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Purges, interrogation, claims of torture, accusations of treason, suspicion of murder, an insane war in Yemen and ruinous plans for a “reformed” kingdom, all supported by the US and the west and an often fawning media. So what’s new?
Poor Mohammed bin Salman is surely getting a bum rap. Far from being a frightening and uncontrollable new autocrat in the Gulf – purging his closest relatives, locking up his rivals, and embarking on a ruinous conflict in Yemen – he is following a familiar path in the history of his country. Saudi Arabia was ever a place of coup and counter-coup, of Islamist fury and fear of assassination. Come on, folks, let’s give MbS a break.
Sure, he’s just banged up his uncle, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, and the cousin he deposed as crown prince in 2017 and put under house arrest, Mohammed bin Nayef, along with Mohammed’s half-brother Nawaf and a clutch of other family members and supposedly loyal retainers. The current interior minister, Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, was also detained but then released after questioning over the weekend.
The royal family has said nothing – it has certainly issued no denial – but there is much talk, as there always is among the dictatorships of the Middle East, of a plot to overthrow the effective ruler of the kingdom, of an impending coup d’etat, and of rank treachery towards MbS himself.
Intriguingly, Reuters quoted a “source” in the region saying that Crown Prince Mohammed had accused the new detainees “of conducting contacts with foreign powers, including the Americans and others, to carry out a coup d’etat”. Even more intriguingly, the western media – including the Wall Street Journal, which broke the original story – did not speculate on just who the “Americans and others” might be. Instead, MbS’s actions were described in the press as “desperate”, “rash”, “paranoid” and the crown prince himself as “mercurial”.
This is perhaps a bad sign for MbS: “mercurial” was the designation that we gave Colonel Gaddafi when he first showed signs of antipathy towards the west; he had first been feted by us as a fresh and reformist Libyan leader after the overthrow of corrupt King Idris. And Gaddafi ended up, we may all recall now, as a “tyrant”.
MbS hasn’t yet achieved this exclusive moniker. But who, if all these reports are correct, are the “Americans” who were supposedly keen to back a coup by the assorted princes? Surely not the equally “mercurial” Donald Trump. Nor Jared Kushner, the philosopher king of Israeli-Arab peace who is believed to be especially “close” to the 34-year old heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia – the heir who launched the frightful war on Yemen in 2015 that has so far directly caused the death of at least 10,000 civilians.
So far as the US administration is concerned, Crown Prince Mohammed is one of America’s most valued arms buyers, even if his desire to buy what Trump calls his “beautiful” weapons is not always matched by the billions of dollars that he has promised Washington.
However, there’s little doubt that the American intelligence services take a quite different view of the plucky crown prince. Their almost visceral distrust – even hatred – of MbS became clear when the CIA let it be known that they believed he personally gave the order to murder the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul 17 months ago. MbS has denied any involvement and Trump has regularly derided the CIA, showing extreme irritation at any intelligence reports that crossed his desk.
US and British intelligence operatives were reported to have sought a guarantee from MbS that Prince Ahmed would not be arrested when he returned from Britain in October 2018 after a self-exile in London during which he had unwisely told those protesting against the Yemen war that the bombing and killings in the country should not be laid at the feet of the entire House of Saud. “What does the whole of the al-Saud family have to do with this?” he can be heard asking demonstrators in a video of the event. “There are certain individuals who are responsible. Don’t involve anyone else.”
Ahmed’s son Nayef, one of the most prominent intelligence and security officers in the kingdom, who remains under arrest and interrogation, is himself much admired by both the CIA and the Pentagon as an expert in the “counter-terrorism alliance” run by the Americans.
It was understandable that MbS – who was obviously one of Ahmed’s “certain individuals” – would not look kindly upon such comments. In such circumstances, guarantees in the Middle East are water in the desert. But it all leaves the suspicion that Crown Prince Mohammed’s latest purge – his arrest in 2017 of 500 prominent Saudis and princes in the Ritz Carlton hotel for alleged “corruption” was a mere foretaste of things to come – was also aimed at the western intelligence services that have grown fearful of his power and unpredictability, and jealous of his influence over the White House. In this sense, MbS’s most recent arrests were pro-Trump and anti-CIA.
Mohammed bin Salman’s latest economic war with Russia and his decision to crash oil prices suggest that Putin’s security apparatus, which is often a lot more savvy about the Middle East than its Anglo-American opposite numbers, has no particular enthusiasm to keep the crown prince coup-proof; and sees every reason for a “return” to the more dependable Saudi princes with whose ancestors the Soviet Communists originally established diplomatic relations in 1926. Incredibly, the Soviets were the first foreign state to give full diplomatic recognition to Saudi Arabia.
Now the leaders of the royal court in Riyadh are acting more like the first Bolshevik rulers in Moscow – less blood, perhaps, but equal suspicion towards their supposedly loyal companions. They appear unaware of the dangers of settling scores among their fellow princes, provoking Putin, killing Yemenis (and Kashoggi) and annoying the CIA, all at the same time.
The first king, Abdulaziz bin Saud, or Ibn Saud, was beset by rivals who threatened his rule. And MbS must surely muse upon the fate of King Faisal, a genuinely reformist figure who was also involved in a conflict in Yemen, the civil war that began in 1962 and ended eight years later, with the Saudis supporting the royalists and Colonel Nasser – with 70,000 Egyptian troops – backing the republicans.
Inside the kingdom, Faisal introduced the equivalent of a welfare state, along with a ministry of justice. In 1969, suspecting that his air force and army were planning a pro-Egyptian coup – to create a “Republic of Arabia” – the king arrested not scores but hundreds of generals and other senior officers. At the time, his ruthless purge was put down to intelligence information from the CIA, but he tried to bring Saudi Arabia’s tribal groups together, along with the Shia in the eastern provinces of the country. He promoted education for women and opposed the suffocating power of the more Wahabi clerics among the ulema. Sound familiar? His introduction of television and its “infidel” influence over the land of Mecca and Medina led to violent protests in which Prince Khaled bin Musaid was killed.
Khaled’s brother assassinated the king ten years later. Educated in the United States – a drop-out whom Arab journalists in Beirut would later claim was working for the CIA – Faisal bin Musaid managed in 1975 to enter the royal court with a Kuwaiti ministerial delegation and shot the king – his uncle – three times, fatally, in the throat. The murderer was at first called “deranged” – it was also thought that he acted out of revenge for his brother – but later beheaded. He was taken, walking unsteadily, it is said, towards his executioner, who chopped off his head with a golden sword before 20,000 spectators.
Saudi Arabia was never the pool of tranquillity that its kings and princes claimed. The armed Islamist rising within the great mosque at Mecca in 1979 – led by a man infuriated by the dead King Faisal’s reforms and which cost hundreds of lives, finally being put down by French commandos – haunted the new King Khaled and the House of Saud ever afterwards. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knows his country’s history very well, even if he has not learned how to rule the kingdom he will presumably inherit from 84-year-old King Salman. For his enemies, he is dangerous – ambition and suspicion are blood-brothers – and follows his emotions rather than his advisers. But he is, as the cliche goes, a child of his time.
Saudi Arabia has never been the font of morality that its rulers claim and it understands the foibles of dictators. Indeed, it has given asylum and exile to some pretty unpleasant and highly un-Islamic characters. Ben Ali of Tunisia comes to mind, as does Idi Amin of Uganda, who killed up to 100,000 of his own people, kept severed human heads in his fridge and even, so witnesses were to testify, dismembered one of his wives.
In the Middle East today, every autocrat fears the Arab revolt that first emerged in Tunisia in 2010. Will it end in Saudi Arabia, the land where Islam was born, in a battle not between the people and the king but in fratricidal strife between the thousands of princes who now seek prestige and power beneath the umbrella of mutually antagonistic members of the royal family? And can Mohammed bin Salman really be blamed if he fears this very outcome?