By Giancarlo Elia Valori*
The 32-year old Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who is the heir to Saudi Arabia’s throne, wants at first “to eradicate the roots of Islamic extremism” as soon as possible. This means that from now on the confrontation between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia will be downplayed from infra-Islamic clash of civilization to a normal and natural standard of regional warfare.
The openings made by Muhammad bin Salman – designated as Crown Prince by his father after many years – such as allowing women to drive are very clear signs that the al-Saud Kingdom does no longer want to be a fundamentalist island in the Middle East nor a silent partner of the United States or of other countries.
This implies the end of Sunni-Shiite clash of civilizations and the fact that Saudi Arabia agrees to set aside its traditional role as leader of an all-out struggle with the “Ali Sect” led by Iran.
Let us not be misled by the first reactions to the Saudi official statements.
The war against Qatar is primarily a fight against the “Muslim Brotherhoods” and the clash with a natural gas power, namely Qatar, against a necessarily oil power, namely Saudi Arabia.
Other economic cycles, other buyers, other geostrategic and military development lines between Al Thani’s Qatari Emirate and the al-Saud Kingdom.
Hence, from now on, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid a radical and global war throughout the Middle East to destabilize it and thus conquer the old and modern hegemony of Islam within the Greater Middle East.
No longer pan-Islamic dreams of glory, but the protection of the Saudi Kingdom’s national interest.
Hence there are two winners in the current fight: the first is Israel and hence the countries, excluding the United States, which want to reformulate their friendly presence throughout the old Fertile Crescent.
It is also worth noting that Prince al-Walid, arrested by Muhammad bin Salman, was a fierce enemy of the current US President.
It should be recalled that the United States led by President Donald J. Trump yielded to the “Sunni NATO” project, namely the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, led by the Pakistani General Raheel Sharif.
The “Sunni NATO” headquarters are located in Riyadh, which still implies a hard line obviously against Iran and India, as well as support to the fight against the Afghan Taliban.
And if the “Sunni NATO” were the project of a strategic and economic internationalization of petromonarchies, thus isolating Iran in a future ever less profitable oil market?
After the six Saudi Kings, from 1932 onward, Muhammad Bin Salman has inherited de facto power in the Kingdom by his father, Prince Nayef, thus replacing his half-brother who, however, is still a member of the clan holding true power in the Saudi family, the “Sudairy Seven”.
The current strong man of the Saudi regime, namely the Crown Prince, was raised to the rank of second in the line of succession, in the first half of 2015. In fact, he has become an important personality on the world scene when ten years ago he destabilized – probably permanently – the al-Qaeda network in the Saudi Kingdom and last year decided – together with his 55-year old cousin, Mohammed Bin Nayef – to exert the utmost pressure on the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a network of Shiites linked to Iran.
For the al-Saud Kingdom, closing the doors to Iran in its area of influence means to ensure a peaceful internationalization outside the regional Islamic universe, as well as to ensure the Kingdom’s permanent social and religious stability.
Hence the war between the Shi’a Iranian Republic and the Wahhabi and Sunni Kingdom is bound to keep the Greater Middle East a hot spot and try to control the routes in the Persian Gulf, while the perimeters of the new Middle East global security are redefined outside Syria and the Lebanon.
A system that the emerging power, namely the Russian Federation, will keep out of the US control lines, while Russia will further expand to Libya, the Lebanon and obviously to the rest of the Maghreb region, not to mention the Horn of Africa and Egypt.
This is a new redesign of the Western balance of powers towards the Russian and Chinese ones – a new system emerging in the new external, but now essential peripheral areas of the Greater Middle East.
Nevertheless there is an essential symbolic and political factor which should not be forgotten in the Shakespearean Royal Palace of Riyadh.
In fact, it is today that, after many years, Prince Muhammad bin Salman directly inherits the throne from his Father – also thanks to a legal-political institution established by King Salman in 2017, namely the “Allegiance Council”, designed to make the process of succession in the Saudi Kingdom smoother and more orderly.
Born on August 31, 1985, the heir to the throne Prince Mohammed is now 37 and has already been the youngest Defence Minister in the world.
Even today, however – considering the strong autonomy of Mohammed Bin Salman – the dynastic institution founded in 2007 seems to be not yet fully operational.
Mohammed Bin Salman replaced his cousin in June 2017, as part of a major transformation of the political and strategic system inside the Saudi Royal Family.
The whole network of high-profile “corrupt people” or “traitors” arrested in an anti-corruption sweep by the future Saudi King, is made up of 49 senior officers, Princes and Ministers – a police operation devastating the entire old system of political, financial and strategic equilibria that characterized the old pact of “petrodollar laundering”, which marked the union between the United States and Saudi Arabia when Henry Kissinger negotiated the whole operation, in perfect secrecy, at the end of the “Yom Kippur War” .
The choice of Muhammad as heir to the throne, upon King Salman’s proposal, was accepted by 31 out of the 34 members of the Allegiance Council.
Hence the policy line is now clear: the Kingdom wants to govern two parallel evolutionary lines: the exit from the oil-dependent economy, which Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has envisaged in his Vision 2030 program, and the creation of regional hegemony outside oil dependence from the United States, which is now autonomous from the Middle East oil thanks to its shale oil.
In its already known project, the basis for Saudi Arabia’s future hegemony regards the acceptance of two new factors: the US future energy autonomy with its “oil and shale gas” and hence Saudi Arabia’s exit from a guaranteed military and economic balance with the United States, as well as the historic collapse of oil barrel prices – oil which, according to the Saudi leaders, must be entirely left to Shiite poverty and hence to Iran.
Hence the “Vision 2030” program wants to reduce the Saudi dependence on oil and obviously the dependence of the national economy on the public sector.
Moreover, the issue lies in making the Royal Family preserve its ability to distribute selective, but important resources to the most politically important walks of Saudi population – on a case-by case basis – to support the regime.
There is no more money for luxuries. The Saudi government’s money must be spent to preserve people’s support that is currently no longer guaranteed.
In fact, without panem et circenses, it is hard to imagine – in the future – a reasonable stability of the Saudi Royal Family. And panem et circenses will be ever less a burden on US accounts.
The future dollar equilibria and the end of the Euro as a global currency, as well as the end of the use of petrodollars by Russia and China, make us think that the new ruling class in Saudi Arabia will be ever less pro-USA and ever more multilateral.
And it is the Royal Family as such – not in the variety of its many groups – who shall bear responsibility for funds to masses and for public charity that shall increasingly bear the costs of “liberalization”, of low wages and of the deprivation of union, political and clan protections.
In fact, if Saudi Arabia does not plan its future “public charity” it will end up like the largely liberalized Lebanon or like the States that, after the crisis in the grain and food commodity market of 2008-2010, had to face the riots that – manipulated by others – later turned into the “Arab Springs”.
In this case the probable solution of the future King Mohammed will be greater democratization of choices to replace a reduction in income.
A “European” solution.
The Saudi “Vision 2030” project also implies liberalization specifically aimed at creating jobs and opportunities for companies in the service sector and in the tourist and entertainment business, in particular.
But who are the “purged” of the new Saudi regime?
They are 49 people, eleven Princes, four Ministers of the new regime that Muhammad Bin Salman – the first heir designated by his father, King Salman, to rule Saudi Arabia – has agreed to put aside forever.
There are clear signs of what will happen shortly.
In this context, it is worth recalling the very important role played by the marginalization of Al Waleed bin Talal in the new Saudi financial and political context.
Forbes reported he has a personal fortune of over 17 billion US dollars.
The investment of Prince Al Walid, the elder son of King Abdullah Abdulaziz and of Riad El Sohl, the Lebanese Prime Minister in the 1950s, are spread in the main Western areas: Twitter, Lyft, Eurodisney, Twentieth Century Fox, a tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is the highest in the world and was supposed to open in 2019.
He sold a yacht to Donald Trump, whom he hates, but has still significant investment in Apple, News Corp., as well as the ownership of the Savoy Hotel in London and the MBC satellite TV network. Other purged officials are the Head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, Amr al Dabbagh, as well as Ibrahim Assaf, the former Minister of Finance, and finally Bakr Bin Laden, the Head of the Binladen Group, a well-known real estate and investment group.
Other purged officials include another former Saudi Minister of Finance, Adel Fakieh, a reformer from day one, as well as Khaled al Tuwajiri, a manager of the Saudi traditional economic sector.
They are all accused of having embezzled public funds to transfer them to their private accounts.
A source of enrichment and “visible consumption” of the al-Saud extended family, as Veblen would have said.
Now the family is no longer a single one and the Saudi government will have a less corporatist and, above all, less personalist logic.
This Saudi “cleansing” operation marks the end of the old link between Arab internationalization and Sunni jihadist terrorism. Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms also marks the Saudi Kingdom’s closure to the flows of the market-world, while there is the re-emergence of the clash between Shiites and Sunnis in a new Middle East, where Saudi Arabia has already established a new relationship with Russia and Israel and decided to effectively follow Xi Jinping’s model, which involves a change of the regime through a fight against “corruption”.
It was one of the world’s economic leaders, namely al-Walid Bin Talal, to agree to support Gaddafi before his end in 2011, while the shadows were already casting over the Libyan leader.
In fact, al-Walid ibn Talal attempted to sell one of its A340 Airbus for 120 million US dollars through a Jordanian broker, Daad Sharaf, who was very close to Gaddafi.
Daad Sharaf also had to receive a 6.5 million Us dollar “brokerage” fee, but Prince Al Waleed sold to others the airplane probably already used to carry the Lockerbie attacker back to Libya.
A network in which business mixed dangerously with the Saudi geopolitical operations – at a time when, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia supported the vague “fight against terrorism” and, on the other, fomented it.
There is no need to recall here the long and very significant story of the relationship between the old Chief of the intelligence services, Turki al-Faisal, a very strong representative of the “Sudairy Seven” and of the network that led part of the Saudi establishment to play the crazy, but not senseless card of al-Qaeda.
Furthermore, for al-Walid there are also charges – already known in the global financial circles – of corruption, bribery, embezzlement and insider trading.
The strong reaction of the Royal Family currently in power against the part of al-Saud members who participated in the crazy rush of the “high” oil price phase – when everything was possible, both gains and illegality, as well as economic growth and frauds – is a very effective way to win support from the Saudi people, fed up with the idle rentier or “opulent ruling class” attitudes of some members of the Royal Family.
Probably the end of the cycle between Sunni jihad and growth of the Kingdom will be the point in which the Greater Middle East will be redesigned: a de facto alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, both united by the Shiite danger, between the Golan Heights for Israel and South Yemen for Saudi Arabia; a new alliance between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Russia; China’s entry in the region; the new US positioning and obviously the often ridiculous irrelevance of the European Union.
The system of the future King Muhammad – after the strange death of Prince Mansur Bin Muqrin in the region of Asir, Saudi Arabia, the husband of a daughter of old King Fahd and later Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, as well as son of Muqrin al-Abdulaziz, who had been Crown Prince from January to April 2015 – will be a political balance in which keeping the country united and preserving the link between the Royal House and the Saudi people will be the beacon of the monarchy.
No longer a predatory ruling class, also in relation to the West, but an elite who wants the Kingdom’s political expansion, as well as its economic transformation and hence the end of the oil-dependent economy – a regime that wants to play all its strategic cards, well aware that a King (the United States) is leaving and another King (the Russian Federation) is entering the scene in the region.
And also aware that Israel is now a well-acquired fact in the Middle East.
About the author:
*Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France.
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy