2018 budget looks like it will chop Kurdistan’s share of the pot from 17 percent this year to about 12.6 percent. Coupled with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s loss of the crucial oil fields around Kirkuk, this could be a pretty painful blow to the region’s economy.


Say, remember when the Saudis said their new total blockade of all points of entry into Yemen would account for humanitarian needs? Yeah, funny story, it’s not:

The Saudi-led coalition’s decision to close off Yemen’s air, sea and land borders prevented the United Nations on Monday from sending two humanitarian aid flights to the war-torn country, a UN spokesman said.


UN officials are in talks with the coalition to get permission for the flights to deliver aid to Yemen, where some seven million people are on the brink of famine.


“There were no flight clearances granted to our flights today,” said UN spokesman Farhan Haq. “We expected to have two flights going and those are on hold for now.”


The US and Turkey started to resume issuing visas to each other’s countries on Monday. They’d stopped doing that about a month ago when Turkish authorities arrested a Turkish employee of the US mission and the US decided to shut down its consular activities in Turkey in response.


Lebanon has declared war against Saudi Arabia! Wait, what?

Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon on Monday of declaring war against it because of aggression by the Iran-backed Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah, a dramatic escalation of a crisis threatening to destabilize the tiny Arab country.

If this seems just a teensy bit hyperbolic, well, that’s because it is. Hezbollah has been fielding candidates in Lebanese elections since 1992 and to my knowledge it hasn’t been at war with Saudi Arabia for the past 25 years. I miss a lot of things but I’m pretty sure I would’ve heard about that. Anyway I don’t think you’re going to see a Saudi-Lebanese war break out.

What you may see is a Qatar 2.0, whereby the Saudis cut Lebanon off and try to mobilize other countries to do the same. Whether or not they succeed in marshaling a coalition, Saudi financial and military support for Lebanon is substantial enough that withdrawing it would cause Lebanon serious economic pain–pain that would be borne primarily by the Lebanese people and the million-plus Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It could also very easily be a prelude to an Israeli invasion, one that would inevitably see the US going all in to back Israel’s play, both because it’s Israel and because doing so would advance the Trump administration’s anti-Hezbollah/anti-Iran agenda.

The Saudis also insisted that former (?) Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is free to leave Saudi Arabia anytime, which is the kind of thing where, if you have to say it, it starts to sound like maybe it’s not true. Lebanese President Michel Aoun is refusing to accept Hariri’s resignation until he delivers it in person, which is a clever way of seeing if he’ll be more reasonable once he’s out of Saudi captivity hospitality. But such is Hariri’s exposure to potential Saudi reprisal that he’s not ever really out of their grasp, so expect him to stick to his decision even after he returns to Beirut. The formation of a new Lebanese government is obviously on hold until that happens.


An ongoing investigation into the sale of some German submarines to Israel has nabbed the two men who may be Benjamin Netanyahu’s most trusted operatives and could wind up landing on Netanyahu himself:

The Israeli police continue to investigate the sale of German submarines to Israel and the people involved in the deal. But while we cannot predict the end results of the “submarine affair,” we already know that it has changed the face of the government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will be forced to at least testify on this affair in the near future, can no longer run the country via his two lawyer-cousins who are his closest, most loyal associates. This system through which the prime minister conducted Israel’s most secret issues has been dismantled. It is gone for good.


Human rights lawyer Khaled Ali is planning to challenge Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in next year’s election. He’ll lose, probably quite badly, but depending on how repressive the campaign media environment is he may be able to lob some painful accusations in Sisi’s direction.


Iran has apparently also declared war on Saudi Arabia, according to the Saudis, on account of how Yemeni rebels fired a missile at Riyadh on Saturday. The Saudis continue to insist that the missile was supplied by Iran even though there’s no evidence of that and there’s plenty of evidence that the rebels fired a kind of ballistic missile that Yemen is known to have had in substantial numbers before the civil war started. Here too, and contrary to the concerns of the New York Times and Washington Post, I don’t think you’re going to see an actual war breaking out. The Saudis don’t go to war with peers–they go to war with countries that are much weaker than they are. And then lose anyway.

Mohammad bin Salman’s purge list got bigger on Monday with the addition of billionaire Saudi businessman Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar, proprietor of Al Tayyar Travel. Saudi media is dutifully slurping up the official anti-corruption line even though it’s plain as day that MBS is more interested in consolidating power than in actually doing something about corruption. He now controls all three of Saudi Arabia’s main armed forces–the military, the interior ministry, and the national guard–and has engineered it so he’s practically the last man standing in the kingdom. He’s almost completed his makeover of the Saudi monarchy from one based on a family-run corporate/shared approach to power to one in which absolute authority is vested in one man, himself. He’s riding pretty high at the moment, which is remarkable for a 32 year old man who already has multiple serious fuck-ups on his resume.

MBS’s path to the throne should be quite clear at this point–unless, of course, he’s already gone too far. But we won’t know that for a while yet, and anyway right now it’s hard to see how anybody could seriously challenge him. A serious economic downturn might do him in, but while Saudi unemployment is rising and oil prices (and the kingdom’s remaining reserves) are not, it would take a real shock to the system to derail the MBS train at this point.

Speaking of dutifully slurping up whatever’s flowing from Riyadh, here’s US President Donald Trump:

The whole Saudi family has been “milking” Saudi Arabia since 1932. That’s pretty much what they’re there to do. Trump, of course, is so far in the bag for MBS at this point that he probably couldn’t find his way out again even if he wanted to. And according to at least one purported Saudi whistleblower, there’s a very particular reason why.

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