Sunni world split wide open?

Saudi Arabia may have handed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the chance to re-establish Turkey’s old preeminent position in the Sunni Muslim world by killing Khashoggi in Ankara, Turkey

Sunni world split wide open?

Tathagata Bhattacharya

Saudi Arabia never ceases to surprise even though, very often, the surprise can be nauseating. Cutting up a man alive within its consular premises, making pieces of his body and burying it in the backyard of the consul’s residence is something the world had never heard of. But the Saudis made it possible by flying in an over-a-dozen-men-strong hit squad into the Turkish capital of Ankara, who mercilessly slaughtered Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, a US-based dissident Saudi journalist who wrote for The Washington Post. Even otherwise, Saudi Arabia is well known for its flagrant violation of human rights, for their mistreatment of foreign workers, for some of the most primitive laws like beheading and cutting off limbs, and for relegating women to a deplorable state of existence and for intervening in the affairs of neighbouring states (read Yemen).

And it did not start with Khashoggi. There is evidence that Prince Sultan bin Turki bin Abdulaziz, Prince Turki bin Bandar and Prince Saud bin Saif al-Nasr, all from the House of Saud, were each abducted from their homes in Europe and flown back to Saudi Arabia between 2015 and 2016. But the fate of all three princes remains unknown. They have never been seen again. There has been no news of them. And last November, several dozen members of the Saudi royal family and top officials were imprisoned in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, in a purported anti-corruption drive which was essentially an euphemism for consolidation of the Crown Prince’s power base.

But, in carrying out the blunder of an operation on Turkey’s soil, Saudi Arabia may have handed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the chance he was looking for to re-establish Turkey’s old preeminent position in the Sunni Muslim world. Erdogan, who has always referred to Turkey’s Ottoman past as a golden period, will no doubt seize this opportunity to show Saudi Arabia, which was a part of the Ottoman Empire, its ‘rightful place’ in West Asia.

The ground was already created with Saudi cutting off diplomatic ties in 2017 with Qatar, with most of the regional powers backing Riyadh in its spat with Doha. Saudis had been flustered by Qatar’s al-Jazeera news network which supported the Arab Spring movement, which Riyadh was strictly opposed to. And most importantly, Doha’s cordial relations with Tehran pricked the House of Sauds. Saudi Arabia never approved of the Qatar ruler’s attempt to transform his country into a potential economic powerhouse in the Gulf from a Saudi appendage.

In carrying out the blunder of an operation on Turkey’s soil, Saudi Arabia may have handed Erdogan the chance he was looking for to re-establish Turkey’s pre-eminent position in the Sunni world 

Also, the Saudi intervention in Yemen’s Civil War on behalf of the beleaguered President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and against the predominantly Shia-led Houthi rebellion since 2015, which has killed over 14,000 people, also showed that the iron hand that Riyadh had on the neck of the Gulf states was gradually weakening.

Coupled with the debacle of the ISIS and other Islamist fighting groups in Syria, propped up by Saudi Arabia among others, and strengthening of the Assad regime’s grasp over vast swathes of the country, aided by Iran and Russia, Turkey was possibly waiting for the right moment to jump the ship and confront Saudi Arabia. The Syrian question is moving towards its logical solution and, for once, the US and its protectorate Saudi state have no role to play in it.

To be very honest, Saudis have always drawn their power from two things. One is its vast oil inventory. Two is its custodianship of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest places. It is because of these two factors that the Saudis have been guaranteed a place under the American security umbrella. After it came into being, one should not forget its King used to come to India and beg the Nizam of Hyderabad for money to keep his Kingdom running. Saudi Arabia is a lesson in how the discovery of oil deposits can change the fortunes of a country.

The Khashoggi episode, apart from throwing light on the murderous and unscrupulous Saudi regime, has also exposed the hollowness of Washington’s harping on human rights abuses by Iran, Russia and others. Although some of the criticism of the regime by Donald Trump is possibly the strongest rebuke the Gulf Kingdom has ever received from an American President, words are no replacements for action. If the human rights gavel is pounded on the basis of selective compunction, then it is not the concern for rights but hypocrisy that catches the eye.

The Saudi regime, of course, has lied repeatedly about the incident. First, it denied that Khashoggi was killed, then it said he was killed in a fistfight and when the skeletons started tumbling out at an alarming pace, they arrested some people and blamed them for hatching a conspiracy which the Crown was not aware of. The House of Saud has brazenly gone ahead with an investment meet where business deals worth $50 billion were signed with companies from all around the world.

The House of Saud has never been known for its progressive traits and therefore the world was pleasantly surprised when its new ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, decided to let Saudi women drive and allowed music concerts to be held. The Western media was so enamoured by these cosmetic changes that the Crown Prince expected them to mask his authoritarian and brutal regime. That mask has come off. The investment summit has been boycotted by a slew of newspapers, channels and news agencies including CNN, Bloomberg and Financial Times.

One just wonders what would have happened if an Iranian dissident were to walk into an Iranian consulate on a foreign soil and dismembered inside the building. Your guess is as good as mine. But with Turkey and Saudi Arabia rolling down the road towards a possible collision, the rifts in the Sunni world will be interesting to watch. Right now, the Iranians must be chuckling, albeit quietly.

This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday

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