IT’S unclear whether last Saturday’s devastating attacks on key Saudi Aramco facilities will serve as a sobering reminder to the kingdom’s ruling family of the price it must pay for its appallingly misguided military mission in Yemen.
The latter nation’s Houthi militia immediately claimed responsibility, but Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, was equally quick to lay the blame squarely on Iran. The following day, Donald Trump tweeted that American forces were “locked and loaded”, awaiting “verification” from Riyadh.
The implication was that the House of Saud just had to give the word for its saviour-in-chief to launch retaliatory strikes, presumably against Iran. Were that threat to be carried out, there’s a reasonable chance it would unleash the worst war the Middle East has witnessed in recent decades, in a region already convulsed in seemingly intractable conflicts.
The sites of the Saudi conflagrations are considerably closer to Iraq and Iran than to Yemen, but Pompeo is reported to have informed Iraq’s prime minister that the attacks did not emanate from Iraqi territory. And even if Iran was behind the drones and/or missiles that struck the Aramco sites, what are the chances it would launch them from its own terrain?
All bets would be off, were a war to be unleashed.
Meanwhile, Riyadh is being circumspect in its allegations, claiming that the weapons were of Iranian origin without directly blaming Tehran.
It’s hard to believe that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who was instrumental in unleashing fire and fury against Yemen, would personally be averse to an American attack on Iran, regardless of the consequences. It is possible, though, that he holds less sway than he did when recalcitrant journalist Jamal Khashoggi was literally butchered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul almost a year ago.
In a related sphere, the current state of relations between MBS and his one-time mentor, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed, is also unclear. Saudi and Emirati proxies in Yemen have lately been combating each other, adding a layer of complexity to the already convoluted conflicts in that benighted country.
The Saudis and Emiratis collaborated in the utterly misguided assault on Yemen, but the UAE has in recent months signalled a semi-disengagement; it refused to directly blame Iran for attacks on shipping off its Gulf shores, and has even engaged in a spot of diplomacy with Tehran. Perhaps it recognised its vulnerabilities earlier than the Saudis, thereby persuading the Houthis to lay off Emirati targets.
Meanwhile, although the blow to Saudi production facilities, which threatened to halve its daily output, inevitably led to a spike this week in oil prices, the Saudis and the Americans both declared their willingness to use their substantial reserves to make up for any shortfalls in the global market. All bets would be off, however, were a war to be unleashed.
Perhaps there’s some consolation to be gained from the impression that Trump, regardless of his sporadically belligerent rhetoric, is broadly averse to fresh hostilities in the run-up to an election year. Yet nothing can prevent him from being consistently erratic. He was apparently willing to host representatives of the Afghan Taliban at Camp David in the week marking the 18th anniversary of 9/11 to sign off on a peace deal alongside Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, but called off the talks after a fairly routine Taliban attack in Kabul in which the fatalities included a single US soldier.
Shortly afterwards, Trump dismissed his belligerent national security adviser, John Bolton, on the basis that they rarely saw eye to eye. Bolton is an unrepentant neoconservative notorious for abhorring all peace treaties and adoring most wars. He has been advocating the invasion of Iran since he was in the George W. Bush administration, and favoured a similar approach towards Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
His hostility against dealing with the Taliban found some echoes in Afghanistan, where the overwhelming desire for peace after 40 years of conflict is tempered by fear of a return to the obscurantist brutality of the 1990s, given America’s virtual acknowledgment that its longest war has been an abysmal failure. Yet talks are impossible to avoid on any path to a lasting peace.
Bolton’s visceral opposition to the remote possibility of direct talks between Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of this month’s annual UN gathering, now rendered inconceivable, was perhaps matched only by the feelings of Benjamin Netanyahu, alongside Saudi alarm. The intensified verbal vitriol was propitiously — or suspiciously — well-timed for the Israeli prime minister as he went into yesterday’s fraught election, although he had already put into effect his contingency plan by vowing to annex a large part of the West Bank.
Whatever the immediate future may entail, it can almost be guaranteed that the Middle East will remain on the boil for a long time to come.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2019