James B.T. Dickey
A 30-year-old prince disillusioned with the U.S. is running the show in Saudi Arabia—fighting Iran directly and through proxies all over the map. Is there a strategy?
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 30-year-old son of the king and ever more obviously the heir apparent, is just winding up a fairly low profile public relations tour of the United States. Last week he met with President Barack Obama in Washington. This week he got together with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in New York. In between he visited Silicon Valley and talked up his Vision 2030 program to overhaul and modernize Saudi Arabia’s economy.
But MBS, as he’s known, has attracted the world’s attention since his appointment as deputy crown prince and minister of defense early last year mainly for his heavy-handed efforts, including a war in Yemen, to contain and roll back Iranian influence in the region.
When MBS met with Obama, according to the official read-out, they discussed “Iran’s destabilizing activities and agreed to explore avenues that could lead to a de-escalation of tensions.”
Interesting phrase that: “de-escalating tensions.” It could have just as easily referred to the growing rift between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as to the ongoing confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran.
Ever since the U.S. started to approach energy independence, largely due to “fracking,” America has been less dependent on Saudi oil and thus less obligated to Riyadh than it once was. And while the mullahs in Tehran may pose some dangers to the United States, Americans do not regard a resurgent Iran as an existential threat. The Saudi monarchy, on the other hand, feels very threatened indeed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its ongoing regional revolution.
Washington’s effort at rapprochement with Tehran, exemplified by the Iranian nuclear deal, is only one of many issues that have led the Saudis to believe they can no longer count on Uncle Sam to have their back.
Recently the Obama Administration blocked the transfer of cluster bombs to the kingdom over concerns that previous shipments had been used in Yemen, resulting in significant civilian casualties. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate passed a bill which would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role supporting the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. All this in a business environment in which the Saudi decision to maintain a high volume of oil exports, despite low prices, has depressed the international energy market and led to wide-scale layoffs and bankruptcies among America’s oil producers.
Even assuming that the recent diplomatic offensive by the Saudi leadership is successful, and US-KSA relations improve, the recent strain has proven to the Saudi royals that they can no longer take America, and its security umbrella, for granted. What are the Saudis to do?
The following is an attempt to “Red Team” Saudi planning for war with Iran, a work of the imagination founded in fact that tries to get inside the thinking of those who advise the king and his son.
To: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
From: Colonel Faris bin Saif Al Harbi
Subject: Preparations for the Inevitable
My King, at the direction of your most worthy son, the Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, I have prepared a plan for the inevitable conflict against the Persians and Rejectionists [Shia Muslims]. To win we must apply our strengths, but we must also be cognizant of our shortcomings. The Persians are clever and numerous. To defeat their plans of domination, we must also be strong and clever, but we should ensure that we do not fight alone. Once we could count on the Americans, but no more. While it is obvious to us that we must lead the faithful, others may take some convincing.
The most significant conventional threat posed by rejectionist forces is against our Gulf oil infrastructure. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval, missile, and irregular forces threaten our refineries and oil facilities along the Gulf coast.
To defend these we should continue our investments in NATO standard air defense, navy and air forces. We are already in the process of acquiring diesel electric submarines from Germany and upgrading our American made Patriot missiles. However, instead of buying outrageously expensive American ships, we should instead buy larger numbers of smaller corvettes and fast patrol craft to counter Iran’s “swarms” of attack boats in the Arabian Gulf. Our existing Apache helicopter fleet should also be positioned near Dhahran as the Americans have told me that the Apache and its Hellfire missiles can be effective against small naval craft.
Defense is not enough. We must also acquire the capability to strike at the Persians’ oil and gas infrastructure. To this end we might take a lesson from the Persians and acquire shore-based anti-ship missiles and additional ballistic missiles to threaten their infrastructure and to project power from our coastline.
Here, other than Identify Friend and Foe (IFF) systems, NATO standard is not a priority. The Chinese and Russians are receptive to selling capable anti-ship systems, and the Pakistanis are a good source for reasonably capable and affordable ballistic missiles to supplement our existing Chinese missiles. We should be cautious with the Chinese and Russians. Both have evidenced a desire to draw the Persians into their sphere. While I have faith in Persia’s jingoistic obstinacy to sabotage any relationship, we must be careful to avoid betrayal by foreign powers looking to curry favor with the ayatollahs.
We should also follow the example of the United Arab Emirates and acquire a genuinely expeditionary ground and air force capability. Unfortunately the Kingdom lacks sufficient numbers of men with both the discipline and the flexibility to excel at modern combat as practiced by the West. Therefore we shall have to hire qualified mercenaries, not just the Pakistani rabble who make up the bulk of our ground forces now.
While we have invested heavily in our Special Operations Forces since 2003, for the most part they have been focused on domestic counter-terrorism. This is obviously important to maintaining internal stability, but we need to engage and train foreign proxy forces as a counter to the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Despite our strained relationship with America, we can still count on the CIA for training as long as we keep feeding them information on some of our more fractious countrymen currently abroad.
Even the Takfiri [extremists aligned with ISIS or Al Qaeda] among our population have a role to play in the coming war. While we have learned that controlling the followers of Bin Laden can be problematic, we can still take advantage of their baser instincts. The Takfiri of Daesh [ISIS] and Jabhat al-Nusra are at the forefront of the fight against the Rejectionists. While neither group has any love for the Family or the Kingdom, they can be relied on to focus the attention of the Persians and their lackeys.
Unfortunately, they also distract the Americans and Europeans from the real threat, the Persians. With some subtle encouragement and resources, they can continue to fight the Qods Force and their lickspittles, the Houthi in Yemen and Assad and Hezbollah in the Levant. However, we must be vigilant and thoroughly identify the membership of the various Takfiri groups so that once we have achieved victory we can deal with them as your father handled the Ikhwan following the unification of the Kingdom.
Your Majesty has already set the conditions for the financing of the war both in the short and the long term with your wise handling of the currently depressed oil market. While our resources are, perforce, constrained by current oil prices, our enemies are in even greater distress. We must stay the course in order to maintain our share of the international market. Production at current levels also reminds the entire world, that despite the cursed “fracking” of the Americans, the Kingdom is still the arbiter of the Market.
Further, maintaining market share ensures that our customers keep their refineries optimized to the Kingdom’s oil. This discourages customers from changing to crude acquired from the Persians or their Rejectionist clients in Iraq. While both Persia and Iraq wish to sell more oil, they will find it hard in the current market glut. We have significant, if shrinking, currency reserves. Our enemies do not.
Of course some of our most important allies are also poor. The Egyptian al-Sisi regime in particular needs our aid and, once the war comes, we will need theirs. Egypt has the potential to be a critical ally in the fight. Should we be unable to develop our own ground forces, mercenary or otherwise, then Egypt would be an excellent source of military power. Their army is large and both well-equipped and trained by the standards of the region. While they are still no match for the Zionists (who beside the Americans are?), they would be invaluable should we face a ground war against the Persians. While such a conflict on Saudi soil is unlikely, a confrontation could develop over the carcass of Iraq.
Turkey also has an interest in confronting the Rejectionists. President Erdogan’s hatred for Assad is well known, just as is his love of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the former is useful, the latter is problematic. He has also extended an olive branch from time to time towards the Persians. Nonetheless, there is little reason to believe that Turkey would take the Persian side in the coming war. Rather, with some judicious diplomacy, coupled with appropriate personal remunerations, we should be able to ensure Turkey remains within the camp of the Rightly Guided. Ankara’s support will be guaranteed if we assure it that we have little interest in how it chooses to handle their Kurdish problem. Should Erdogan remain obstinate in his “neutrality” or support for the Brotherhood, however, we can use the Kurds as a goad, just as we are currently doing in Iraq.
Two particularly sensitive preoccupations should also be addressed: the Zionists and the Bomb. While in the long run, the destruction of the Zionists is inevitable, in the short to medium term, they have a useful role to play against the Persians.
The Likudniks’ hostility towards Persia is as great as our own. Open cooperation is, of course, impossible. Having said that, we might quietly pursue our common purpose. The Zionists reportedly have close contact with the dissident Baluch population of Persia. As fellow Sunnis, however uncivilized, they are a natural vector for sowing discord. The Zionists’ previous efforts along these lines were suppressed by the IRGC, but between the Zionists’ expertise and our resources we should be able to reinvigorate the Baluchi rebellion.
Our relationship with Pakistan will need close cultivation. Pakistan’s shared border with Iran and large army makes it the ideal partner to contain Persian ambitions. However, Pakistan’s first priority is, and will remain, its confrontation with India.
Of course, Pakistan is also the first and only Muslim nuclear power. While we remain skeptical of Persia’s “Nuclear Deal,” there is reason to believe that the Persians are currently constrained from developing nuclear weapons. As long as that is the case, our nuclear insurance plan with Pakistan [obtaining bombs from Islamabad] can remain on hold.
The Americans pose the greatest diplomatic challenge. With them on our side the war will be short and decisive. Without them we run the risk of repeating the mistakes of Saddam’s Qadisiyyah [the eight-year Iran-Iraq War].
In the upcoming election, President Clinton’s wife is far preferable to the alternative. While we would undoubtedly be able to “make a deal” with Trump, the former president and his wife have a solid record of being sympathetic to our requirements. The Wife represents a likely return to continuity within American foreign policy. This would be preferable to the current policy of grudging and episodic attention to our reasonable needs. With this in mind, we should assist our friends in the American energy industry to bolster the Clinton campaign as appropriate.
Please keep in mind that the coming war, even under the best of circumstances, will be difficult. Difficult, not because we lack the faith, vision or resources for victory, but rather because what we must do will have repercussions beyond the immediate war. It is not enough that we defeat the Persians and Rejectionists, we must also ensure that at the end of the war we are indisputably, in the eyes of Allah (SWT) and the world, the champions of the faithful.
Your most humble Servant,
Colonel Faris bin Saif Al Harbi