In the past year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has abandoned the cautious fence-sitting that long characterised its diplomatic style in favour of an unprecedented, hawkish antagonism. That this transformation coincides with the meteoric rise of a previously little known prince – 30 year-old Mohammad bin Salman – is no accident; it seems that the prince is now the power behind the throne.
Since the death of the first king of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz, in 1953, the kingdom has been ruled by an increasingly elderly succession of six of his 45 sons; the last incumbent, Abdullah, died last January aged 90 and was replaced by the present king, Salman, who is 81 and rumoured to be suffering from dementia. The youthful, sabre-rattling Prince Mohammad, insiders say, is Salman’s favourite son by his third and favourite wife, Fahda.
Salman has one remaining brother – 75 year-old Muqrin – who would normally have been next in line for the throne. Whether alone, or at the instigation of others, Salman removed Muqrin from the succession three months after he became king. Prince Mohammad now moved up the line of succession to become ‘deputy Crown Prince’, with only his 56 year-old cousin, Mohammad bin Nayef between him and the throne.
King Salman then bestowed an astonishing array of portfolios and titles on his inexperienced son, making him Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister – the very same posts Salman himself occupied prior to inheriting the throne – as well as head of the Economic Guidance Council and Chief of the Royal Court. Within weeks, bin Nayef’s court was merged with the Royal Court, now supervised by Prince Mohammad, and one of his closest advisers was removed from the ruling cabinet.
No wonder Prince Mohammad feels mandated to pilot the kingdom into a series of ever more risky adventures, earning himself the unofficial nickname ‘Reckless’ and unfavourable comparisons with his highly intelligent half-brother, 56 year-old Prince Sultan bin Salman, who became the first Arab astronaut in 1986 and is currently languishing in obscurity as head of the Saudi Tourist Board.
At the heart of all Sunni Saudi Arabia’s current woes is its longstanding sectarian and political rivalry with the Shi’a republic of Iran. The toppling of the Shah by the 1979 Islamic revolution struck fear into the Saudi royals’ hearts and consolidated Riyadh’s political and military dependence on the west.
Just as King Salman got comfortable on the throne, everything started to go wrong.
Until very recently, Iran was isolated and under heavy sanctions, the bête noire of the west, harbouring nuclear ambitions and an aggressive attitude towards ‘the great Satan’, America, and its client state, Israel. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia could do no wrong – despite its appalling human rights record, oppression of women and rampant corruption. Pliable and passive in its regional politics, Washington’s willing ally eagerly swapped billions of petro-dollars for sophisticated military hardware, aircraft and weapons. Margaret Thatcher had a special department for pushing through the al-Yamamah arms deal which involved record amounts of dollars and corruption. This ‘special relationship’ endured: the flag over Buckingham Palace flew at half-mast when King Abdullah passed on in January last year and David Cameron, Barack Obama and François Hollande were among many world leaders who travelled to Riyadh for the late monarch’s memorial.
But just as King Salman got comfortable on the throne, everything started to go wrong for the desert kingdom.
First, the west suddenly woke up to how deeply entrenched the Islamic State (IS) had become on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border as it set about building its ‘Caliphate’; this problem now replaced the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as regional priority number one. Before this complication, alignment in Syria had been relatively simple and along sectarian fault lines: the Alawite (a branch of Shi’ism) Assad regime was backed by Iran, Iraq, Russia and China, while the mainly Sunni opposition was championed by Saudi Arabia, most Gulf states, Turkey, the US, UK and several European countries.
Recognising the growing predominance of Islamic extremists within the opposition (a situation actively fostered by Saudi Arabia) the west now preferred a political solution to the Syrian civil war and reluctantly conceded – largely under Russian pressure – that this could not be achieved without Iran. Furthermore, it looked increasingly likely that IS could not be defeated without the co-operation of the Syrian army, transforming Assad – temporarily at least – from the problem to part of the solution.
To the dismay of the Saudis, Washington began to court Tehran, creating a vehicle for rapprochement by bump-starting the nuclear limitation agreement which had been stalled for thirteen years but now accelerated to the finishing line in a matter of months. Concluded in July, it was finally signed by President Obama in October last year and Tehran was invited to the Vienna conference on Syria the same month. In addition, Iranian assets were unfrozen and sanctions lifted.
Not only did the Saudis feel betrayed, but they now faced another problem as a result. Since November 2014, they had been exerting their considerable influence on OPEC to keep pumping oil at levels above the agreed ceiling, despite falling prices. Ostensibly aimed at pricing the American fracking industry out of the market, it was also political, intended to harm the economies of oil-rich Iran and Russia – both under international sanctions at the time. Tehran now called Saudi Arabia’s bluff, announcing that as soon as sanctions were lifted it would pump a million extra barrels a day. Suddenly the tables were turned and it was the Saudi economy that was at risk, with the IMF warning in October 2015 that the nation would bankrupt itself within five years – despite its gargantuan sovereign funds – if it did not reverse its policy.
Nor is this the only drain on Saudi finances. Since March it has been bombarding the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, presumably at the instigation of Prince Mohammad (with his defence minister hat on). Saudi Arabia has no history or experience of unilateral armed intervention – it sent 3,000 soldiers to each of the major Arab-Israeli wars and a few more to the first Gulf War – yet the prince believed that the Houthis would be defeated in a matter of days. Ten months on, with no plan B and no exit strategy, nothing has been achieved but the devastation of the poorest country in the Middle East and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Analysts estimate that the financial cost of this adventure has already topped $60 billion. With oil revenues at rock bottom, the Saudi treasury has sold billions of dollars’ worth of European stocks to meet the ongoing costs of this unwinnable war.
The question is why, when the world stands at the brink of a catastrophic conflict, take any side at all?
Things took an even more hawkish turn last week when the Saudi regime took the decision to behead a well-known dissident Shi’a cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. There were riots in Tehran where the Saudi Embassy was set on fire; Riyadh immediately cut all diplomatic ties with Iran and shortly afterwards a Saudi airstrike damaged the Iranian embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. The resulting tension has sent shock-waves through the region, with many fearing a war between the two powers as the Saudis seek to enlist the support of fellow Sunni nations.
With the headstrong Prince Mohammad at the helm, backing down does not appear to be an option… and if the war-chest runs out, contingencies are in place. In an interview last week with The Economist, Prince Mohammad revealed a plan to float Aramco – the trillion dollar nationalised oil company and the country’s most valuable asset – on the international markets and sell billions worth of nationally-owned prime land for private development. In addition, subsidies for the needy will be slashed and the education and healthcare systems privatised, putting them out of reach for the poorest members of society.
In Gulf countries, autocratic systems are generally tolerated due to an unspoken contract between government and the people that everyone benefits from the nation’s wealth (albeit extremely unequally); Prince Mohammad’s Thatcherite vision, if implemented, risks widespread civil unrest. In addition, the restive Shi’a population in the east is sitting on top of the country’s largest oil fields and distribution centres.
Saudi influence abroad has always been predicated on its wealth and can be expected to diminish along with its coffers. Nevertheless, Prince Mohammad adopted the diplomatic style of George W. Bush in his search for allies: ‘Who’s not with us is against us’. The right wing press has apparently already made its decision: the Daily Telegraph declared that “Britain Must Side With Saudi Arabia”, while Roger Boyes in The Times opined “execution by sword is brutal but Riyadh remains our best hope for peace in the Middle East”… well that’s not what they say about the Islamic State. In fact, the past year saw a record number of beheadings in Saudi Arabia and 157 executions in all.
None of this is to say that Iran is any better – both theocracies are intolerant, oppressive and cruel. The question is why, when the world stands at the brink of a catastrophic conflict, take any side at all? Shouldn’t Britain and America, supposedly ‘developed’ countries claiming to be beacons of progress and democracy, be brokering the rapprochement between these two extremist regimes that is key to regional peace, and a political solution to the Syrian crisis? Shouldn’t the west be exercising the undoubted influence it still possesses in the Royal Palace to urge more caution, more debate?
If the west persists, instead, in following a deluded prince into an unwinnable battle against a fabricated monster, it might as well champion Don Quixote tilting at windmills and declaring “a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless”.