As of mid-May 2015, crude oil prices had fallen to the lowest level in recent years, under $60 a barrel for US domestic benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and about $66 a barrel for the international Brent benchmark. These market prices are compared to several types of “break-even” prices and affect decision-making by oil producers at several levels: whether price covers just production costs or incorporates a satisfactory level of profit, whether budgets balance and whether long-term capital investment is attractive.
On April 14, three weeks into the Saudi-led air campaign called Operation Decisive Storm, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 2216. This legally binding resolution, put forward by Jordan, Council president for April, imposed an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels and former Yemeni president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih and his son. There are also provisions freezing individual assets and banning their travel. Russia abstained. It seemed fully to endorse both the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, brokered by UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar, and Operation Decisive Storm.
On the night of March 25 one hundred Saudi warplanes bombed strategic targets inside Yemen under the control of the Houthi rebels. A number of countries—the other Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) members minus Oman, as well as Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco and Pakistan—joined the effort either directly or in support capacities. Although the Houthis have been in control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa and the central government since September 2014, it was the flight of president ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to Aden and the subsequent Houthi attack on the southern city that constituted the breaking point for Saudi Arabia and the GCC.
The price of oil is hovering around $50 per barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude, and $60 per barrel of Brent crude, the lowest levels since the global economic downturn of 2008-2009. Until the end of February, when they rebounded slightly, oil prices had been dropping since the middle of last summer.
In the past, Saudi Arabia has cut its oil output to halt this sort of freefall. As the “swing producer,” the country with the largest and most easily extracted reserves, the desert kingdom can afford to reduce supply in the short run to steady price levels in the long run. This time, however, the Saudis ordered their rigs to keep pumping as usual, doing nothing to stop the downward spiral. Why?
Midway through Barack Obama’s second term as president, there are two Establishment-approved metanarratives about his foreign policy. One, emanating mainly from the right, but resonating with several liberal internationalists, holds that Obama is unequal to the task of running an empire. The president, pundits repeat, is a “reluctant warrior” who declines to intervene abroad with the alacrity becoming his station. The other, quieter line of argument posits that Obama is the consummate realist, a man who avoids foreign entanglements unless or until they impinge directly upon vital US interests.
On September 1 The Independent published a piece by Andrew Johnson detailing plans by the Saudi state to move the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad from the Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina to an unmarked grave in the nearby Baqi‘ cemetery as part of an ongoing scheme to expand the mosques of the two holy cities.
I recently came across two accounts of Arab youth that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. One is Kristin Diwan’s issue brief on youth activism in the Arab Gulf states for the Atlantic Council, and the other is a documentary by filmmaker Jumana Manna on Palestinian “male thug culture” in East Jerusalem. The film is called Blessed, Blessed Oblivion.
Among the would-be therapists of the foreign policy world, the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia is a textbook case of a “loveless marriage.”
Though the values of the two states are at odds, or so the thinking goes, the great democracy and the absolute monarchy are bound together by mutual interest in the stability of the Persian Gulf, home to almost half of the world’s proven oil and natural gas reserves.
A recent report suggests that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may be looking to expand…again. The report says that, during a March summit, the group of six Arab petro-princedoms extended invitations to both Jordan and Morocco to join a pan-monarchical military alliance. And there is a chance, at least, that the GCC states would include a nominal republic, Egypt, in a broader regional military and defense pact (although it is not clear if Jordan, Morocco and Egypt would need to join the GCC or the military bloc would be a separate entity).
President Barack Obama capped his visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Saturday by presenting the International Women of Courage award to Maha al-Muneef, a pediatrician and executive director of the anti-domestic violence National Family Safety Program (NFSP). We are “very, very proud of you and grateful for all the work you’re doing here,” Obama told her in a brief ceremony at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton. “I’m looking forward to seeing you do even more wonderful things in the future.”
Officials say no, of course. But beneath the surface, the relationship is indeed marked by uncertainty. The rulers in Riyadh have come to question Washington’s commitment to the kingdom’s security, to Saudi primacy in the Gulf and to what has been one of the region’s most durable (and profitable) alliances.
President Barack Obama plans an overnight stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on March 28-29 for a rendezvous with King ‘Abdallah. The enduring but always strange bedfellows have been quarreling of late over Saudi Arabia’s belligerent relations with neighbors Iran and Syria. Both sides hope during this visit to kiss and make up.
In 2013, Mohamed, a 22-year old Somali, was making a living washing cars in Saudi Arabia. Late that year, due to increasing government pressure on employers of undocumented workers, he was fired. In December, after several weeks without a job, Mohamed handed himself over to the police. He spent the next 57 days detained in appalling conditions. “In the first detention center in Riyadh, there was so little food, we fought over it,” he said. “So the strongest ate the most. Guards told us to face the wall and then beat our backs with metal rods. In the second place, there were two toilets for 1,200 people, including dozens of children.” Mohamed is now in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
In 2011 Yemenis shared a vision of revolutionary change with protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria demanding the downfall of cruel, corrupt presidential regimes. Today, like many of their cousins, the peaceful youth (shabab silmiyya) of Yemen face a counter-revolutionary maelstrom from within and without. If Gulf sultans were anxious about insurrection in North Africa, they were even more fearful of subaltern uprisings in their own neighborhood.
A man walks into a library and asks the librarian for a book on human rights in Saudi Arabia. The librarian hands him a blank notebook.
A woman walks into a bookstore and asks for a tourist guide to Saudi Arabia. The bookseller hands her a blank notebook.
A reporter walks into the Saudi embassy and asks for a visa.
Americans follow events in Saudi Arabia by reading the New York Times and Washington Post.
These are all laugh lines. The first one pops up when you Google “jokes about Saudi Arabia.” The next one sort of suggests itself. The other two are equally funny to those in the know.
Senate hearings to confirm John Brennan as the Obama administration’s appointment to be director of the CIA brought to light a heretofore clandestine American military facility in Saudi Arabia near the kingdom’s border with Yemen. While journalistic and public attention rightly focused on extrajudicial executions of Yemenis and even American citizens, the new revelations suggest a larger covert Saudi-American war in Yemen. There’s almost certainly more to this story than what Saudi Arabia fails to confirm.
All claims to the contrary, the Persian Gulf monarchies have been deeply affected by the Arab revolutionary ferment of 2011-2012. Bahrain may be the only country to experience its own sustained upheaval, but the impact has also been felt elsewhere. Demands for a more participatory politics are on the rise, as are calls for the protection of rights and formations of various types of civic and political organization. Although these demands are not new, they are louder than before, including where the price of dissent is highest in Saudi Arabia, Oman and even the usually hushed United Arab Emirates. The resilience of a broad range of activists in denouncing autocracy and discomfiting autocrats is inspirational.
The popular uprising in Bahrain shows no signs of going away.
The royal family tried crushing the revolt, importing shock troops from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. It tried jailing important figures in the opposition, such as human rights activist ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, who as of early May had been on hunger strike for 90 days. The island’s rulers tried quieting the opposition by promising to investigate the abuses and making minor cessions of power from the king to the parliament.