Saudi’s crown prince claims to be a reformer – hasty military moves and corruption crackdown may be attempts to mask failures.
By Dilip Hiro*
In 2013, a 28-year-old Saudi prince described himself simply as “lawyer” to a visiting BBC journalist. On 23 January 2015 he was appointed Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, overseeing the third highest defense budget after the United States and China. At the end of that month, he was named head of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs and, two months later, became chairman of the Public Investment Fund after its transfer from the Finance Ministry. On 15 April 2017 he was promoted to deputy crown prince and two weeks later appointed head of the Supreme Council of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, the globe’s largest petroleum corporation. To cap it all, on 21 June, he was elevated to crown prince at the expense of his 56-year-old cousin.
Meet Prince Muhammad bin Salman – overambitious and cunning, a heartbeat away from succeeding his 81-year-old father King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, reportedly suffering from dementia – leading his own Game of Thrones in the Desert Kingdom.
A young, inexperienced heir to the Arab world’s most powerful throne, Bin Salman is consolidating his power by crushing potential centers of power outside the Royal Court. The need is urgent after his string of failures, including initiatives in Yemen and Qatar, and all-consuming, counterproductive hatred of Shia-majority Islamic Republic of Iran.
He is the first of six sons born to King Salman’s third and last wife, Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan, nearly 20 years junior to her husband who ascended the throne on 23 January 2015. According to Bin Salman, his father made him read a book every week, and his mother ordered staff to arrange extracurricular courses and fieldtrips. Unlike his four elder half-brothers who enrolled at Western universities, he obtained his undergraduate law degree in 2007 from King Saud University in Riyadh. He proudly describes himself as a member of the generation that grew up playing video games.
Since becoming deputy crown prince, Bin Salman colluded with his father to undermine designated Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef with a series of ill-disguised rebuffs. The climax came on 21 June. The monarch stripped Bin Nayef of his long-held post of Interior Minister, passing this on to 33-year-old Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud, who lacks law enforcement, intelligence or counterterrorism experience.
On 4 November the father-son duo struck with startling speed to cut short potential challenges to their power grab. First, King Salman decreed a new anti-corruption committee, with powers to arrest and confiscate corruptly obtained assets, under Bin Salman. He reshuffled the cabinet, replacing the Sandhurst-trained Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah as commander of the National Guard, made up of tribes loyal to the House of Saud, with a Bin Salman loyalist. As head of the anti-corruption committee, Bin Salman immediately detained princes, ministers and others – 208 in all – in the gilded prison of Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton. Detainees were prohibited from contacting their lawyers.
The timing is related to the growing list of Bin Salman’s misadventures. Within two months of becoming defense minister, he spearheaded an air blitzkrieg in the Yemen civil war against Shia Houthis controlling the capital of Sana’a and large parts of the republic. He did so without a clear overarching strategy. A headstrong unilateralist, he did not coordinate his campaign with the National Guard and the Interior Ministry. As it happened, National Guard commander Prince Mutaib was out of the country. He is now confined at the Ritz-Carlton.
Bin Salman boasted that the Houthis would be defeated within six months. Just as the Saudi-led air war was picking up in Yemen, he departed for a two-week vacation in the Maldives, renting a private island with a six-star luxury hotel and nearby island for his entourage of bodyguards and advisers. For entertainment, he hired A-list celebrities like Shakira and Rihanna. The cost of this holiday: $8 million. It’s hard to reconcile such profligacy with a man chairing the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, charged with reforms to tackle low petroleum prices, and now heading an anti-corruption committee.
At the outset Bin Salman had ruled out putting Saudi boots on the ground in Yemen. He had failed to learn a basic military strategy: to seize control of enemy territory, a ground offensive must follow an air campaign. As a result, his military intervention in the Arab world’s poorest nation has turned into an embarrassing quagmire, draining the Saudi treasury by $6 billion a month. More than 8,650 Yemenis have been killed, with millions left homeless and the republic’s infrastructure destroyed.
His next misadventure occurred after he organized 60 Sunni Muslim heads of state to attend an address on countering radical Islamist terrorism by US President Donald Trump in Riyadh on 20 May. Two weeks later Bin Salman breached Sunni solidarity with a hasty move against Qatar. At his initiative, Saudi Kingdom and its three allies not only broke relations with Qatar and imposed a trade blockade, but also presented a set of demands, including some that challenge the emirate’s sovereign rights – preeminent among these a requirement that Qatar terminate diplomatic ties with Iran. The list also challenged Turkey’s sovereignty, including the call to “Immediately terminate the Turkish military presence in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar.” Unsurprisingly, Turkey and Iran moved to supply food and other supplies to Qatar even as Doha continues to prepare to host the 2022 World Cup Final.
Bin Salman overlooked that Qatar is a key partner in Washington’s war against the Islamic State – host to 10,000 troops and 100 warplanes and drones at Al-Udeid Air Base, 25 miles southwest of Doha, The failure of his move against Qatar was obvious to all yet he suppressed even muted criticism.
The locus of Bin Salman’s animus is Iran. On 1 May, an Al Arabiya TV interviewer asked if he saw a possibility for direct talks with Iran, which he portrays as the puppet-master of Shia Houthis in Yemen. Responding, he referred to a Shia belief of the 12th Hidden Imam, who disappeared around 868 AD and is expected to return as a messiah, to bring justice to the world: “How can I come to an understanding with someone, or a regime, that has an anchoring belief built on an extremist ideology?” he asked. He then asserted that Iran aims to “control the Islamic world” – even though Shias represent only 15 percent of Muslims worldwide.
In late October, Bin Salman blamed the 1979 revolution in Iran for turning Saudi Arabia into a hardline Islamic state. He seemed woefully ignorant of his kingdom’s recent history. The most serious domestic ideological challenge to the Saudi regime came on 20 November 1979, the eve of the Islamic New Year. Hundreds of armed radical Wahhabi insurgents, led by Juheiman bin Muhammad al Utaiba, seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In the two-week battle to retake the sacred site, 127 of the 10,000 troops were killed, as were 25 worshippers and 117 insurgents.
After crushing the most serious armed threat to the House of Saud since its 1932 founding, the regime examined Juheiman’s criticisms, which were subtly endorsed by Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz bin Baz. In a series of social and educational steps, King Khalid and his successor King Fahd closed a gap that had developed over decades between its administration and the puritanical Wahhabi doctrine. The regime closed cinemas and theaters, and banned publication of pictures of unveiled women in newspapers and books. Such bans were not imposed in post-1979 Iran where, for example, state television employs women anchors.
Bin Salman unveiled more drama on 4 November by holding the allegedly corrupt elite in Riyadh’s five-star hotel. Succeeding scenes should reveal the charges leveled against the detainees and the modalities of their trials, the like of which have not been conducted in the Desert Kingdom before.
*Dilip Hiro is the author of A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East (Interlink Publishing Group, Northampton, MA). Read an excerpt. His latest and 36th book is The Age of Aspiration: Power, Wealth, and Conflict in Globalizing India (The New Press, New York). Read an excerpt.
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