One of top five bestselling bookings on international affairs this year was Harvard scholar Graham Alison’s book titled, ‘Destined For War: Can America and China escape the Thucydides Trap?’. The book argues possibilities and tendencies of global power rivalry leading to wars when a rising power tends to displace a ruling power. He argues that, ‘China and the United States are currently on a collision course for war’. Which he calls the Thucydides Trap referring to the 5th Century BC war between the city States of Athens and Sparta, virtually leading to the destruction of both.
Books, theories and numerous arguments of War between United States and China may be best sellers and garner interest among a wide readership, the more pressing global security crises would be the clash of Titans in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia over the last few months has dangerously upped the ante against Iran in many fronts. After decades of prosperity, secured by special relationship with the United States; Saudi Arabia feels politically outsmarted and increasingly boxed in by Iranian moves across the region.
Sri Lanka’s international security conversations and focus since the last decade has been on the ongoing regional Sino-Indian rivalry and the role of the United States as an extra regional player. This holds true to date and is not a flawed world view. If one starts counting the number of port calls by foreign naval vessels over the last two years the numbers are staggering. Indian security aspirations in the Indian Ocean and how China processes its Indian Ocean engagement has influenced our own strategic posture but it should not end with that singular focus.
"After decades of prosperity, secured by special relationship with the United States; Saudi Arabia feels politically outsmarted and increasingly boxed in by Iranian moves across the region"
What Sri Lankan analysts of global affairs and security need to focus on are other flashpoints which may not be in the immediate neighbourhood yet will have significant implications on a diverse range of security interests of this country. A recent marginal depletion of petroleum stocks in the country followed by panic buying led to a two week long gasoline shortage and an ugly political storm that rocked the country. The true crux of the matter was, that it exposed a major lack of a strategic thinking and institutional resilience in energy security. Thus focusing more on current developments in Middle East needs is a necessary endeavour.
International affairs analysts have warned about the possibility of potential political instability in Saudi politics. With a single family ruling the country, the house of Saud had grown in numbers, and so are the ambitions of many influential Saudi royals. Thus the primary approach to understanding the external ramifications of recent Saudi foreign policy manoeuvrers is to understand some aspects of domestic political shake ups.
Mohammed bin Salman was nominated crown Prince less than six months ago on 21 June, his political career is less than a decade old, and at 32, is also the world’s youngest defence Minister. Prince Salman projected himself as a moderate Saudi nationalist, with open views on governance, women’s role in Saudi society and a future vision for Saudi Arabia based on diversified industries.
Prince Salman is the first third generation Saudi Royal to be set on the path to be the next king of Saudi Arabia and is already demonstrating how his reign would differ from that of the previous Kings. His unprecedented crackdown on fellow family Royals which included arrests of 11 princes, two more died one resisting arrests and another fleeing arrest when his helicopter crashed, and 200 businessmen, was a Machiavellian move that many in the Kingdom never saw coming. The diverse ways the crackdown unfolded at breathtaking speed demonstrates the tenacity of the new Crown prince, and his realization of the importance of speed and secrecy and seems to have mastered it in a short time for a massive consolidation of power.
His handling of regional and global players do break from that of many prominent Saudi Royals. Trump made his first visit as the President of United States to Saudi Arabia and signalled the importance of maintaining strong and deep Saudi-American relations. Prince Salman has shown deep interest in reaching out to States like Russia and Israel. Given the recent Syrian conflict and Russia’s support to the Assad regime should have made any traditional Saudi Crown prince weary but he was bold enough to visit Moscow last month to meet with Vladimir Putin and even cement some key weapons imports from Russia.
"His unprecedented crackdown on fellow family Royals including arrests of 11 princes, two more died one resisting arrests and another fleeing arrest when his helicopter crashed"
Speed has a dual connotation, it can give you tactical advantage but it also can be destabilized in a very delicate arrangements especially in a region like in the Middle East. Prince Salman may well be the new face of leadership in the Arab world but the more elusive question is at what cost? Iran has in the last few years managed to forge a multi prong and strategically calculated approach to spread its power in the region. Syrian government’s victory over ISIL in many instances had come from the battle-hardened Shi’a fighters belonging to Hezbollah or ancillary groups, who have been replenished and trained by Iranian forces. Iran has managed to gain ground in its relations with Syria and Iraq.
Iran has managed its global diplomacy well, it has managed to thrive amidst series of sanctions and with its recent arrangements with the Western powers over nuclear de-escalation, leading Iran to gain some European friends. India, China, Turkey all have maintained close ties with Iran. The Iranian military modernization has accelerated and by recently acquiring state of the art S-300 air defence systems from Russia, Iran has managed to negate major threats coming from Israel which in the past has liberally penetrated ageing Iranian air defence systems.
The Saudi’s by engineering the ouster of the Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, may have won a tactical battle but strategically by trying to destabilize smaller states in the region like Lebanon and Qatar and wage wars with others such as Yemen may not help the cause of the new Saudi Crown Prince.
KSA over last few months upped the ante against Iran in many fronts
Saudi feels politically outsmarted and increasingly boxed in by Iranian moves across the region
Sheikh Salman was nominated crown Prince less than six months ago
At 32, he is also the world’s youngest Defence Minister
KSA’s campaign in Yemen remains one of the most under-reported conflict stories of the 21st Century
The Saudi military campaign in Yemen remains one of the most under-reported conflict stories of the 21st Century. Two years on, the campaign has done little to deter the Houthi rebels who the Saudi military is fighting to be defeated or to be pushed back. It had disrupted and brought misery to ordinary Yemeni. Global media has highlighted and underscored the misery of the Rohingya’s in Myanmar, but when Western, Arabic, Persian weapons and bombs devastate communities there is a clear breaking of speed and enthusiasm to expose the darks side of regional and global power struggles. Yemen is facing the worst Cholera outbreak of the 21st Century, many remain oblivious to such facts and the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.
Returning to the original position of this article, has Sri Lanka taken into account the gravity of the situation? Existing fragility of Middle East region is tested to its limit with the emerging power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While it is drawn on sectarian lines, it puts into question the civilizational conflict mentality brought about by Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilization thesis.
The Civilizational clash helped drive American conservative and hawkish foreign policy of interventionism, seeing the perpetual clash between the Christian and Islamic world. What we witness unfolding in the Middle East is a total anomaly to the above thesis. There will be global ramifications if a meltdown affects the Middle East, what is at cost for Sri Lanka is how we cope with such a scenario, with no real energy security strategy, massive dependence on migrant worker remittances minus a national consultation of future global risks while perpetually sidetracked by a debate about local government elections we may get stranded and ever more at the mercy of India and China.
The writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for
International Studies (BCIS)