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Analysis: There is a perfect storm brewing in Saudi Arabia

As masked police entered the homes of three prominent Saudi princes in the early hours of Saturday morning, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, appeared to have removed the final vestiges of opposition to his rule, paving the way for a seemingly smooth transition to becoming king. Princes Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s…

Analysis: There is a perfect storm brewing in Saudi Arabia

As masked police entered the homes of three prominent Saudi princes in the early hours of Saturday morning, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, appeared to have removed the final vestiges of opposition to his rule, paving the way for a seemingly smooth transition to becoming king.
Princes Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s brother, Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince, and Nawaf bin Nayef were arrested amid allegations of their involvement in an attempted coup.Rumours of plans to topple both the king and the crown prince have regularly been heard across social media, replete with stories of nefarious meetings in the desert and the support of external powers. In this instance, additional rumours of broader complicity quickly followed in key US newspapers, albeit without comment from official Saudi sources.
The decision to make these arrests has been met with surprise by some who have questioned why and why now.
Why?
Two separate issues are at play here. First is the sense of a crown prince on a mission to eradicate all forms of dissent and to ensure a smooth transition to becoming king. In line with this, the arrests sent a strong message to critics within the kingdom, consolidating power and calling on members of the ruling family to “fall in line” behind the “son king”.
Arresting three prominent members of the house of Saud is a symbolic demonstration of power from the crown prince. Indeed, in arresting Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince, MBS is sending a clear message to those across the kingdom that opposition will not be tolerated.
Prince Ahmed, the king’s brother, had recently returned from London and had allegedly been given guarantees of his safety on moving back to Saudi Arabia. While in London, Ahmed appeared to court controversy when he seemed to suggest that the king and crown prince, rather than the Al Saud family more generally, ought to be held responsible for the kingdom’s military exploits in Yemen. According to those familiar with his situation after his return, Ahmed was treated with respect, albeit with his movements and communications heavily monitored.
Mohammed bin Nayef, in contrast, has been placed under house arrest for the duration of MBS’s time as crown prince. In light of this, it seems unlikely he would have been involved in an attempted coup, particularly given the challenges of orchestrating such an event against a deeply powerful scion. 
Since being named crown prince, MBS has wielded almost complete power across the Saudi state. Ostensibly heir apparent, it is widely accepted that he is sovereign in all but name, setting policy domestically and internationally, much to the chagrin of some.
As a result, it is hardly surprising that stories of coup plots find traction. The transition from the sons of Ibn Saud, the first king and founder of Saudi Arabia, to the grandsons of Ibn Saud was always going to pose serious challenges to monarchical rule across the kingdom.
Indeed, the peculiarities of succession in the kingdom, passing from brother to brother – a process of agnatic seniority designed to facilitate stability and prevent turmoil within the family resulting from one group dominating at the expense of others – meant that political horsetrading became a key part of succession planning.
When King Salman came to power in 2015, the need to explicitly articulate this process was evident and while Mohammed bin Nayef was initially named as crown prince – and thus the first of the next generation of Saudi rulers – he was quickly replaced by Salman’s son, MBS, in 2017.
This decision was not unanimous. In the Allegiance Council, responsible for succession planning, Prince Ahmed was one of the three who voted against the appointment of MBS as crown prince.
Why now?
The second issue concerns the timing. Facing a range of parabolic pressures from domestic and international sources, the Saudi state is in a precarious position, with much at stake for MBS, the architect of the kingdom’s future trajectory.
Hugely popular among the youth, the crown prince quickly embarked on a wide-ranging programme of social, cultural and economic reforms that have sought to transform the kingdom away from a reliance on oil and to reduce the power of religious leaders.
However, the speed of transformation has been a source of anger among the more socially conservative elements of society, in a similar vein to that experienced by his grandfather, Ibn Saud, whose own efforts to transform the political landscape of the nascent Saudi state were met with resistance by many almost a century ago.
In spite of the support he undoubtedly has, there is a growing sense of unrest across the kingdom and concern at its future trajectory. Economic pressures are rising and while new entertainment complexes have been supported by state-sanctioned credit, the cost of living has dramatically increased.
Although social transformations and liberalisation have been welcomed by many, these come at a cost and will not assuage every day concerns about the cost of living and pressures to find jobs in the private sector. 
As the kingdom embarks on a costly battle with Russia and the US over shale gas, this economic pressure will only increase, bringing with it the scope for further anger at the status quo. 
The decision to close the Grand Mosque of Mecca and to curtail the umrah was taken amid concerns about the threat posed by COVID-19, yet frustration quickly grew across social media as entertainment outlets initially remained open. An unpopular decision among conservative elements of Saudi society, this issue is emblematic of schisms in a society divided along economic, social, tribal and religious lines.
The failure to end the crisis with Qatar has also had an impact on how the crown prince is perceived inside the kingdom. Many Saudis expected a swift “victory”, with Doha returning to the “rank and file” of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members following the Saudi line. That this did not happen has been seen as a sign of weakness on MBS’s part.
The same is true of the failure to eradicate Iranian influence across the Middle East. The invasion of Yemen was ostensibly undertaken to prevent Iran from getting a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula. The curious case of Saad Hariri, the then prime minister of Lebanon, being summoned to Saudi Arabia and submitting his resignation apparently under the instructions of Riyadh, occurred to prevent Hezbollah, a key Iranian ally, from gaining greater influence in Lebanese politics.Such misjudgements have prompted some in the kingdom to question whether MBS is the right person to rule the Saudi state. 
Saudi Arabia’s actions on the world stage have also increased pressure on the crown prince. Ongoing military involvement in Yemen has been a source of fervent criticism amid allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes committed there. Moreover, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi – an outspoken critic of military action in Yemen – in late 2018 led to questions from Agnes Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur, about the complicity of MBS in the death of Khashoggi.While these questions mean little domestically, outside the kingdom they contribute to perceptions of MBS as a reckless leader, prone to rash moves.
Although MBS appears to possess the hallmarks of an authoritarian ruler, given his apparent predilection for quashing dissent, his programme of economic and social reforms have been generally well received among Western rulers. With this support, at times tacit, MBS was able to survive the Khashoggi affair, laying the blame on rogue elements in the Saudi security sector.
So why this crackdown on senior royals and top officials now?Having been appointed crown prince in 2017, MBS has steadily sought to erode all forms of dissent and opposition to his rule, both in the kingdom and beyond. These arrests could have taken place at any point in the time since Prince Ahmed returned to the kingdom, or since Mohammed bin Nayef was placed under house arrest. There are always intricacies in security calculations that are not known to the general public, which may be the case here. Yet it may also be the case that as a perfect storm appears to engulf Saudi Arabia and the international community, another question perhaps sheds more light on the crown prince’s position: “Why not?”The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
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Analysis

Analysis: US election ‘October surprise’ comes early |NationalTribune.com

Every four years around this time, political observers become breathless in anticipation of an “October surprise,” an event or disclosure or a gaffe that will change the dynamic of the upcoming US presidential election. And it is almost a given something will come up to shake things up. 2016 had two so-called “surprises”: Donald Trump’s…

Analysis: US election ‘October surprise’ comes early |NationalTribune.com

Every four years around this time, political observers become breathless in anticipation of an “October surprise,” an event or disclosure or a gaffe that will change the dynamic of the upcoming US presidential election. And it is almost a given something will come up to shake things up.
2016 had two so-called “surprises”: Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, released on October 7, and the FBI reopening their investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails on October 28.
This year’s October surprise arrived a month early: the death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the impending political war over filling her vacancy on the court. Of course, everybody wants to know how this will affect November’s presidential and congressional elections, but the short answer is: nobody knows.
For the clearest sense of how this might all play out, cut through the noise of the politicians and talking heads and look closely at voters’ reactions in the coming weeks to Trump’s choice and the subsequent nomination battle.

Leading up to this moment, there has been little indication of how a Supreme Court fight might influence the vote. A Fox News poll released last week showed that likely voters trust Democrat Joe Biden over Trump, 52 to 45 percent, to do a better job with Supreme Court nominations.
The New York Times last week asked voters in three battleground states who are undecided or could change their minds who they preferred to choose the next Supreme Court justice – they preferred Biden over Trump 49 to 31 percent.
However, until voters are asked by pollsters what they think about this development and the subsequent fallout, all we can do for now is watch the political players.

Biden said if he wins the election, a Trump nominee for the court position should be withdrawn [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Their strategies will be calibrated not only for a long-term political advantage, as Supreme Court appointments usually are, but also for a short-term electoral advantage, something the US has never seen this close to a presidential election.
There is no question this is an opportunity for Trump to change the focus of the election away from voters’ negative reviews on his performance as president and his handling of the pandemic and racial justice issues.
It is almost certain he will make his choice and this process one of, if not the, main focus over the next six weeks. But what is not clear is which strategies he will adopt regarding his nominee and the subsequent fight over that choice.
Trump had announced a lengthy public list of potential nominees before Ginsburg’s death and said on Saturday he would nominate a woman. But will he choose one to placate his unwavering conservative base, promising them a 6-3 conservative-leaning court for the next generation?
Will he pick someone who will emphasize his divisive, us-versus-them, culture-war campaign strategy or someone he and Republicans can try to sell to voting blocs with whom he is underperforming, such as independents, suburban women and older voters?

Trump said he would nominate a woman to fill the Supreme Court vacancy [Alex Brandon/AP Photo]

As for the pace of the nomination process, will it be rammed through before election day or will Trump and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell try to hold a vote after the election to allow embattled incumbent Republicans fighting in Senate battlegrounds to defer making up their minds until the electoral pressure has eased?
Will Republicans even have the full support of their Senate ranks? It only takes a few out of their 53-47 majority to create significant problems for confirming Trump’s nominee.  
As for Democrats, they have no immediate legislative or procedural tools at their disposal, so at this point, the focus will be on vociferously arguing that Trump and the Republicans are imperilling the country by trying to ram a nominee through.
They will talk about Republicans’ hypocrisy on blocking President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016 because the vacancy was too close to an election, though it was 9 months prior.
They will talk about how abortion rights, immigration, healthcare, LGBTQ rights and civil rights will all be in jeopardy under a 6-3 conservative majority Supreme Court.
And they will surely talk about how just days before her death, Ginsburg dictated this statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

Ginsburg said she wanted a new president to be installed before her replacement on the court is selected [Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Berggruen Institute via AFP]

In their effort to honour Ginsburg’s wish, Democratic leaders escalated their rhetoric over the past two days, suggesting they are ready to strike back at the Republicans, maybe not immediately, but down the road.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer issued a direct threat to McConnell: If the Senate Republicans go forth with filling the vacancy, “nothing is off the table for next year”.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when asked if another impeachment of Trump could be used to prevent filling the vacancy, did not respond directly but did say: “We have our options. We have arrows in our quiver that I’m not about to discuss right now.”
With all the uncertainties Ginsburg’s passing and her vacant Supreme Court seat create, there is one certainty: every crucial decision and statement made by an elected official will be made while they ask themselves the question: “How does this affect me on election day?” It is the effect of those decisions and statements that will be closely watched to see how voters react to this early October surprise.
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Analysis: Diab was meant to fail. He did it well |NationalTribune.com

Beirut, Lebanon – “They” controlled the state.  “They” blocked the government’s reform efforts. “They” were ultimately to blame for a catastrophic explosion that ripped through Beirut a week ago. In his resignation speech on Monday evening, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said “they” more than two dozen times – but he never said who “they” were,…

Analysis: Diab was meant to fail. He did it well |NationalTribune.com

Beirut, Lebanon – “They” controlled the state. 
“They” blocked the government’s reform efforts.
“They” were ultimately to blame for a catastrophic explosion that ripped through Beirut a week ago.
In his resignation speech on Monday evening, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said “they” more than two dozen times – but he never said who “they” were, nor explained what exactly they had done. 
As Lebanon reels in shock and anger over the August 4 explosion that killed some 200 people, analysts and government insiders say the political establishment that named Diab prime minister-designate in late January had baked in his failure from the beginning; that he was chosen for a role and that he played it well, wittingly or not.

Diab was picked by Hezbollah and its allies – the Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement – amid an unprecedented protest movement railing against a ruling elite whose corruption and negligence led the country into deep economic and social crises.
After his designation as prime minister in January, Diab said he would form a government of “independent experts” who would rescue Lebanon from economic and social doom.
Bassel Sallouk, an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, said it was a ploy of Lebanon’s establishment.
“The main aim there was to defuse the momentum of the October 17 protests – and they did that very brilliantly,” Salloukh told Al Jazeera.
“We saw the momentum of the protest movement die down after Diab came to power.”
‘Salvage the system’
Some parts of the political establishment chose to sit out of Diab’s cabinet, which won a vote of confidence in parliament in February.
Among them were the Future Movement of Saad Hariri – Diab’s predecessor who resigned in the face of the months-long anti-establishment protests – and the Lebanese Forces and Progressive Socialist Party of former militia leaders Samir Geagea and Walid Joumblatt.
But regardless of whether they were in or out, establishment politicians took to criticising Diab’s government and blaming it for the ills of 30 years of failed rule following the country’s 1975-90 civil war.
“Despite their internal differences, what these political actors will always agree on is to salvage the sectarian political system – this is what allows them to stay in power, to make money,” Salloukh said.
“In the end, we felt that they wanted to make us the criminals, that they wanted to put this all on us, and it was a major reason for the [government’s] resignation,” Ghada Shreim, minister for displaced people in Diab’s now-caretaker government, told Al Jazeera.

What’s behind Lebanon’s worst economic crisis in decades? Al Jazeera’s @timourazhari explains 👇 pic.twitter.com/TWAj2rzgZS
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) July 19, 2020

House Speaker Nabih Berri, one of the key figures of Lebanon’s unbudging political class, had called for a session on Thursday to question the government over the explosion, which also wounded 6,000 people and rendered 300,000 homeless.
“This was unacceptable to us,” Shreim said.
“It was theatre aimed at completing this story that we are the ones responsible for everything,” she added.
Calling it effectively a “lame-duck cabinet”, Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said Diab’s government was not allowed by the country’s political elite to take any important decisions.
“I think that it was already on its way out and the explosion basically accelerated the whole process, due to the absence of leadership in the response effort and the lack of state institutions,” she added.
Though government ministers point to the past when confronted with Lebanon’s deep crisis today, they proved unable to stop the country’s economic collapse during six months in power. Diab’s office was also informed of the presence of the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut’s port that fuelled last week’s explosion at least two weeks before it happened – but failed to act on time.

A general view shows the extensive damage at the site of the explosion in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

The government was not helped by the fact that Diab was “basically politically inept, and though he was a good guy he was in way above his head”, a government source told Al Jazeera.
Before becoming prime minister, Diab was a little-known academic and a vice president at the American University of Beirut, where he had taught for more than 30 years. He had been education minister for nearly three years (2011-14), after which he published a thick book full of his so-called achievements.
Among the public, he was known for his verbose speeches that blended populism with tortured metaphors.
In one 20-minute speech, which he began with a two-and-a-half-minute metaphor involving a sinking ship, Diab claimed the government had achieved 97 percent of its goals three months in.
“He gave academics a really bad name – ‘technocrat’ or ‘independent’ has become a swearword,” Salloukh said, referring to Diab’s initial assertion that his was a government of independent experts. 
The failure of a government headed by self-described independent technocrats worked in favour of a political class who have sustained themselves for decades on a clientelistic relationship with their supporters – a relationship based on the provision of services in exchange for loyalty. 
In the end, “it was clear that nothing could be done without obstacles being put in the way by those with hidden interests”, the government source said.
Diab had said as much in his final address.
“I said previously that the system of corruption is deeply rooted in all parts of the state, but I found that the regime of corruption is bigger than the state.”
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Analysis: Trump’s push to reopen the US economy backfires |NationalTribune.com

President Donald Trump’s gamble on reopening the United States economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation has backfired, leaving the president in a losing political position just four months before the US election. Trump cast himself as the cheerleader-in-chief and has pushed US governors and business leaders to reopen the economy…

Analysis: Trump’s push to reopen the US economy backfires |NationalTribune.com

President Donald Trump’s gamble on reopening the United States economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation has backfired, leaving the president in a losing political position just four months before the US election.
Trump cast himself as the cheerleader-in-chief and has pushed US governors and business leaders to reopen the economy with the hope that the virus would wane. That has not happened.
Now, infection rates are exploding throughout the South and West of the US, and the virus is returning to states that had previously peaked. Trump has refused to acknowledge the rising risks, claiming case numbers are a function of more widely available testing and instead pushed to reopen schools beginning as soon as next month.
The talk of reopening schools, as the virus resurges, has unsettled parents and families nationwide and left governors and local officials in the difficult position of having to make plans without adequate resources or guidance.
“Trump has clearly lost his footing,” said Shibley Telhami, a pollster and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
“He is losing the narrative. If you can’t get the pandemic under control, you can’t reopen the economy,” Telhami told Al Jazeera.
Trump’s handling of the pandemic is not winning over the American public. Opinion polls suggest Trump is trailing his Democratic opponent Joe Biden by an average of more than eight percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.com. Biden leads in the key states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Florida that are likely to turn the election.
“The president has a governing problem that has become a political problem,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“He has failed to stop the spread of this disease. The United States is the worst in the world among developed nations,” Kondik told Al Jazeera.

Democratic US presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about his plans for tackling climate change during a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, July 14, 2020 [Leah Millis/Reuters]

Biden leads Trump in support among Americans by 49 percent to 40 percent, according to a survey of 1,500 adults by The Economist/YouGov taken July 12-14.
“If his poll numbers look this way on election day, he is almost certainly going to lose,” Kondik said.
Indeed, for weeks Republicans who could lose control of both the White House and the US Congress to Democrats have been expressing alarm at the president’s weakened political position.
After low turnout at a much-hyped Trump rally in Oklahoma, Karl Rove, the Republican mastermind behind former President George W Bush’s winning campaigns, told the television outlet Fox News that the president needed to hit the “reset” button on his campaign.
In late June, after Black Lives Matter protests had rocked the US, the number 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune, called for a “change in tone” from the president.
Trump is losing independent voters and needs to deliver a new “message that deals with substance and policy”, Thune told reporters at the US Capitol.

But the president has stayed his course, appealing to his base of partisan Republican voters, advancing a tough “law and order” posture towards the protests, and escalating tensions with China, which he blames for the virus’s spread.
The president has abandoned his once-daily briefings on the coronavirus, sidelined government scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and waged a whisper campaign of criticism of Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health.
Fauci has been a leading voice for social distancing and shutdown measures to control the spread of the virus. He called the White House’s attempts to discredit him “bizarre” and in a series of interviews this week, called for stepping back from reopening the economy.
“Trump continues to be, frankly, irrationally indifferent to the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic,” said James Henson, a politics professor at the University of Texas.
“The Trump administration and the Trump campaign are gambling that in states like Texas – where the pandemic is just burning out of control – he’ll survive it,” Henson told Al Jazeera.
In a speech at the White House on July 14, Trump gave a preview of the campaign ahead by claiming the number of deaths from the virus are going down. The president drew distinctions between himself and Biden on rebuilding the economy, stopping immigration and getting tough on China.
But his performance was rambling, many of his claims were not backed up by facts and his use of a ceremonial space at the White House to deliver a partisan speech drew criticism.

Campaign manager for the Trump 2020 reelection campaign Brad Parscale has been replaced [File: Carlo Allegri/Reuters] 

The next day, Trump replaced his campaign manager Brad Parscale, who had delivered his unlikely 2016 win, with Bill Stepien, a political consultant and former operative for former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Whether Stepien can reinvent Trump’s campaign is an open question. Trump has been forced to cancel planned events in New Hampshire and Alabama because of the virus.
“Trump’s political position is precarious at this point,” said James Lance Taylor, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.
“He has to run on the pandemic response and the economy, but he can’t. His response to the crisis has been inept,” Taylor told Al Jazeera.
“He’s going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat,” he said.
Attendance at the Republican National Convention, scheduled for August 24-27 in Jacksonville, Florida – where Republicans will formally nominate Trump for a second four-year term – will be curtailed as the state suffers the US’s worst outbreak.
And without firm national leadership coming from the president on the pandemic, state and local leaders have been left to devise their own strategies leading to a patchwork of policies and uncertainty about what the future holds.

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi criticised President Trump during a weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, July 16, 2020 [Tom Brenner/Reuters]

“The president has made so many bad executive decisions,” said House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the number 1 Democrat in Congress.
“He is like the man who refuses to ask for directions,” Pelosi said.
“The answers are there. The scientists have the answers. The answers are testing, tracing and treating,” Pelosi told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.
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