The Battle for the Saudi Royal Crown

Photograph Source: Qrmoo3 – CC BY-SA 4.0

The fear caused by the coronavirus outbreak is greater than that provoked by a serious war because everybody is in the front line and everybody knows that they are a potential casualty. The best parallel is the terror felt by people facing occupation by a hostile foreign army; even if, in the present case, the invader comes in the form of a minuscule virus.

The political consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are already vast because its advance, and the desperate measures taken to combat it, entirely dominate the news agenda and will go on doing so for the foreseeable future, although it is in the nature of this unprecedented event that nothing can be foreseen.

History has not come to a full stop because of the virus, however: crucial events go on happening, even if they are being ignored by people wholly absorbed by the struggle for survival in the face of a new disease. Many of these unrecognised but very real crises are taking place in the Middle East, the arena where great powers traditionally stage confrontations fought out by their local proxies.

Top of the list of critical new conflicts that have been overshadowed by the pandemic is the battle for the throne of Saudi Arabia: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), whose dwindling band of admirers describe him as “mercurial”, this month launched a sort of palace coup by arresting his uncle, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, and his cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, whom he displaced as crown prince in 2017.

The new purge of close relatives by MbS may be motivated by his wish to eliminate any potential rivals for the crown who might step forward upon the death of King Salman, his 84-year-old father. This need to settle the royal succession has become more urgent in the past few weeks because the US presidential election in November might see the crown prince lose an essential ally: Donald Trump, a man who has become increasingly discredited by his shambolic response to Covid-19, and who faces Joe Biden’s emergence as the likely Democratic candidate for the presidency.

Trump has been a vital prop for MbS, standing by him despite his role in starting an unwinnable war in Yemen in 2015 and his alleged responsibility for the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. MbS has denied personal involvement in the killing, but told PBS last year: “It happened under my watch. I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch.”

The record of misjudgements by MbS after he established himself as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia five years ago makes Inspector Clouseau seem like a strategist of Napoleonic stature by comparison. Every one of his initiatives at home and abroad has stalled or failed, from the endless and calamitous war in Yemen to the escalating confrontation with Iran that culminated in Tehran’s drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities last September.

The latest gamble by MbS is to break with Russia and flood the market with Saudi crude oil just as world demand is collapsing because of the pandemic’s economic impact. In living memory in the Middle East, only Saddam Hussein displayed a similar combination of hubris and erratic performance that inspired disastrous ventures such as the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 and of Kuwait in 1990.

I once asked a Russian diplomat knowledgeable about the workings of the Iraqi ruler’s inner circle why none of his senior lieutenants, some of whom were intelligent and well informed, had warned him against taking such idiotic decisions. “Because the only safe thing to do in those circles was to be 10 per cent tougher than the boss,” explained the diplomat. MbS reportedly shows similar impatience towards anybody critical of the latest cunning plan.

When it comes to the oil price war, the likelihood is that the Kremlin will have thought this through and Riyadh will not. Russian financial reserves are high and its reliance on imports less than during the last price conflict five years ago between the two biggest oil exporters. Inevitably, all the oil states in the Middle East are going to be destabilised, Iraq being a prime example because of its complete reliance on oil revenues. Iran, suffering from the worst outbreak of Covid-19 in the region, was already staggering under the impact of US sanctions.

In time, the Russians may overplay their hand in the region – as all foreign players appear to do when over-encouraged by temporary successes. For the moment, however, they are doing nicely: in Syria, the Russian-backed offensive of President Assad’s forces has squeezed the rebel enclave in Idlib without Turkey, despite all the belligerent threats of President Erdogan, being able to do much about it.

These developments might have provoked a stronger international reaction two months ago, but they are now treated as irrelevant sideshows by countries bracing themselves for the onset of the pandemic. It is easy to forget that only 10 weeks ago, the US and Iran were teetering on the edge of all-out war after the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was assassinated at Baghdad airport in a US drone strike. After ritualistic Iranian retaliation against two US bases, both sides de-escalated their rhetoric and their actions. Rather than drastically changing course, however, the Iranians were probably re-evaluating their strategy of pinprick guerrilla attacks by proxies on the US and its allies: this week, the US accused an Iranian-backed paramilitary group of firing rockets at an American base north of Baghdad, killing two Americans and one Briton. Iran has evidently decided that it can once again take the risk of harassing US forces.

Covid-19 is already changing political calculations in the Middle East and the rest of the world: a second term for President Trump looks much less likely than it did in February. The election of Biden, an archetypal member of the Washington establishment, might not change things much for the better, but it would restore a degree of normality.

Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere has always been less innovative in practice than his supporters and critics have claimed. Often, in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was surprisingly similar to that of Barack Obama. The biggest difference was Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal with Iran, but even there Trump relied on the “maximum pressure” of economic sanctions to compel the Iranians to negotiate. For all Trump’s bombast and jingoism, he has never actually started a war.

However, this is now changing in a way that nobody could have predicted, because in its political impact the pandemic is very like a war. The political landscape is being transformed everywhere by this modern version of the Great Plague. By failing to respond coherently to the threat and blaming foreigners for its spread, Trump is visibly self-isolating the US and undermining the hegemonic role it has played since the Second World War. Even if Biden is elected as the next president, the US will have lost its undisputed primacy in a post-pandemic world.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Weekend Edition
August 14, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Lights! Camera! Kill! Hollywood, the Pentagon and Imperial Ambitions.
Joseph Grosso
Bloody Chicken: Inside the American Poultry Industry During the Time of COVID
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: It Had to be You
H. Bruce Franklin
August 12-22, 1945: Washington Starts the Korean and Vietnam Wars
Pete Dolack
Business as Usual Equals Many Extra Deaths from Global Warming
Paul Street
Whispers in the Asylum (Seven Days in August)
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Predatory Capitalism and the Nuclear Threat in the Age of Trump
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
‘Magical Thinking’ has Always Guided the US Role in Afghanistan
Ramzy Baroud
The Politics of War: What is Israel’s Endgame in Lebanon and Syria?
Ron Jacobs
It’s a Sick Country
Eve Ottenberg
Trump’s Plan: Gut Social Security, Bankrupt the States
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Fake News
Jonathan Cook
How the Guardian Betrayed Not Only Corbyn But the Last Vestiges of British Democracy
Joseph Natoli
What Trump and the Republican Party Teach Us
Robert Fisk
Can Lebanon be Saved?
Brian Cloughley
Will Biden be Less Belligerent Than Trump?
Kenn Orphan
We Do Not Live in the World of Before
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Compromise & the Status Quo
Andrew Bacevich
Biden Wins, Then What?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Criminology of Global Warming
Michael Welton
Toppled Monuments and the Struggle For Symbolic Space
Prabir Purkayastha
Why 5G is the First Stage of a Tech War Between the U.S. and China
Daniel Beaumont
The Reign of Error
Adrian Treves – John Laundré
Science Does Not Support the Claims About Grizzly Hunting, Lethal Removal
David Rosen
A Moment of Social Crisis: Recalling the 1970s
Maximilian Werner
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf: Textual Manipulations in Anti-wolf Rhetoric
Pritha Chandra
Online Education and the Struggle over Disposable Time
Robert Koehler
Learning from the Hibakushas
Seth Sandronsky
Teaching in a Pandemic: an Interview With Mercedes K. Schneider
Dean Baker
Financing Drug Development: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us
Greta Anderson
Blaming Mexican Wolves for Livestock Kills
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Meaning of the Battle of Salamis
Mel Gurtov
The World Bank’s Poverty Illusion
Paul Gilk
The Great Question
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
Trump Doesn’t Want Law and Order
Martin Cherniack
Neo-conservatism: The Seductive Lure of Lying About History
Nicky Reid
Pick a Cold War, Any Cold War!
George Wuerthner
Zombie Legislation: the Latest Misguided Wildfire Bill
Lee Camp
The Execution of Elephants and Americans
Christopher Brauchli
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy…
Tony McKenna
The Truth About Prince Philip
Louis Proyect
MarxMail 2.0
Sidney Miralao
Get Military Recruiters Out of Our High Schools
Jon Hochschartner
Okra of Time
David Yearsley
Bringing Landscapes to Life: the Music of Johann Christian Bach