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Something Is Wrong In the House of Saud

By Shaukat Qadir

January 21, 2016

Much before the Arab Spring there were signs of unrest in the Saudi Kingdom. Periodically, Arab Bedouins have risen against the autocratic and often repressive kingdom that rules them. In fact, Osama bin Laden’s Saudi citizenship was revoked in 1992 because of his anti-kingdom movement, even as the Kingdom continued to fund al Qaeda. The House of Saud has always conducted diplomacy with guile and subtlety not like the proverbial bull in a China shop. Since the Arab Spring, however, signs of desperation seem to be increasingly visible in the conduct of the Saudi government. Their conduct is becoming increasingly uncharacteristic.

Weeks after the attack in Paris last year, BND (German Intelligence) made public a report saying: “Saudi Arabia had adopted an impulsive policy of intervention. In his article, ‘Prince Mohammed bin Salman: naive, arrogant Saudi prince is playing with fire’, Patrick Cockburn adds, “It portrayed Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (our most recent visitor) – the powerful 29-year-old favourite son of the aging King Salman, who is suffering from dementia — as a political gambler who is destabilising the Arab world through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.”

Such public comments are not usual for intelligence agencies. Therefore, this release must obviously have been sanctioned by the German government though the foreign office later castigated it. The incident expresses the extent of European concern over where the US was leading them and how far they should go to allay Saudi fears. As a consequence, the Saudis have become even more desperate. Executing the Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr and 46 dissenters finally drew the world’s attention to what Saudis were up to in provoking Iran.

Even as Prince Muhammed assures the world that Saudis are not seeking a war with Iran, the Saudis put four Iranians on trial for espionage/terrorism, which is likely to result in death. Since these individuals have been imprisoned for a couple of years, this decision at this juncture smacks of deliberate provocation. In the region, Saudis are engaged in overt aggressive conflict in Syria by creating the Army of Conquest, which consists primarily of al Qaeda affiliates and in Yemen against the Houthis. While neither of these ventures is likely to succeed, once again the vacuum created helps only al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) all the while also upping the ante against Iran.

To support this regional aggression, it needs extra-regional alliances. Thus the Saudi 34-nation Islamic military alliance to which Pakistan has been added without its knowledge and the flurry of visits to woo Pakistan. On the other hand, rumours are afloat that Saudis are likely to privatise the world’s most valuable company, Aramco. If this does not catch the west’s interest, nothing will. If so, the question that begs an answer is: why? The answer is simple: it is a question of the survival of the House of Saud. The Kingdom is threatened from within.

The unrest has been growing for years now and is becoming increasingly visible. Women have been granted the right to vote but want equality. The Bedouin has been bought off time and again but now they want to be politically empowered. Even as the Arab Spring was being suppressed, I warned the Americans in an article that this fire will not be put out; embers will alight again, and again, till they overpower all. This is a very basic lesson of history. That time is imminent now, and the House of Saud knows it.

Military victories, however insignificant, in Syria and Yemen might win some popular support. Raising the bogie of a Shia threat from Iran, spreading Wahabiism and Salafism might assuage Saudi citizens for the time being, but not forever. One example that comes immediately to mind is that of Oliver Cromwell, who rebelled against a king and later executed him at a time when it was still believed that kings were the creations of Divinity. Even the rumours of privatising Aramco have failed to evoke the quality and degree of interest that the Saudis expected it would. And why should it? If the BND (and the German government), Cockburn and I can see it, surely others can smell something wrong.

In Pakistan, we tend to think of Saudis solely as the custodians of Muslim holy places and, therefore, sacrosanct. The truth is that the residents of that land are Arabs, not Saudis. And, the holiness of the land does not make all its residents holy. We tend to accuse the US of all our ills, and there is little doubt that the US has wrought a lot of ill the world over. But in our case, apart from our own errors, if there are a people responsible for our becoming steadily extremist in nature, it is the Saudis, not Arabs.

They have also helped us out occasionally but the scales are heavily tilted towards the ills we imported from them. So far, our government is acting sensibly. Our leaders might be personally indebted to the Saudis but nations are not hostage to personal debts of individuals, however powerful they might be.

Shaukat Qadir is a retired brigadier. He is also former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)