The reckless power behind the throne

Wikimedia/July 07, 2015. Public Domain.In
the past year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has abandoned the cautious
fence-sitting that long characterised its diplomatic style in favour of an
unprecedented, hawkish antagonism. That this transformation coincides with the
meteoric rise of a previously little known prince – 30 year-old Mohammad bin
Salman – is no accident; it seems that the prince is now the power behind the
throne.

Since
the death of the first king of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz, in 1953, the kingdom
has been ruled by an increasingly elderly succession of six of his 45 sons; the
last incumbent, Abdullah, died last January aged 90 and was replaced by the
present king, Salman, who is 81 and rumoured to be suffering from dementia. The
youthful, sabre-rattling Prince Mohammad, insiders say, is Salman’s favourite
son by his third and favourite wife, Fahda.

Salman
has one remaining brother – 75 year-old Muqrin – who would normally have been next
in line for the throne. Whether alone, or at the instigation of others, Salman
removed Muqrin from the succession three months after he became king. Prince
Mohammad now moved up the line of succession to become ‘deputy Crown Prince’,
with only his 56 year-old cousin, Mohammad bin Nayef between him and the throne.

King
Salman then bestowed an astonishing array of portfolios and titles on his inexperienced
son, making him Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister – the very same
posts Salman himself occupied prior to inheriting the throne – as well as head
of the Economic Guidance Council and Chief of the Royal Court. Within weeks,
bin Nayef’s court was merged with the Royal Court, now supervised by Prince
Mohammad, and one of his closest advisers was removed from the ruling cabinet.

No
wonder Prince Mohammad feels mandated to pilot the kingdom into a series of
ever more risky adventures, earning himself the unofficial nickname ‘Reckless’ and unfavourable comparisons with his highly intelligent half-brother, 56
year-old Prince
Sultan bin Salman, who became the first Arab astronaut in 1986 and is
currently languishing in obscurity as head of the Saudi Tourist Board.

At
the heart of all Sunni Saudi Arabia’s current woes is its longstanding sectarian
and political rivalry with the Shi’a republic of Iran. The toppling of the Shah
by the 1979 Islamic revolution struck fear into the Saudi royals’ hearts and
consolidated Riyadh’s political and military dependence on the west.

Just as King Salman got comfortable on the throne, everything started to go wrong.

Until
very recently, Iran was isolated and under heavy sanctions, the bête noire of the west, harbouring
nuclear ambitions and an aggressive attitude towards ‘the great Satan’,
America, and its client state, Israel. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia could do no
wrong – despite its appalling human
rights record, oppression
of women and rampant corruption.
Pliable and passive in its regional politics, Washington’s willing ally eagerly
swapped billions of petro-dollars for sophisticated military hardware, aircraft
and weapons. Margaret Thatcher had a special department for pushing through the
al-Yamamah
arms deal which involved record amounts of dollars and corruption. This
‘special relationship’ endured: the flag over Buckingham Palace flew at
half-mast when King Abdullah passed on in January last year and David Cameron,
Barack Obama and François Hollande were among many world leaders who travelled
to Riyadh for the late monarch’s memorial.

But
just as King Salman got comfortable on the throne, everything started to go
wrong for the desert kingdom.

First,
the west suddenly woke up to how deeply entrenched the Islamic State (IS) had become
on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border as it set about building its ‘Caliphate’;
this problem now replaced the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as
regional priority number one. Before this complication, alignment in Syria had
been relatively simple and along sectarian fault lines: the Alawite (a branch
of Shi’ism) Assad regime was backed by Iran, Iraq, Russia and China, while the
mainly Sunni opposition was championed by Saudi Arabia, most Gulf states, Turkey,
the US, UK and several European countries.  

Recognising
the growing predominance of Islamic extremists within the opposition (a situation
actively fostered by Saudi Arabia) the west now preferred a political solution
to the Syrian civil war and reluctantly conceded – largely under Russian
pressure – that this could not be achieved without Iran. Furthermore, it looked
increasingly likely that IS could not be defeated without the co-operation of
the Syrian army, transforming Assad – temporarily at least – from the problem
to part of the solution.

To
the dismay of the Saudis, Washington began to court Tehran, creating a vehicle
for rapprochement by bump-starting the nuclear
limitation agreement which had been stalled for thirteen years but now
accelerated to the finishing line in a matter of months. Concluded in July, it
was finally signed by President Obama in October last year and Tehran was
invited to the Vienna conference on Syria the same month. In addition, Iranian
assets were unfrozen and sanctions lifted.

Not only
did the Saudis feel betrayed, but they now faced another problem as a result.
Since November 2014, they had been exerting their considerable influence on OPEC
to keep pumping oil at levels above
the agreed ceiling, despite falling prices. Ostensibly aimed at pricing the
American fracking industry out of the market, it was also political, intended
to harm the economies of oil-rich Iran and Russia – both under international
sanctions at the time. Tehran now called Saudi Arabia’s bluff, announcing that
as soon as sanctions were lifted it would pump
a million extra barrels a day. Suddenly the tables were turned and it was
the Saudi economy that was at risk, with the IMF
warning in October 2015 that the nation would bankrupt itself within five
years – despite its gargantuan sovereign funds ­– if it did not reverse its
policy.

Nor
is this the only drain on Saudi finances. Since March it has been bombarding the
Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in
Yemen, presumably at the instigation of Prince Mohammad (with his defence minister
hat on). Saudi Arabia has no history or experience of unilateral armed intervention
– it sent 3,000 soldiers to each of the major Arab-Israeli wars and a few more
to the first Gulf War – yet the prince believed that the Houthis would be
defeated in a matter of days. Ten months on, with no plan B and no exit
strategy, nothing has been achieved but the devastation of the poorest country
in the Middle East and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Analysts
estimate that the financial cost of this adventure has already topped $60
billion. With oil revenues at rock bottom, the Saudi treasury has sold billions
of dollars’ worth of European stocks to meet the ongoing costs of this
unwinnable war.

The question is why, when the world stands at the brink of a catastrophic conflict, take any side at all?

Things
took an even more hawkish turn last week when the Saudi regime took the
decision to behead a well-known dissident Shi’a cleric, Sheikh
Nimr al-Nimr. There were riots in Tehran where the Saudi
Embassy was set on fire; Riyadh immediately cut all diplomatic
ties with Iran and shortly afterwards a Saudi airstrike
damaged the Iranian embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. The resulting tension has sent
shock-waves through the region, with many fearing a war between the two powers
as the Saudis seek to enlist the support of fellow Sunni nations.

With
the headstrong Prince Mohammad at the helm, backing down does not appear to be
an option… and if the war-chest runs out, contingencies are in place. In an
interview last week with The Economist, Prince Mohammad
revealed a plan to float Aramco – the trillion dollar nationalised oil company and
the country’s most valuable asset – on the international markets and sell billions
worth of nationally-owned prime land for private development. In addition,
subsidies for the needy will be slashed and the education and healthcare systems
privatised, putting them out of reach for the poorest members of society.

In
Gulf countries, autocratic systems are generally tolerated due to an unspoken
contract between government and the people that everyone benefits from the
nation’s wealth (albeit extremely unequally); Prince Mohammad’s Thatcherite
vision, if implemented, risks widespread civil unrest. In addition, the restive
Shi’a population in the east is sitting on top of the country’s largest oil
fields and distribution centres.

Saudi
influence abroad has always been predicated on its wealth and can be expected
to diminish along with its coffers. Nevertheless, Prince Mohammad adopted the
diplomatic style of George W. Bush in his search for allies: ‘Who’s not with us
is against us’. The right wing press has apparently already made its decision:
the Daily
Telegraph
declared that “Britain Must Side With Saudi Arabia”, while Roger
Boyes in The Times opined “execution
by sword is brutal but Riyadh remains our best hope for peace in the Middle
East”… well that’s not what they say about the Islamic State. In fact, the past
year saw a record number of beheadings in Saudi Arabia and 157 executions in all.

None
of this is to say that Iran is any better – both theocracies are intolerant,
oppressive and cruel. The question is why, when the world stands at the brink
of a catastrophic conflict, take any side at all? Shouldn’t Britain and
America, supposedly ‘developed’ countries claiming to be beacons of progress
and democracy, be brokering the rapprochement between these two extremist
regimes that is key to regional peace, and a political solution to the Syrian
crisis? Shouldn’t the west be exercising the undoubted influence it still
possesses in the Royal Palace to urge more caution, more debate?

If the
west persists, instead, in following a deluded prince into an unwinnable battle
against a fabricated monster, it might as well champion Don Quixote tilting at
windmills and declaring “a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood
from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless”.

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