June Issue 2015
On the Cusp of Change?
There were few indications before the succession in January that the reign of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz would account for a paradigm shift in Saudi Arabia. But it became clear within days that he was putting in place the mechanism for a long anticipated generational shift in the world’s only country to be named after its ruling family.
Within 100 days of his accession, that aspect of the transition was consolidated, with the king’s nephew Mohammed bin Nayef being promoted from deputy crown prince to crown prince in place of Salman’s youngest half-brother, Prince Muqrin, while one of the king’s sons, also called Mohammed, took over as deputy. But Saudi Arabia had somewhat uncharacteristically also launched a war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Not long afterwards, Salman delivered a snub to the president of the United States when he backed out of a Camp David summit convened by Barack Obama. The summit was an attempt to convince Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that they should welcome rather than resent the impending nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s leading powers, which is supposed to be concluded by the end of May.
Saudi sourness over the deal — which it believes will further empower Iran by removing crippling economic sanctions without requiring the complete dismantling of all its nuclear-related facilities — follows its bitterness over Syria, where it believes a US-led coalition ought to have militarily intervened to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis did themselves intervene, albeit indirectly, by aiding the anti-Assad rebels, including Islamist extremists, thereby arguably colluding in the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) as a force to reckon with.
This is partly an indicator of continuity rather than change. The Saudis were instrumental, after all, in funding the mujahideen in Afghanistan — and unwilling to take responsibility for the consequences, which included the emergence not only of Al-Qaeda under a scion of one of the kingdom’s leading entrepreneurs, the bin Ladens, but also a generation of Afghan and Pakistani jihadists nurtured by Saudi-funded madrassas.
One of the more intriguing aspects of American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s revelations last month, about the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, is the idea that the Saudis had paid Pakistan to squirrel him away instead of handing him over to the Americans. The actual facts may never conclusively be established, but it’s not difficult to see why Riyadh had a clear interest in preventing bin Laden from being made available to the US for interrogation.
Hersh says that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency insisted that the operation must lead to bin Laden’s demise rather than his capture. It’s easy to see why the ISI, too, wouldn’t have wished bin Laden to talk, but it would hardly be surprising to discover that the imprimatur for insisting on his elimination came from the Saudis.
Their fraught relationship with Salafist violence is now an old story — and a wound that was refreshed last month when an attack on a Shia mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia claimed at least 20 lives. IS subsequently claimed responsibility for the atrocity.
Going by this as well as previous outrages, the outfit evidently owes no allegiance to the House of Saud and seems as keen as Al-Qaeda to destabilise the kingdom. Yet Saudi Arabia, although formally a part of the US-led coalition that hopes to “degrade” IS through bombing raids, appears to have only a peripheral interest in pursuing the fundamentalist Sunnis, quite in contrast to its determination to rout the Shia Houthis in Yemen.
In the case of Iraq, this could not possibly be unrelated to the fact that the ground forces combating IS consist of Iranian-backed Shia militias alongside the official Iraqi army, whereas in the case of Syria the Saudis have made it reasonably clear that they see the Alawite-led regime in Damascus as a more desirable target than IS.
Their outlook, in other words, remains doggedly sectarian. Both the Houthis and the Assad regime are seen as proxies for predominantly Shia Iran, whereas the Salafist beliefs are not far removed from the Wahhabism that the House of Saud enforces at home and preaches abroad. Any criticism of Saudi policies — from its penchant for beheadings, emulated by IS, to lashes and imprisonment for most forms of dissent — invariably elicits the retort that the nation’s law is above reproach as it is based on the shariah.
Where exactly does the shariah decree that women cannot drive cars? It’s all a matter of interpretation, of course, and dependent ultimately on who does the interpreting.
When King Abdullah died in January, his virtues, among them the notion that he was a gentle reformer, were widely extolled in western capitals as their leaders lined up to kowtow to his successor. Rather too gentle, perhaps, for a nation that arguably needs to be jolted into the 21st century instead of being nudged along down a pathway that won’t lead anywhere as long as it isn’t permitted to breach the obscurantist boundaries of an official ideology based on a compact with a clergy intellectually trapped in the distant past.
Abdullah’s successors have thus far given no indication of wishing to break out of that unfortunate mindset. The new crown prince retains his post as interior minister, a role in which he has been admired by the West for his dedication to the fight against terrorism (which could have cost him his life when a supposedly reformed Al-Qaeda operative detonated a bomb concealed in his anus). However, his position has also been characterised by ruthlessness towards liberal tendencies.
The new deputy crown prince, meanwhile, doubles as the defence minister, and his chief claim to fame thus far has been the war in Yemen, which in many ways mirrors the periodic Israeli assaults against Gaza.
That’s not all Saudi Arabia and Israel have in common, though — they are, for instance, on exactly the same page vis-a-vis Iran, share an antipathy towards Assad, and were both visibly thrilled when the elected government in Egypt, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, was toppled in a military coup by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last year.
There was a time when the Saudi and Egyptian governments were seriously at loggerheads, generally in ideological terms and specifically over Yemen, where they fought a prolonged proxy war well into the 1960s. Under Sisi they are close enough to contemplate jointly fielding forces in Middle Eastern conflicts. Yet they agree to disagree on certain matters, such as relations with Russia — which Sisi has been cultivating, whereas the Saudis are believed to have colluded in lowering the price of oil at least partly in an effort to economically hurt Russia (as well as Venezuela).
The Saudis have also collaborated with Turkey in bolstering the Syrian rebels (without much to show for it, unless one counts the successes of IS, which now holds sway across half of Syria). Yet Ankara and Riyadh disagree on Egypt, where the Turkish ruling party was sympathetic towards Morsi and the Brotherhood.
Yes, it’s complicated, and Saudi Arabia’s more robust regional role comes at a time when relations with the US have begun to fray. There’s more than one angle to this, but a key factor is reduced US dependence on Saudi oil because of increased domestic production, combined with the Saudis’ growing sense that the Americans can no longer be relied on to protect parochial Saudi interests.
Some experts believe that Saudi Arabia has lately overtaken India as the world’s largest arms importer, but whether or not that is indeed the case, it’s clear that arms purchases by the Saudis and neighbouring Gulf states — most notably the UAE — have risen manifold in recent years. A large proportion of the weaponry comes from Britain — and the trade has long been dogged by accusations of kickbacks — but quite a bit is supplied by the US. At Camp David last month, President Obama offered to supplement this with additional military hardware in an effort to placate his guests about the Iranian nuclear deal.
He did so even though only two of the six invited heads of state (those of Qatar and Kuwait) deemed the trip worthwhile, while the remaining Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders sent their underlings. In commentary in the American media, this was perceived as a deliberate insult on the part of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, whereas the UAE’s Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said were deemed to actually be unwell.
Both Riyadh and Washington, as one would expect, insisted no snub was intended, and Saudi sources even suggested that bin Nayef anyhow made more sense as an interlocutor, given the kind of power he wields. This in turn suggests that the transition to the next al-Saud generation has, for all practical purposes, already occurred.
The extent to which the supremacy of the Sudairis (King Abdul Aziz’s offspring through his favourite wife, Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi) may stir resentment within the family is largely a matter for conjecture, given that the princes in their palaces deem it prudent to keep their own counsel. It wouldn’t be surprising, though, if sooner or later the facade of family unity began to wear thin, particularly if major projects such as the misguided intervention in Yemen go awry. Let’s not forget, after all, that whereas King Abdul Aziz produced 40 or so sons, the next generation of royal male progeny reportedly stretches to at least 600.
The game of thrones could, therefore, get messy in due course, despite the distribution of largesse from the state’s seemingly bottomless coffers. Unrest among the populace at large is staved off by similar means, albeit at a considerably lower level. The advent in 2011 of what was then known as the Arab Spring led to pay rises and bonuses, and King Salman repeated the gesture on ascending to the throne earlier this year. Military and police personnel were at the receiving end of yet another bonanza alongside the decree promoting the two Mohammeds, bin Nayef and bin Salman.
Such generosity implies a degree of uncertainty. The decree also coincided with the news that almost 100 IS-linked jihadists have been taken into custody this year, and that a number of plots aimed at insurrection have been thwarted across the kingdom. This is perhaps par for the course in a country of about 30 million, 60 per cent of them below the age of 21. Unlike most of its tiny Gulf neighbours, it’s hard for Saudi Arabia to keep its entire populace satiated.
What’s surprising, though, is that the level of concern about the Houthis, whose stronghold may be adjacent to Saudi Arabia but who have no apparent designs on that country, is considerably greater than that relating to IS, which has been rampaging through Iraq’s mainly Anbar province. The mainly Sunni Anbar borders Saudi territory. Efforts to liberate cities such as the provincial capital, Ramadi, are spearheaded by Iranian-backed militias. Their brutality, too, provides cause for concern, albeit less frequently than IS excesses. Would the Saudis rather have the Salafist militia controlling Anbar, parallel to its aspirations in Syria?
There are thus far certainly no indications that Saudi Arabia could be on the verge of a liberalising moment. The retrogressive polity that it justifies on a religious basis cannot, however, indefinitely endure. Whether meaningful change is initiated by fissures at the top or pressures from below remains to be seen, but it’s bound to happen sooner or later, and chances are its GCC cronies will be swept along, too.
Obama has been right to hint that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states should be worrying more about their internal structures than external dangers in the shape of Iran, but he is unlikely to be heeded.
Saudi Arabia’s influence in international affairs has been almost exclusively malign for at least the past four decades. One of its more recent manifestations was the characteristically arrogant attempt to bully Pakistan into joining the sordid little war in Yemen, presumably by providing foot soldiers for a ground offensive. The Saudis and the UAE were both taken aback when the National Assembly in Islamabad sensibly decided against pitching in, and reacted in some cases with uncouth invective. Our military and civilian leaders immediately formed a conga line of apologisers, popping across to reassure the ruling family in Riyadh that no sacrifice would be too great to protect the sanctity of Saudi Arabia, but that an inconvenience called democracy stood in the way of contributing to the fight in Yemen.
Chances are the Saudis expected more from Nawaz Sharif, after they helped to save his life in 1999 — after having chosen not to do so 20 years earlier in the case of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Whether or not there are any serious repercussions from Pakistan’s tentative declaration of independence, it would be sensible for Islamabad to gently disentangle itself from Riyadh’s web. Saudi influence in Pakistan has never been particularly benign, but the Arab nation’s regional role has now become positively dangerous, having shifted decisively from behind-the-scenes manoeuvres.
It is widely believed that the Saudi boast of being able to match Iran should it acquire nuclear weapons is based on some sort of arrangement with Pakistan to supply the technology, if not warheads. There’s a small chance this might be untrue. A very small chance.
The best bet for all concerned would be for an Iranian treaty with the US and other international powers to be signed, implemented and periodically verified. Israel, the Saudis and some of the Gulf countries say they oppose this process because Iran can never be trusted. The fact is that if Iran were indeed to continue its pursuit of weaponry, it would be detected long before its plans reached fruition.
A far bigger danger is the sectarian conflict consuming large portions of the Middle East and its periphery. If the Supreme Leader of Iran isn’t doing a great deal to halt its spread, nor is the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
The contradictions Saudi Arabia refuses to contend with were illustrated last month when the authorities advertised for eight executioners, suggesting that the existing cohort was too small to cope with the spate of beheadings — at least 85 this year by the end of May, compared with a total of 87 for the whole of 2014. A report a few days later indicated it was interested in seeking to head the United Nations Human Rights Council when the post becomes vacant next year.
In a different sphere, there was yet another reminder that monuments to Mammon are excluded in the Wahhabi aversion to religious shrines: the world’s largest hotel is scheduled to open in Makkah in 2017, perhaps in time for Haj. It will boast four helipads, 10,000 guestrooms in 12 towers and 70 restaurants, with five floors reserved for the exclusive use of the ruling family.
Five floors sounds like a lot, but given the size of the family, one can only wonder whether they will suffice.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.