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Anatomy of a purge: MBS’s actions, Saudi Arabia’s crisis, and its coming collapse

Understanding the man and the reasons behind the Saudi purge

Alexander Mercouris

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The ongoing purge in Saudi Arabia, together with the kidnapping and extorted “resignation” whilst on a trip to Saudi Arabia of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, is posing a host of questions about the man at the centre of this drama: the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the country’s de factor ruler Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

The enigma of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman

Views on Muhammad bin Salman vary between those which see in him a genuine reformer who understands that Saudi Arabia urgently needs to change in order to avoid eventual collapse, and those which see in him a gambler and would-be dictator intent on centralising power in Saudi Arabia in his own person.

These two theories are not mutually exclusive.  It is possible that Muhammad bin Salman is both: someone who aims to become Saudi Arabia’s dictator in order to carry out the reforms which he believes Saudi Arabia needs to survive, and which he presumably also believes cannot be carried out in any other way.

I suspect that this is how he explains his actions to the other members of the Royal Family and to his father the King, and that this is what his supporters within Saudi Arabia – of which for the moment he has many – also believe or profess to believe.

However even if this is true Muhammad bin Salman’s actions and his “reforms” still seem to me giant steps in the wrong direction both for Saudi Arabia and for himself.  In this article I shall explain why.

In order to do this it is however necessary to look both at Saudi Arabia’s current situation and at the steps Muhammad bin Salman is taking in order to “reform” and save it.

The state of Saudi Arabia

Turning to the state of Saudi Arabia itself, it is not in my opinion an exaggeration to talk of situation that is slipping towards crisis and eventual revolution and civil war.

Firstly Saudi Arabia is not a conventional state but is rather the private patrimony of its ruling family after whom it is named.

The Al-Sauds have ruled Saudi Arabia essentially in their own interests, treating the country’s huge oil wealth as their own, in some cases amassing colossal personal fortunes as a result.

All male members of the Al-Saud family – of whom there are thousands – carry the title “prince”, and though the bulk of the family’s – and therefore the Kingdom’s – wealth is said to be concentrated in ‘only’ 2,000 of them, all male members of the Al-Saud family expect and receive privileged positions within the Kingdom.

Moreover because of the practice of polygamy the number of ‘princes’ is constantly and rapidly increasing, steadily increasing the burden of supporting them on the Kingdom’s budget.

Since male members of the ever-expanding Al-Saud family monopolise the Kingdom’s top posts as their birth right even a semblance of a meritocratic system where posts are occupied on merit such as is supposed to exist in other countries in Saudi Arabia is impossible.

Though as it happens some members of the Al-Saud family are capable and intelligent men who take their tasks seriously, by no means all or even most of them are, with the result that the Kingdom’s bureaucratic and military structures are riddled with inefficiency, a fact which explains why Saudi Arabia’s vast army has proved incapable of defeating the Houthi militia in tiny Yemen.

To compound the problem, to the 15,000 or so members of the Al-Saud family must be added the members of various other tribes and families which are either traditionally allied to the Al-Saud or which are like the Al-Rashid powerful historic rivals to them, and who must therefore be kept loyal by being offered generous slices from the Saudi cake in the form of fiscal privileges and jobs.

Beneath this vast, unwieldy and already inherently corrupt structure is the mass of the Saudi population.

Their loyalty is maintained by a combination of coercion – the Al-Saud have repeatedly shown themselves utterly ruthless in suppressing challenges – tight information control, intense religious indoctrination, and a culture of economic largesse whereby the Al-Saud hand out numerous fiscal and welfare privileges in order to keep the population acquiescent if not exactly happy.

By definition this is not a system likely to spur economic or technological innovation or growth, and though there are some highly educated Saudis and even a few highly regarded Saudi scientists the Kingdom has failed to diversify its economy away from oil or establish a proper civil society or genuine intellectual life.

The importance of oil

Oil wealth is in fact the glue that holds this whole system together and which keeps it going.

It is because of the Kingdom’s vast oil wealth that the Al-Saud are able to buy support or acquiescence at home, maintain their complex system of international and regional alliances, pay for their bloated defence and security complex, and enjoy the opulent lifestyles which they now see as their birth right.

The demands on the Kingdom’s oil wealth are however steadily increasing year on year as the size of the Al-Saud family and of the Kingdom’s other top families rapidly increases, and as the Kingdom’s population rapidly increases also.

Moreover as the size both of the elite and of the population has been growing, so have their expectations, so that levels of wealth or living standards which would have seemed high in the 1970s are no longer seen as such today.

However though the country’s oil wealth has provided the Kingdom with a huge and reliable source of income, the size of that income has varied constantly in line with the oil price.

Since the oil price is subject to extreme fluctuations the pattern has been for periods of abundance (eg. the 1970s and the 2000s) to be succeeded by periods of scarcity (eg. the 1990s and the period since 2014).

The Saudi budget problem

The nature of the Saudi system is however such that it is very difficult to cut spending in line with a fall in the oil price since doing so cuts against the constantly rising demands both of the Saudi elite and of the population as a whole.

In practice, since it far more difficult to cut back on the wealth and privileges of the Al-Saud and the other elite families, the cutbacks during periods of scarcity are passed down disproportionately to the general population.  The result is a rise in social tensions, which because of the intense religious indoctrination tends to find expression in Jihadi extremism.

Saudi history of internal conflict

The result is a country which beneath its monolithic surface has been repeatedly wracked by violent internal crises.

In 1979 a group of violent Jihadis mounted the single greatest challenge the Al-Saud have faced since the foundation of the Kingdom in the 1930s when they captured and held for several weeks the great mosque of Mecca – Islam’s holiest shrine – possession of which lends the Al-Saud their religious legitimacy.   In the end – in a further humiliation to the Al-Saud – they could only be driven out with the help of Pakistani troops and French advisers.

During the 1990s – the longest period to date of low oil prices and therefore within Saudi Arabia of economic scarcity – the situation again deteriorated and in the end got so bad that by the early 2000s a Jihadi insurgency against the Al-Saud was starting to take hold across the Kingdom, with civil war only narrowly averted in part because of the rise in the oil price.

Saudi foreign policy: bid to obtain legitimacy by claiming leadership of Islam

As if these problems were not in themselves severe enough, the Al-Saud since the 1980s – partly by way of response to the shock of the 1979 Mecca mosque siege – have made them worse by embracing a recklessly over-ambitious foreign policy.

This has involved using the same Jihadist sentiments which have caused the Al-Saud so much trouble within the Kingdom to try to mobilise support for the Al-Saud internationally outside it whilst securing their legitimacy within it.

Whilst part of the intention was undoubtedly to get radicalised and dangerous young men with Jihadist sentiments out of the Kingdom by exporting them abroad to make trouble elsewhere, the Al-Saud have also attempted to manipulate these people to achieve their foreign policy goals.

This export of violent young men from the Arabian peninsula has gone hand in hand with a massive programme whereby the Saudis have sought to use their oil wealth to convert Islamic schools and theological colleges across the world to the puritanical hardline Wahhabi doctrines which constitute Saudi Arabia’s official religious ideology.  The intention is to change Wahhabism from a fringe doctrine within Sunni Islam into its mainstream.

The objective has been to legitimise the position of the Al-Saud both within the Kingdom and outside it by establishing them as the leaders of Sunni Islam and indeed ultimately of Islam as a whole.

The decisive step was the decision in 1986 to add the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” to the official title of the Saudi King.

The title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” was first used by the Sunni leader Saladin in the twelfth century, and has been used since then by the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt and the Ottoman Sultans of Turkey.

All these rulers assumed this title whilst claiming to be the leaders of Sunni Islam, with the Ottoman Sultans also claiming to be Islam’s Caliphs.

By adopting the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” the Saudi King was therefore claiming for himself the leading position within Sunni Islam and was pitching himself as Sunni Islam’s leader.

Saudi Arabia’s enemies and feud with Iran

In practice what this claim of leadership of Sunni Islam had led to is the targeted use of Jihadism against those political movements and states within the Muslim world which either contest the Saudi King’s claim to leadership or which – most dangerously – offer an alternative approach to Islam different from that of the Saudis.

First and foremost that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.  I have previously discussed the fundamental differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran and how these two Muslim countries are profoundly different from each other, with Iran offering a vision of an Islamic society which is modern and democratic in a way that Saudi Arabia can never be.,

The inevitable consequence of Saudi hostility to Iran is Saudi hostility to the Shia populations of the Muslim world, who are not only by definition attracted to Iran and the vision of an Islamic society practised there but who also by definition reject the Saudi claim to world leadership of Islam.  Unsurprisingly within Saudi Arabia itself the Shia have become the target of deep Saudi suspicion and of discrimination and oppression.

However Saudi hostility also takes in such secular and multi-confessional states within the Muslim world as Afghanistan was in the 1980s and as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are today.

Saudi leverage of its alliances with the US and Israel

These policies have however made the Al-Saud a host of enemies across the Middle East.

They are also hugely expensive, committing the Kingdom to a quixotic quest for leadership of the Muslim world which is far beyond its actually very limited resources.

They are also contributing further to the radicalisation of young men in the Arabian peninsula, compounding the Al-Saud’s internal difficulties.

To the extent that these policies have ever achieved any success it has been entirely due to the skill with which the Saudis have been able to leverage the support of their far more powerful allies: the US and Israel.

However that has also left the Saudis exposed to manipulation by their allies so that in the Middle East in conflicts like the one in Syria it is not always easy to say who exactly is exploiting whom.

Saudi Arabia’s crisis – oil and Syria

On any objective assessment it has been obvious for a long time that this situation – both domestically and externally – is not sustainable.  Though the post 1980s Saudi bid for leadership of Islam may have briefly consolidated the Al-Saud’s legitimacy within the Kingdom, it has come at the price of growing hostility to Saudi Arabia regionally and a growth of dangerous Jihadist sentiments at home.

However in the period 2014-2015 two events happened which have tipped this situation into outright crisis.

2014 oil crash

The first was the crash in oil prices which took place in mid 2014.

For a time the Saudis thought they could not only ride this out but even turn it to their advantage by using the oil price crash to price out the shale producers in the US.  However by 2016 it seems that the social tensions within Saudi Arabia caused by the oil price fall were becoming too great, forcing upon the Saudis a change of course.

Since then the Saudis have worked together with other oil producers – especially with the Russians – to stabilise oil prices, which however remain far below their pre 2014 levels.

Here I should say in passing that I have always disputed the widely expressed theory that the Saudis deliberately crashed the oil price in 2014 at the bidding of the US in order to destabilise Russia.  Not only has no one explained why the Saudis would do the US’s bidding in that way, but the Saudis increasingly frantic efforts since 2016 to increase the oil price shows how limited is their actual control over it.

In the event, as things have turned out, the fall in the oil price has hurt Saudi Arabia far more than it hurt Russia.  Whilst the huge and diversified Russian economy has rapidly and effortlessly adjusted to the fall in the oil price, it is the Saudis – far more dependent on oil prices than the Russians – who are struggling.

Anyone who knew anything about the two countries in 2014 should have anticipated that.  It is a testament to the blindness of so many that they failed to do so.

Defeat in Syria

The second event to have happened since 2014 which has shaken the Saudis is the defeat of the Saudi backed Jihadi insurgency in Syria following the intervention of Russia there.

Here it should be said that not only was Saudi Arabia’s commitment to that insurgency massive but one of the most hardline Saudi princes involved in supporting it was none other than Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, who is now King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s reigning King and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s father.

Not only does this defeat mean the survival – indeed the strengthening – of the Assad government in Syria which the Saudis sought to destroy.  It also means a huge increase in the power and influence of Saudi Arabia’s nemesis and President Assad’s ally: the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Compounding that failure is the seeming reversal of alliances of the other great Sunni power of the Middle East power – Turkey – which defeated in Syria like Saudi Arabia is now responding to that defeat by mending its fences with the winners of the Syrian war: Russia and Iran.

Whereas until recently Saudi Arabia was at the centre of a network of Sunni states, it now finds that two of the most powerful of them – Turkey and Pakistan – are now becoming increasingly friendly with its enemy Iran, whilst Iran with the help of Russia is now in the process of forging a potentially powerful regional alliance with Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, which Saudi Arabia is bound to see as a threat to itself.

Muhammad bin Salman’s actions are a response to the Saudi crisis

It is this background of failure and crisis which lies behind Muhammad bin Salman’s actions.

His actions since he emerged suddenly on the scene following the succession in January 2015 of his father King Salman do not have the look of a well-thought-out reform programme.

Rather they look to be the impulsive and often ill-judged actions of an inexperienced young man intent on reversing Saudi Arabia’s recent defeats, so as to restore the position of the Al-Saud to something like what it was before those defeats took place.

Muhammad bin Salman’s actions since 2015

First there was the invasion of Yemen – launched in March 2015, just weeks after King Salman succeeded to the throne – involving 150,000 Saudi troops, 100 Saudi aircraft, and contingents from various Saudi allied Gulf states.

Then in 2016 the previous Saudi policy of allowing the oil market to stabilise by itself was abruptly reversed, with Saudi Arabia agreeing first to a production freeze and then to a production cut, even though that meant coming to terms with the Iranians and above all the Russians.

Then this year there was the quarrel with Qatar – a longstanding rival to the Al-Saud whose television station Al-Jazeera is a longstanding thorn in their side – which was accused of getting too close to Iran, and is now under blockade.

Now there is the kidnapping, continued detention and coerced ‘resignation’ of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who leads a government which because it includes Hezbollah members is seen by Muhammad bin Salman and the Saudis as too close to Iran.

Lastly there is the purge within Saudi Arabia itself, with Muhammad bin Salman’s rivals for the throne – Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah – pushed aside, and all of Saudi Arabia’s security forces – the army, the various internal security agencies controlled by the Interior Ministry and the National Guard – brought under Muhammad bin Salman’s personal control.

Muhammad bin Salman’s repeated failures

The problem for Muhammad bin Salman is that none of these projects – with the partial exception of the stabilisation of the oil price and his ongoing purge – are going well.

In Syria the Assad government stands on the brink of total victory.

In Iraq the government has rejected Saudi demands to realign away from Iran and to disarm the Iranian trained militias which now form the core of Iraq’s armed forces.

In Yemen the war continues to go badly with the Houthis now launching long range missiles one of which has just hit Riyadh airport.

The quarrel with Qatar has simply rallied Iran, Turkey and Russia behind Qatar, whilst bringing Qatar closer to Iran.

In Lebanon the extraordinary circumstances of Prime Minister Hariri’s ‘resignation’ seem to have provoked a backlash, with the government rejecting Hariri’s ‘resignation’, the government coalition (including Hezbollah) holding together, and with Lebanese opinion rallying strongly behind the government.

Failures proximate cause of the purge

It is this catalogue of failure, and the growing criticism from other Saudi Princes which it has doubtless provoked, which is what almost certainly lies behind the purge.

Confronted by growing criticism and unnerved by his own failures, Muhammad bin Salman has gone for broke, trying to head off resistance and secure for himself the succession to the throne by launching a purge before he becomes the victim of a purge himself.

In my opinion the person who has best captured the quality of all this is the former British diplomat Alistair Crooke, who has emerged as one of the most insightful commentators of the affairs of the region

It is always tempting. The Syrian war is coming to an end, and the losses to those who bet on the losing side – suddenly in the glare of the end-game – become an acute and public embarrassment. The temptation is to brush the losses aside and with a show of bravado make one last bet: the masculine “hero” risks his home and its contents on a last spin of the wheel. Those in attendance stand in awed silence, awaiting the wheel to slow, and to trickle the ball forward, slot by slot, and to observe where it comes to rest, be it on black, or on the blood-red of tragedy.

Not only in romances, but in life, too. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has wagered all on black, with his “friends” – President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) and Trump himself daring MbS on. Trump, in his business life, once or twice has staked his future on the spin of the wheel. He too has gambled and admits to the exhilaration.

And in the shadows, at the back of the gaming room, stands Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. The idea of going to the casino was his, in the first place. If the hero lands on black, he will share in the joy, but if it is red … never mind: Bibi’s home is not forfeit.

Let us be clear, MbS is severing all the various fetters that hold the Saudi kingdom together and intact. Saudi Arabia is not just a family business: it is also a confederation of tribes. Their diverse interests were attended to, primordially, through the composition of the National Guard, and its patronage. The latter henceforth reflects, no longer, the kingdom’s diverse tribal affiliations, but the security interests of one man, who has seized it for himself.

Ditto for the various cadet branches of the al-Saud family: the carefully judged sharing out of spoils amongst the many family claimants is finished. One man is clearing the table of everybody’s smaller stakes. He has snapped the wires connecting the Court to the Saudi business élite – and is slowly slicing away the Wahhabi religious establishment, too. They have been effectively kicked out of the partnership, which they founded jointly with ibn Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia who ruled during the first half of the last century, also known as King Abdul Aziz. In short, no one has a stake left in this enterprise, but MbS – and no one it seems, has rights, or redress.

Why? Because MbS sees the Saudi political and religious leadership of the Arab world slipping, like sand, through the king’s fingers, and he cannot bear the thought that Iran (and the despised Shi’a), could be the inheritor.

It follows from this that I agree with those such as Alistair Crooke and the Moon of Alabama that the current purge is not some purposeful step towards implementing some sort of well-thought out reform programme but is rather the desperate throw of an inexperienced and impulsive young man – Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman – who is in over his head.

Prospects for success of the purge

That does not mean that in the short term the purge will not succeed.

For the moment there seems to be no organised opposition to Muhammad bin Salman within Saudi Arabia – though in Saudi Arabia one can never know for sure – and with the army and his father the King apparently supporting him the odds must be that in the short term he will be able to pull his gamble off, seeing off or overawing the opposition and securing for himself the succession to his father when King Salman finally dies or abdicates.

The problems will however then start in earnest once the succession has taken place, with Muhammad bin Salman having angered and upset a lot of people on his way to the throne, and with no one left to blame but himself if or rather when things start to go wrong.

The ‘reform’ programme

What then of Muhammad bin Salman’s reform programme of which so much is being said?

As to that it should be said first of all that Saudi Vision 2030 is not in any true sense a ‘reform programme’ at all.

Rather it is a vast spending and investment programme intended to provide Saudi Arabia with an industrial base in a heroically short time whilst leaving the position of the Al-Saud at the centre of Saudi society untouched.

I have already made known my view that both the spending targets and the announced industrialisation programme are totally unrealistic and therefore certain to fail.

Comparisons which some have apparently made with the USSR’s industrialisation programme under Stalin and with China’s industrialisation drive since the 1990s are in my opinion completely wrong.  Those were the actions of revolutionary governments intent on mobilising the entirety of their nations’ resources around a programme of industrialisation carried out as part of a larger programme for the revolutionary transformation of their societies.

By contrast there is nothing remotely ‘revolutionary’ about what Muhammad bin Salman is trying to do.  On the contrary what he is trying to do by giving Saudi Arabia an industrial base is shore up the existing Saudi status quo by strengthening the position of the Al-Saud both externally and internally.

It is not even properly speaking an industrialisation programme.  Rather it is an attempt to graft an industrial base onto an unreformed Saudi society by leveraging the assets of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Aramco in order to buy one wholesale from abroad.

That ultimately is no different from what Saudi Arabia has being doing – unsuccessfully – since the 1960s.  The only difference is one of scale.

There is no reason to think that Muhammad bin Salman will be any more successful than other Saudi rulers have been, doing unsuccessfully what he is now trying to do before him.  Certainly it is not a guarantee of his success where they all failed that he is proposing to throw a lot more money at it than they did.

Financing Saudi Vision 2030 via the purge?

What of the view that the vast fortunes Muhammad bin Salman has seized from those he has just purged will provide him with the wherewithal to bring his Saudi Vision 2030 to fruition?

In reality the sums seized – reputed to be $800 billion but in reality only a fraction of that amount – are nowhere near enough to finance a programme of this scale.  Suffice to say that Saudi Vision 2030 aims to increase Saudi Arabia’s non-oil revenue from $163 billion to $1 trillion a year.

I would add that for Muhammad bin Salman to try to finance his programme on the back of money he has seized from Saudi princes who have fallen out with him is politically speaking a problematic idea to put it mildly, and is a certain recipe for huge trouble down the line.

Outreach to Russia and the Eurasian powers?

Lastly, what of the view expressed by some that Muhammad bin Salman is planning to realign Saudi Arabia towards the Eurasian powers – ie. towards China and Russia – and that the purge is intended to head off a pro-US coup that might be launched to prevent this?

In my opinion this view is based on over-interpretations of Muhammad bin Salman’s comments in a recent Guardian newspaper interview of his wish to refocus Saudi Arabia towards a more “moderate version of Islam” and of the recent visit of his father King Salman to Moscow.

A more ‘moderate version of Islam’?

Turning first to Muhammad bin Salman’s comments about his desire to see within Saudi Arabia a “moderate version of Islam”, here is how the Guardian reports them

What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it…..

We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70% of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.

These comments are not only grossly unhistorical; they appear intended to blame Iran – Muhammad bin Salman’s and Saudi Arabia’s perpetual bête noire – for Saudi Arabia’s problems with radical Jihadism, which in light of previous Saudi policy (see above) is actually absurd.

In reality the Al-Saud – as Muhammad bin Salman of course knows – have been aligned with Wahhabism ever since the eighteenth century, when Muhammad bin Saud, the emir of Diriyah, invited the founder of Wahhabism Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to his court and they agreed together to bring the Arabs of the peninsula back to the ‘true principles’ of Islam.

Nothing Muhammad bin Salman has said or done suggests that he has any plans to change that.  Frankly I think there is as much chance of a non-Wahhabi becoming the King of Saudi Arabia as there is of someone who is not a Catholic becoming Pope.

These comments of Muhammad bin Salman are not intended to pave the way for a genuine move away from rigid Wahhabi type doctrines within Saudi Arabia.  Rather they signal a slight easing of certain restrictions within Saudi Arabia in order to win support from younger Saudis whilst simultaneously seeking to win for Saudi Arabia and for Muhammad bin Salman personally a better image in the West.

Ultimately nothing much is going to change if only because real change would call into question Muhammad bin Salman’s religious orthodoxy, which would exclude him from the succession and therefore the throne.

King Salman in Moscow – no realignment away from the US

As to King Salman’s trip to Moscow, to see in it a realignment by Saudi Arabia away from the US towards the Eurasian powers is farfetched.

King Salman is the first Saudi King to visit Russia in an official capacity.  He did bring a large delegation with him, though Muhammad bin Salman himself was not part of it.  King Salman did also have a lengthy private face-to-face meeting with President Putin during his visit.

However the deals the Saudis and the Russians did with each other whilst King Salman was in Moscow are totally dwarfed by the far bigger deals the Saudis did with the US just a few months ago during US President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

This shows that it is the relationship with the US not the relationship with Russia which for the Saudis remains the important one.

Explaining the S-400 deal

The most eye-catching deal agreed in Moscow – for the sale by Russia of S-400 anti aircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia – has in my opinion also been completely misunderstood.

The context for this deal is the ongoing discussions between the Iranians and the Russians for the sale by the Russians to the Iranians of advanced fighter aircraft for the Iranian air force.

The Russians are believed to have offered the Iranians fourth generation fighters such as the MiG-29 and SU-27.  The Iranians are said to be holding out – and will probably eventually get – more advanced fourth generation plus fighters such as the SU-30 and SU-35.

It is standard practice for Russian diplomacy in such situations to seek to balance arms sales to one country with arms sales to its rivals.  In that way the Russians – for whom maintaining stability is always a priority – ensure that a balance of power is maintained, whilst avoiding excessive commitments to one side or another in a regional quarrel which might close off routes for cooperation in future.

In the case of the mooted Russian fighter aircraft sale to Iran, the weakest arm of the Iranian military is its air force, which depends on a mix of fighter aircraft delivered in the 1970s to the Shah’s air force by the US, supplemented by some 1980s era MiG-21 copies supplied by China and some ex-Soviet formerly Iraqi aircraft evacuated to Iran by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War of 1990-1991.

Iran urgently needs modern aircraft to upgrade this otherwise obsolescent air force with its strange hodgepodge of aircraft, and realistically Russia is the only Great Power which can provide them (delivery of Chinese aircraft to Iran such as the J-10 has also from time to time been mooted.  However it would also require Russian agreement since all current Chinese fighter aircraft use Russian or Russian derived engines).

Iranian acquisition of large numbers of advanced Russian fighters would however radically change the balance of power in the Gulf and in the Middle East.

Accordingly the Russians are offering Saudi Arabia S-400 anti aircraft missiles, which because of their defensive nature do not directly threaten Iran, but which do provide the Saudis with protection from the advanced fighters Russia is preparing to sell to Iran.

That way the Russians are able to keep all sides contented if not exactly happy; balancing their sale of advanced fighters to Iran with an equivalent sale of advanced anti aircraft missiles to Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, thereby preserving Russia’s relations with both the Iranians and the Saudis and the balance of military power in the Gulf and in the Middle East.

It is not a coincidence that shortly after King Salman’s visit to Russia President Putin visited Iran where he had meetings both with President Rouhani and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Undoubtedly the question of Russian military aircraft sales to Iran would have been touched on during this visit, with the Iranians doubtless holding out for advanced SU-30 and SU-35 fighters and seeking a production and licensing agreement, and with Putin explaining the rationale for the recent Russian agreement to sell S-400 anti aircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia.

Purposes of King Salman’s Moscow trip

As for the other purposes of King Salman’s Moscow visit, the Saudis will have been anxious to ensure continued Russian agreement to oil production cuts, and will also have sought reassurances about the limits of Russian commitments to Iran.

Events since 2014 have shown that it is Saudi Arabia which is far more vulnerable to falls in the oil price than Russia (see above) and that it is Saudi Arabia which therefore needs Russia’s help with oil production cuts and not the other way round.

As to Russia’s relations with Iran, ultimately it is not in Saudi Arabia’s interests to drive Russia into a fully-fledged alliance with Iran, and King Salman’s various offers of Saudi investment in the Russian economy will have been made in part in order to ensure that does not happen.

The Russians for their part will not only have welcomed these offers; they also appear to have pressed King Salman into making financial commitments to restore Syria’s economy – devastated by six years of war – which for the Russians is a priority issue.

Summarising King Salman’s Moscow trip

Overall King Salman’s visit to Russia is not evidence of a Saudi shift away from the US and towards the Eurasian powers.  Rather it is an example of the sort of hard headed bargaining for maximum advantage at which the Russians excel.

Instead of over-committing to Iran and thereby placing themselves on one side in an Iranian-Saudi quarrel which is of no direct concern to them, the Russians have leveraged their increasingly close relations with Iran to extract concessions from Saudi Arabia, whilst throwing in the sale of S-400 missiles both as a reassurance and as a sweetener.

It is a style of diplomacy which the US and the Western powers no longer do and which – lost in their intricate geopolitical strategies – they no longer seem able to understand.

In the Middle East it is however understood completely.  Not for nothing is Russia’s President Putin called in the Middle East “Putin the Fox”.

Muhammad bin Salman – not a reformer but an insecure young man in a hurry

Overall it is impossible to see in Muhammad bin Salman’s actions any truly well-thought out ‘reform’ strategy.

As to what such a genuine – and realistic – reform programme might look like, I discussed it in my previous article where I discussed his hopelessly unrealistic economic plans

In reality what Saudi Arabia needs to do is not engage in a gigantic programme of over-spending which can only make the country’s economic situation worse, but on the contrary cut back radically on its existing spending, so that it can finally start to live within its means.

That means thinking of how to end the vast system of subsidies and privileges that are distorting and stifling the economy, and which are robbing it of vitality because they are unearned since they are paid for from oil revenues and are not paid for by taxes.

It means working towards ending the peg between the Saudi riyal and the US dollar, which is exaggerating the problems of the country’s budget at a time of low oil prices, and which is increasing its non-oil trade deficit by stifling the competitiveness of the non-oil part of the country’s economy.

It also means reining back on the country’s ludicrously over-ambitious and inherently destabilising foreign policy, which has achieved nothing save to spread terrorism throughout the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia itself, whilst locking Saudi Arabia into an arms race with Iran, which because of Iran’s vastly superior resources Saudi Arabia can never win.

As for the vast sums Saudi Arabia spends on arms – which it cannot use and often doesn’t intend to use – Saudi Arabia would be far better advised spending them instead on educating its people so as to prepare them for a genuine role in the country’s government.

As well as improving the national education system – which by all accounts is in an extremely poor condition, blighted by bigotry and prejudice – that means providing scholarships to young Saudis – men and women – from poorer families to study in universities abroad.

Objectively all this is possible, and it is not too late to do it.  If it were done then in 10 to 20 years time Saudi Arabia would be transformed vastly for the better.

Muhammad bin Salman is proposing none of these things.  On the contrary, he is planning to do the diametric opposite to them: increasing spending even further and even faster by committing to a grandiose and unrealistic industrialisation programme whilst increasing Saudi Arabia’s already bloated defence budget (reputedly the third biggest in the world) even further by increasing military spending to stratospheric levels.

At the same time he is doubling down on Saudi Arabia’s self-destructive feud with Iran – a far more powerful country than Saudi Arabia is or can ever be – whilst increasing the Kingdom’s already excessive foreign policy commitments even more.

His actions in fact show him to be not just an insecure young man in a hurry but one who responds to resistance and setbacks not by rethinking his strategies but by doubling down on them and by becoming aggressive.

Shocking treatment of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri

The decision to kidnap, detain and extort a ‘resignation’ statement out of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harari is a case in point.  I am bewildered that so few have commented on just how outrageous and self-defeating this frankly bizarre step is.

Not only is it a gross violation of international law but it is an act which goes totally against the Arab nation’s longstanding and very deep tradition of hospitality and guest friendship.  Certainly in Lebanon and I suspect elsewhere in the Arab world (including in Saudi Arabia itself) most people will be shocked by it.

Beyond that it is completely counter-productive.  Having seen what Muhammad bin Salman has just done to Saad Hariri why would any other leader of any one of the smaller Arab states ever risk accepting an invitation from Muhammad bin Salman again?

Muhammad bin Salman’s treatment of Saad Hariri is not the action of a statesman but of a gangster.  Even the most brutal tyrants of the Middle East – people such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – have never previously acted publicly in this way: kidnapping, detaining and extorting a ‘resignation’ statement out of the Prime Minister of a supposedly friendly Arab country whilst he is on a visit to their own.

Popularity of purge will be ephemeral

Muhammad bin Salman’s purge is all of a piece with this ruthless and counter-productive behaviour.

Whilst passing off the purge as an anti-corruption crackdown may along with with the slight easing of social restrictions Muhammad bin Salman has recently announced win him a certain amount of popularity amongst younger Saudis (where most of his support is to be found) Saudi Arabia is not a democracy and that sort of popularity is of little value if it comes at the price of alienating the country’s traditional power centres, which is what at an ever accelerating pace Muhammad bin Salman is doing.

It is likely that this popularity will prove ephemeral anyway.  As Muhammad bin Salman is not proposing any really fundamental change to Saudi society but is instead simply aiming to concentrate all power in his own hands there is no reason why younger Saudis should support him or why Saudi Arabia should become any less corrupt in future under his rule than it is now.

If anything the opposite is likely to be true, with opportunities for corruption multiplying as a direct result of the runaway spending programme Muhammad bin Salman has committed himself to.

Impossibility of ‘reforming’ Saudi Arabia

My opinion is that given the nature of Saudi society the very idea of ‘reform’ within Saudi Arabia is anyway an oxymoron.  Whilst it is possible to see how such a thing could in theory be done, in practice the nature of the system (see above) all but rules it out.

Perhaps that is why as the horizons darken the only ‘solution’ anyone is offering is the one being offered by Muhammad bin Salman: to secure the future position of the Al-Saud by transforming the current oligarchy into a personal dictatorship centred on himself.

Certain failure of Muhammad bin Salman’s plans setting the scene for final collapse

That might suggest that Muhammad bin Salman’s actions are the Al-Saud’s last desperate but nonetheless calculated bid to avert an otherwise inevitable collapse.  Frankly I doubt that they are anything as carefully thought through as that.

Regardless, of one thing I am sure: they are far more likely to accelerate the coming collapse than they are to avert or delay it.

Here is what I wrote about Muhammad bin Salman in my article about his economic plans

Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s peculiar genius is to accelerate the now inevitable collapse, so that it will all happen far more quickly than it otherwise would have done, and at supersonic speed.

Patrick Cockburn, that most insightful of commentators on Middle East affairs, has compared the cost and extravagance of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reception of President Trump to the similarly empty and inflated pomp of the Shah of Iran’s Persepolis Party of 1971.

That event together with the Shah’s runaway spending on a manic and unsustainable industrialisation programme eerily similar to the one now planned by Prince Mohammed bin Salman led eventually to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Iranian monarchy.  If the same thing happens in Saudi Arabia the results will be far more bloody.

All of Muhammad bin Salman’s subsequent actions since I wrote those words – on 20th May 2017 – only confirm these opinions.

Meanwhile there is no justification for speaking of Muhammad bin Salman as Saudi Arabia’s ‘reformer’ or potential saviour.

On the contrary he comes across as an impulsive and arrogant young man in a hurry who has little idea of what he is doing and whose actions are as certain to bring the House of Saud crashing down around him as to secure his own downfall.

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Russia’s Economy Little Harmed by West’s Sanctions

Putin has been succeeding despite what the US aristocracy (and its allied aristocracies in Europe and Arabia) have been throwing to weaken Russia.

Eric Zuesse

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Originally posted at strategic-culture.org:


Despite Barack Obama’s economic sanctions against Russia, and the plunge in oil prices that King Saud agreed to with Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry on 11 September 2014, the economic damages that the US and Saudis have aimed against a particular oil-and-gas giant, Russia, have hit mostly elsewhere — at least till now.

This has been happening while simultaneously Obama’s violent February 2014 coup overthrowing Ukraine’s democratically elected pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych (and the head of the ‘private CIA’ firm Stratfor calls it “the most blatant coup in history”) has caused Ukraine’s economy to plunge even further than Russia’s, and corruption in Ukraine to soar even higher than it was before America’s overthrow of that country’s final freely elected nationwide government, so that Ukraine’s economy has actually been harmed far more than Russia’s was by Obama’s coup in Ukraine and Obama’s subsequent economic sanctions against Russia (sanctions that are based on clear and demonstrable Obama lies but that continue and even get worse under Trump).

Bloomberg News headlined on February 4th of 2016, “These Are the World’s Most Miserable Economies” and reported the “misery index” rankings of 63 national economies as projected in 2016 and 60 as actual in 2015 — a standard ranking-system that calculates “misery” as being the sum of the unemployment-rate and the inflation-rate. They also compared the 2016 projected rankings to the 2015 actual rankings.

Top rank, #1 both years — the most miserable economy in the world during 2015 and 2016 — was Venezuela, because of that country’s 95% dependence upon oil-export earnings (which crashed when oil-prices plunged). The US-Saudi agreement to flood the global oil market destroyed Venezuela’s economy.

#2 most-miserable in 2015 was Ukraine, at 57.8. But Ukraine started bouncing back so that as projected in 2016 it ranked #5, at 26.3. Russia in 2015 was #7 most-miserable in 2015, at 21.1, but bounced back so that as projected in 2016 it became #14 at 14.5.

Bloomberg hadn’t reported misery-index rankings for 2014 showing economic performances during 2013, but economist Steve H. Hanke of Johns Hopkins University did, in his “Measuring Misery Around the World, May 2014,” in the May 2014 GlobeAsia, ranking 90 countries; and, during 2013 (Yanukovych’s final year as Ukraine’s President before his being forced out by Obama’s coup), Ukraine’s rank was #23 and its misery-index was 24.4. Russia’s was #36 and its misery index was 19.9. So: those can be considered to be the baseline-figures, from which any subsequent economic progress or decline (after Obama’s 2014 Ukrainian coup) may reasonably be calculated. Hanke’s figures during the following year, 2014, were reported by him at Huffington Post, “The World Misery Index: 108 Countries”, and by UAE’s Khaleej Times, “List of Most Miserable Countries” (the latter falsely attributing that ranking to Cato Institute, which had merely republished Hanke’s article). In 2014, Ukraine’s misery-index, as calculated by Hanke, was #4, at 51.8. That year had 8 countries above 40 in Hanke’s ranking. Russia was #42 at 21.42. So: Russia’s rank had improved, but, because of the globally bad economy, Russia’s absolute number was slightly worse (higher) than it had been before Obama’s coup in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions against Russia. By contrast, Ukraine’s rank had suddenly gotten far worse, #4 at 51.80 in 2014, after having been #23 at 24.4 in 2013.

The figures in Bloomberg for Russia were: during 2015, #7 with a misery-index of 21.1; and projected during 2016, #14 with a misery-index of 14.5; so, Bloomberg too showed a 2015-2016 improvement for Russia, and not only for Ukraine (where in the 2016 projection it ranked #5, at 26.3, a sharp improvement after the horrendous 2015 actual numbers).

“Hanke’s Annual Misery Index — 2017” in Forbes, showed 98 countries, and Venezuela was still #1, the worst; Ukraine was now #9 at 36.9; and Russia was #36 at 18.1.

Thus: whereas Russia was economically sunningly stable at #36 from start to finish throughout the entire five-year period 2013-2017, starting with a misery-index of 19.9 in 2013 and ending with 18.1 in 2017, Ukraine went from a misery-index of 24.4 in 2013 to 36.9 in 2017 — and worsening its rank from #23 to #9. During that five-year period Ukraine’s figure peaked in the year of Obama’s coup at 57.8. So, at least Ukraine’s misery seems to be heading back downward in the coup’s aftermath, though it’s still considerably worse than before the coup. But, meanwhile, Russia went from 19.9 to 18.1 — and had no year that was as bad as Ukraine’s best year was during that period of time. And, yet: that coup and the economic sanctions and the US-Saudi oil-agreement were targeted against Russia — not against Ukraine.

If the US were trying to punish the people of Ukraine, then the US coup in Ukraine would have been a raving success; but actually Obama didn’t care at all about Ukrainians. He cared about the owners of America’s weapons-making firms and of America’s extractive firms. Trump likewise.

During that same period (also using Hanke’s numbers) the United States went from #71 at 11.0 in 2013, to #69 at 8.2 in 2017. US was stable.

Saudi Arabia started with #40 18.9 during 2013, to #30 at 20.2 in 2017. That’s improvement, because the Kingdom outperformed the global economy.

During the interim, and even in the years leading up to 2014, Russia had been (and still is) refocusing its economy away from Russia’s natural resources and toward a broad sector of high technology: military R&D and production.

On 15 December 2014, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute headlined, “Sales by Largest Arms Companies Fell Again in 2013, but Russian Firms’ Sales Continued Rising,” and reported, “Sales by companies headquartered in the United States and Canada have continued to moderately decrease, while sales by Russian-based companies increased by 20 per cent in 2013.”

The following year, SIPRI bannered, on 14 December 2015, “Global Arms Industry: West Still Dominant Despite Decline,” and reported that, “Despite difficult national economic conditions, the Russian arms industry’s sales continued to rise in 2014. … ‘Russian companies are riding the wave of increasing national military spending and exports. There are now 11 Russian companies in the Top 100 and their combined revenue growth over 2013–14 was 48.4 per cent,’ says SIPRI Senior Researcher Siemon Wezeman. In contrast, arms sales of Ukrainian companies have substantially declined. … US companies’ arms sales decreased by 4.1 per cent between 2013 and 2014, which is similar to the rate of decline seen in 2012–13. … Western European companies’ arms sales decreased by 7.4 per cent in 2014.”

This is a redirection of the Russian economy that Vladimir Putin was preparing even prior to Obama’s war against Russia. Perhaps it was because of the entire thrust of the US aristocracy’s post-Soviet determination to conquer Russia whenever the time would be right for NATO to strike and grab it. Obama’s public ambivalence about Russia never persuaded Putin that the US would finally put the Cold War behind it and end its NATO alliance as Russia had ended its Warsaw Pact back in 1991. Instead, Obama continued to endorse expanding NATO, right up to Russia’s borders (now even into Ukraine) — an extremely hostile act.

By building the world’s most cost-effective designers and producers of weaponry, Russia wouldn’t only be responding to America’s ongoing hostility — or at least responding to the determination of America’s aristocracy to take over Russia, which is the world’s largest trove of natural resources — but would also expand Russia’s export-earnings and international influence by selling to other countries weaponry that’s less-burdened with the costs of sheer corruption than are the armaments that are being produced in what is perhaps the world’s most corrupt military-industrial complex: America’s. Whereas Putin has tolerated corruption in other areas of Russia’s economic production (figuring that those areas are less crucial for Russia’s future), he has rigorously excluded it in the R&D and production and sales of weaponry. Ever since he first came into office in 2000, he has transformed post-Soviet Russia from being an unlimitedly corrupt satellite of the United States under Boris Yeltsin, to becoming truly an independent nation; and this infuriates America’s aristocrats (who gushed over Yeltsin).

The Russian government-monopoly marketing company for Russia’s weapons-manufacturers, Rosoboronexport, presents itself to nations around the world by saying: “Today, armaments and military equipment bearing the Made in Russia label protect independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of dozens of countries. Owing to their efficiency and reliability, Russian defense products enjoy strong demand on the global market and maintain our nation’s leading positions among the world’s arms exporters. For the past several years, Russia has consistently ranked second behind the United States as regards arms exports.” That’s second-and-rising, as opposed to America’s first-and-falling.

The American aristocracy’s ever-growing war against Russia posed and poses to Putin two simultaneous challenges: both to reorient away from Russia’s natural resources, which the global aristocracy wants to grab, and also to reorient toward the area of hi-tech in which the Soviets had built a basis from which Russia could become truly cost-effective in international commerce, so as to, simultaneously, increase Russia’s defensive capability against an expanding NATO, while also replacing some of Russia’s dependence upon the natural resources that the West’s aristocrats want to steal.

In other words: Putin designed a plan to meet two challenges simultaneously — military and economic. His primary aim is to protect Russia from being grabbed by the American and Saudi aristocrats, via America’s NATO and the Sauds’ Gulf Cooperation Council and other alliances (which are trying to take over Russia’s ally Syria — Syria being a crucial location for pipelining Arab royals’ oil-and-gas into Europe, the world’s largest energy-market).

In addition, the hit to Russia’s economic growth-rate from the dual-onslaught of Obama’s sanctions and the plunging oil prices hasn’t been too bad. The World Bank’s April 2015 “Russia Economic Report” predicted: “Growth prospects for 2015-2016 are negative. It is likely that when the full effects of the two shocks become evident in 2015, they will push the Russian economy into recession. The World Bank baseline scenario sees a contraction of 3.8 percent in 2015 and a modest decline of 0.3 percent in 2016. The growth spectrum presented has two alternative scenarios that largely reflect differences in how oil prices are expected to affect the main macro variables.”

The current (as of 15 February 2016) “Russia GDP Annual Growth Rate” at Trading Economics says: “The Russian economy shrank 3.8 percent year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2015, following a 4.1 percent contraction in the previous period, according to preliminary estimates from the Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukayev. It is the worst performance since 2009 [George W. Bush’s global economic crash], as Western sanctions and lower oil prices hurt external trade and public revenues.” The current percentage as of today, 17 September 2018, is 1.9%, after having plunged down from 2.2% in late 2017, to 0.9% in late 2017; so, it is rebounding.

The World Bank’s April 2015 “Russia Economic Report” went on to describe “The Government Anti-Crisis Plan”:

On January 27, 2014, the government adopted an anti-crisis plan with the goal to ensure sustainable economic development and social stability in an unfavorable global economic and political environment.

It announced that in 2015–2016 it will take steps to advance structural changes in the Russian economy, provide support to systemic entities and the labor market, lower inflation, and help vulnerable households adjust to price increases. To achieve the objectives of positive growth and sustainable medium-term macroeconomic development the following measures are planned:

• Provide support for import substitution and non-mineral exports;

• Support small and medium enterprises by lowering financing and administrative costs;

• Create opportunities for raising financial resources at reasonable cost in key economic sectors;

• Compensate vulnerable households (e.g., pensioners) for the costs of inflation;

• Cushion the impact on the labor market (e.g. provide training and increase public works);

• Optimize budget expenditures; and

• Enhance banking sector stability and create a mechanism for reorganizing systemic companies.

So: Russia’s anti-crisis plan was drawn up and announced on 27 January 2014, already before Yanukovych was overthrown, even before Obama’s agent Victoria Nuland on 4 February 2014 instructed the US Ambassador in Ukraine whom to have appointed to run the government when the coup would be completed (“Yats,” who did get appointed). Perhaps, in drawing up this plan, Putin was responding to scenes from Ukraine like this. He could see that what was happening in Ukraine was an operation financed by the US CIA. He could recognize what Obama had in mind for Russia.

The “Russia Economic Report, May 2018: Modest Growth Ahead” says:

Global growth continued its 2017 momentum in early 2018. Global growth reached a stronger than- expected 3 percent in 2017 — a notable recovery from a post-crisis low of 2.4 percent in 2016. It is currently expected to peak at 3.1 percent in 2018. Recoveries in investment, manufacturing, and trade continue as commodity-exporting developing economies benefit from firming commodity prices (Figure 1a). The improvement reflects a broad-based recovery in advanced economies, robust growth in commodity-importing Emerging Markets and Developing Economies (EMDEs), and an ongoing rebound in commodity exporters. Growth in China – and important trading partner for Russia – is expected to continue its gradual slowdown in 2018 following a stronger than-expected 6.9 percent in 2017.

Putin’s economic plan has softened the economic blow upon the masses, even while it has re-oriented the economy toward what would be the future growth-areas.

The country that Putin in 2000 had taken over and inherited from the drunkard Yeltsin (so beloved by Western aristocrats because he permitted them to skim off so much from it) was a wreck even worse than it had been when the Soviet Union ended. Putin immediately set to work to turn it around, in a way that could meet those two demands.

Apparently, Putin has been succeeding — now even despite what the US aristocracy (and its allied aristocracies in Europe and Arabia) have been throwing to weaken Russia. And the Russian people know it.

PS: The present reporter is an American, and used to be a Democrat, not inclined to condemn Democratic politicians, but Obama’s grab for Russia was not merely exceedingly dangerous for the entire world, it is profoundly unjust, it is also based on his (and most Republicans’) neoconservative lies, and so I don’t support it, and I no longer support Obama or his and the Clintons’ Democratic Party, at all. But this certainly doesn’t mean that I support the Republican Party, which is typically even worse on this (and other matters) than Democratic politicians are. On almost all issues, I support Bernie Sanders, but I am not a part of anyone’s political campaign, in any way

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Viktor Orban strikes back at EU. Visits Moscow to do business with Putin (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 117.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss Viktor Orban’s recent trip to Moscow following a contentious EU Parliament session where the Hungarian PM was punished by MEPs with an Article 7 sanctioning of Hungary, for daring to take on the George Soros globalist paymaster.

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Authored by John Laughland via The Ron Paul Institute for Peace & Prosperity:


The “salon des refusés” of political dissidents in the EU is getting bigger by the day. Less than a week after his government was condemned in a vote in the European parliament, Orban is in Moscow for talks about energy with Putin. His visit to Russia is the political equivalent of giving the EU the finger following last week’s humiliation.

Orban is not alone. In his battle with the EU over immigration and the rule of law, he is supported by Poland and the Czech Republic. Poland, which is also facing an Article 7 procedure against it by the European Commission, has vowed to protect Hungary, just as Hungary has vowed to protect Poland. So there is no way that the voting rights of either country can be removed, since the ultimate vote to do so requires unanimity. Orban also recently received the support of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and of the Italian Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini.

These politicians have voiced support for Orban’s stance against immigration. But they also support his pragmatic approach to Russia. Salvini is a well-known critic of the Russia sanctions, and Italy has said they should end. Parts of the Austrian government agree, the Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl having recently had Putin as a personal guest of honor at her wedding, while the Vice-Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, is well known for his pro-Russian and pro-Putin views. On the other hand, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has reassured critics that Austria is rooted in the EU and shares its stance towards Russia.

The striking thing about Orban, and about his Central European allies (who incidentally include the Czech President Milos Zeman), is that they are from countries which, as Orban puts it, suffered greatly “under Russia” in the past. He is referring to the countries’ membership of the Warsaw Pact, and their subjection to communist rule, after World War II. In Hungary’s case, the suffering was especially violent because of the suppression of the 1956 revolution in Budapest by Soviet troops. Yet it is precisely these countries who today advocate a pragmatic relationship with Russia, while countries such as Britain, and even Germany, treat Russia as if it were still a communist dictatorship with the Cold War in full swing.

The irony is all the greater because Orban personally played a key role – but one which is often forgotten by historians – in bringing about the end of Soviet rule in Central Europe. His speech in Heroes’ Square in Budapest on June 16, 1989 on the occasion of the re-burial of the leader of the 1956 uprising, Imre Nagy, was the first time anyone in the Warsaw Pact had publicly called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The very making of this speech showed that the old taboos – and, with them, the power of the communist dictatorship – had collapsed. This was two months before the Hungarian government opened its border with Austria, allowing tens of thousands of East Germans to cross into West Germany, and five months before the Berlin wall came down. Orban’s contribution to the chain reaction which led to these later events was therefore decisive.

There is only one explanation for this apparent paradox that some former anti-communist Central European leaders are now pro-Russian. Unlike their Western colleagues, who were never directly affected by communist rule, the states of the former Warsaw Pact understand not only that Russia is no longer the old USSR, having abandoned communism, but also that national identity, and pride in national identity, were the key to undoing communist rule in Central Europe and then in Russia itself. Orban’s 1989 speech was a patriotic appeal to Hungarians: it traced their battle for national freedom back to 1848. Freedom and national pride went hand in hand.

As in Poland, where not only national identity but also religion played a key role in the downfall of communism, Hungarians (and Czechs and many others) now see with dismay that same national identity which freed them from communism under attack from the new commissars in Brussels. This is because the approach in Western Europe is directly the opposite. Pride in one’s nation is considered backward and dangerous, largely because national pride was irredeemably damaged during the war.

The fact is that all the early member states of the EU were defeated in the war, whether by the Germans or by the Allies. During the process of defeat, national pride was ruined, either through the barbarism of Nazism and fascism or through various forms of nationalist collaboration with it. All these stain the national record. Only in Britain was national pride the key to victory; for everyone else it was the key to defeat. (The only partial exception to this rule is France, which retained some sense of national pride after the war. But, in later decades, the memory of the Gaullist resistance was effaced by a stronger memory of the national shame of Vichy.)

Because of this, Western European states have adopted the EU ideology, according to which European history before the creation of the EU was nothing but wars between nation-states. Indeed, national rivalry was the key to these wars. In order for there to be peace, it is argued, Europe’s nation-states must be dissolved in a supranational entity. Germany has accomplished the task of making a clean slate of its national history in a more complete manner than any other European state but the other countries share parts, sometimes large parts, of this same German historiographical and political model.

To be sure, the states of Central Europe have skeletons in their own cupboards concerning the war. Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany throughout it. But the more recent memory of national victory over communism has rekindled national pride, whereas the Western European states have not enjoyed any comparable victory and so they instead put all their faith in the post-national and post-modern European project. Moreover, whereas Communism was largely rejected as an ideology by the people living under it – including in Soviet Russia – the ideology of liberalism has penetrated very deeply into the Western European consciousness, to the extent even of extinguishing national sentiment. Liberalism has been more successful in this regard than communism was, even though orthodox Marxism also called for an end to the nation-state.

This East-West fracture is a major ideological dividing line inside the European Union. The vote in the European Parliament last week, in which over two thirds of MEPs ganged up on a member state in the name of their biased interpretation of “the rule of law,” was a historic moment which brought into the open the depth of this radically different approach to politics and history. Opposite attitudes to Russia are also part of this division. As Marx said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, as we saw in Strasbourg last week: the European Union, like the Soviet Union, will in due course discover that national identity is stronger even than its political ideology.

Laughland is a Member of the RPI Board of Advisors.

Reprinted with permission from RT.

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The Magnitsky affair: the confession of a hustled hack

A Cypriot journalist’s confession of how he too fell for the wrong account of the Magnitsky Affair

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Before getting down to brass tacks, let me say that I loathe penning articles like this; loathe writing about myself or in the first person, because a reporter should report the news, not be the news. Yet I grudgingly make this exception because, ironically, it happens to be newsworthy. To cut to the chase, it concerns Anglo-American financier Bill Browder and the Sergei Magnitsky affair. I, like others in the news business I’d venture to guess, feel led astray by Browder.

This is no excuse. I didn’t do my due diligence, and take full responsibility for erroneous information printed under my name. For that, I apologize to readers. I refer to two articles of mine published in a Cypriot publication, dated December 25, 2015 and January 6, 2016.

Browder’s basic story, as he has told it time and again, goes like this: in June 2007, Russian police officers raided the Moscow offices of Browder’s firm Hermitage, confiscating company seals, certificates of incorporation, and computers.

Browder says the owners and directors of Hermitage-owned companies were subsequently changed, using these seized documents. Corrupt courts were used to create fake debts for these companies, which allowed for the taxes they had previously paid to the Russian Treasury to be refunded to what were now re-registered companies. The funds stolen from the Russian state were then laundered through banks and shell companies.

The scheme is said to have been planned earlier in Cyprus by Russian law enforcement and tax officials in cahoots with criminal elements. All this was supposedly discovered by Magnitsky, whom Browder had tasked with investigating what happened. When Magnitsky reported the fraud, some of the nefarious characters involved had him arrested and jailed. He refused to retract, and died while in pre-trial detention.

In my first article, I wrote: “Magnitsky, a 37-year-old Russian accountant, died in jail in 2009 after he exposed huge tax embezzlement…”

False. Contrary to the above story that has been rehashed countless times, Magnitsky did not expose any tax fraud, did not blow the whistle.

The interrogation reports show that Magnitsky had in fact been summoned by Russian authorities as a witness to an already ongoing investigation into Hermitage. Nor he did he accuse Russian investigators Karpov and/or Kuznetsov of committing the $230 million treasury fraud, as Browder claims.

Magnitsky did not disclose the theft. He first mentioned it in testimony in October 2008. But it had already been reported in the New York Times on July 24, 2008.

In reality, the whistleblower was a certain Rimma Starova. She worked for one of the implicated shell companies and, having read in the papers that authorities were investigating, went to police to give testimony in April 2008 – six months before Magnitsky spoke of the scam for the first time (see here and here).

Why, then, did I report that about Magnitsky? Because at the time my sole source for the story was Team Browder, who had reached out to the Cyprus Mail and with whom I communicated via email. I was provided with ‘information’, flow charts and so on. All looking very professional and compelling.

At the time of the first article, I knew next to nothing about the Magnitsky/Browder affair. I had to go through media reports to get the gist, and then get up to speed with Browder’s latest claims that a Cypriot law firm, which counted the Hermitage Fund among its clients, had just been ‘raided’ by Cypriot police.

The article had to be written and delivered on the same day. In retrospect I should have asked for more time – a lot more time – and Devil take the deadlines.

For the second article, I conversed briefly on the phone with the soft-spoken Browder himself, who handed down the gospel on the Magnitsky affair. Under the time constraints, and trusting that my sources could at least be relied upon for basic information which they presented as facts, I went along with it.

I was played. But let’s be clear: I let myself down too.

In the ensuing weeks and months, I didn’t follow up on the story as my gut told me something was wrong: villains and malign actors operating in a Wild West Russia, and at the centre of it all, a heroic Magnitsky who paid with his life – the kind of script that Hollywood execs would kill for.

Subsequently I mentally filed away the Browder story, while being aware it was in the news.

But the real red pill was a documentary by Russian filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov, which came to my attention a few weeks ago.

Titled ‘The Magnitsky Act – Behind The Scenes’, it does a magisterial job of depicting how the director initially took Browder’s story on faith, only to end up questioning everything.

The docudrama dissects, disassembles and dismantles Browder’s narrative, as Nekrasov – by no means a Putin apologist – delves deeper down into the rabbit hole.

The director had set out to make a poignant film about Magnitsky’s tragedy, but became increasingly troubled as the facts he uncovered didn’t stack up with Browder’s account, he claims.

The ‘aha’ moment arrives when Nekrasov appears to show solid proof that Magnitsky blew no whistle.

Not only that, but in his depositions – the first one dating to 2006, well before Hermitage’s offices were raided – Magnitsky did not accuse any police officers of being part of the ‘theft’ of Browder’s companies and the subsequent alleged $230m tax rebate fraud.

The point can’t be stressed enough, as this very claim is the lynchpin of Browder’s account. In his bestseller Red Notice, Browder alleges that Magnitsky was arrested because he exposed two corrupt police officers, and that he was jailed and tortured because he wouldn’t retract.

We are meant to take Browder’s word for it.

It gets worse for Nekrasov, as he goes on to discover that Magnitsky was no lawyer. He did not have a lawyer’s license. Rather, he was an accountant/auditor who worked for Moscow law firm Firestone Duncan.

Yet every chance he gets, Browder still refers to Magnitsky as ‘a lawyer’ or ‘my lawyer’.

The clincher comes late in the film, with footage from Browder’s April 15, 2015 deposition in a US federal court, in the Prevezon case. The case, brought by the US Justice Department at Browder’s instigation, targeted a Russian national who Browder said had received $1.9m of the $230m tax fraud.

In the deposition, Browder is asked if Magnitsky had a law degree in Russia. “I’m not aware that he did,” he replies.

The full deposition, some six hours long, is (still) available on Youtube. As penance for past transgressions, I watched it in its entirety. While refraining from using adjectives to describe it, I shall simply cite some examples and let readers decide on Browder’s credibility.

Browder seems to suffer an almost total memory blackout as a lawyer begins firing questions at him. He cannot recall, or does not know, where he or his team got the information concerning the alleged illicit transfer of funds from Hermitage-owned companies.

This is despite the fact that the now-famous Powerpoint presentations – hosted on so many ‘anti-corruption’ websites and recited by ‘human rights’ NGOs – were prepared by Browder’s own team.

Nor does he recall where, or how, he and his team obtained information on the amounts of the ‘stolen’ funds funnelled into companies. When it’s pointed out that in any case this information would be privileged – banking secrecy and so forth – Browder appears to be at a loss.

According to Team Browder, in 2007 the ‘Klyuev gang’ together with Russian interior ministry officials travelled to Cyprus, ostensibly to set up the tax rebate scam using shell companies.

But in his deposition, the Anglo-American businessman cannot remember, or does not know, how his team obtained the travel information of the conspirators.

He can’t explain how they acquired the flight records and dates, doesn’t have any documentation at hand, and isn’t aware if any such documentation exists.

Browder claims his ‘Justice for Magnitsky’ campaign, which among other things has led to US sanctions on Russian persons, is all about vindicating the young man. Were that true, one would have expected Browder to go out of his way to aid Magnitsky in his hour of need.

The deposition does not bear that out.

Lawyer: “Did anyone coordinate on your behalf with Firestone Duncan about the defence of Mr Magnitsky?”

Browder: “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

Going back to Nekrasov’s film, a standout segment is where the filmmaker looks at a briefing document prepared by Team Browder concerning the June 2007 raid by Russian police officers. In it, Browder claims the cops beat up Victor Poryugin, a lawyer with the firm.

The lawyer was then “hospitalized for two weeks,” according to Browder’s presentation, which includes a photo of the beaten-up lawyer. Except, it turns out the man pictured is not Poryugin at all. Rather, the photo is actually of Jim Zwerg, an American human rights activist beaten up during a street protest in 1961 (see here and here).

Nekrasov sits down with German politician Marieluise Beck. She was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace), which compiled a report that made Magnitsky a cause celebre.

You can see Beck’s jaw drop when Nekrasov informs her that Magnitsky did not report the fraud, that he was in fact under investigation.

It transpires that Pace, as well as human rights activists, were getting their information from one source – Browder. Later, the Council of Europe’s Andreas Gross admits on camera that their entire investigation into the Magnitsky affair was based on Browder’s info and that they relied on translations of Russian documents provided by Browder’s team because, as Gross puts it, “I don’t speak Russian myself.”

That hit home – I, too, had been fed information from a single source, not bothering to verify it. I, too, initially went with the assumption that because Russia is said to be a land of endemic corruption, then Browder’s story sounded plausible if not entirely credible.

For me, the takeaway is this gem from Nekrasov’s narration: “I was regularly overcome by deep unease. Was I defending a system that killed Magnitsky, even if I’d found no proof that he’d been murdered?”

Bull’s-eye. Nekrasov has arrived at a crossroads, the moment where one’s mettle is tested: do I pursue the facts wherever they may lead, even if they take me out of my comfort zone? What is more important: the truth, or the narrative? Nekrasov chose the former. As do I.

Like with everything else, specific allegations must be assessed independently of one’s general opinion of the Russian state. They are two distinct issues. Say Browder never existed; does that make Russia a paradise?

I suspect Team Browder may scrub me from their mailing list; one can live with that.

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