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Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Game of Thrones

Now is the moment of maximum danger for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS).

He has weathered the immediate storm over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi two months ago. He even went to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires a week ago and persuaded several other national leaders to stand beside him for photographs. But the real threat to his power (and maybe his life) is at home.

It’s not the Saudi public he must fear. He’s quite popular with young Saudis, who are a large majority of the population. He’s relatively young himself (33). He has loosened some of the tight social and religious controls (women can drive now, and you can even go to see a movie). And most of them don’t even believe that he is responsible for the killing.

MbS’s problem is his family, who know perfectly well that he ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and understand what that crime means for the kingdom’s standing in the world. They also realise that his foreign policy has been an unmitigated disaster, from the futile war in Yemen to the blockade of Qatar, and that his economic policy hasn’t been much better.

Many prominent Saudis also have personal reasons to hate him. Some were pushed roughly aside in order to facilitate his rapid rise to supreme power. Others were kidnapped, jailed and even tortured in order to extort billions of dollars from them, on the often shaky pretext that their money was the fruit of corruption. If you held a secret ballot among the ten thousand most influential Saudis, MbS would be gone in a flash.

It doesn’t work like that, of course. This is still an absolute monarchy, and so long as MbS has the support of his elderly father, King Salman, he has absolute power – in theory. In practice, he must also have at least the grudging support of the royal family, which sees the Saudi state as a family business in which they all have a stake.

It is a remarkable family, if only for its sheer size: an estimated 15,000 members, many of whom are direct descendants of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud. When he died in 1953 he left 36 sons, and there are literally hundreds of grandsons.

All these men, their spouses and their children and grandchildren are supported (quite lavishly) by the family business, but there are only a few hundred people who really matter. They matter a great deal, however, and by now they would be close to unanimous in seeing Muhammad bin Salman as a wrecker who is endangering their own futures.

So how to get rid of him? In the past, the family’s rule has survived the abrupt removal of kings: one king was forced to abdicate in 1964, another was assassinated by his own nephew in 1975. The princes closed ranks, and the dynasty carried on with a new king. In theory, it should be even easier when you are only trying to remove the crown prince.

Why not just work through his father, King Salman? After all, the king has already appointed and then dismissed two other crown princes; maybe he could be persuaded to do it again. The problem with this approach is that MbS zealously controls access to the 82-year-old king, who is believed to be suffering from mild dementia (Alzheimer’s).

An alternative would be for the Allegiance Committee, a family-run institution created in 2006 which adjudicates on succession issues, to declare King Salman incompetent because of illness, dismiss the Crown Prince, and appoint someone else as his successor. In the absence of more formal rules, any prince descended from Abdul-Aziz would be eligible.

Plotters hoping to use this device would be risking their lives, of course, for MbS is a ruthless man who would strike first if he got wind of the plan. However, they may be emboldened by the fact that he has now arrested his own chief enforcers in an attempt to shift the blame for Khashoggi’s murder. This betrayal will certainly have shaken the loyalty of their colleagues who still serve the crown prince.

But there is one further consideration that is bound to give even the boldest plotters pause. If MbS concludes that he has decisively lost the support of the royal family, he still has a last card to play: war with Iran.

It’s what he wants in the long term anyway, but his preferred option has been to get the United States and Israel to do the actual fighting for him. If he had no other way of heading off a family-backed coup against him, however, he might take Saudi Arabia into such a war unilaterally, counting on the US and/or Israel to bail the country out. In the midst of a war, nobody at home would dare attack him.

So on balance, MbS is likely to stay in power, perhaps to the ultimate ruin of the country he rules.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“He has…killing”)

Khashoggi: Worse Than a Crime

If Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), really did sent a hit team to Turkey to murder dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul ten days ago, what will happen next? Perhaps history can help us here.

A little over two centuries ago, in 1804, the armies of the French Revolution had won all the key battles and the wars seemed to be over. The rest of Europe had decided in 1801 that it would have to live with the French Revolution and made peace with Napoleon. Everything was going so well – and then he made a little mistake.

Many members of the French nobility had gone into exile and fought against the armies of the Revolution, and the Duke of Enghien was one of them. In 1804 he was living across the Rhine river on German territory.

Napoleon heard an (untrue) report that Enghien was part of a conspiracy to assassinate him, and sent a hit team – sorry, a cavalry squadron – across the Rhine to kidnap him. They brought him back to Paris, gave him a perfunctory military trial, and shot him. After that things did not go well for Napoleon.

The idea that Napoleon would violate foreign territory in peacetime in order to murder an opponent was so horrifying, so repellent that opinion turned against peace with France everywhere. As his own chief of police, Joseph Fouché, said, “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.”

By the end of the year every major power in Europe was back at war with Napoleon. After a decade of war he was defeated at Waterloo and sent into exile on St. Helena for the rest of his life. So is something like that going to happen to MbS too?

Nobody’s going to invade Saudi Arabia, of course. (Not even Iran, despite MbS’s paranoia on the subject.) But will they stop investing in the country, stop selling it weapons and buying its oil, maybe even slap trade embargoes on it.

Since it seems almost certain that Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi government – Turkish government officials have even told journalists off the record that they have audio and partial video recordings of Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture and killing – all of Saudi Arabia’s ‘friends’ and trading partners have some choices to make.

Donald Trump immediately rose to the occasion, declaring that he would be “very upset and angry” if Saudi Arabia was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, and that there would be “severe punishment” for the crime.

He even boasted that Saudi Arabia “would not last two weeks” without American military support. Presumably Trump was talking about the survival of the Saudi regime, not the country’s independence, but he was still wrong. He is as prone to overestimate his power as MbS himself.

The Saudis struck right back, saying that “The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats or attempts to undermine it whether through threats to impose economic sanctions or the use of political pressure. The kingdom also affirms that it will respond to any (punitive) action with a bigger one.”

But Trump was only bluffing. He really had no intention of cancelling the $110 billion of contracts that Saudi Arabia has signed to buy American-made weapons, because “we’d be punishing ourselves if we did that. If they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or… China.”

People have been turning a blind eye to the weekly hundreds of civilian deaths caused by Saudi bombing in Yemen for three years now. Why would they respond any differently to murder of one pesky Saudi journalist in Istanbul, even if he did write for the ‘Washington Post’?

The difference is that it’s intensely personal – this is an absolute monarch ordering the killing of a critic who annoyed him but posed no threat to his power – and it’s brazenly, breathtakingly arrogant. MbS really thinks he can do something like this and make everybody shut up about it.

He is probably right, so far as the craven, money-grubbing foreigners are concerned – like former British prime minister Tony Blair, who could barely even bring himself to say that Saudi Arabia should investigate and explain the issue, because “otherwise it runs completely contrary to the process of modernisation.”

But if the foreigners will not or cannot bring Mohammed bin Salman down, his own family (all seven thousand princes, or however many there are now) probably will. It is a family business, and his amateurish strategies, his impulsiveness and his regular resort to violence are ruining the firm’s already not very good name.

He rose rapidly out of the multitudinous ranks of anonymous princes through the favour of his failing father, King Salman, but he could fall as fast as he rose. Killing Khashoggi was definitely a blunder.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“The difference…modernisation”)

Another Gulf War – The First Shots?

The men who carried out Saturday’s attack on the parade in Ahvaz, in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan, were well trained: four of them killed 25 people and wounded 70 others before they were shot dead. The question is whether they were trained by ‘Islamic State’, or by the backers of the low-profile Ahvaz National Resistance, which also claimed credit for the attack.

‘Islamic State’ is an independent ultra-extremist Sunni Muslim movement that kills Shias (most Iranians are Shia) on principle, so there are no big political implications if it was IS that planned the attack.

If it was the Ahvaz National Resistance, however, then these were the opening shots in the Fourth Gulf War, because the ANR is backed by Saudi Arabia and its smaller Arab allies like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein.

Iran is convinced that it was the latter. “It is absolutely clear to us who committed this crime… and whom they are linked to,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “The small [Arab] puppet countries in the region are backed by America, and the US is provoking them and giving them the necessary capabilities.”

There is reason to suspect that this is true. The Arab countries of the Gulf are smaller and weaker than Iran, and have talked themselves into the paranoid conviction that Iran intends to destroy them, perhaps even to replace Sunni with Shia Islam. They talk of war with Iran as inevitable, and dream of drawing America into such a war to even up the odds.

President Donald Trump is also paranoid about Iran, and openly talks about overthrowing the Iranian regime. Indeed his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, boasted on Saturday that US sanctions are really hurting Iran: “I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen.”

So this could be a marriage made in heaven (or somewhere else in the supernatural world, perhaps). But first there has to be a spark, some Iranian action that gives both Trump and the Arab Gulf states a pretext for attacking Iran – for they both think in terms of attacking Iran first, not of defending against a (highly improbable) Iranian attack.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, said last year that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.” If they get their war, both leaders expect that most of the heavy lifting will be done by the US Air Force, but something bad has to happen on the ground first. Iran has to do something stupid.

How do you get it to do something stupid? Well, you could try supporting separatist movements in the various ethnic minority areas that ring the country: Arabs in the southwest, Kurds in the northwest, Turkmen in the northeast and Baloch in the southeast. With luck, the Iranian regime will over-react and massacre enough of the separatists (and innocent bystanders) to provide the pretext for an Arab-US attack.

After Saturday’s attack in Ahvaz, Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent United Arab Emirates scholar who tends to say what other people don’t dare, tweeted that the attack wasn’t really a terrorist incident at all. He pointed out that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option”, and predicted that the number of such attacks “will increase during the next phase.”

If that’s the Saudi/American strategy, then sooner or later they will manage to goad the Iranian regime into committing some atrocity in return, and then we’re away to the races.

It would the fourth Gulf war in less than forty years. The first was the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, in which the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked the new revolutionary regime in Iran with the warm support of the United States. Up to a million people were killed, most of them Iranian, but the only direct US support was to give Saddam’s forces intelligence and targeting information for their attacks.

The second was the 1990-91 war between Iraq and most of its Arab neighbours, plus large numbers of American and other Western troops, after Saddam invaded Kuwait.

The third was in 2003, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq in the mistaken belief that Saddam had links with the al-Qaeda terrorists who made the 9/11 attacks and/or was working on weapons of mass destruction.

And the fourth, coming soon to a theatre quite a long distance from you, will be the US/Gulf Arab attack on Iran.

Of course, the attack in Ahvaz on Saturday could just have been another meaningless spasm of hatred by Islamic State, and not a Saudi/American initiative at all. But if not now, then soon.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 12-15. (“It would…Iran”)

Saudi Arabia: A Populist Dictatorship

Joy and pride among Saudi women who are at last allowed to drive. Delight in the car dealerships that anticipate a lot of new business. And dismay in the families of the 1.4 million chauffeurs, almost all from South Asia, who have been earning around $1,000 a month driving Saudi women around. But it will take a lot more than this to change Saudi Arabia.

Just before driving became legal for women, seventeen women activists who have been campaigning for years against the driving ban were arrested. Eight have now been released, but the others are facing possible trial in a counter-terrorism court and long prison sentences for their activism. Does the right hand know what the left is doing?

Yes, it does. Letting women drive is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s project to win popular support by modernising some aspects of daily life. Looking like he is giving in to popular pressure is definitely not part of his programme. The change must look like a free gift from his hand, not a retreat in the face of public protest.

It’s a less dramatic initiative than last winter’s three-month anti-corruption campaign, which detained 56 high-profile royal family members and prominent businessman (in the capital’s best hotel) until they had ‘paid back’ some of their ill-gotten gains.

The exercise allegedly yielded $100 billion to the government, although none of the thieves saw the inside of a courtroom, let alone went to jail. But the message was the same: I’m on the side of ordinary people and I’m doing the right things, but I make the decisions when and as I choose.

The notion that Mohammed bin Salman is liberalising the Saudi system is a fantasy. Having ruthlessly sidelined all rival claimants to the throne – his father, King Salman, is 82 and ailing – he has now centralised power to an unprecedented extent. Saudi Arabia was a traditional, deeply conservative monarchy that always ensured there was a fair degree of consensus among the elite. It is now a dictatorship.

MbS, as he is known, is an impulsive man, and one of his bigger mistakes was to invite the UN’s special rapporteur on anti-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, to visit the country to report on how it was reconciling the need to prevent terrorism with respect for human rights. Emmerson came back in early May. His report was unusually frank for a diplomatic document, and in a subsequent media interview he went well beyond that.

The Saudi anti-terrorism law is written in a way that criminalises all dissent, he told The Guardian. Torture in Saudi jails is commonplace, the guilty officials go unpunished, and Saudi Arabia “is undergoing the most ruthless crackdown on political dissent that the country has experienced in decades.”

“Reports that Saudi Arabia is liberalising are completely wide of the mark,” Emmerson said. “The judiciary has now been brought entirely under the control of the King, and lacks any semblance of independence from the executive. Put simply, there is no separation of power in Saudi Arabia, no freedom of expression, no free press, no effective trade unions, and no functioning civil society.”

Moreover, MbS’s successes in crushing dissent within the country have made him over-confident about his skill in foreign policy. He summoned Lebanese Prime Minister to Riyadh and forced him to resign, only to see Hariri get his job back in alliance with Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist group that MbS utterly detests.

He declared a blockade of Saudi Arabia’s small but wealthy neighbour, Qatar, to force it to close down the Al-Jazeera network, the most influential Arabic-language news service, and to break its ties with Iran, the country that MbS fears most. One year later Al-Jazeera is still alive and kicking, and Qatar has moved closer to Iran.

And in his biggest blunder, he launched a military intervention in the Yemeni civil war to defeat the Houthis, a Shia tribe that has captured most of Yemen and that he believes (wrongly) is controlled and armed by Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s air strikes have killed thousands, its ally the United Arab Emirates has thousands of troops on the ground – and three years later the Houthis still control most of the heavily populated parts of Yemen, including the capital.

It’s not exactly Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam – the Saudis have no troops on the ground, and the Emiratis are mostly using foreign mercenaries – but the Yemeni intervention is very expensive, deeply embarrassing, and probably unwinnable. In the long run, it may be MbS’s undoing.

The wealth has been more widely shared in Saudi Arabia than in most oil-rich countries, and for the non-political majority life is still pretty good. Even for women, things are very gradually getting better: 60 percent of Saudi university graduates are female, and now they can drive too. But the country is now being run by an erratic and over-confident dictator.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“it’s…choose)