By Vinod Saighal
October 24, 2018
Jamal Khashoggi assassination, Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Yamani, Oil production, Donald Trump, Russia
Look at the strengths of Saudi Arabia today. It has been the largest oil producer for decades often stabilising prices by raising production. It still has one of the largest petroleum reserves. It has been the bedrock of OPEC. In the early days when oil prices first shot up after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Sheikh Yamani and Iran’s oil minister Jamshed Amouzegar were the most sought-after people of the day. They were also some of the most powerful.
Iran’s might has diminished but the Saudis still remain at the top. ARAMCO is the most prized company in the world. Since the end of WW II and even earlier the Saudis were strongly allied, first with the British and then the US. Following Britain’s pullback from east of Suez after the illconsidered Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt consequent to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal the Americans took over the British mantle.
Russia showed its hand later by providing the military wherewithal to Egypt. It emboldened the latter to strike across the Canal and in the opening days destroy the entire Israeli counterattacking armoured brigade. It was decimated because the surprise of dug-in antitank, shoulder-fired missiles was a new phenomenon for not only the Israelis; the militaries of the world took note.
Russia has now made its presence felt even more strongly in the Middle East by moving in decisively to back Syria. Bashar Assad, to the chagrin of the Turks, Saudis, the Western world and others is consolidating his hold over Syria having taken large parts back from ISIS and other groups opposing him. The Russians have strengthened their naval base on the Mediterranean coast and their ward militarily. Even Israel seems to be changing tack after its fierce opposition to Iranian presence.
The Russians could make some accommodation once the residual threat to Assad is finally removed. On the face of it the Iranians who made a major contribution to the victory would have no role to play and lose justification for their presence. Whether full and final withdrawal takes place remains to be seen. The developments to its north have furthered the importance of Saudi Arabia to the US and its western allies. Massive arms acquisitions totaling over the years to hundreds of billions of dollars have helped the US and British economies no end, especially the latter.
Lately however it is Donald Trump who has taken to the Saudis in a far bigger way than has been the case since the two Gulf Wars. The US continues to provide precision-guided weapons, missiles, antimissile weapons and intelligence to the Saudi air force in Yemen. It makes no difference to Saudis that the casualties are mounting by the day. As long as they have the backing of the AngloAmericans they are immune to international criticism. And that is what gives abundant confidence to the House of Saud that in addition to all else having signed another $110 billion arms deal with the US, their standing is rock solid.
The geostrategic power play in the Middle East today makes their position almost unassailable. Or that is what they feel. They may be wrong in their reasoning. The blatant assassination in Turkey of the well-known critic Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad of 15 men flown in a special plane once it was known that Khashoggi would present himself at their consulate to apply for a marriage license has shaken the Saudi dynasty to its foundations. Currently the heat is on Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) the crown prince born in August 1985.
Executed with indecent haste, practically all his disastrous ventures could haunt the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a long time to come. The crown prince’s crowning folly will trouble his father King Salman no end. His misadventures will diminish the heft and standing of Saudi Arabia whichever way one looks at it. The attack on Yemen involving Saudi Arabia’s UAE allies has no end in sight. Beside the international condemnation the cost to the Saudi exchequer has been high. It is more than likely that Washington and London will be forced to stop providing further military aid and intelligence. The Houthis are nowhere near being defeated.
The party backed by the Saudis is hardly able to stand on its own feet. How then will the Saudis end the misadventure? Whatever they do the Iranians will make greater advances, at the very least strengthen their position. The UAE allies will not continue the war. They will feel let down and embarrassed in front of their own people. Criticism against them will increase. The Saudi government has already lost face. It will be extremely difficult for them to pull out. The US will demand a stiff price.
The Saudis will, in all probability be obliged to pay heavy reparations by world opinion to rebuild what they have destroyed. Pressure from the UN and Western allies will mount. The ultimatum to Qatar was brazen. Had MSB consulted impartial senior advisers – the most able ones have been sidelined – they would have advised against the move. The Crown Prince did not realize that Qatar pushed to the wall would straightaway move towards Iran. Financially the Emir of Qatar is no lightweight. He will certainly not shut down Al Jazeera, a channel that is well-respected around the world and can hold its own against BBC and CNN among others. Highranking Americans are often seen on interviews on the channel. Turkey has moved closer to Qatar much to the chagrin of the Saudis. For them there does not seem to be a silver lining on the horizon.
The Jamal Khashoggi assassination has received some of the widest coverage in memory because of its brutality. King Salman has reportedly curtailed the powers of his son. The last word on the affair is yet to be written. Meanwhile it is becoming increasingly clear that the House of Saud may be moving into the twilight zone notwithstanding the continued backing of Trump and the US establishment no matter the extent of criticism in the media. King Salman and his advisers may be thinking that by sacrificing the son the incident will fade away till the next crisis confronts the world.
That is not likely to happen. The cause and effect immediately come into play. When MBS is eventually pushed aside the question will automatically arise as to why King Salman broke with tradition that had allowed the royal family to sink their differences and stand together in times of grave crises – such as the present one to elevate his son. He would surely have known what he was like. Mohammad bin Nayef Al Saud, a prominent member of the House of Saud is the nephew of King Salman and the grandson of the founder who would normally have succeeded. It was the biggest faux pas of the monarchy in recent years. A few unnamed royals have reportedly started calling for a change in the country’s leadership, something that was bound to surface. The pleas will become stronger in the coming weeks. What could have saved King Salman and perhaps the House of Saud was if the royals had held together. MBS destroyed that unity in one of his earliest acts by imprisoning several of those he thought were his strongest challengers and by incarcerating hundreds of others in the Ritz Carlton for months accusing them of corruption. Many of them were reportedly tortured and made to pay up billions of dollars to escape from their gilded prison.
A sizeable number reportedly still languish there. Among the incarcerated royals was the richest and highly respected Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud a businessman, investor, philanthropist, and a member of the Saudi royal family. MBS conveyed to his people that he was ending corruption among the high and mighty. It escaped him that he had bought a yacht for $500 million and then reportedly a chateau in France for a princely sum. The thought must have occurred to him that this fact would become public. By then he had thrown caution to the winds. Why King Salman did not intervene remains a mystery. He must have thought that he would let his son consolidate his power. Whatever he may have thought, at his age and with his experience he would have known that his son was impulsive – a fatal condition for yielders of power.
By bringing down the image of the royal family he was allowing its foundations to be destroyed. He will have to face the consequences. Inevitably when the edifice starts shaking violently it collapses. The collapse of the established dynasty in Saudi Arabia is not in the interest of the world. It would lead to unmanageable turmoil in the Middle East and well beyond. His US backers must urge King Salman to take steps to stabilise the monarchy. These would include immediately taking away all of MBS’ powers. He should be exiled with his immediate family and retinue. His security in exile should be guaranteed by the US. The status of the much abler Prince Nayef should be restored as the next in line of succession. All business people and royals incarcerated by MBS should be released and charges dropped.
Thereafter MBS’ positive initiatives – easing of restrictions on women and others – should be continued as they went down well with ordinary people. Gradually, transparency and steps towards democracy should be introduced.
Vinod Saighal is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and author of Third Millennium Equipoise.