Royals Versus Ragtags

If you’re curious to know why the Saudis aren’t more responsive when it comes to US demands, implicit and explicit, to help alleviate energy price strains associated with Russia’s misbegotten military adventure in Ukraine, look no further than the latest round of Houthi strikes on the Kingdom’s infrastructure.

A multi-pronged drone attack successfully set a Jeddah oil storage depot ablaze Friday, creating a large cloud of acrid, black smoke and casting a shadow (figuratively and literally) over a Formula 1 race.

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was set to go ahead on schedule — because nothing says “tourist destination” and “leisure sports” quite like violent, sectarian strife. “All security measures for the safety of participants, contestants and visitors, which were taken to hold this race in advance are taking place as usual,” Saudi Motorsport Co insisted, in an amusing attempt to reassure spectators.

Houthi spokesman Yahya Saree said the IRGC-backed ragtags also targeted Riyadh, Jazan, Dhahran Al-Janoub, Abha and Khamis Mushait with missiles, as well as refineries in Ras Tanura and Rabigh with “a large number” of drones. The Saudis were apparently able to intercept most of those projectiles.

As usual, SPA published every, single international condemnation as a separate news story. The Kingdom was keen to play on fears of elevated energy prices and, tacitly, high inflation in advanced economies. A spokesroyal for the energy ministry advised the international community to “be aware of the danger of Iran’s continuous provision of ballistic missiles and advanced drones, which target the Kingdom’s oil, gas and refining facilities.” He (because it’s never a she, and certainly never a Shiite) continued:

The grave effects on the upstream and downstream sector could affect the Kingdom’s production capacity and its ability to fulfill its obligations to the international markets, seriously threatening the security and stability of energy supplies to global markets. It has become clear that such attacks of terrorism, and those behind them, do not just target the Kingdom alone, but the security and stability of energy supply to the world, therefore targeting the global economy, especially at these times of extremely sensitive circumstances the world and international energy markets are suffering.

That’s not necessarily true, or at least not to the letter. Certainly Iran wants to make its barrels seem indispensable, and making Saudi supply appear vulnerable is one way to go about that. But the list of high-value targets in the Kingdom is limited to holy sites and oil installations. Forgive me, but there’s just not that much else there. There’s beauty in abundance, but that’s true everywhere, and you don’t get points in Tehran from blighting a nice oasis.

On Saturday, the Saudis responded to what the Kingdom called an “aggressive escalation” by “criminals” bent on “affecting energy security and the global economy.” At the direction of Mohammed Bin Salman, the Kingdom sent a diplomatic delegation to Sana’a offering humanitarian aid and reconstruction funds in exchange for a durable peace accord. I’m just kidding. Bin Salman bombed Yemen, likely with US weapons, including targets in Ras Eissa (a port), Hodiedah (where airstrikes took out electricity and fuel stations) and, of course, Sana’a itself, a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site, where 2,500 years of history remains in extreme peril.

According to KUNA, the Saudi operation is in its “preliminary phase” and aims to “protect energy sources and supplies.” On Friday, Kuwait “vehemently decried” the use of “boobytraps” by the Houthis, who the emirate branded “cowards.”

Each and every such royal lament for Saudi security has one thing in common: An exhortation for somebody, somewhere, to do something, where “somebody” is supposed to be Joe Biden, “somewhere” is supposed to be Washington and “something” is supposed to be a military operation and/or a pressure campaign aimed at compelling Tehran to ask the Houthis to stop aggravating the royals.

Antony Blinken was set to chat with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan over the weekend. He (Blinken) offered the customary, boilerplate chiding. The Houthis are terrorists, their “behavior” is unacceptable and so forth.

All of this is set against efforts to restore some version of the nuclear deal with Iran, something the Saudis aren’t necessarily enamored with either. This is why sundry kings, princes and emirs are reluctant to help the US squeeze Russia. The situation is complicated by Riyadh’s tenuous partnership with Moscow, both at the executive level (who can forget the famous “bro shake” at the Argentina G20?) and at the ministerial level (i.e., OPEC+).

“Iran’s continued support for the Houthis and other armed groups in the region has emerged as a core concern for Saudi Arabia as the US continues to push for a nuclear deal with Tehran that would lead to the lifting of sanctions,” RBC’s Michael Tran said, on the way to elaborating as follows:

A remaining source of contention in the nuclear negotiations is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department. The IRGC is reportedly insisting on a formal FTO delisting as a precondition for signing on to a new nuclear agreement, while the White House is looking for a clear IRGC commitment to curtailing support for armed proxy groups. Washington is already reportedly providing the Kingdom with additional Patriot missiles. However, it is hard to see how Washington presses ahead with signing a narrow nuclear deal with Iran while convincing Saudi Arabia that it is in its best interests to jettison its relationship with its OPEC+ partner Russia and deploy its spare capacity to provide gas price relief to US consumers.

This is an impossible tightrope for any sane US administration to walk. Criticize the nuclear deal as you will, but it’s far from obvious that an optimal approach to Mideast diplomacy is an undiplomatic one.

Donald Trump gambled with the world’s security when he assassinated Qassem Soleimani. As it turned out, it was a good gamble. Iran apparently believed Trump’s brazen decision to carry out an extraterritorial execution of the world’s most dangerous spy and military operative suggested he might be capable of anything, including a land invasion, notwithstanding his aversion to “forever wars” on “blood-stained sand,” as Trump once put it, in a hopelessly tone deaf reference to Syria. But that was the furthest thing from a safe bet. Almost all indications were that US intelligence didn’t favor an operation to kill Soleimani, let alone in a drone strike the US would have to publicly claim. One certainly imagines the preferred method at the CIA would’ve been for Israeli operatives to close Soleimani’s curtains on one of his trips to Syria.

The Biden administration doesn’t want any part of Trump’s Mideast gunslinging, preferring instead to go the traditional route, which entails supporting Riyadh while muttering about human rights and paying lip service to the necessity of societal reforms in the Kingdom, while also pursuing something like diplomacy with Tehran in order to prevent a scenario where the world has two North Koreas. It’s a delicate balancing act, and it’s not easy to convince the Saudis (or the Israelis) that it’s actually safer to engage with Iran than to ostracize the theocracy, which is going to be a nuisance either way.

There are no ‘”right” answers. And it’s all made immeasurably more complicated by the fact that the return of Iranian barrels would help alleviate the energy squeeze, something Russia would rather not see abate, even as Moscow ostensibly wants to help free Tehran from the stranglehold of the very same type of sanctions Putin brought upon Russia.

Speak your mind

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

8 thoughts on “Royals Versus Ragtags

  1. A race (as in the past “space race”) to safe nuclear sourced power backed by the US, EU and any other country that is willing to prioritize such effort with money and human brain power, would effectively take oil off the table.
    This is possibly the best (only?) strategy for saving the planet from destructive wars and life-ending pollution from fossil fuels.
    TerraPower, a start-up funded by Bill Gates, is building its first nuclear power plant in Wyoming at a cost of $4B through a public-private partnership between TerraPower and the Department of Energy.
    “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” by Bill Gates is a quick and worthwhile read. Gates estimates that the US uses 1,000 gigawatts of energy and the world needs 5,000 gigawatts. The Wyoming plant is a natrium plant that uses liquid sodium, not water, as its cooling agent – meaning that high pressure does not build up inside the reactor and, therefore, has less risk of an explosion.
    The Wyoming plant will generate approximately 350 -500 megawatts. TerraPower has a stated goal to get the cost of building these “small” reactors down to $1B.
    Nuclear energy won’t be cheap- but probably worth the cost.

    1. Before hyping this project, one should take a look at the state of the nuclear industry. Start with the Vogtle plant in Georgia. When Georgia approved the Vogtle expansion in 2009, the two standard Westinghouse AP1000 reactors were expected to cost about $14 billion and enter service in 2016 and 2017. It’s 2022 and the project is not finished after doubling in cost – so far. But ( this is too cool ) Georgia Power customers are already paying for the boondoggle. Imagine that part of your power bill was for an overdue and over budget power plant that may never produce a watt of power. The Wyoming project is in its infancy and already seriously challenged because their only source of fuel is Russia. The solution: more federal money please. Read about it here: and convince me this isn’t another scheme to fleece the taxpayer. The only one set to profit from this is Warren Buffett who will not have to clean up the mess when his coal plant shuts down and he donates it to the government for a nuclear plant.

        1. Go for it then. Sad thing is you will also be wasting you great grandchildren’s money because the radioactive waste requires expensive maintenance long after it becomes useless. A nuclear power plant lasts a few decades but its radioactive waste lasts forever. Now that’s subsidizing a problem on a grand scale.

  2. Sana’a itself, a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site, where 2,500 years of history remains in extreme peril.

    I spent two years on the Arabian peninsula in the late-90s when I was in the military. I was very, very fortunate to have been able to get to Yemen twice. Sana’a is a World Heritage site for a reason: it’s such a step into a world most people can’t imagine. I loved it, and I loved the Yemenis. The Yemenis—and to a slightly lesser extent the Omanis—are the only reason I wouldn’t mind seeing the entire Arabian peninsula wash away into the sea.

NEWSROOM crewneck & prints