TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi King’s Absence at Obama Summit Moves Spotlight to Mysterious Son

An undated handout file photograph made available by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) shows the then newly-appointed Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.
EPA An undated handout file photograph made available by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) shows the then newly appointed Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.

With King Salman set to miss Obama's summit of Gulf nations, U.S. officials can size up his powerful son

On one hand, the announcement that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman will not attend President Obama’s Camp David summit of Gulf Arab monarchs on Thursday, despite having earlier accepted the invitation, highlights all over again the considerable strains between Washington and Riyadh. In the four months since Salman came to power, the Kingdom has defied the U.S. by starting one war in Yemen and reviving the most problematical elements in another, sending new support to the Syrian opposition forces that include the Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

On the other hand, the king’s absence—ostensibly to deal with a brief cease-fire in Yemen, but widely viewed as a snub—will give U.S. officials a chance to size up the young fellow who the monarch has invested with immense new powers: His son, also known as the Minister of Defense, as well as president of the royal court. Mohammad bin Salman may be 29, as some accounts have it, or 34, the age offered in other reports. Or somewhere in between. The uncertainty speaks volumes about how little is known of the fresh-faced young prince, derided by the Supreme Leader of arch-rival Iran as “an inexperienced youngster.”

“I don’t think anybody knows who he is,” says F. Gregory Gause III, head of the international affairs department of the Texas A&M University Bush School of Government and Public Service. “He’s never had a job where he had a counterpart with Americans in bilateral talks. I think there’ll be plenty of people looking to size him up.”

The jobs that young bin Salman holds are known well enough. Defense is a ministry awash in money. “That’s where the rake-offs occur in the system,” says Charles A. Freeman, who was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. And head of the royal court is basically chief of staff, putting the king’s son in daily charge of the ruling apparatus.

But the lack of information about bin Salman himself says a great deal about how fast the ground is shifting in the Middle East—and especially in the House of Saud, the family that has ruled the Kingdom since it appeared on the sands of the Arabian Peninsula in 1932. Saudi-watchers used to be the Middle East’s version of the Kremlinologists who studied the Soviet Union. The players in both places moved at processional speed and change, should it occur, was glacial. But then Salman took power following the January death of his brother Abdullah, who ruled for 10 years.

“Basically what’s happened in Saudi Arabia since the death of Abdullah is a series of political coup d’etats,” says Freeman. “In Arabia, genealogy is ideology and lineage really is faction. In any one-party system you have factions, and in a one-family system you have factions.” Despite Salman’s reputation as a conciliator between branches of the family, since ascending to the throne, Freeman says, “he’s basically cut them all out.”

Salman, 79, was expected to be the Saudi ruler who prepared for the inevitable transfer of power to a younger generation of Saudi princes. But rather than casting the net wide, he designated his nephew as the new Crown Prince—the first grandson of the founding King, Abdulaziz, to be so named—and his own young son Mohammad as Deputy Crown Prince, or second in line. The nephew is already well known in Washington: Mohammad bin Nayef, 55, has long been Interior Minister and run the Saudis’ counter-terror operations; he has twice met with President Obama in the Oval Office. But in selecting him, the king reached past hundreds of waiting princes.

“The model was kind of corporate leadership within a number of senior members of the older generation, and they didn’t always get along and they didn’t always agree, but they had a general corporate sense of where they wanted the country to go and it worked well for more than 50 years,” says Gause. “I thought the new king would try to recreate that kind of corporate responsibility across a number of people in the new generation, but that’s obviously not what Salman wanted. He’s privileged a couple of people and cut out a large number. And how that affects family cohesion down the line will be interesting to watch.”

For now, the war in Yemen, aimed at a Shi’ite rebel group advancing in the neighboring state, has provided a rallying effect at home. It also had the effect of forcing the U.S. to provide battlefield intelligence and targeting information (“not to support them would leave the relationship with no content,” says Freeman). But the fundamental problem remains Iran, the Saudis’ great regional rival. Riyadh feels threatened not only by Tehran’s gains in Iraq and Yemen, and continued support for the Assad regime in Syria, but—even more—by Obama’s engagement with the Iranians. Along with fellow members of the Sunni-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council, they feel threatened by the attention Washington is paying to Iran, in a region where attention equals prestige, or even license. Already almost wholly reliant on the U.S. for their defense, the Gulf Arab monarchs are asking for a formal treating with Washington guaranteeing their protection, something Obama officials say they cannot provide.

“I think their fears that we are going to just throw them over and that Iran will be our big ally in the region are greatly exaggerated,” says Gause. But those are the fears that prompted the Obama administration to convene the Camp David summit. And if King Salman cannot make it, Freeman says, he may have sussed it out as a “pseudo-event.”

“The Saudis and others have learned from Israel that you can give the United States the bird,” says Freeman. But that, the former ambassador adds, may work out for the best at Camp David. “Having the two Mohammads—bin Nayef and bin Salman—in this thing puts the two people who are actually running things in there. So if there’s something that’s actually going on in Saudi Arabia, these are the two who can make things happen.”

TIME Innovation

Are We Breaking Up With Saudi Arabia?

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Is the special Saudi-U.S. relationship on the rocks?

By Ray Takeyh at the Council on Foreign Relations

2. Two-year degrees can really pay off.

By Liz Weston at Reuters

3. A self-contained urban farm, delivered in a box, could slash water use by 90 percent.

By Danny Crichton in TechCrunch

4. How a lake full of methane could power Rwanda and DR Congo.

By Jonathan W. Rosen in MIT Technology Review

5. Nope, we’re not going to live on crickets in the near-future.

By Brooke Borel in Popular Science

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. America loves to take sides in regional conflicts. In Yemen, we shouldn’t.

By Paul R. Pillar in the National Interest

2. Here’s why Congress should drop the ban on federal funds for needle exchanges. (It’s because they work.)

By Kevin Robert Frost at CNN

3. Cheap coal is a lie.

By Al Gore and David Blood in the Guardian

4. How small-batch distilling could save family farms.

By Andrew Amelinckx in Modern Farmer

5. Can you fix city management with data? Mike Bloomberg is betting $42 million you can.

By Jim Tankersley at the Washington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 13

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Why do we need human pilots again?

By John Markoff in the New York Times

2. We thought education would unlock the potential of Arab women. We were half right.

By Maysa Jalbout at the Brookings Institution

3. Peru found a 1,000 year-old solution to its water crisis.

By Fred Pearce in New Scientist

4. Why Saudi Arabia might need to break the country in two to “win” its war in Yemen.

By Peter Salisbury in Vice

5. Startup accelerators are great…we think.

By Randall Kempner and Peter Roberts in the Wall Street Journal

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Yemen

The Crisis in Yemen Intensifies as Houthi Fighters Push Deeper Into Aden

A man shows the damage inside his house after an air strike in the Okash village near Sanaa
Mohamed Al-Sayaghi—Reuters A man shows the damage inside his house after an air strike in the Okash village near Sanaa, Yemen on April 4, 2015.

Saudi-led air strikes have failed to reverse the rebels' momentum

Houthi militia inched closer Sunday to capturing the port city of Aden, where Saudi-backed forces loyal to Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi continue to hold out.

The Shi‘ite rebels unleashed artillery barrages on residential areas in the city and targeted a pro-Hadi television station with mortar rounds, forcing it off the air, reports AFP.

“There are bodies in the streets, and we can’t get close because there are Houthi snipers on the rooftops. Anything that gets near, they shoot at,” an unidentified medic told Reuters.

Houthi militants continue to consolidate control over large swaths of Yemen, despite 11 days of air strikes from a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf Arab states.

The Houthi assault on one of President Hadi’s last remaining strongholds comes as more than a hundred members of a Sunni Islamist political party were rounded up by Shi‘ite militiamen on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross has called for the immediate imposition of a 24-hour cease-fire across Yemen to allow for the evacuation of the wounded to prevent further loss of life.

“Our relief supplies and surgical personnel must be allowed to enter the country and safely reach the worst-affected places to provide help,” said Robert Mardini, head of the ICRC’s operations in the Middle East, in a statement. “Otherwise, put starkly, many more people will die. For the wounded, their chances of survival depend on action within hours, not days.”

Health officials in Aden claim that at least 185 people have been killed and 1,282 injured in the city since March 26, reports the BBC. However, the figure does not include rebel casualties or residents killed by air strikes.

Last week, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos called on both sides to do more to protect civilians trapped in the middle of the conflict.

“Those engaged in fighting must ensure that hospitals, schools, camps for refugees and those internally displaced and civilian infrastructure, especially in populated areas, are not targeted or used for military purposes,” said Amos.

Read next: Pakistan Says Saudi-Led Coalition in Yemen Wants Troops

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Military

Saudi Air War Over Yemen Leaves U.S. on Sidelines

Saudi-led coalition launch airstrike in Yemen
Sinan Yiter / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images Houthis in the Yemeni city of Saana fire anti-aircraft weapons in the general direction of Saudi-led attacking warplanes March 30.

But former American commander says it’s about time

When it came time to bomb Libya—both times, in fact, in 1986 and 2011—American airpower led the way. When Iraq was in the crosshairs—all three times, in 1991, 2003 and 2014—the stars and bars of the U.S. Air Force led the charge. Same thing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria and even Iran (against oil platforms and small boats in the Persian Gulf in 1987-1988).

That history makes it almost relaxing for the U.S. military to be sitting out the latest air war launched by Saudi Arabia against the Houthi rebels now occupying a growing chunk of Yemen. The kingdom, which kicked off aerial attacks March 25, is nervous about the Iranian-backed rebels along its southern border. But Riyadh’s hardly flying solo: it has been joined by Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

Washington shouldn’t feel left out, according to Anthony Zinni, the retired four-star Marine who headed U.S. Central Command, which oversees the region, from 1997 to 2000. “Ever since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, we’ve been pushing to get some sort of alliance in the region,” he says. “We wanted them to come together and basically find a way where we could support them but not have to lead them all the time.”

Zinni says the Saudis have acted because they hate the Houthis, hate the Iranians, and hate the idea of an ungoverned state next door. “They will not tolerate a Houthis-led Yemen on their southern border,” he adds. “And they’re pissed that the Iranians support them.” Saudi Arabia has attacked the Houthis before, he notes, but never this extensively.

Precise details about what each country allied in the battle against the Houthis is doing remain murky. But it’s obvious a lot of the air attacks on Houthi sites, in what Riyadh has dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, involve U.S.-built warplanes dropping U.S.-built bombs.

Much of Saudi Arabia’s air force consists of U.S.-built warplanes. It says it has dedicated 100 to the fight, and lost a St. Louis-built F-15 involved in the campaign March 26 (both pilots rescued by a U.S. helicopter from the Gulf of Aden). Bahrain has earmarked up to 12 Fort Worth-built F-16s, with Jordan and Morocco contributing six apiece. Kuwait reportedly has dispatched 15 St. Louis-built F-18s to the battle.

But the U.S. role is decidedly limited. “Our current position is that we will help the Saudis with intelligence and logistics and planning support,” Army General Lloyd Austin, Zinni’s successor as chief of Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 26. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the U.S. has been selling weapons and providing training to many nations in the region for decades. Most Americans have no interest in wading into another war. President Obama—with his pledge not to deploy U.S. ground combat troops in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria—shares their view (although the U.S. has been bombing ISIS since August).

While U.S. intelligence has begun flowing to the Saudis, logistical help remains largely in the planning stages, U.S. officials say. U.S. intelligence is being funneled to the Saudis through the Combined Air and Space Operations Center at the major U.S. al Udeid air base in Qatar—the same base conducting the daily air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria. “Right now it’s almost exclusively intel—intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” a U.S. military officer says of the American aid.

“Log[istical] support hasn’t really kicked in yet,” he adds. “When it does it will be mostly refueling and spare parts. It’s not clear yet where the [aerial refueling] tankers would one from. Presumably al Udied.”

Without the U.S. in the lead, Washington can’t start and stop bombing. But it retains some control: it can control the flow of spare parts for the warplanes it built and the bombs they drop.

Of course, one of the advantages of being in charge is calling the shots, and knowing why they’re being called. When it comes to the Saudi effort against the Houthis, Austin acknowledged at that armed services committee session that he’s all but clueless. “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign,” Austin said. “I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.”

When you’re out of the loop, you also don’t know what’s going to happen next. The Saudi defense chief informed him of the impending strikes “the day of the attacks,” Austin said, “so it was not much before that they actually started the attacks.”

Read next: Al-Qaeda Group Frees Hundreds of Inmates in Yemen

TIME Yemen

Al-Qaeda Group Frees Hundreds of Inmates in Yemen

Mideast Yemen
Hani Mohammed—AP Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, chant slogans to protest against Saudi-led airstrikes, during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, April 1, 2015.

Unrest in Yemen could fuel al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's expansion

The powerful al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen stormed a southern port city and freed hundreds of prisoners as it took advantage of mounting turmoil in the country.

The New York Times reports that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) launched an offensive early Thursday against the city of al-Mukalla, targeting the security headquarters, government buildings and the central prison. Witnesses reported seeing hundreds of inmates fleeing, according to the Times.

Yemen has descended into civil war since the rebel Houthis from the north seized the capital, Sana’a, last fall and ousted President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi earlier this year. Clashes between the advancing Houthis and forces loyal to Hadi intensified last month and prompted neighboring Saudi Arabia to launch airstrikes to push back the predominantly Shi’ite Houthis, who are perceived to have support from Saudi rival Iran.

The city of al-Mukalla had been spared the fighting, but onlookers have long raised concerns that the unrest could fuel AQAP’s growth in strength and stature, especially as the Sunni extremist group positions itself as a leading opposition force to the Houthis.

[New York Times]

TIME Military

U.S. Resumes Weapons Flow to Egypt

An Egyptian Air Force F-16 fighter jet flies low over thousands of anti-government protesters gathered at Tahrir square in Cairo
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters A U.S.-built Egyptian F-16 flies low over thousands of anti-government protesters in Tahrir square in Cairo in January 2011.

But the White House announcement wasn't only about weapons

President Obama on Tuesday lifted his nearly two-year ban on shipping American weapons to Egypt, a restriction imposed after its military kicked out its elected government in 2013.

Obama relayed news of the move in a telephone call to Egyptian President (and former Army general) Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. It will allow for the shipment of 12 F-16 aircraft, 20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 M-1 Abrams tank upgrades. The White House added that the Administration will continue to ask Congress to approve $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.

CRSU.S. aid to Egypt is overwhelmingly for new weapons, designated “FMF” (“Foreign Military Financing”).

The resumption of arms shipments to Egypt is in keeping with the growth of U.S. arms sales abroad. Major American weapons exports grew by 23% between 2005-2009 and 2010-2014, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said on March 16. “The USA has long seen arms exports as a major foreign policy and security tool,” Aude Fleurant, of SIPRI, said when the group released its annual arms-sales accounting. “But in recent years exports are increasingly needed to help the U.S. arms industry maintain production levels at a time of decreasing U.S. military expenditure.”

The White House announcement wasn’t only about weapons. “President Obama also reiterated U.S. concerns about Egypt’s continued imprisonment of non-violent activists and mass trials,” it said in a statement. And, as the Administration drafts proposed legislation to resume military aid to Egypt, it “will not make the so-called ‘democracy certification’ in that legislation,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.

In other words, Egypt remains little more than a military junta now wearing civilian clothes, and the White House won’t pretend otherwise.

All this is what diplomats call a return to the status quo ante—the way things were before. Obama is eager to defeat the militants of Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, defeat Islamic fundamentalist uprisings in Libya and Yemen and tamp down Iran’s ambitions—nuclear and otherwise. If he, and the U.S. government, have to cozy up to coup-plotters to achieve that goal, that’s realpolitik.

Cairo has recently suggested it may send ground troops into Yemen to bolster air strikes being carried out there by Saudi Arabia against the Iranian-backed Houthis rebels. Obama is now willing to resume the arms flow to Egypt in hopes of improving relations between the two nations as they join with other countries in a bid to restore stability to the war-racked region.

After nearly 40 years of such aid, the record is not reassuring. “Since the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty, the United States has provided Egypt with large amounts of military assistance,” the Congressional Research Service reported earlier this month. “U.S. policy makers have routinely justified aid to Egypt as an investment in regional stability, built primarily on long-running military cooperation and on sustaining the treaty—principles that are supposed to be mutually reinforcing.”

TIME Iran

These 5 Facts Explain the State of Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and others wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel on March 27, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Brendan Smialowski—Reuters Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and others wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel on March 27, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Sanctions, demographics, oil and cyberwarfare

As leaders in the United States and Iran maintain laser focus on the ongoing nuclear negotiations, it’s valuable to take a broader look at Iran’s politics, its economy, and its relations with the United States. Here are five stats that explain everything from Iran’s goals in cyberspace to its views of Western powers.

1. Sanctions and their discontents

Sanctions have taken a heavy toll on the Iranian economy. According to the Congressional Research Service, Iran’s economy is 15 to 20% smaller than it would have been without the sanctions that have been enacted since 2010. They leave Iran unable to access nearly four-fifths of the $100 billion in reserves the country holds in international accounts. Iran’s oil output has fallen off a cliff. Four years ago, Iran sold some 2.5 million barrels of oil and condensates a day. Over the last year, the country has averaged just over a million barrels a day. Even as the exports have fallen and the price has plummeted, oil still accounts for 42% of government revenues. Iran’s latest budget will slash spending by 11% after accounting for inflation.

(Bloomberg, The Economist)

2. Cyber-spending spree

But despite the belt-tightening, Tehran has been willing to splurge in one area. Funding for cyber security in the 2015/16 budget is 1200% higher than the $3.4 million allotted in 2013/14. Up until 2010, Iran’s chief focus in cyberspace was managing internal dissidents. But after news of the Stuxnet virus—a U.S.-led cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program—went public in 2010, Iran’s leaders shifted gears. According to one estimate, Iran spent over $1 billion on its cyber capabilities in 2012 alone. That year, it conducted the Shamoon attack, wiping data from about 30,000 machines belonging to Saudi oil company Aramco. In 2013, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard publicly declared that Iran was “the fourth biggest cyber power among the world’s cyber armies.”

(Global Voices, Wired, Strategic Studies Institute, Wall Street Journal)

3. New generation and old leadership

The median age in Iran is 28, and youth unemployment in the country hovers around 25%. Nearly seven out of ten Iranians are under 35 years old, too young to remember the Iranian revolution of 1979. But the country is controlled by older men, many of whom had an instrumental role in the revolution. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 75 years old; there have been concerns about his health and Iran’s eventual succession plan. Iran’s Assembly of Experts is an opaque institution with huge symbolic importance: it is tasked with selecting and overseeing Iran’s Supreme Leader. The Assembly’s Chairman passed away in October at the age of 83. His replacement? Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who is…83 years old.

(New York Times, CIA World Factbook, BBC)

4. The feeling is mutual

Over 70% of Iranians view the United States unfavorably—and 58% have “very unfavorable” views. On the flip side, more than three-quarters of surveyed Americans have unfavorable views of Iran. But that’s a more modest stance than some other European powers: 80% of French and 85% of Germans have unfavorable views of Iran. According to recent polls, Iran is no longer considered “the United States’ greatest enemy today.” In 2012, 32% of those polled chose Iran, good for first place. In 2015, just 9% selected Iran, placing it fourth behind China, North Korea and Russia, respectively.

(Center for International & Security Studies, Pew Research Center, Vox)

5. Support for a deal?

Negative views of Iran haven’t undermined Americans’ desire to try and cut a deal: 68% of Americans favor diplomacy with Iran. It’s a bipartisan majority: 77% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans are in favor of talks. Iranians have mixed expectations: only 48% think that President Rouhani will be successful in reaching an agreement. But if we do see a final deal, a lot more than Iranian oil could open up. Western businesses would love to break into a country that is more populous than Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Israel, Bahrain, Lebanon and Jordan combined.

(Center for International & Security Studies, CNN survey, CIA World Factbook)

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