Saudi’s surprise succession, Syria stability, young blood in international politics

This week, Saudi Arabia shakes up its royal succession plans, putting a 31-year-old next in line to be king. If he becomes king soon and lasts nearly as long as Queen Elizabeth II, he could be ruling into the 2080s. It’s good to be young.

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Here we go.

The Noise This Week

Just a few years ago, the pessimists were writing Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical obituary. Falling oil prices, an aging royal family, and a U.S. deal with rival Iran combined to dampen perceptions about the kingdom’s prospects. In 2017, however, the Saudis have reminded the world that they have a say in their future. This week, King Salman accepted generational change within the kingdom’s aging ruling class, transferring the line of succession from the 57-year-old interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, to the 31-year-old defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS. The new crown prince had been gaining authority for some time, despite his youth, and likely won’t have to wait long for his ailing father, the king, to fully transfer power. Combine that young blood with the country’s rejuvenated relationship with the U.S., through the clever courtship of President Trump, and those gloomy stories from a few years back look badly out of date.

But the promotion of a young heir will not transform the kingdom overnight. That will require sustained reform over decades. MBS is behind Vision 2030, an effort to rebalance and modernize the kingdom’s oil-driven economy. In the near term, a plan to partially privatize the massive state-run Saudi Aramco will bring capital to the country. But a longer-term shift toward private entrepreneurship, in a nation where the private sector comprises only 40 percent of GDP, is not guaranteed. Geopolitically, the new crown prince’s signature foreign policy initiative has been the Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war, which has failed to tip the balance against Iranian-aligned Houthi forces that still control the capital. MBS was reportedly behind the recent move against Qatar, as well. In a word, a dose of youthful vigor in the Saudi royal family doesn’t mean stability for the kingdom or the region.

Also contributing to regional destabilization is the creep toward state-on-state war among the actors in Syria. American forces shot down a Syrian warplane that threatened members of their anti-ISIS coalition, and then promptly shot down an Iranian-made drone. The Iranians, looking positively Trumpian, launched a salvo of cruise missiles into Syria (most missed, FYI) in apparent retaliation for the terrorist attacks in Tehran earlier this month. The Russians threatened to use their much-discussed but rarely employed missile defenses in Syria against the American-backed coalition. For the moment, none of these parties is actually seeking escalation. Despite its newfound willingness to take out Assad-regime assets that get too close for comfort, the U.S. is still focused on ISIS. Syrian retaliation against the U.S. would be suicidal, and Iran has little interest in direct conflict with an already combative Trump administration. Russia can take advantage of political conflict with Washington, but military conflict would be a serious problem. Still, with all these militaries operating in close proximity, the risk of an incident spiraling out of control is probably higher than any political leader would admit publicly.

What else we’re watching: In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma faces the latest challenge to his tenure as a secret no-confidence vote against him has been allowed to proceed by the courts. Although holding a secret vote would allow fellow ANC members to defect without fear of reprisal, Zuma will likely survive what has now become an almost monthly exercise in attempting his ouster. In Argentina, former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has drawn out a decision about whether she will re-enter politics by running for a senate seat in Buenos Aires. Although under investigation, she has launched a new party that could pose a challenge to President Mauricio Macri’s administration, which has been working to move the country away from Kirchner-era policies. And attention is on South Korea ahead of new President Moon Jae-in’s first official visit to the White House next week. Moon has echoed Trump’s line that China has not moved the needle on North Korea, but his decision to delay the deployment of THAAD missile defense equipment in South Korea is likely annoy with Trump.

Self-Promotion Interlude: It’s a busy week in U.S. politics. Watch EG’s Jon Lieber to get up to speed.

Feeling Old Yet?

If the idea of a 31-year-old becoming king of a $600 billion economy has your joints feeling creaky, well, we’ve got bad news for you. A new generation of young political leaders is rising (and then there’s Jared Kushner). Here are a few youngsters we’re keeping our eyes on.
Sebastian Kurz, age 30. Currently Austria’s foreign minister, he’s vying to become chancellor in October’s election.
Santiago Pena, age 38. Paraguay’s finance minister would also like to join the under-40 head of state club. He’s running for president next year.
Leo Varadkar, age 38. The next Irish taoiseach, AKA prime minister, has many other credible achievements to his name (first gay leader, first minority leader), but the one factor we care about is his age.
Ana Brnabic, age 41. Selected by Serbia’s new president to be the country’s next prime minister, Brnabic was already the youngest minister in the government. Openly gay, she’s faced a challenge from conservative MPs, but appears to have enough support to move through.
Hamza bin Laden, age 28. Not all up-and-comers are good guys! Osama bin Laden’s son has been positioned as an heir to his murderous father’s terrorist empire. That’s probably enough reason to #banmillennials.

Your Weekly Bremmer

Hard Numbers

$28 million in excess U.S. funds were spent on uniforms for the Afghan National Army because of the fashion tastes of a single Afghan official.

2 percent of Brazilians view President Michel Temer favorably, which, as Bloomberg notes, given the possibility of polling error, means the actual number could be zero.

15,000 Qatari camels have been deported from Saudi Arabia as a result of the ongoing diplomatic crisis.

$5 billion was spent by the government of Kazakhstan on a world exhibition that includes a futuristic structure resembling the Death Star. “There’s two big ways to piss off the Kazakhs,” a delegate told Foreign Policy, “Mention Borat, or call the dome the Death Star.”

4 members of Macron’s cabinet have departed since his En Marche party’s recent victory in parliamentary elections.

27 qualified safety engineers are needed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to keep the lab’s plutonium from “fissioning uncontrollably”. Right now there are only 10. Don’t read the story if you enjoy sleeping at night.

Words of Wisdom

“We have to begin demanding that they start providing the bills of where all this money is coming from that that they spend on stages and for the marches.”

Luisa Ortega Diaz, chief prosecutor of Venezuela, questioning the Maduro government’s integrity. In this case, what matters is the message more than the messenger. She has become a major dissenting voice within the Venezuelan government, earning her legal charges from her erstwhile allies.

PS. Signal is off next week while we’re on vacation. Nobody fire any missiles while we’re gone, OK?

Signal is written by Matt Peterson (@mattbpete) with editorial support from Gabe Lipton (@gflipton). Don’t like what you read? Feel free to yell at us on Twitter or just reply to this email.