By Zayd Alisa
The death of King Abdullah, on Jan 23, sparked shock and fear on the domestic front. In essence, he was truly an absolute monarch, adopting a hands-on approach since 1995, after King Fahd’s debilitating stroke. He was also widely perceived as the king who successfully not merely helped Saudi Arabia in 2011 weather the storm of the Arab spring that swept through the Arab World – erupting even in Saudi Arabia – but also spearheading the counter-revolutions to shore up tyrannical regimes in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia while shielding his own backyard by invading and occupying Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia’s staunchest ally, the US held its breath as crown prince Salman – who is 79 and widely believed to be in poor health – acceded to the throne, promoting his half brother Muqrin from deputy crown prince to heir to the throne. Salman did not shy away from tackling head-on the thorny issue of determining which of the grandsons of Abdulaziz, usually called Ibn Saud – the founder of modern Saudi Arabia – should be the first in line to the throne, by rapidly naming Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN) deputy crown prince, effectively passing the crown to the younger generation.
This was music to US ears, prompting Obama on January 28 to lead an unusually large bipartisan delegation consisting of diehard backers of the Saudi regime – James Baker, John McCain and most surprisingly the CIA head John Brennan – to pay their official respects on Abdullah’s death, but in reality to congratulate Salman for appointing their most trusted prince, fervently welcomed by Obama in the oval office in December 2012 and more recently in December 2014, when he was only an interior minister.
The Saudi regime has been a lynchpin in the execution of US geopolitical strategies. This enduring relationship, nonetheless, took a huge nosedive – the worst since 9/11 – thanks to Obama’s sudden remarkable change of heart: not only pulling back from launching US airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for its alleged chemical attack, but far more devastatingly, actively pursuing diplomatic negotiations to resolve Iran’s highly contentious nuclear issue. In response, Saudi Arabia’s ex-intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan BbS, ominously warned EU diplomats in October 2013, that Saudi Arabia was hell-bent on scaling back its co-operation with the US on the all-important issue of arming Syrian rebels.
The Saudi regime has made no secret that its overriding priority was to counter, if not reverse what it perceives as Iran’s highly perilous influence. As a result, it has worked tirelessly since 2003 to overthrow the Shia-led government in Iraq. In 2011, however, Syria rather than Iraq became Saudi Arabia’s principle target for regime change, believing that removing Basher Al Assad’s Alawite regime would break the backbone of the Iranian influence.
The Saudi regime began pumping a torrent of funding, arming, logistical support and salaries – which was acknowledged in October 2014 by the US vice president Joe Biden – to extremist Wahhabi Salafi groups in Syria. This support did not only turn the Jabhat Al Nusra (JN) group into one of the most potent killing machines in Syria, but also dramatically revived, if not superseded Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI’s) – so that a relabelled Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIS/ISIL, currently IS) has procured power and influence at levels that surmount its peak strength in 2006-07.
But as ISIS launched its offensive in January 2014, seizing Fallujah and parts of Ramadi – capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province – King Abdullah scrambled to toe the US line, dispatching MbN in February 2014 to seek US unwavering support. The US explicitly demanded: First, MbN takes over immediately the overall supervision of the increasingly combustible Syrian and Iraqi files from BbS. Second, Saudi Arabia must shift its priority to covering its tracks by not only forcefully denouncing ISIS and JN but actively introducing stiffer measures demonstrating that it is genuinely combating terrorism. Third, Saudi Arabia must revert to its traditional style of discretely buying off adversaries. And more urgently, consolidating its internal front by passing the crown to MbN.
Within a week, king Abdullah issued a decree, imposing harsh and unprecedented punishment on those who fight in conflicts outside the kingdom or join terrorist groups. The Interior Ministry headed by MbN moved rapidly in March 2014, not only naming those terrorist groups as the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, Al Qaida in the Arabia peninsula AQAP and JN, but also chillingly broadening the scope of offences that are categorised as terrorism, incorporating any form of peaceful criticism of the political or radical Wahhabi Salafi religious establishment – whose ideology and fatwas provide religious legitimacy to both the Saudi regime and ISIS. And to add credibility to these highly unusual declarations, the Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al ash-Sheikh in May 2014, gave his ringing endorsement and scathingly denounced ISIS.
The next generation
Among Ibn Saud’s 35 sons, the most formidable family group is the Sudairi Seven – after their mother Hassa Al Sudairi, who was Ibn Saud’s favourite wife. They have resolutely strived to get to the throne and tenaciously hold on to it. So, it was undeniably a gigantic achievement by Abdullah in 1982 to force the hand of King Fahd – who was the first Sudairi king – in appointing him crown prince. Consequently, Abdullah’s uppermost priority after acceding to the throne in 2005, was establishing an allegiance council in April 2006 – which included all the factions of Ibn Saud’s family – a council principally designed as an effective instrument enabling Abdullah to counter the Sudairi bloc by galvanising support from marginalised factions. But, Abdullah did honour his pledge of appointing a Sudairi crown prince – first Sultan, then Nayef, and finally Salman.
All along, Abdullah knew that if Salman became king, he would certainly name either his full brother Ahmed or far more likely MbN as crown prince. Hence, to bolster the chances of his son, Metab, becoming crown prince, Abdullah took an unprecedented and highly controversial step in March 2014 – just one day before Obama’s visit – of appointing Muqrin, the youngest of Ibn Saud’s sons, deputy crown prince. He aimed thereby to kill three birds with one stone: first, preventing Obama from raising the issue of succession to the throne; second, bypassing the remaining sons of Ibn Saud, particularly Ahmed; third, fatally undermining MbN’s chances, by stripping Salman of his right to choose his own crown prince, while defiantly appointing his staunchest ally, who would eventually return the favour – since it was inconceivable for Muqrin to ever become crown prince, given the racist attitude towards him arising from his Yemeni roots on his mother’s side.
King Abdullah’s drawn out illness provided Salman with the golden opportunity to prepare the ground for an emphatic Sudairi come-back, giving MbN the green light to secure the internal front – by ratcheting up sectarian strife, by launching a deadly raid on Al-Awamiyah on December 20, 2014, targeting the Shia majority in the oil-rich Eastern province, and effectively striving to stave off an internal uprising in the Sunni heartland by trumpeting the patently deceitful myth that Saudi Arabia is still the guardian of Sunni Islam and above all, is heavily engaged in combating an existential threat posed by the Shia, namely Iran.
Next he senr out a menacingly unmistakable message that the new order is steadfastly determined to savagely crack down on any form of peaceful freedom of expression, by brazenly carrying out the barbarous punishment of publicly flogging Raif Badawi 50 times – for simply setting up a blog to promote free expression and criticising the pernicious role of the radical religious establishment – on the same day the entire world denounced the terrorist attacks on freedom of expression in Paris.
Salman decided that it was too risky, at least at this stage, to rock the boat by ousting Muqrin. Nevertheless he sought to give Metab a taste of his father’s medicine by appointing MbN deputy crown prince. And to add insult to injury, he ripped apart his power base by removing him from leading the special Royal National Guard and dismissing his father’s chief of the Royal court, Khalid Al-Tuwaijri. On January 29, he completed the drubbing by not merely humiliatingly routing his two brothers – Mishaal, governor of Mecca and Turki who governed the capital Riyadh – but also demoting him to a member of the new political and security council headed by his arch foe MbN.
Beyond doubt, Salman’s deliberate marginalisation of non-Sudairis is fuelling the long-simmering power struggle between the feuding younger generations of the House of Saud to perilously destabilising levels.
Even though, the US left absolutely no doubt about its unequivocal support of the Saudi regime, however, Obama’s unflinching determination to visit Riyadh, hot on the heels of Saudi Arabia’s defiant refusal to heed US calls to stop the brutal flogging of Raif Badawi and Salman’s unveiled assertion of sticking with the same ancient 70-years old policies, have laid bare a chillingly inescapable reality. Successive US governments have not only been utterly disingenuous when claiming they are actively pushing for reform, but far worse, their real message to the tyrannical regime in Riyadh is ‘do whatever it takes to crush any form of peaceful dissent and the US will bend over backwards to cover their tracks.’ In US eyes, having an absolute monarch gaining legitimacy from an extremist and backward religious establishment is the best way of serving its interest, securing low oil prices, money reinvested in US banks, thousands of jobs in the arms industry and an immensely lucrative market – albeit soaked with innocent blood.
It is high time for the American people to cast their decisive vote on the US’ implacable complicity in covering up Saudi Arabia’s abhorrent record of escalating human rights violations, of exporting its extremist medieval Wahhabi Salafi ideology and radical bloodthirsty jihadists, of promoting radical preachers of death-giving religious legitimacy to monstrous atrocities against Shias, Christians, Jews and moderate Sunnis, of arming and funding ISIS, JN, and the Taliban and of spreading tyranny and dictatorship in the Middle East.