Spearhead Analysis – 04.05.2018
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
This is a two-part series chronicling the rise of Mohammad Bin Salman, the young and ambitious Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and his grand plans for the future of his country.
As sweeping changes take place across Saudi Arabia, and the its young Crown Prince continues to strengthen his hold over the country, it is important to note that not all of the developments taking place have to do with the future social or economic prosperity that the nation is aiming to achieve. Some of Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS)’s decisions have led many to question the extent of his ambitions regarding the Middle East and the lengths he is prepared to go to, in order to achieve the regional superiority, he so obviously craves.
Even though MBS’s rise to power, and his ascension to the title of Crown Prince, appeared to have transpired seamlessly; behind closed doors, all was not well among the upper hierarchy of the House of Saud.
Mohammed bin Nayef, the deposed Crown Prince, had enjoyed great support within the Royal family and many were surprised by his sudden ouster. Matters were further complicated when rumors started to swirl as to why he was so unceremoniously dismissed from his position, with one popular theory suggesting that bin Nayef had a drug addiction. However, the prevailing hypothesis remained that he had just been a temporary replacement for his predecessor, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, and that the King had always meant to install his own son as the next in line for the throne. Regardless, this transfer of command did not go down well with the majority of the Royal Family, and many were alarmed by the swift rise to power made by the young Prince.
Saudi Arabia has long functioned in a system that requires support from within the Royal Family, as well as the hardline conservative Wahhabi Clerics whose influence over the state has existed for as long as the House of Saud. Anytime a new ruler has assumed the mantle of King, they have had to work in tandem with both sides in order to maintain this balance of power, and few have interfered with this long standing status quo. However, as his grip over the Kingdom tightened, it became clear that MBS had no such qualms about upsetting the age old traditions of his homeland, and that he was willing to do whatever it took to remove any obstacles from his vision for the future.
While many of the Kingdom’s previous leaders believed in a semblance of discretion when conducting state business, MBS has been much more vocal about his objectives for the country. One of the earliest examples of this change in strategy was the controversial crackdown on corruption that resulted in over five hundred of Saudi Arabia’s elite being arrested and detained at the exclusive Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. These included members of the Royal Family and armed forces, along with several prominent businessmen, all of whom were detained at the hotel with no contact with the outside world, except through their respective lawyers. Their bank accounts and assets were frozen as well, and harsher penalties were promised to those who did not agree to return the money they were alleged to have embezzled.
Even though corruption has been a thorn in the Kingdom’s side for most of its existence, as is to be expected from a class based society dominated by the offspring of a powerful monarch, and there was certainly a need to clamp down on it, the timing and the method in which the offenders were apprehended raised quite a few questions. A large portion of the people arrested were either related, or loyal, to the late King Abdullah, or were Islamic hardliners opposed to any form of liberal change taking place in the country. It also included several prominent government officials, who were then later removed from their positions and replaced with people loyal to MBS and King Salman.
As the number of people imprisoned in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel continued to grow, so too did the rumors of physical abuse and intimidation being used by the authorities to get the high profile prisoners to comply with their various requests. While the government denied any involvement in any such activities, it wasn’t long before many of the confined gentlemen were more than willing to find a resolution to their predicament and agreed to sign over considerable wealth and assets to the Saudi state in exchange for their release.
While the state never disclosed exactly which methods they used to make people return their ill-gotten gains, nor did they present any evidence incriminating the accused; the treatment of King Abdullah’s family and loyalists was indicative of their true intentions. Many in Abdullah’s household had opposed the ascension of King Salman, while Abdullah himself had reservations about the appointment as well, which caused a rift between the two families. Even though it had appeared that both sides had since reconciled their differences, it seems that under the surface, tensions still remained.
In order to consolidate King Salman’s power, as well as his own, MBS used his influence to first rid his cousins of their financial strength and then utilized his position as the leader of the country’s armed forces to coerce them into submission and silence. The possibility of an outcry from the country’s powerful council of clerics also dissipated when they released a statement in favor of the crackdown, leaving the accused with no option but to surrender to MBS’ demands.
In the end, the government has alleged to have recouped over a $100 Billion from the accused parties. However, the methods they used were severely criticized at both home and abroad, with several questionable incidents transpiring without any suitable answers provided by the government. These include the highly suspect death of Major General Ali al-Qahtani, a close aide to the late King Abdullah’s son, who lost his life under confinement. The death of Mansour bin Muqrin in a helicopter crash was also considered quite suspicious, and led many to question its timing, especially bearing in mind that Mansour was the son of former Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, and was considered a bright and progressive young Prince on the rise.
Proxy Wars with Iran
MBS’ ruthless crackdown on his rivals might have come as a shock for the majority of the Saudi Arabian populace, who had never before experienced such a shift in the status quo enjoyed by the Royal family, but for many in the international community, it was yet another example of MBS’ great aspirations for himself and his country. He had first demonstrated his aggressive approach to diplomacy by ordering the Saudi armed forces to intervene in the Yemen Civil War, only a few months after taking on the mantle of Saudi Defense Minister, and this incident proved that he was not afraid to take decisive action if and when he deemed it necessary.
The conflict in Yemen, and MBS’ decision to intervene also managed to reveal another intriguing facet of the young Prince’s psyche and confirm what many people had suspected for quite some time; his obvious abhorrence for the Shiite led government of Iran. While an aversion to the government in Tehran has been shared by many Saudi leaders in the past, MBS has been less subtle in his approach to Iran and has made clear time and again then they are the sole reason behind the instability currently being witnessed in the Middle East. As a result, the young prince has engaged the Iranians in a proxy war on multiple fronts, most visibly in Yemen.
The Civil War in Yemen is currently being fought between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who have captured the capital of Sana’a in order to restore former President Ali Abdullah Saleh back to power, and forces loyal to Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the man who replaced Saleh as President, and who is being backed by a coalition of states, including Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Senegal. Qatar were also part of this alliance till mid-2017 when, on the behest of the Saudi Arabian government, all other members cut off all diplomatic ties with them, citing evidence of Qatar’s support for terrorist organizations as the major cause behind their removal from the coalition.
While terrorism might have been the main cause cited by the coalition, it soon became quite evident that the Qatari’s refusal to cut off ties with Iran, and their insistence on being neutral in the Saudi-Iran proxy war was the main reason behind the diplomatic blockade. While many in Saudi felt that pressure from the blockade would soon force Qatar to accept their ultimatums, it has not panned out that way as yet. Understandably vexed at the way they had been treated by the Saudis, the Qataris naturally turned to Iran for help, who were more than willing to come to their aid with food supplies, water supplies, and access to their country’s seaports.
As the situation with Qatar developed further, the Saudi led coalition continued to fight the Houthi forces in Yemen. However, similar to their failure to make Qatar renounce their support for Iran, the Saudis failed to make much of a mark in Yemen either. While they did manage to recapture some parts of land back from opposing forces, they have come under heavy criticism from the international community for the human rights abuses being perpetuated by their own forces, especially on the private citizenry.
Hundreds of thousands of people have either been killed, or forced to find shelter elsewhere as the coalition forces bomb the capital Sana’a indiscriminately, killing rebel forces and civilians alike, and yet there appears no end to the crisis. Instead, the members of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s cabinet allege that he is being kept as a prisoner in Saudi Arabia, along with many of his military and political allies and this rumor has led to a further decline in support for the Saudis in Yemen. It seems that even though they claim to be fighting to restore the “rightful” government of Mansur Hadi, the real motive behind the Saudi attack on Yemeni soil is much simpler; it is yet another part of their large scale proxy war with Iran.
This shifting narrative, and an increasingly confrontational approach to Iran, is a hallmark of the changing climate in Saudi Arabia, led by their young Prince MBS. In his recent trip to the US, he spoke openly about the threat of Iran, and his views about their leader. Calling Iran, the Muslim brotherhood and Islamic terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda the “triangle of evil”, he talked about how they were “trying to promote the idea that our duty as Muslims is to reestablish the caliphate (and) to reestablish the mindset of the caliphate” and that the Iranian regime only wants to spread their “extremist Shiite ideology”.
He further talked about 1979, and how it led to dramatic shift in fortunes for much of the Middle East. He particularly talked about the Iranian revolution and how it led to the creation of “a regime based on an ideology of pure evil” and that the current supreme leader of Iran “makes Hitler look good”. He also warned that “the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world. They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East”.
While MBS’ comments regarding Iran might seem harsh to some, they are a good indication as to his mindset regarding his neighbors across the Persian Gulf. He views them as the greatest threat facing Saudi Arabia today, and such is his belief that he is willing to do anything and everything in his power to push back against the Iranians, without perhaps considering all the possible outcomes first. Whether this aggressive approach is successful, still remains to be seen.
It is also important to note that, while the notion of a progressive and modern Saudi Arabia seems extraordinary, many of the changes taking place seem cosmetic in nature. After years of funding various terrorist organizations around the world, and being perhaps the greatest cause behind the rise in extremist Islamic thought, in part due to their extensive funding of Wahhabi schools and madrassas around the globe, it seems the Saudis are trying really hard to make the world forget about their own mistakes.
By blaming Iran for the continuous instability in the Middle East, and by accusing certain elements within their government for guiding Saudi Arabia away from the path of progress is rather premature and completely inaccurate. Only by accepting the multitude of errors in judgment made by his forefathers over the years can MBS truly ensure a new dawn for his country, and help Saudi Arabia escape its tumultuous past, once and for all.