Response: What ISIS Really Wants (The Atlantic)

This post is a response to an article published this week in the Atlantic. While I am not going to give a glowing response, you will better understand the post if you understand what I’m responding to; you can find it here. Besides, pretty much everyone on my social media feed is talking about – don’t be the last one to the party.

Few groups in the world have the stomach to launch the attacks that have allowed ISIS to occupy headlines around the world for the past year. Due in no small part to such cruelty, many have been left asking “What do they want?” The press and internet have not been short on answers; the Atlantic presented their most recent offering to the debate early this week. The article, by Graeme Wood, is a thorough attempt to understand ISIS, mainly through the lens of religion. While he does not dismiss the regional factors that could play a role in ISIS’s rise – unemployment, regional identities, etc. – Wood’s main idea, which he returns to again and again, is that the group’s radical ideology is in fact deeply rooted in Islamic history, to which he employs a number of interviews with radicals of every shade.

Wood’s story takes us across the world, from Australia to New Jersey, as he searches for the answer to the question he poses in his title: “What does ISIS want?” Along the way, he interviews people from every walk of life. Sort of. While the article includes extensive quoting from Bernard Haykel, a distinguished scholar capable of insight and nuance on the topic, and one Salafi imam in Philadelphia intent on studying scripture and learning Japanese, the article relies heavily on input from ISIS and its direct supporters.

An exclusive reliance on material from radicals shades much of his analysis. Many scholars have looked at a number of underlying causes for the discord that has plagued the Middle East for much of the 20th century, including colonialism, shaky identities, and unemployment. Wood does not explicitly reject such theories but his reliance on input from a terrorist group that touts its religious credentials means that he often ends up finding justification for such beliefs.

Such thinking would not be out place when discussing the religious and cultural views of the group in isolation, but the danger here is that when Wood asks “What do they want?” he implies that such an answer could be helpful in answering a related question “Why are they doing it?” In placing religion at the center of his piece, he makes all other explanations  seem minute by comparison and implicitly supports the idea the idea that because ISIS’s rise has everything to do with religion.

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From USA Today, Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Wood also mischaracterizes a statement made by Barack Obama regarding the “Islamic” nature. Many were quick to criticize his remarks when he made them in September of 2014, but a quick look at the words in context reveal that Obama was attempting to delegitimize ISIS in the eyes of itself and its supporters, an act encouraged and undertaken by Muslims across the world:
“ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state; it was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government nor by the people it subjugates.”
While the “state” element of ISIS has been debated, Wood takes the statement that ISIS is “not Islamic” and runs with it, saying that Obama has likely miscalculated the group’s objectives and beliefs by rejecting the fact that ISIS sees itself as rooted in religion. In reality, Obama was way ahead of Wood in September: he clearly realizes there is some level of religious pull between ISIS and Muslims sympathetic to their cause in every corner of the globe. In his statement, Obama tried to reduce the power of such rhetoric while also tamping down on the “otherness” that often stains Muslims and pushes them into the hands of radical ideologues. While Wood might be correct in pointing to religious antecedents that justify ISIS’s behavior in the eyes of other terrorists, he fails to see that Obama’s statement was an attempt put distance between ISIS and those sympathetic to its message, realizing full well the pull of religiously rooted rhetoric.

Similar to many other journalistic endeavors examining jihadist theology, Wood stunningly fails to ask one sublimely simple question: why extremism and why now? For centuries, the Middle East was not a pressure cooker of extremism but a haven for scientific learning and one of the most cosmopolitan regions on Earth. Wood traces ISIS’s ideas to their roots in the days of the Muhammad and his companions but he does not ask what could have caused militant ideology now; clearly, either the tolerance of days past or today’s extremism are at odds. One of these beliefs has to be wrong, or something cataclysmic must have occurred to cause thousands of young men to abandon peace and Friends for jihad.

Notably absent from discussions on radical ideology is the fact that the Saudis have expended a great deal of their oil profits not only to promoting Islam, but promoting their extreme interpretation of it at the same time. This is one of the least discussed issues in American foreign policy and journalism; in avoiding the subject, we ignore a very real explanation for the rise of extremist Islam.

From Chechnya to sub-Saharan Africa, the House of Saud has been intent on spreading an extreme interpretation of Islam. Places in which Islam had previously coexisted peacefully with pre-Islamic practices or enjoyed a more liberal interpretation suddenly had to contend with a new interpretation, one that eschewed all but the purest of practices and reacted aggressively to those who opposed.

While the introduction of Saudi Wahhabiism does not in and of itself explain the rise of ISIS, the world would look very differently if the Saudis had spent their money building hospitals and teaching people physics. They cannot and should shoulder all of the blame for the rise of radicalism around the world – such a statement would be scapegoating – but it is no secret that the Saudis have long funded religious radicals in a number countries. Rather than asking “What do they want?”, Wood’s time would be better spent asking “Why do they want it?” The Saudis would play no small role in such an answer.

As an atheist, I am in put in the position of defending Islam far too often. I certainly do not agree with the tenets of Islam, radical or otherwise. Similarly, I do agree with Sam Harris’s points regarding violence and religion: some religions can contain more calls to violence than others and some religions that categorically reject violence cannot be said to lead to violence.

This latter point is relevant when talking about Islam, as it is when discussing Christianity. However, the overall tone of Wood’s piece takes on air of superiority, one that seems to dismiss the fact that such lines of thinking – empowering radicals and encouraging violence – could just as easily be applied to Christianity (indeed, they often have been) but that such examples have become a relatively rare sight in the modern world.

While he puts forth the standard journalistic due diligence in establishing the theological basics at the heart of ISIS’s radical ideology, that doesn’t rely explain why ISIS has become such a phenomenon now. Without such an explanation, Wood gives what ISIS proclaims to want, but forgets an important element of psychology, truth, and journalism: people often don’t know what their motivations are (on top of that, they often lie).

So by going by ISIS’s statements and those of their supporters and tracing such ideas back to Islam’s sometimes bleak past, Wood gives a picture of how ISIS sees itself and perhaps answers his title question but he doesn’t give us what might be a far more useful answer: how can we stop them and prevent this from happening again in the future? In addition, he gives far more credibility to the group than they deserve, elevating them to the spiritual guides that they claim to be. While religious ideology is certainly a major part of what drives them forward, if we see ISIS as ISIS sees itself, we may be merely further cementing their ideological basis not only in the eyes of ISIS, but in the eyes of potential supporters as well.

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Iran, Houthis and the US Response in Yemen

Across the Middle East, we are told of an epic story, of two diametrically opposed camps locked in a struggle that plays out on a variety of fronts. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain, the West and its allies in the region – most notably the Gulf monarchies – claim to be engaged in zero-sum battle with Iran. Such claims are used by Gulf monarchies to encourage further involvement in Syria’s civil war while encouraging Western powers to look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in Bahrain. While such rhetoric is strong and finds a receptive audience in a number of policy circles, it is comforting to see that the reality is far more nuanced and presents more possibilities than such a reading would otherwise portend.

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic has made a name for itself on a number of foreign fronts. Iran’s bellicose anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric scored the new government serious points with powers identifying themselves in opposition to the West. Iran also became something of a singularity as it was the only state with a sizable Shia population that sought to make Islam a central tenet of its government. These two facts positioned Iran as a major player in the region with regards to foreign policy, uniquely situated to both challenge the West and give voice to the region’s millions of heretofore voiceless Shia inhabitants. These two goals, however, are not always in harmony with each other and thus Iran has had to carefully balance these two often competing priorities.

Iran’s anti-Western credentials are embodied in its foreign policy, especially its support for a number of organizations deemed terrorist groups in the West. The Islamic Republic has loudly championed the Palestinian cause for years and has made supporting the more militant elements of the PLO an important element of its strategy. This has raised the credibility of Iran in the eyes of many in the region, where support for the Palestinian cause cuts across ethnic and religious affiliations. Iran’s support for the Shia militia and political movement Hezbollah has also allowed the Islamic Republic to score major points due to the group’s tough stance against Israel. In doing so, Iran has been able to support a variety of causes that have allowed Iran to play up its anti-Western credentials to its Arab neighbors.

However, the Islamic Republic has not shied away from sectarian politics on all fronts. Iran has also remained a major backer of Bashar al-Assad. While the reasons for such support could be innumerable, it is clear to many in the region that Assad and the Iranian state share a key demographic feature- Shia Islam. While such facts do not go unnoticed in the Middle East, it does help the Assad is viewed as one of the most vocal opponents of Israel and heads a capable army that sits right on the Jewish state’s doorstep. While Iran is certainly not afraid of helping fellow Shia, it cannot rely solely on support from Shia to pursue its policies; they make up a distinct minority in the region and are not always looked on favorably by conservative Sunni. As such, the Islamic Republic does not rely on Shia alone for support and minimizes such appearances when it extends its influence beyond states with substantial Shia populations – Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.

As the war in Syria drags on into a bloody stalemate with little reason to expect a change in the balance of power any time soon (Obama has made such a position abundantly clear), the next front in the fight over Iranian influence is Yemen. Like Syria, Yemen presents a bit of a conundrum: In Syria, a Shia dictatorship is fighting a fractured Sunni opposition, with substantial infighting and elements of extremism within the opposition. In Yemen, a country racked with regional turmoil and a powerful secessionist movement, Shia rebels demanded concessions from a government locked in a battle with one of al-Qaeda’s deadliest branches.

In each situation, Western countries face a number of choices that seem to either empower Iran or hand over substantial power and weapons to extremist groups that would likely turn their guns on the West if victory were ever achieved. Such worries are not ill-founded but can lead to paralyzing fear and ultimately a failure to act, which would represent a true failure of policy on the part of Western nations.

Yemen has been a reliable partner in the US’s efforts to eliminate al-Qaeda fighters (and suspected fighters) via a campaign of drone strikes and given the antagonism rooted in ideology between the Houthis and al-Qaeda, such a relationship is not likely to change. The US has reportedly been in contact with the Houthi rebels and appears to have made the decision that cooperation with the Houthis serves US interests at this time. While assessing the efficacy of the US’s drone strike program is itself a complex discussion worthy of its own book, such a decision shows that the US has at least been able to prioritize threats in Iran and act on such calculations. Although Iran may have scored a victory when the Houthis overtook Sanaa, such gains are not concrete given Yemen’s tenuous political and security climate. Similarly, the US is not bound to its existing policy should the balance of threats change. However, al-Qaeda has executed a number of stunningly successful attacks and threatened or attempted even more. As al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is one of the group’s deadliest branches, they represent a clear and present threat in a way that an Iranian proxy militia does not.

An overlapping of interests between Iran and the West does not mean that the latter has caved to Iranian interests, nor does it signal a significant change in relations between the two parties. The threats posed by rampant terrorist groups in Syria and Yemen pose obvious dangers in the immediate future that the US and other Western powers cannot ignore; reducing their capabilities – even if such a group is fighting an Iranian ally – should remain a priority for every western official that seeks to save lives that could be lost in terrorist attacks. As the threat from terrorism decreases, outside powers can refocus their efforts on diminishing Iran’s influence; to do so beforehand would embolden terrorists in an effort to check the rise of an unfriendly power. Iran has proven willing to work with the West in the past – Afghanistan being a notable example – with little change in the overall relationship between the two countries.

Additionally, while Iran has certainly backed the Houthis thus far, a victory for a proxy does not necessarily translate into long term strategic victory. The US learned this lesson the hard way by intervening in the Afghan Wars of the 1980s. While the ideological and sectarian ties between Iran and its various regional proxies undoubtedly create more resilient bonds, they are not set in stone and a careful reading of the individual groups’ concerns could reveal points of concern that could be exploited by a careful power. And should the Houthis struggle for control become more drawn out than previously expected, Iran will be forced to ask whether it can continue to carry the costs of funding two regional proxies as the price of oil continues to slide. Such a decision could again lead to an opening that could cleave the Houthis away from Iranian influence bring them to the negotiating table.

Politics is the art of the possible and the US has been presented with two options – preventing the spread of growing terrorist groups and placing limits on a rising anti-Western power. Of these, the former is not only possible, but commands our attention, while the latter can only come at the expense of the first. The possibility of being ‘co-belligerents; with Iran has proven possible over and over again. Such actions, however, do not mean trust. The US cannot and will not trust a power that so actively campaigns against it – to do so would be so naïve as to border on insanity. However, the US cannot afford to let the fear of an Iranian victory choke off the possibility of action on a life or death issue.

Tunisia’s Democratic Transition and Essid’s New Cabinet

On Monday February 2, Tunisia’s new Prime Minister Habib Essid proposed a new cabinet that includes greater representation of other parties within his coalition, among them Islamist Ennahdha, Slim Riahi’s Free Patriotic Union (UPL) and Afek Tounes. This follows events last week, when a previously proposed cabinet met resistance for its unrepresentative nature. This most recent announcement followed deliberations and rumors over the weekend that seemed to indicate some reticence on the part of Essid’s party, Nida Tounes, about whether including Ennahdha was a viable option. The fact that the avowedly anti-Islamist Nida Tounes has decided to include Islamist party Ennahdha in their coalition reveals a number important points that bode well for Tunisia’s democratic institutions but indicate that true policy successes might be more difficult to come by in the near future.

First, both Ennahdha and Nida Tounes are pragmatic and opportunistic parties. Though each has legitimate reservations about the other – not to mention ideological differences – they have expressed a willingness to enter into an alliance. Nida Tounes is headed by Beji Caid Essebsi, who served for a period under deposed President Ben Ali. Under Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, Ennahdha was fiercely persecuted; it would be understandable for Ennahdha members, among them party leader Rached Ghanoouchi, to feel lingering distrust and resentment. For Nida Tounes, the party gained much of its support campaigning in opposition to Ennahdha, portraying itself as the most viable secular party. The fact that the two parties were able to put aside these feelings bodes well for a future peaceful transfer of power, as each has been able to put aside mutual suspicions and dislike for the sake of governing. This could also serve to calm some of the incendiary rhetoric that characterized the debate between the two parties over the last several years, but such a development could easily be undone once campaigning begins again.

Second, the decision to include Ennahdha in the coalition did not come easily for Nida Tounes. This is not surprising given the party’s seemingly amorphous political stance that seems most united when discussing their common enemy – political Islam. However, the fact that deliberations on such a key issue seemed to take on a divisive character within the party suggests that splits are very possible within Nida Tounes’ ranks, though not necessarily in the short term. If true, this would replicate a phenomenon seen when former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned and ultimately left Ennahdha due to conflicts within the party. While Ennahdha survived the very public split, it both portended and encouraged the difficulties the party would face in the most recent elections; although Ennahdha is the second largest party in the current parliament, it does not have the commanding lead over other parties that it enjoyed in 2011. Unlike Ennahdha, Nida Tounes is a young party whose most unifying factors are Essebsi’s experience and persona and the party’s opposition to Islamist politics. If a split occurs within Nida Tounes early on, it could spell distaster for the party down the road.

Third, coalitions within Tunisia will likely continue to feature the biggest winners in the elections regardless of the ideological differences between the two parties. After the NCA elections in 2011 and the most recent elections, the winning coalition  featured the largest parties irrespective of political affiliation. In 2011, this included Ennahdha, former President Marzouki’s CPR party, and Dr. Mostapha ben Jaafer’s Ettakatol. We are the seeing the same the pattern repeat itself here. In 2011, this was ostensibly to write a new constitution that better represented the will of the Tunisian people. In 2015, such a decision makes sense only under the banner of assembling a winning coalition. While the decision by Nida Tounes to include Ennahdha does show tolerance and a willingness to work across the aisle, it also suggests a fear among Tunisian politicians of taking serious chances politically or assembling more partisan coalitions. Tunisia’s opposition will lack a strong party while the two largest parties form a consensus based around PM Essid’s cabinet. Without a political party that is willing and able to take risks politically, Tunisia cannot hope to tackle the very necessary – and potentially unpopular – reforms that it must take in the coming months, including reassessing its public subsidies. And without a major party in the opposition, Tunisians will be left without a strong voice to counterbalance Essid’s new government.

The new coalition between secular Nida Tounes and Islamist Ennahdha brings promise and peril. On the one hand, the willingness of parties to share power regardless of ideological differences bodes well for future transitions and Tunisia’s overall democratic development. On the other hand, such a contentious alliance could split the winning party, potentially ruining its chances of implementing its vision. And while parties sharing power is good for democratic institutions, it doesn’t necessarily produce the best policy decisions. Without a party that can garner popular support through gutsy and articulated plans, Tunisia’s democratic transition might generate strong institutions at the expense of strong policy.

Literature, Narrative, and the Attacks on Charlie Hebdo

When reading fiction, I often find that I enjoy the discussion and criticism of a story’s meaning and impact more than I do the plot itself. Usually, I trudge through a book, trying to meet my daily page quota until I mercifully reach the end and voila: I can begin the process of arguing about an endless number of interpretations, narratives and counter-narratives. Truly, the gift of literature to our culture is how it both informs us and allows us to inform it, impressing its story upon us while allowing us to read into it every manner of issue that happens to be on our minds. In literature, the true meaning lies with those who discuss and debate a story and its implications.

One common feature – a less pugilistic man might say ‘complaint’ – is that oftentimes, everyone can walk away from such a discussion feeling like they got it right. Is Okonkwo a hero, villain, or both? Is Kundera right in saying that events that fail to repeat lack the meaning of those that do? Questions in literature often hinge on perspective and definition. Nowhere is this feature more present than in the recent attacks on the offices of the French cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo.

As with literature, two sides have painted convincing narratives that one can’t help but agree with…until they hear the other side. The magazine’s supporters paint themselves as defenders of free speech, launching satirical attacks at public and religious figures indiscriminately, adding that they have regularly lampooned Christian figures as well. While condemning violence, others have criticized the magazine for needlessly inflaming Muslims by purposefully featuring images of their prophet in a less than respectful fashion. Can both of these narratives be right? Yes, but by the same token they can also both be wrong.

Charlie Hebdo – along with France – has a long history of iconoclastic humor and parody. The magazine has regularly lampooned religious and political figures and has been criticized by a wide variety of actors, including the pope and the White House. In this sense, Charlie Hebdo and its provocative cartoons stand as an emblem of free speech, taking on figures regardless of their stature. I do not care for the cartoons themselves – the part of me that would chuckle at such humor has long since passed – but these cartoons stand for the fundamental right of free speech: no person, living or dead, is above mockery. While I find the literature itself tasteless, I am thoroughly intrigued by the principles that they champion. But is our discussion of the story complete? Not quite.

Indeed, there is another side to this narrative that has been raised numerous times: the question of France’s lingering laws against Anti-Semitic speech. One need not read a list of Europe’s crimes committed against the Jewish people to know that they suffered terribly in their centuries on the continent. While the 20th century witnessed perhaps the bloodiest chapter in that saga, suffering and persecution were not uncommon facets of daily life for European Jews. However, in defending free speech after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, France must ask itself if it can truly consider itself a country that practices free speech if a cartoon covering one group of people is considered wholly off limits. While the cartoons in question are clearly offensive, is it the duty of the state to declare what is and is not legal when it comes to taste, especially in light of their attempt to position themselves as defenders of free speech?

Ironically, the question of anti-Semitism’s unique place within French free speech laws sheds light on a competing narrative to the “Je suis Charlie” angle. For while they do not share the same history of persecution as the Jews, French Muslims have been uniquely isolated in the country’s recent history. Inside and outside of France, many people are acutely aware that France’s Muslims, while guaranteed legal equality, do not necessarily enjoy equal treatment from the French government and general public. This is compounded by a lack of respect for some elements of Islamic culture, such as the ostensibly blanket ban on visible religious garb that seems to leave the country’s religious majorities – Catholics and secularists – completely unmolested. 

In such a narrative, we are reminded that humor does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, it is the way in which humor interacts with the truth that entertains, offends, and occasionally informs us. Thus, even if Charlie Hebdo spread their criticism of religious figures equally, it wouldn’t necessarily amount to equal treatment. While Americans know that any kind of racially offensive humor is hurtful, we also understand that there might be a difference in making fun of a majority group and making fun of a minority group, regardless of which group we find ourselves to be members of. If, in the pursuit of a political point, one mocks an already disadvantaged group, free speech may be defended in principle but underlying meaning of the argument is lost amid feelings of hurt and persecution – if such a point were even present to begin with. Satire and mockery as political tools are most appreciated when they fight above their weight class. Again, the narrative both compels and confounds us.

Does this mean that Charlie Hebdo should somehow be legally compelled to stop their uniquely offensive brand of humor? It depends on how we read the narrative. From the perspective of a government that purports to defend free speech, the answer is a resounding no. No government that claims to support free speech should be doing anything to censor or stop distribution of a publication simply for mocking a long-dead religious figure. This could also be an occasion for France to seriously consider whether its practice of holding one specific group above ridicule is still necessary. Similarly, people across the world would be wise to consider whether free speech is a value worth defending if it only extends to topics that the majority finds worthy of scrutiny and satire. As the recently leaked emails from al Jazeera show, it is easy for a group that finds itself under fire for controversial views to immediately turn their ire to other groups. The phrase “I believe in free speech but…” has little use when the boundaries are constantly evolving and threaten to push voices that challenge groups well-established in the polity – the very groups that need to be challenged – to the fringe. In these cases, freedom of speech is defended not as a principle, but a matter of convenience that is dropped the when it pushes beyond the boundaries previously deemed appropriate.

At the same time, if we read the narrative with an eye on the oppressed and downtrodden, we might have qualms about celebrating a magazine that spews it bile at one of the most marginalized segments of French society. While free speech can allow us to challenge those in power, it can just as easily be coopted by the strong to further the existing power dynamic. Free speech without limits doesn’t automatically entail a free flow of ideas and can lead to an onslaught of cries that overwhelm any opposition. We should ask ourselves how we would feel if we were members of a disenfranchised group and on the receiving end of a disproportionate amount of satire with little or no recourse. While the goals of free speech are worth defending, these examples of free speech exist in a context that is permeated by speech and actions that often – a little too often – seem directed at one group in particular. While such discourse may be ‘free’ in the sense that it has no limits, it certainly does not serve the other noble goals of most liberal democracies.

As usual, the narrative reigns supreme. It is far more interesting to discuss the implications of these events than it is to rehash the attacks in gory detail, just as it is more stimulating to discuss threats to free speech than it is to review the juvenile caricatures strewn across the pages of a low brow magazine. As with literature, we walk away with opposing narratives that are both correct but somehow difficult to square with each other. It is not the actions that have occurred but how we react that determines the weight of these events. While many in the world have found themselves pulled into these opposing camps, it is refreshing that many have been able to resist the urge to view the issue in such simple and diametrically opposed terms, especially with the short-lived “I am Ahmed” hashtag, which embodied both a respect for free speech and an acknowledgement that defense of free speech does not in any way defend offensive content. While never certain, such nuanced and enlightened discussion offers a glimmer of hope that we may see the many values that lie at the heart of liberal democracies across the world live on long into the future.

What does the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz mean for Saudi Arabia?

The recent death of Saudi Kind Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has dominated headlines, prompting many to reflect on the leader’s controversial legacy. Abdullah in many ways straddled tradition and modernity, making attempts to introduce coed education and engage with Israel vis-a-vis Palestine while also entrenching the House of Saud’s hold on power and cracking down on those who challenged such the status quo. While many are interested in looking to the past, the real news in the Kingdom is the shakeup in the line of secession, which could be represent some of the biggest changes that the country has ever seen.

As the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) mourns the loss of their king, a new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, and Crown Prince, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, ascend. The House of Saud is notoriously complex, containing thousands of members who wield varying degrees of influence on power within the Kingdom. Thus far, the modern Saudi state has had two generations of rulers: that of Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud, from 1932-53, and the second generation made up of his sons, who have reigned from 1953 to the present. The key here is that recently named Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef (the second in the line for secession) will be the first person in the Saudi royal family from his generation to take power. This represents a major shift for the country in terms of tradition and, perhaps, policy.

While a fascination with death is a tad morbid, it is worth considering when discussing matters of secession. The current king is in questionable health – indeed, that may be why the position of Deputy Crown Prince was introduced in 2014 – leaving the Kingdom with one healthy son of Abdulaziz, Crown Prince Muqrin. While Muqrin’s health is not in the same state as Salman’s, it will bring the Kingdom that much closer to the next generation, who are more likely than the previous generation to have studied and lived internationally. Indeed, Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef (the second in line for the throne) studied at Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon, a small liberal arts school in a city famous for music, hipsters, and beer.

The arrival of a new generation of more liberal leaders does not mean that the House of Saud will suddenly abandon its path of conservatism. Indeed, many an Arab is familiar with the sordid rumors that have swirled around the Saudi royal family for years. Although these alleged behaviors are at odds with the country’s conservative traditions, they are tolerated because they exist outside of the daily lives of most of the Kingdom’s citizens; such behavior within the Kingdom is not likely to be tolerated on a large scale, legally sanctioned, or spread among the Kingdom’s population. For the same reasons, even the most liberal members of the House of Saud do not stand a chance of implementing major democratic reforms any time soon. However, these changes will bring a generation of leaders who, if they choose to, can understand the West in a way that leaders from the previous generation likely could not.

Whatever the developments in internal policy, they will have to contend with a growing list of external events. The civil war in Syria seems to get worse everyday – KSA will have to balance their attempts to contain the expanding Islamic State with actions that might strengthen Syria and its backer, Iran. Inside and outside of Syria, Iran will continue to pose a problem for the House of Saud. An emergent Iran represents a real threat to Saudi Arabia, emboldening Shia groups in Yemen, Iraq, and perhaps eastern Saudi Arabia while also serving as a foil to KSA’s traditionally pro-Washington viewpoints. Finally, the price of oil has reached a low point as of late, weakening the tool traditionally employed by the House of Saud to ensure their continued survival. While KSA can certainly influence the price of oil through production levels, a key will be how much the country can ween itself off of an extraction based economy and ensure its viability when the oil inevitably runs out.

Balancing internal and external threats has always been the job of world leaders. In Saudi Arabia, leaders have the additional task of worrying warding off threats from within their own family. While this does not appear set to change anytime soon, it will soon be up to a new generation of leaders, Western educated but firmly rooted in a monarchical system, to decide how the country will proceed.