Two stories in the news about developments in the Middle East, one reassuring in a perverse way, the other just flat out alarming. The first is report aggregated from a wide set of analysts indicating that ISIS is suffering from the same problems facing any mission-based organization – trouble with finances, talent and delivering their Unique Selling Proposition (USP.)

Sagging oils prices, destruction of oil infrastructure and loss of key leaders by the withering allied bombing, downturns in taxes revenues and seized assets due to territorial losses have all pressed the ISIS funding. ISIS is finding when you don’t pay competitively (or at all) you lose talent. As with many a misguided short-term organizational solutions – their new policy of beheading deserters in unlikely to solve the problem of desertion. The promise that their early victories was proof of the divine guidance and support carries no weight in a world where “the fog of war” coupled with organizational ineffectiveness undermine morale in a way that only improved experience can turn around. This principle holds in organizations – no matter what business you are in.

The strange comfort comes from the lesson that even fanatical groups face the same bureaucratic issues of any mission-driven organization. Our distaste for ISIS and its cause makes us glad for that. This article asks for nothing on behalf of ISIS. They are despicable in word and deed and an affront not only to us, but to the religion of Islam they invoke in their cause. It does remind us of the requirements of any human system that claims to exist in the service of a mission – if you don’t align your results to the USP, even the threat of death (all organizations have a figurative version of this threat to the disloyal in their ranks,) will be insufficient to retain your key talent.

It’s been a long time since news more troubling than ISIS has come from the region. The second story of a trend in Saudi Arabia is just such news. The death of the king, last year, brought another 80 year old head of state to power. That is not news for Saudi. What is news is how Saudi is choosing to operate in the region. For decades the US, despite some Human Rights concerns, has relied on an uneasy but steady presence by the Saudis to keep the less stable Middle Eastern players in line. We have been united in our distrust of Iran. Our devotion to Israel has always been a source of tension between ourselves and the Kingdom but Iran – now there’s something to join up against. For the first time since the fall of the Shah, the possibility that Saudi and Iran will become closer is truly frightening to the US.

Externally Saudi struggled with the uprisings brought on by “Arab Spring” at several of its neighbors, most notably the destabilizing of Yemen that caused the Saudis to intervene in a very heavy-handed way. To date our strategic alliance with them – balanced between protecting themselves against Israel and Iran, has been characterized by massive weapons deals and the continued access to massive amounts of Saudi oil. With the fall in oil prices, the Saudis are facing not only financial shortfalls externally, their internal budget and “bonus programs” intended to stem internal unrest, represent an escalating amount of their GDP. As with most pay schemes, cutting back in any way, even repeating the same levels of investment in public sector pay and projects, will have a negative effect on their constituents and appear to be unsustainable. Let’s not spend a lot of time worrying about the Saudis running out of oil or money. Estimates suggest their oil supplies will last another 95 years plus.

What is worrying is the increased willingness to be more combative with neighbors and friends in the region. Led by the new king’s 30 year old son, the Saudi defense force seems to be evolving from a giant that keeps the peace by the threat of its might, to one that will attack and impose its will. This is very troubling to Israel, whom Saudi has long denied the legitimate existence of, as well as to us. The danger lies in two dimensions – this new interventionist behavior – and equally concerning – what if the new defense minister, rather than another 80 year old, becomes the next king? The dilemma for us remains – how friendly do we want to be, need to be, to maintain the balance of power and keep the Middle East from coming apart at the seams?

This is a very troubling development for the US. The equilibrium in this region is one that has been struck over decades. We have invested heavily, even turned a blind-eye to achieve the current state. It isn’t clear what the world would be like with a different set of alliances in place. Because we don’t know what that will mean and it is unknown to us – we find it frightening. One can expect the next few moves by the US will be to reduce uncertainty – regardless of the cost of those moves.

So two reminders

  • Organizations, regardless of ideology are all subject to the same alignment principles.
  • All systems are perfectly aligned to get their current results – both the good and the not so good outcomes.

It is safe to assume we will be reminded of these principles again.