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The Return of the Kings: Saudi Arabia’s Squalid Court is Indicative of the Age

The current purge enveloping the Saudi state is not actually as unprecedented as some are making it out to be. Whilst it is easy to view the kingdom as a stagnant, immobile place where time has frozen forever in the 7th century, it’s entire establishment and upkeep as property of the Saudi family has occasionally had to be reasserted through alarmingly swift and violent shifts. Not long after the state was united in its modern form, the founding King Ibn Saud rewarded the fanatical soldiers who had conquered it for him by machine-gunning them en masse. In 1979 equally fanatical students seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and tried to spark an Islamic revolution. The state responded with ruthless violence, then further embraced the Wahhabi ideology espoused by the rebels themselves, as well as the nation’s religious establishment. More recently the state has seen off threats from Al Qaeda, and taken extraordinary brutal (and extraordinarily under-reported) measures against the oppressed Shia population in the East of the Country [1].

So if anything, the image of Saudi Arabia as a country where nothing can change, and the people live in a state of docile somnambulism is a mirage. And it is a mirage largely fashioned by the ruling family itself to justify their legitimacy over a supposedly monolithic society.

There are of course major differences between the current crisis and those that came before, and not in ways that should be seen as encouraging. Whilst the willingness to target members of the royal family and billionaires has been seen by some as a sign of Mohammed bin Salman’s reforming seriousness, it also displays a more squalid, fraternal-squabble character to his power-grab. Unlike the previous uprisings and confrontations, which all entailed battles of ideas and class warfare, this current fight is between equally corrupt members of a palace elite. The supposed reformer himself is famed for living a luxurious lifestyle at the cost of the state, as well as for masterminding the bellicose and inhumane foreign policy against his neighbours. The very fact that he is aiming for the throne indicates the futility of his reforming endeavour (if he’s even serious about it). The Saudi state is based upon a contract between religious extremism and nepotistic tribal dominance. There is only so far he can reform that without simply abolishing himself.

And yet, in our age of extrapolation, the relatively minor nature of this ‘revolution’ has not stopped it gaining a global significance. One of the apparent casualties of the coup is Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon. The joint Saudi citizen suddenly resigned in a trip to Riyadh, and then farcically went on to accuse Iran of excessive interference in Lebanon’s affairs. The act is guaranteed to  destabilise Lebanon, ensuring a major rift between Hezbollah and other elements of the Lebanese government [2]. Other losers from this coup have been Syrian opposition leaders the Saudis once supported but now want arrested [3].

And all this for a family squabble? It would seem that there is no state bin Salman will not undermine in order to win power in his own.

The silence and signs of tacit support this move has garnered from the Trump White House also speak to the devaluation of international relations currently shaping the region’s destiny. Theories about the US government’s acquiescence can include anything from its monomaniacal obsession with anything that might harm Iran, to its preoccupation with equally petty squabbles at home, to plain ignorance about the situation. It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that Trump was quite happy with any plan that got rid of his past critic Prince Al Waleed bin Talal [4].

Saudi Arabia has been notorious in recent years for it’s attempts to spread Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world, aiming to turn Islamic communities into copies of itself. This was one of the most far-reaching effects of the 1979 conflict between Saudi Arabia’s religious fanatics and its corrupt monarchy. But while this campaign has in many ways failed to make Wahhabism a dominant world force, the Saudi style has become normalised in another sense. The petty Ancien Regime court politics of personal slight and favouritism has moved from being an embarrassing vice of world politics to an unashamed driver of it. World-changing events from Brexit, to the triumph of the Trump Presidency, to the endless interventions in the Syrian Ragnarok, have all been driven less by a firm belief in executing popular will and more by transparent desires to rescue the credibility of atrophying parties and settle personal scores. One could look at President Barzani drafting the notion of an independence referendum for the Kurds, or the British Conservative party’s plotting out of Brexit proposals, and see political milestones that will shape the lives of millions being toyed with by shallow visionless Lilliputians acting like spoiled princelings. It is an utter disgrace that such important issues as the future of Europe and the Kurdish question are being decided by such shallow, small-minded types. Only amid this return to personal, monarchic politics can a man like bin Salman be considered a statesman of note.

Notes.

[1] Robert Lacey (2010): Inside the Kingdom

[2] http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/things-go-bump-night-riyadh-1511882449

[3] https://www.mintpressnews.com/in-stunning-reversal-saudi-arabia-order-arrest-of-syrian-opposition-leaders/234136/

[4] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-prince-alwaleed-long-feud/

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