Saudi Crown Prince: A heady cocktail of follies and hubris
All the glowing tributes in the western press notwithstanding, the Saudi Crown Prince has pretty little to show for all the hoopla, says Saurabh Kumar Shahi
Early this year when Thomas Friedman wrote a rather cringe-worthy sexual innuendo-laden piece on Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), very few eyebrows were raised in the western capitals. After all, the US press in general and The New York Times in particular have a history of branding every Saudi king and his wouldbe successors as messiahs of liberal values. Luckily, we have internet these days with digital archives going back to days when the House of Saud was not the custodian of the two holy mosques. Editorials after editorials were written about this young guy’s “strategic vision” and “thinking.” Every decision of his was a masterstroke as long as it lined the pockets of those who benefit from the US military industrial complex.
It’s almost a year to those soapy-eyed days in Washington DC and a lot of water has passed under the bridge where the remains of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was likely disposed of in Istanbul.
In his own words, and in the words of his supporters, MbS’ biggest achievement was cranking up the heat on Iran. Like every Sunni Monarch in the region, MbS also sees Iran wherever he wants to see it. The paranoia of the Shia Crescent became too hot to handle for the Saudi ruling class, and MbS made Iran its primary target. Recent bomb blasts in Arab-dominated Ahvaz region, destabilising of Sistan-e-Balochistan border with Pakistan and attempts by Kurdish militants in the North-West and west Iran does indicate that the wet-job has been outsourced to non-state actors, but it is important to analyse here as to what has this achieved?
Iran has seen worse days with Saddam on its west, Taliban on its east and a US-Pakistan axis on its south-east. It weathered the attacks that were far worse in intensity and used to happen at a much lesser interval. I still remember an attack by US-Pak supported Jundallah terrorist group that killed eight Brigadier and Major General rank officers in one go. Compared to that, while no doubt heinous, the recent attacks have done nothing to deter Iran from achieving its regional strategic goal, if that was the idea. What’s more, the gloves are off. A couple of more such attacks would mean that nothing, neither Bahrain nor the oil-rich Shia-dominated eastern Saudi Arabia will be untouchable. In spite of all the hoopla and finger-pointing, the Shia insurrection in both these strategically important geographical areas is home-grown with no military or monetary support from Tehran of any significance. In fact, when MbS took the personal decision to execute Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, he crossed the Rubicon without realising. Nimr was not a great supporter of Iranian Velayat-e-Faqih system and wanted to keep a strategic distance. That can easily change.
As far as Trump’s withdrawal from the Iranian Nuclear Deal is concerned, it was a conscious decision taken by Trump and his neo-con bandwagon with more than a little support from the demagogic leadership sitting in Tel Aviv. MbS just jumped on this gravy train. He can’t claim to have influenced the decision there.
Selective leaks by Turkey on Khashoggi mean that Erdogan will not let the US let MbS off the hook
Next comes Yemen. As the execution of the Sheikh from Qatif, the war in Yemen was MbS’ decision. Sources inside the Kingdom close to this writer have maintained that the military was not very enthusiastic about the campaign, but the pressure from UAE’s Mohammad bin Zayed and MbS’ enthusiasm were what won the day. However, that was the only win they were to see there. The war in Yemen has almost come to an impasse. The Saudi dream of a clean victory has been long dashed and, after years of silence, the western World has started to begrudgingly call out Saudi and UAE’s role in what is being termed as 21st century’s biggest man-made famine.
However, that’s not all. Even after openly aligning with al-Qaeda in Yemen, Saudis are now finding that their efforts have come to nought not only because of the spirited defence by Houthis but also because of the “treachery” by its closest ally, UAE. It has slowly started to dawn upon the Saudis that while UAE left the toughest terrain in Yemen for the Saudis to conquer, it has managed to carve an area of influence in cities and ports that really matter. In fact, sources inside Yemen are now increasingly reporting about friendly-fire incidents and clashes happening between those mercenaries and militias aligned with Riyadh and those aligned to Abu Dhabi.
Worse still, MbS is running out of the face-saving exits. The same Saudi Armed Forces that was reluctant to enter Yemen is now reluctant to leave it. This fancy weapons and gizmos equipped force does not want to be seen as defeated by the rag-tag groups of Yemenis. In fact, sources inside the Kingdom suggest that MbS is fearful that any pressure on the forces might lead to an insurrection. After all, the Arab world has a history of its forces toppling its kings and sultans.
If Yemen is a disaster, Syria is more so. Years of clandestinely supporting and supplying al-Qaeda and other Islamists in Syria has brought little return for Riyadh. While the decision to intervene in the Syrian crisis was not MbS’ decision, it was him who cranked up to support throwing all the caution to the wind. After eight years of war, President Bashar al Assad and his Baath machinery are still in power, and they are taking back Syria one city at a time. Whatever little influence Saudis had has been massively undercut by its regional rivals Turkey and Qatar to the point where Saudis are not even invited as a party to any talks or negotiations on Syria. Its influence inside Idlib—the only region under terrorist control in Syria—is so insignificant that fighters from groups supported by Saudis now regularly defect to groups controlled by Turkey and Qatar.
In those countries where it did not intervene militarily, and resorted to arm-twisting, the victims ultimately extricated themselves from his hold. Take for example, Qatar, the lifeblood of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Muslim Brotherhood has on and off been used by different Saudi rulers, the ruling class did come to see it as a strategic threat post Arab Spring. Since Qatar, with its own ambition of leading the Sunni world, provided Brotherhood with a readymade platform in the form of al Jazeera, and cash and political support to survive, Saudis started to feel jittery. MbS realised that a concerted Gulf Coordination Council arm-twisting will floor the Qataris. But not only did Qatar survive the blockade—with help from Turkey and Iran—it is now confident that it has weathered the worst, and can hold its ground. Its pains were temporary. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia, whose economy is now chronically tanking, lost one of its biggest trade partners.
In fact, on the economic front, this was not the only setback. MbS much touted ‘Vision 2030’ for which he spent several billions of dollars has now come to a grinding halt. The much hyped IPO of Saudi crown-jewel ARAMCO did not even take off. And it is not going to take off for several years to come. With several wars draining its reserve, and a perpetual deficit budget, Saudis were looking for fawning westerners to bring in the cash. That almost melted in the heat generated by Khashoggi’s brutal murder by Saudi operatives in Istanbul.
This leaves us with Lebanon where Saudis once used to have heavy clout in spite of Hezbollah’s presence. That’s before someone gave him the wonderful idea of inviting Prime Minister Hariri and holding him captive. This backfired so massively that in one of Hariri’s strongholds in Beirut, some rappers and Disc-Jockeys from among his supporters were actually penning songs imploring Hassan Nasrallah—Hariri’s bitter political rival from Hezbollah—to bring their leader back. A more damning verdict cannot be quoted. The election that followed saw Hezbollah and its allies Amal and Free Patriotic Movement increase their tally manifold. A government in Lebanon is now being formed with a lame-duck Hariri at the helm but with little or no consultation from Riyadh.
If all these were not enough, the whole Khashoggi debacle has now given arsenal to Turkey, whose modern Sultan sees Istanbul as the rightful leader of the Sunni World. Till now, Sultan Erdogan could blow hot and cold but could not affect Saudis in any meaningful way. Not anymore. The selective leaks by the pro-Erdogan press about the gory details and other aspects of the murder means that Erdogan will not let the US and the western World let MbS off the hook even if they wanted. At least not before Turkey extracts its own pound of flesh. The only question is, how much flesh is MbS left with?
(The writer is a visiting faculty at the University of Warsaw)