By Mohamed Harees –
Over the past week, the drumbeat of war in the Middle East has risen to a fever-pitch. As German Intelligence, BND prediction in 2015 appears to be coming true: ‘Saudi Arabia is at risk of becoming a major destabilising influence in the Arab world, Internal power struggles and the desire to emerge as the leading Arab power threaten to make the key Western ally a source of instability. The current cautious diplomatic stance of senior members of the Saudi royal family will be replaced by an impulsive intervention policy. The concentration of so much power in Prince Mohammed’s hands harbours a latent risk that in seeking to establish himself in the line of succession in his father’s lifetime, he may overreach’.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has provoked both an internal domestic, and a foreign crisis to permit him to grab power and realise his grandiose vision of the Saudi state. He seems to be determined to use strong-arm tactics to both secure his own title as crown prince, and defeat any opposition from all quarters. He thus ordered a broad crackdown on dissent, targeting key Islamic scholarly figures, and public critics, and as part of a sweeping “anti-corruption” initiative, his political rivals, including many from among his own royal flock are being kept under luxuriant house arrest. Recently, during the launch of Vision 2030, outlining his plan to modernize its economy and society, MBS announced his plan to ‘re-introduce’ brand of ‘moderate Islam’, side-lining Wahhabism as the State ideology.
MBS was also the architect of the bloody quagmire of the Yemen war, a hardliner in the current Gulf row with neighbouring Qatar and is being accused of “unprecedented” interference in Lebanese affairs. After losing in Yemen and even in Syria, he appears willing to try yet a third time, turning Lebanon into a political football to even scores with foreign enemies. Further, a Saudi and UAE-led campaign to force Qatar to its’ knees is also little else than a struggle to establish a Saudi-dominated regional order in the Middle East and North Africa that suppresses any challenge to the kingdom’s religiously cloaked form of autocratic monarchy.
As MBS moves to consolidate his newfound power and signals a decisive break with the past style of consensus politics, a tough choice remains for this leading Muslim nation, the heartland of Islam. Will MBS be a new broom reformer who could sweep the country to a brighter, more open future, or a dangerous and inexperienced firebrand who could undermine stability and lead Saudi Arabia to unintentional disaster (as Guardian UK article of 25/06/2017 points out) and by extension be a major destabilising influence both in the ME and even beyond?
Among most young Saudis, the detentions are being hailed as “the Nov. 4 revolution” and the king praised for “fighting corruption,” according to trending Twitter hashtags. On social media the general attitude was that Bin Salman and his father were acting in the interests of ordinary Saudis.. However, as more events unfold, there is not much room for optimism.
A number of theories have emerged, all united by the assumption that the young crown prince is seeking to consolidate his power base . The whole system in Saudi Arabia is corrupt, arresting anyone for corruption is meaningless,” suggested Muqtedar Khan in the Huffington Post under the headline “Power Consolidation or Failed Coup in Saudi Arabia?”. While that might be an overstatement, it is largely accepted that the lines are blurred between public funds and the Saudi royal family’s fortune, due to the nature of its absolute monarchy. Rather than a real attempt to target corruption, it has been widely suggested that the detentions were an attempt to clear the way for Bin Salman to succeed his father.
They say that a man is known by the company he keeps. It is an open secret that the crown prince ill-advisedly models himself on Donald Trump, whose impetuous lack of judgment is taking not only US but also the ‘so-called’ free world into risky waters. During the shocking purge of Saudi royals, Trump offered a full-throated endorsement of the power grab by tweeting ‘I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing…. Some of those they are harshly treating have been “milking” their country for years! Interestingly, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who has substantial investments in US, and who was one of those arrested in the recent round-up had apparently previously clashed with Trump on Twitter prior to his election as U.S. president, describing him as “a disgrace to all America.” .It was also probably no accident that recently Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, made a personal visit to Riyadh and both are said to have stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. several nights, swapping stories and planning strategy. It was also months back that Trump visited Saudi and flamed renewed fears about the ‘Iran threat’ and extremist infiltration which precipitated the Qatar crisis, securing a massive $110bn-plus arms deal in the process!
Then again, geopolitics makes strange bedfellows. Saudi-Israeli axis is bound to have disastrous consequences for the region as well as on the Palestinian conflict. Already much arm-twisting also appears to be taking place to get Abbas to overpower Hamas at US insistence. The Centenary of the Balfour Declaration reminded the world of the need to work out a speedy resolution of the Palestinian conflict. In an article on the 2011 tank deal, The New York Times reported the following: “Once viewed as a potential threat by Jerusalem, the government in Saudi Arabia is increasingly viewed as a guarantor of stability in a region in upheaval, as revolutionary fervor sweeps through the Middle East.” MBS , in his eagerness to ratchet up the conflict with Iran, have teamed together with a new ally, the Israeli PM Netanyahu , and appears willing to exploit and manipulate hostility to a foreign enemy in order to bolster his own domestic stature. Bibi recently arranged an urgent cable to all diplomats demanding that they mouth a pro-Saudi line regarding the Lebanese PM Hariri’s resignation quite unusually announced in Riyadh. A few years earlier, Netanyahu also joined Saudi Arabia in intervening in Syria, attacking military facilities associated with Iran or Hezbollah.
As Richard Silverstein in his article in Middle Eye Eye(07/07/17) says, ‘This indicates that Israel and Saudi Arabia are developing the sort of “no-daylight” relationship that Israeli leaders used to tout with their American counterparts. Together with their combined military might and oil wealth, these two countries could pose a highly combustible commodity… His new alliance with Saudi Arabia might provide the military punch he needs to forge a successful series of attacks on regional enemies’. Further, with US being led by a narcissist President, no one should expect this administration to restrain either the Saudis or Israelis to inflame the region ,with Putin too likely to join in to gain his stakes.
In the overall context, behind much of the ME’s chaos, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran takes precedence. The Saudi–Iran spat clearly demonstrates that internecine struggles between fellow Muslims—the clashes within a civilization and not between civilizations. They are waging a struggle for dominance that has turned much of the ME into their battlefield. Rather than fighting directly, they wield and in that way worsen the region’s direst problems: dictatorship, militia violence and religious extremism. Behind it is a centuries-old conflict between Shi’as and Sunnis that has grown more acute recently, ‘further promoted’ by the West, drawing in all Muslim countries and organizations. With US and Israel being sucked into this mess, ME is clearly heading to another round of war which does not augur well for the world.
Without more experienced voices around him, the new crown prince will feel emboldened to pursue his vision of a larger Sunni alliance, in which Saudi Arabia is the unchallenged leading power in the Middle East. This could lead to a dangerous miscalculation. Saudi Arabia however often invokes the “Muslim ummah fraternity” mantra for public consumption; however, it is the crude geo-political calculations rather than religious concerns that have recently shaped broader contours of its foreign policy. It is a matter of regret that even within the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), Saudi Arabia’s role has been transformed from leadership into a hegemonic one, a process that has been unfolding over five decades. OIC therefore seemed incapable of resolving the standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran by means of diplomacy compromising its’ policy of neutrality.
As the situation becomes aggravated, the need for the OIC, despite its many weaknesses, has however never been so apparent. The OIC, more than the Arab League, still is the only political platform that can bring all Muslim leaders together for dialogue. The question is whether the OIC is able to assert itself as the collective voice of the Muslims on a global plane and establish a genuine collective dialogue among its’ member states, transcending sectarian divisions or not. On a parallel note, Muslim world will also be eagerly watching MBS’ efforts to do away with the Wahhabism cult and bring in the ‘so-called moderate Islam’ in the heartland of Islam where two of Islam’s holiest cities lie. Perhaps, that aspect of reformation will have knock-on effects on other parts of the Muslim world as well.
Saudi Arabia — the biggest and most powerful country in the region — whose status as the world’s largest oil producer has long underlined its significance to the global economy.. It remains to be seen whether MBS’s meteoric rise continues or not. But for the moment, he appears to have taken a firm grip on the four pillars of the Kingdom: the ruling family, the business sheikhs, the security apparatus and the theocracy. The only certainty is that the near-term future of Saudi Arabia — and MBS himself — is one of turmoil and uncertainty.
Any storm in the form of a security crisis in that region, however would be felt in boardrooms and finance ministries all over the world. The obvious question is whether the dazzling rise of the Gulf states could be followed by an equally dazzling fall. If that were to happen, the implications would be global. In that context, what is unfolding in a Saudi sandstorm now therefore will have repercussions well beyond its borders.