Saudi Arabia is facing a growing internal threat from its minority Shia community with help from Iran. The royals have put their best man in charge of the fight, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who has been at the center of fighting al-Qaeda’s challenge to the kingdom for years.
The Shia community in Saudi Arabia is diverse and complex. The largest Shia population is in the Eastern Province, which borders the Persian Gulf and where most of Saudi oil is found. The Shia community there has been in a state of growing unrest since the start of the Arab awakening in 2011. As the Shias have long been discriminated against by the Saudis, there have been increasingly violent protests against the House of Saud in the Shia community’s towns and villages. Since Saudi troops crossed the King Fahd Causeway last year to suppress demonstrations in neighboring Bahrain by the Shia majority there, anger at the Saudi royal family has become even more bitter among the Shias in the Eastern Province.
On Aug. 15, they struck at Saudi Arabia’s Achilles heel. A cyber attack was delivered against the Saudi oil company ARAMCO with devastating results. According to US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, 30,000 ARAMCO computer work stations were rendered useless and had to be replaced. The Saudi oil company, which Forbes magazine ranks as the world’s largest, and the key to the Saudi oil industry, had the data on many of its hard drives erased and replaced with photos of a burning American flag.
I think it's unusual for the chief of staff to go on a trip, particularly on a trip this long. The chief of staff is usually more of a chief operating officer in the White House itself, and normally when your principal—whether it's the president himself or the head of Cabinet agency—goes abroad, you have his deputy and those folks staying behind to help manage operations in his absence.