Argument

The U.S.-Saudi Royal Rumble

Seven ways the House of Saud could make things very unpleasant for Washington.

What is happening to the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia? Even after loud complaints from top Saudi officials that the longtime alliance was on the rocks, the response of official Washington, outside the punditocracy, was an almost audible yawn.

President Barack Obama's administration should not be so quick to dismiss the trouble the Saudis could cause for the United States in the Middle East -- or the Saudi royals' determination to cause a shift in U.S. policy. Two articles last month quoted unidentified "European diplomats" who had been briefed by Saudi intelligence maestro Prince Bandar bin Sultan that Riyadh was so upset with Washington that it was undertaking a "major shift" in relations.

Saudi Arabia has a litany of complaints about U.S. policy in the Middle East. It faults Washington for pursuing a rapprochement with Iran, for not pushing Israel harder in peace talks with the Palestinians, and for not more forcefully backing efforts to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi royals are also angry that the United States did not stand behind Saudi support for Bahrain when it crushed an anti-government uprising in 2011, and that Washington has criticized the new Egyptian government, another Saudi ally, for its crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters.

Saudi royals have evidently decided that public comments and policy shifts are the only way to convince Washington to alter what they see as its errant path. Bandar's declaration came a few days after the kingdom abruptly decided to reject its election to the U.N. Security Council, claiming it could not tolerate that body's "double standards." As Bandar helpfully pointed out, the incident was "a message for the U.S., not the U.N." 

According to an official in Washington, Bandar's "briefing" was actually a several hour conversation with French Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Bertrand Besancenot, who then shared his notes with his European colleagues. Whether Bandar intended to leak his remarks to the media is unclear but the Saudis haven't done anything to wind back his message. Last week, former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal made many of the same points in an address to the annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference in Washington.

It is hard to judge the significance of Prince Turki's remarks, because he was essentially fired as ambassador to Washington in 2007 after falling out with King Abdullah. With a nod toward candor, he made it clear he doesn't have a role in the Saudi government and claimed not to be privy to its official deliberations. However, given his apparent place on the kingdom's limited bench of officials that can explain its stances to the world, Prince Turki's remarks can't be ignored. As he put it, Saudi Arabia "is a peninsula, not an island."

This is far from the first crisis the U.S.-Saudi alliance has experienced. In early 1939, a Saudi delegation went to Nazi Germany to negotiate an arms agreement, part of which would have been diverted to Palestinian Arabs fighting Jewish immigrants in the British mandate of Palestine. At least some of the Saudi group met Adolf Hitler at his mountain top hideaway at Berchtesgaden.

German arms never reached the kingdom -- or Palestine - as the Saudis could not afford to consummate the deal (that was in the days before the oil revenues started flowing in). However, King Abdullah still treasures a dagger given as a gift from the Fuhrer himself, and occasionally shows it off to guests. Visiting U.S. officials are briefed in advance so they can display appropriate diplomatic sang-froid if Abdullah points out the memento.

But despite the multitude of crises -- from the 9/11 hijackers to Saudi pay-offs to Osama bin Laden -- past difficulties have been quietly repaired. The operative word here is "quietly" -- usually, the general public has not even known of the crisis. The difference now is that, through Saudi Arabia's move at the United Nations and Bandar's briefing, the kingdom is all but trumpeting its displeasure.

Assuming that the Saudi-U.S. relationship is really heading off course, what could go wrong this time? Here are seven nightmare scenarios that should keep officials in the State Department and Pentagon up at night.

1. Saudi Arabia uses the oil weapon. The kingdom could cut back its production, which has been boosted to over 10 million barrels/day at Washington's request, to make up for the fall in Iranian exports caused by sanctions. Riyadh enjoys the revenues generated by higher production, but price hikes caused by tightening supply could more than compensate the kingdom. Meanwhile, a drop in supply will cause the price at the gas pump to spike in the United States -- endangering the economic recovery and having an almost immediate impact on domestic public opinion.

2. Saudi Arabia reaches out to Pakistan for nuclear-tipped missiles. Riyadh has long had an interest in Islamabad's nuclear program: The kingdom allegedly partially funded Pakistan's pursuit of a nuclear weapon. In 1999, then Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan was welcomed by Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif to the Kahuta plant, where Pakistan produces highly enriched uranium. After being overthrown by the military later the same year, Sharif is now back again as prime minister -- after spending years in exile in Saudi Arabia.

While Islamabad would not want to get in between Riyadh and Tehran, the arrangement could be financially lucrative. It would also help Pakistan out-flank India: If part of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal was in the kingdom, it would effectively make it immune from Indian attack.

Alternatively, the kingdom could declare the intention of building a uranium enrichment plant to match Iranian nuclear ambitions -- to which, in Riyadh's view, Washington appears to be acquiescing. As King Abdullah told senior U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross in April 2009, "If they get nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons."

3. Riyadh helps kick the United States out of Bahrain. When Bahrain was rocked by protests in 2011, Saudi Arabia led an intervention by Gulf states to reinforce the royal family's grip on the throne. The Saudis have the leverage, therefore, to encourage Bahrain to force the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet to leave its headquarters in Manama, from which the United States projects power across the Persian Gulf.

It wouldn't be a hard sell: Hardline Bahraini royals are already fed up with American criticism of their domestic crackdown on Shiites protesting for more rights. But it would be a hard landing for U.S. power projection in the Middle East: The current arrangements for the Fifth Fleet would be hard to reproduce in any other Gulf sheikhdom. And it's not without some precedent. Riyadh forced the United States out of its own Prince Sultan air base 10 years ago.

4. The kingdom supplies new and dangerous weaponry to the Syrian rebels. The Saudis are already expanding their intervention against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, funneling money and arms to hardline Salafist groups across Syria. But they have so far heeded U.S. warnings not to supply the rebels with certain weapons -- most notably portable surface-to-air missile systems, which could not only bring down Assad's warplanes but also civilian airliners.

Saudi Arabia could potentially end its ban on sending rebel groups these weapons systems -- and obscure the origins of the missiles, to avoid direct blame for any of the havoc they cause.

5. The Saudis support a new intifada in the Palestinian territories. Riyadh has long been vocal about its frustrations with the lack of progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Palestine was the top reason given in the official Saudi statement rejecting the U.N. Security Council seat. The issue is also close to Abdullah's heart -- in 2001, he declined an invitation to Washington due to lack of U.S. pressure on Israel. What's more, Riyadh knows that playing the "Arab" card would be popular at home and across the region.

If Saudi Arabia truly feels that the prospect for a negotiated settlement is irreparably stalled, it could quietly empower violent forces in the West Bank that could launch attacks against Israeli forces and settlers -- fatally wounding the current mediation efforts led by Secretary of State John Kerry.

6. Riyadh boosts the military-led regime in Egypt. The House of Saud has already turned into one of Egypt's primary patrons, pledging $5 billion in assistance immediately after the military toppled former President Mohamed Morsy. Such support has allowed Egypt's new rulers to ignore Washington's threats that it would cut off aid due to the government's violent crackdown on protesters.

By deepening its support, Saudi Arabia could further undermine Washington's attempt to steer Cairo back toward democratic rule. As Cairo moves toward a referendum over a new constitution, as well as parliamentary and presidential elections, Gulf support could convince the generals to rig the votes against the Muslim Brotherhood, and violently crush any opposition to their rule.

7. Saudi Arabia presses for an "Islamic seat" on the U.N. Security Council. The kingdom has long voiced its discontent for the way power is doled out in the world's most important security body. The leaders of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a bloc of 57 member states designed to represent Muslim issues in global affairs, have called for such an "Islamic seat."

The United States and other veto-wielding countries, of course, can be counted on to oppose any effort that would diminish their power in the Security Council. But even if the Saudi plan fails, the kingdom could depict U.S. opposition as anti-Islamic. Such an effort would wreck America's image in the Middle East, and provide dangerous fodder for Sunni extremists already hostile to the United States.

Washington insiders will no doubt see any of these potential Saudi policies as self-defeating. However, it would be a mistake to ignore Riyadh's frustration: While Washington thinks it can call the Saudis' bluff, top officials in the kingdom also appear to believe that the United States is bluffing about its commitment to a range of decisions antagonistic to Saudi interests. The big difference is that the tension in the relationship is the No. 1 priority in Saudi Arabia -- but is way down near the bottom of the Obama administration's list of concerns.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

We Are All Eurotrash Now

From Miley Cyrus to Arcade Fire, how the disco beats of Berlin conquered the world.

There's something perplexing about the new Arcade Fire record. After a career defined by punky energy, end-of-sleepaway-camp-esque sing-a-longs, and obscure acoustic instruments, Reflektor sounds awfully reminiscent of Euro disco, or at least its unshaven New York City offspring headquartered at DFA Records. That endless, pounding bass drum rhythm has completely taken over every other part of pop music, from glossy pop acts like The Black Eyed Peas and Katy Perry to cool-kid groups like Daft Punk, Passion Pit, and Hot Chip. Does the new Arcade Fire record represent the beat's ultimate conquest? Has EuroDance taken over the world completely?

About that beat: known as "four-on-the-floor," it's the bass-drum-on-every-quarter-note pulse that undergirds pretty much every disco hit you've ever heard. It's the "boots" in the "boots-n-cats" of house music. It's been around in popular music since at least 1966, when Eddie Floyd released "Knock on Wood," and then it began to take over the world in 1973, when Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," the O'Jays "Love Train," and the Ohio Players "Funky Worm," among others, hit the charts. Soon it was the sound of almost every disco hit of the decade, including (among literally hundreds of others) "I Will Survive," "Good Times," and "Stayin' Alive."

Disco's reign at the top of the pop charts ended, but four-on-the-floor didn't disappear. Mad European geniuses like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder got their hands on it and fused it with more predominantly electronic sounds; in the early 1980s, early house pioneers in Chicago, such as Jesse Saunders, Larry Heard, and Jamie Principle, took this idea and ran with it. Soon, an array of sub-genres emerged, the diversity of which would overwhelm even the most dedicated record store employee: house, electro, electro house, acid house, deep house, techno, EBM, EDM, IDM, electronica ...we could be here all day. This universe of electronic music became the sound of dance clubs, and then raves as well, around the world. And with some notable interruptions along the way (drum and bass, jungle), the steady, quarter-note bass drum has proved remarkably resilient, tying together 30+ years of underground dance music.

Of course, the underground inevitably burbles up into the mainstream. The best pop music balances between two opposing poles: on the one hand, it distills the zeitgeist, capturing the sound and feel of right now. On the other hand, a great song has to sound new, fresh, tickling one's ears in a way they've never been tickled before. From Elvis through Madonna to the present day, there's always been a proud tradition of negotiating that tension by co-opting the novel sounds that are swirling around the fringes of culture and bringing them into the center. The list of massive four-on-the-floor hits from between 2007 and 2012 is expansive: Katy Perry's "Hot N Cold" and "California Gurls," Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," Kesha's "Tik Tok," absolutely everything by LMFAO -- to name some of the biggest examples. Even Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," which distinguished itself as an acoustic, organic antidote to ubiquitous club-based electronic pop music, is underpinned by a four-on-the-floor thump. For that matter, the Civil-War-chic movement of Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers et al., while ostensibly a folky, live-instruments-only reaction to electropop, trades almost exclusively on a straight quarter-note bass drum rhythm. And let's not forget the EDM mania of the last two years, a period that saw Skrillex become a multimillionaire, Diplo conquer the world, Calvin Harris seize Guinness records from Michael Jackson, and Vegas dance clubs earn more for their casinos than slot machines.

At the same time, pop always draws energy from shitting on the past. A great song feels so precisely right now because it sounds deliberately and emphatically unlike what happened yesterday. In 2007, after years of deliciously crooked and broken funk from Timbaland and Mark Ronson, four-on-the-floor felt exhilarating and propulsive. Its run, though, as the sound of moment, is over. A wonderful trio of songs sits at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 right now: Lorde's "Royals," Katy Perry's "Roar," Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball," songs whose rhythms all are defiantly syncopated and/or slinky, decidedly lacking any kind of regular bass drum thump. (It's worth noting that both "Roar" and "Wrecking Ball" were spearheaded, co-written, and co-produced by the prolifically talented Dr. Luke, who has been responsible for many of the four-on-the-floor hits of the previous era, and who seems intent on proving his versatility.) Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" has become such a massive hit because -- video filled with naked ladies and cute animals aside -- its sexy, bubbly groove and playful sound stands out in such stark contrast to the black-leather-pants, duck-face-scowl affect of so much recent pop music.

Which is why Britney Spears's latest single, "Work Bitch" (or "Work B**ch" or "Work Work," depending on the delicacy of your constitution) just feels kind of sad. There are many problems with this song. For one thing, it sounds more like the intro to a great song than an actual song. But more to the point, it cranks up the regular, house-y bass drum, both in pitch and volume, so that it becomes the central focus of the song. The song celebrates that beat like an elderly banker flaunting his trophy wife at a party, oblivious to the fact that precisely what he thinks makes him look young and virile just highlights his frailty and pitifulness. During Britney's run as queen of pop, she had a great talent for picking/crafting (depending how responsible you imagine she was for her material) songs that seemed fresh and exciting. "...Baby One More Time" (along with Cher's "Believe") was an early importer of club house into the Top 40 (thanks to hitmaker, prolific Euro-house plunderer, and Dr. Luke mentor Max Martin -- it's all connected); "Toxic" is perhaps the only enduring song from that time when producers were convinced that bhangra was going to take over the world. No one could ever claim that Britney Spears was a maverick striving to push music into unexplored territory, but for many years she had a wonderful talent for making music that lived at that exciting junction of the now and the new.

Arcade Fire, on the other hand, is something different. They sell a bunch of records, and are tremendously popular, but they're not pop stars per se. Pop stars, of the breed discussed above, are more crassly commercial; we imagine them, their producers, and their executives conspiring to craft million-selling songs by chasing trends and imagining ways to maximize a tune's commercial potential. On the other hand, we imagine Arcade Fire operating from a more artistically pure place. They certainly see themselves that way; more than any other contemporary act, they take themselves seriously. Perhaps you find that tendency refreshing in a musical landscape otherwise dominated by self-aware, aw-shucks nonchalant posturing. Or perhaps it drives you crazy. Either way, between the ambitious interactive videos, mysterious global promotional campaigns, and emotive pantomimes inside mirrored boxes on national television, Arcade Fire proudly & loudly proclaim that they are explorers blazing a trail for others to follow. And their adventurousness is precisely the source of their popularity. Dr. Luke has our culture's permission to re-invent his music as tastes change; Arcade Fire is the type of group we expect to change those tastes.

Which is why the first samples of the new Arcade Fire record were perplexing. There had already been reports that they were working with James Murphy (the once-and-future king of indie dance music, founder of DFA, mastermind of LCD Soundsystem) on the new music. The songs they premiered on SNL seemed entirely in the thrall of Murphy's hyper-cool, disaffected disco sound. Which was disappointing in two ways: 1) The glacial cool of Murphy's sound seemed to anesthetize the band, removing the most distinctive and appealing aspects of their sound, -- namely the urgency and passion of Butler's delivery and ferocious instrumental builds; 2) the whole idea of reimagining the band as italo-disco hipsters seemed like something wanna-bes did in 2011 after listening to a lot of LCD Soundsystem. Imagining what the whole album would sound like, one could easily envision a worst-case scenario of house-inflected bangers, a collection of songs written by aging musicians desperately clinging to relevance. Moreover, such a record would represent a complete Borg-like swallowing of popular music by the incessant and unyielding four-on-the-floor. If the vanguard had been co-opted, then truly the takeover would be complete.

Happily, however, that's not the case. The album as a whole pulls off the neat trick -- often aspired to, rarely realized -- of taking the group down a new path (even if that path is well-tread or, in this case, well-glowsticked) while maintaining the group's sound and originality. For one thing, it's a diverse record; there are bouncy jams and anthemic straight-up rockers that comport with previous ideas of what the band can and should be doing. And even when it comes to the dance-ier tracks, it's not like the band simply programmed a quarter-note bass drum track under their songs. Some ingenious production details make even the four-on-the-floor tracks feel remarkably personal and non-generic. In particular, Murphy and Markus Dravs, Arcade Fire's other producer and long-time collaborator, perform some magic with the drum production, making the rhythm tracks sound simultaneously organic, groovy, and Arcade Fire-y. And the band's penchant for rich, original, and complex timbres -- perhaps their sonic hallmark -- remains as strong as ever. "Work Bitch" feels sycophantic primarily because the timbres involved seem imported directly from a bad dubstep sample pack; Reflektor sounds original because it operates in its own sonic universe.

More important than any other musical detail, though, is that Win Butler knows, better than any other songwriter working today, how to write a melody and lyric that suit his voice and delivery. Critics looking to score contrarian points love to isolate Butler's words and point out how facile they can seem laid bare on the page; "Is anything as strange as a normal person? Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?" or "Can we just work it out? Scream and shout till we work it out?" But those words weren't written to be read as prose; combined with his melody and delivery, in the context of the song, they form part of a remarkable whole. Arcade Fire backlash is driven primarily by the sense that the superficial spectacle of the band -- their grandiosity and propensity for elaborate gesture -- is what has positioned them as the sine qua non serious band of this era. And while their love of baroque costumery, mysterious gestures, and literary allusions have no doubt shaped public perception of the group, none of it would matter if Butler and the band couldn't write and perform songs that feel immediately classic.

But the question remains: why would Arcade Fire decide to explore in this direction? Why invite the accusations of shallow trend-following? Pop music can be great because it seems like the perfect summation of the present tense; it can also be great because it sounds like the future. But it can also simply be great because it's good. Any cultural artifact can get swept up as part of a fad, and then it's impossible to engage with that piece of culture without thinking about all the baggage that has become associated with it. All of a sudden, everything is bacon-flavored -- and then ordering bacon becomes some kind of referendum on your relationship with the foodie-hipster complex. But beyond the cultural trends, the original artifact still possesses its essential appeal. Strip away all the fad-iness, all the hipness, and four-on-the-floor is still intrinsically compelling. It's why, for more than three decades, it has underpinned music around the globe. Done right, it's just good.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images