Welcome to 2016 – when the actual election starts. It would be easy to say it will be the news story of the year. But as important as it will be a bigger story is developing, as it did in 2015.
The conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam is more than a millenium old. It resonates today because the region is emerging, as so many other developing nations are, away from the thumb of Western influences.
It’s not our fight – and we can probably only make it worse. But it will be hard to stay out of.
The most recent flare-up has been coming on for years, but has become a lot hotter in the last year. When King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz died a year ago his long twilight signaled the end of an era. A younger, more aggressive generation has taken over Saudi Arabia which is intent on flexing its muscle like never before.
As a nation, Saudi Arabia is more or less the personal property of the very wealthy Saud family (hence the name). The wealth that has been amassed from oil sales flows first through the family and only to the nation at their whim.
Abdullah was replaced by 79 year old Salman, his half-brother, and one of the last of his generation. The ministries and departments of government are run by their kids.
In the last two years Saudi Arabia has funneled a lot of money into the Syrian conflict, more or less creating ISIS in the process. The latter seems to be an accident, or more accurately the result of not paying attention to what they were doing. The Saudis also marched into Yemen without much concern for long-term effects, either. In both cases they’ve ignited a hot war with Shia Islam where before there was primarily only quiet loathing.
With the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr that conflict is only getting hotter. Relations with Iran have been suspended after the Saudi embassy was attacked and everything is falling rapidly apart.
It may seem naïve to say that they blundered their way into this, but the great limiting factor for Saudi Arabia shows the level of incompetence that has marked their rise in prominence. Deliberately turning on the oil taps to lower the price, the Saudis planned to drive American shale oil out of the market and dominate the oil market as they did in 1974. It was an utter failure and has led directly to the collapse in oil prices. That’s burning up Saudi cash faster than any of their other adventures, leaving them in a weak position to inflame the world.
That doesn’t seem to have slowed them down much, however. Some heavy domestic budget cuts will cut off the flow of money to the Kingdom and allow the great adventures to continue. It also will likely increase the domestic turmoil needlessly heated to a boil with the growing conflict with Shia Islam.
These conflicts are sucking the neighboring Gulf States in as well, making for a truly regional conflict.
Where is all of this heading? Saudi Arabia is, supposedly, the one true ally of the US among Arab States. We can only hope that this is immaterial and we can find a way to stay out of this. The Obama administration tried desperately to stay out of the Syria crisis for very good reasons, and to this day is engaged in a very limited way. No one here should want any of this.
It is clear that the price of oil will stay low as nations hungry for cash pump out all they can. A region-absorbing conflict would suddenly invert this and turn off the oil taps, driving up the price.
There is no news story that demands more attention in 2016. The potential for tremendous carnage, whipsawing oil prices, and totally out of control terrorism flows naturally. Worse, we can see one of the major actors is completely irresponsible and out for some kind of reckless adolescent adventure.
Nothing good can possibly come from this. That’s why the sight of one of the tallest skyscrapers in Dubai on fire this New Year’s may be more than an omen. This may yet come to be the symbol of a truly terrible year for millions of people caught in the crossfire as a region struggles to assert itself – independent of the Western powers which defined it this far.
It’s not our fight. It will be ugly and it will look like we should be involved, but we do not have a role in this. Staying out will be hard – but essential.