By Ameer Ali –
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the Minister of Defence has flushed out in the name of driving out corruption and introducing secularism and modernity nearly a dozen Saudi oligarchs, among whom is the richest Al-Waleed bin Talal whose net worth is estimated at more than $17 billion and is the founder of the Kingdom Holding Company.
In petrodollar oligarchies in the Middle East corruption is the key to capture and retain political power. There is no sense in talking about national income and GDP in these regimes because almost the entire wealth is owned by the rulers. The ones who are under arrest are just the scape goats.
However, the overnight coup hatched in secrecy and executed with pride and publicity coincided with two other shattering events, the resignation of Saad Hariri the Prime Minister of Lebanon, and the firing of a scud missile into Saudi Arabia from Yemen alleged to have been engineered by Iran.
President Trump’s open declaration of full confidence over the Saudi regime is no surprise, because like in Iran before the revolution American advisors and agents are omnipresent in the desert kingdom. This royal flush would not have occurred without the knowledge of the White House. It is well and truly stage managed.
The question is why and what are the consequences to Saudi Arabia, to the Middle East and to the world outside?
To Saudi Arabia the Prince’s coup is a strategic move firstly to weed out rival claimants to the throne and secondly to repossess assets alleged to have been “corruptly” amassed by these billionaires so that some of Salman’s ambitious projects such as the creation of a Saudi mega city to rival Dubai could be funded. How the prince was able to pick or create an opportunity to lure his victims to be at home all at the same time, who normally would spend most of their time abroad is a mystery. There is no transparency in official matters in Saudi Arabia.
Prince Salman whose management of foreign affairs has blundered on several fronts notably in Syria and Yemen threatening thereby to jeopardise his public reputation and therefore claim to the throne has determined to get rid of potential rivals. The Saudi royal household consists of too many tribes and clans and the greed for power is ever present among its members. Historically fratricide was a normal practice in the contest to the throne in medieval caliphate. What happened in this case though not fratricide yet comes close to it because the ones who are under arrest are the prince’s kith and kin who are now dead men walking.
Each of the clans also have their factions within the religious and security establishments. This means the purge will have to go deeper to remove any obstruction from these quarters to Salman’s claim to the throne.
One dominant feature in the current geopolitical climate in the Middle East is the struggle for hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Had the Shah remained in power Iran’s hegemony would have been assured with the support of US and Israel. After “The Fall of Heaven” (the title of a 2016 book by Andrew Scott Cooper on the fall of the Shah) however, these two countries have shifted their weight 360 degrees to allow Saudi Arabia to dominate the region. But Iran has its own allies particularly in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. By sectarianizing the struggle for supremacy, Saudi regime has made it into a Shia-Sunni religious confrontation in order to gain sympathy from the majority Sunni Muslim world.
It is in the light of this contest for supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran that the sudden and unprovoked resignation of the Sunni Premier Hariri in Lebanon who until now managed to hold a delicate balance of power and peace between the Shiite Hezbollah and its Sunni rivals reveals the hidden hand of Saudi Arabia. It is to the advantage of Saudi Arabia that Lebanon should be destabilized which will provide Israel with another opportunity to weaken if not destroy its arch enemy Hezbollah. While many Hezbollah soldiers are currently engaged in Syria on the side of Assad the time is ripe to hit Hezbollah’s Lebanon headquarters. Weakening Hezbollah in Lebanon will weaken Assad in Syria and ultimately the Mullah’s regime in Iran. Saudis are trying to kill not two but three birds with one stone.
The alleged firing of scud missile into Saudi Arabia by Iran’s proxy Houthis in Yemen has been declared by Saudis as “an act of war” and in a further provocation has ordered its citizens in Lebanon to get out of that country. It should not be forgotten at the same time that the current famine in Yemen is an unparalleled and catastrophic humanitarian disaster in modern times created entirely by the Saudi regime and its coalition partners. The silence of Muslim organizations like the All Ceylon Jamiyyatul Ulama to condemn this Saudi action speaks volumes about the power of Saudi money.
If a Saudi-Iran proxy war breaks out in Lebanon, which is highly unlikely, the entire region will be set ablaze. President Donald Trump in the meantime is looking for a winning wicket to bat so that he could reverse his sliding domestic popularity. War is often the last resort for unpopular leaders to gamble on their political fortune. North Korea and Iran are offering Trump a cruel choice. An unlikely war in either front and an improbable victory in any of them will be extremely Pyrrhic. The brighter side of such a convulsion in the Middle East will be the resumption of the aborted Arab Spring. When that happens the Saudi rulers will not again be able to buy the loyalty of its citizens with money.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia