If there is one thing that the murder of dissident Saudi journalist, Jamal Kashoggi, has brought into sharp focus it is the changing political equations in the Middle-east, which have been occurring behind the scenes for the last several years, but were brought into public attention only recently. It is clear that the murder was premeditated by the top Saudi leadership – a fact which Turkey’s Erdogan has enjoyed drip-feeding to the hungry Western media – and by aides closest to the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), with fingers pointing directly at him.
Yet, the entire global drama of sensational investigation that has played out over obvious facts has more to do with politics and little to do with justice – after all, the details of the crime show that it was nothing compared to the kind of torture Turkey, Russia, US and others regularly mete out to the suspects and dissidents kept in their jails.
The episode only further cements the evidence of the immaturity and recklessness of the new crown prince, to the advantage of his seasoned political opponents. The botched nature of the murder itself – with killers leaving behind easy traces and not realizing that the Turks might be tapping the Saudi embassy in Istanbul – shows Saudi Arabia’s naivete and overconfidence. This is especially so, since Turkey – and Erdogan’s increasing obsession with the past Ottoman glory predating Kemal Ataturk – and Saudi Arabia are two big Sunni rivals, with Turkey sometimes allying with the Saudi enemy, Iran.
The fact that MbS may have had to order Kashoggi to be killed, in the first place, for publishing harmless – and relatively neutral – columns in the Washington Post, further shows that the Saudi regime, in the hands of MbS, is more unstable and impulsive, than even the new crop of such leaders like Trump, Bolsanaro, Duterte, Erdogan and Putin. Recall, how, sometime before the Kashoggi episode, Saudi Arabia lashed out at Canada by taking extreme steps – pulling out investments, dismissing the ambassador, recalling its students – simply because Canada had raised questions about the country’s human rights record.
The Kashoggi affair has, therefore, brought into sharp focus that Saudi politics has changed and this will have a long-term impact in the region. Since MbS took power last year, many of his actions have already proven that he was different from the conservative, older generation. He belongs to the category of populist leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, Hungary’s Orban and others, with popularity among the masses, repudiating the old order and appealing to national interests.
His actions of jailing top members of the royal family and businessmen at Ritz-Carlton – where they are still jailed after more than a year – leading a Gulf economic blockade against Qatar (which houses the world’s largest US military base outside the US) and later impulsively kidnapping Lebanon’s PM, Hariri to force his resignation and yielding only after French pressure, were populist and Trumpian actions that the older Saudi royals would never have undertaken. For the Kingdom, the most important political factors have been to project and maintain internal as well as regional stability in order to keep in the good graces of Western allies and continue the existing oil-for-security arrangement that it has had with its staunchest ally, U.S, since the 1960s, and, to maintain a steady flow of radical Islamic activities through its jihadi proxies world over and especially in the Middle-east to keep Iran in check and retain control over other Muslim powers.
The Saudi-US relationship has been so strong that even after 9/11 – wherein some 15 terrorists who hit the World Trade Centre were all Saudi nationals – Saudi citizens were easily allowed to leave the U.S before they could be interrogated by the FBI. Some U.S. Presidents – especially Bush and Trump – have even had personal business relations with Saudi Arabia in oil and real estate and extremely cordial family relations with the royal family. Before his Presidency, Trump had sold millions of dollars’ worth of real estate to the Saudis and during his campaign claimed that of course he “liked them very much”.
Currently, even though US is no longer dependent on Saudi oil, having become a completely energy-independent country with shale fracking – although, it produces surplus oil now, the process is very expensive and it cannot hope to export it to rival the Gulf oil, whose prices can easily be brought down – yet, Saudi Arabia is amongst the biggest importers of the US arms. And most importantly, western powers and the Saudi-bloc have a sworn common enemy in Iran.
MbS, personally, has been even better for the US. Notwithstanding his impulsive actions regarding his rivals and dissidents, he completely curbed the powers of the hardline Wahhabi Islamic preachers who have been exporting terror to the whole world since 1979. The Iranian Shiite Islamic revolution of 1979 threatened the Saudi power base in the region and that is when the Kingdom decided to start the policy of funding terror proxies all over the world and mainly in the region, to keep Iran in check and gain supremacy among other countries in the Muslim world in line with the tribalistic, territorial Arab mentality. MbS checked the unbridled powers of this clerical militia.
He has also – for the first time in Saudi history – brought in the policy of finally letting women drive, besides touring the world and leveraging foreign investments. Most importantly, it was under MbS, that the US finally succeeded in getting Saudi Arabia to publicly soften towards Israel like never before, since all have a common enemy in Iran. MbS, at one point, in an interaction with American Jews in Washington a few months ago, lambasted the Palestinians, by declaring that either they should come to the negotiating table or just ‘shut up’. In return, in the Kashoggi case, Israel has defended Saudi Arabia and MbS openly and has been counselling Washington to do the same, which the latter is doing.
Therefore, compared to the geopolitical reality and the changing regional equations under MbS, the Kashoggi affair is just a blip. It is an inconvenience for the West – since Erdogan is taking full advantage to settle scores with the Kingdom – over which they are expressing fake moral outrage. The attempt in Washington and other Western powers, since day one, has been to absolve MbS. In fact, Britain has already publicly endorsed an arms deal with the Kingdom recently. With investigations coming to a close, the US has sanctioned only the hit squad of 17 Saudi nationals who murdered Kashoggi and even the CIA has claimed that while the crown prince may have been involved, there was no audio evidence suggesting that he directly ordered the killing, while the Saudi prosecutor has sought death penalty for five. A thorough whitewashing of MbS is going on, including in Washington.
Erdogan’s sensational drip-feeding of news bytes to the media, in this case, has failed and become stale and passé by now. The American media, despite best efforts, is already fizzling out on the issue and can no longer corner Trump despite all efforts. The Congress lawmakers may demand more action, but that is yet to be seen, depending on what ‘conclusion’ the White House reaches on the CIA investigation. The latter’s support base of Evangelicals and outlets like Fox news has already done a good job of maligning Kashoggi’s character and justifying Saudi actions. Turkey was not able to gain any kind of leverage over Saudi Arabia and the status quo remains.
Geopolitical Implications: Yemen, Palestine and Iran
The Kashoggi affair has changed little for MbS personally. But some slight restraints have been put on the impulses of MbS by his father, King Salman, and by the US, which may see a positive outcome in the Yemen war – a failed war which MbS has been relentlessly waging and in which Saudi Arabia has proven to the world that despite all the material and moral support from the West, the Saudi-West alliance (with complete Gulf and Emirati support) is yet completely inept and immature against Iran.
Saudi Arabia has been waging this failed war in Yemen against Iranian-funded Houthi rebels, since 2015. Despite having a solid Western and Emirati alliance behind it, with full intelligence sharing from Pentagon, the entire alliance has been no match for Iran. They have only ended up killing a horrific number of Yemeni civilians – with the Emirati alliance ensconced comfortably in the safe Yemeni city of Aden and not even directly facing the rebels in the war-torn port city of Hodeidah, and launching missiles from there. The Iranian-backed Houthis have become quite confident by now. They know they can easily wait out the Saudi Arabian alliance and keep them in check.
And now, after the Kashoggi affair, the US has refused to refuel Saudi warplanes mid-air and is prevailing upon the Kingdom to end the Yemen war. The Kingdom has started making noises that it wants peace in Yemen, after all the global pressure from the Kashoggi affair. The Yemen and Syria wars are yet another instance that showed the immaturity and relative incapability of Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis Iran.
In Yemen, what could have been an easy Arab-West victory against the Houthis was brought to a grinding halt after Iran backed the latter. In Syria, what seemed like an easy, imminent downfall of Assad by the Arab-West coalition (like they did with Gaddafi) saw a 360-degree turnaround, once Russia entered, and along with Turkey and Iran, wiped out the gains of the coalition making Assad stronger than ever.
Saudi’s youth and tribalistic thinking is no match against Iran’s ancient culture, its deep-rooted flair for geopolitics and diplomacy, the high educational culture of its citizens and, most importantly, its seasoned, nationalist and famous Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards. It has been surviving hostility from the West and Saudi Arabia and Israel since 1979 and more so, since 2001 and the regular sanctions regime. The US botched up the Iraq war and a few years later, and especially now, we see Iran and Iranian-backed political parties have a strong, popular base in Iraq. Iran has cultivated friends with the supposedly counter-West alliance – especially, Russia, China, India (only economic relations), Syria, Afghanistan. Onam is a neutral player that keeps good offices on both the sides, while Turkey, despite its Sunni dislike of Iran, has allied with it, to beat the Saudi-coalition in the Syria war.
Iran – combining wisdom and military might – maintains a shrewd political policy in the region. Its loyal proxies – Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine – have served it well to keep the Sunni influence in check. The success is evident through the fact that Hezbollah is a part of power sharing arrangement in Lebanon’s Parliament, while Hamas runs a government in Gaza since 2007. What should have been an Israel-Palestine conflict was complicated by the creation of Hamas and its winning of Gaza elections, effectively cementing a deep divide between the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
The upshot was that Israel, PA, Western powers like US, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt, all secretly ganged up against Hamas and yet could not defeat it. PA is as good as a vassalage of Israel, and corruption and disillusionment remains in both Gaza and West Bank. Palestinians are suppressed in both places and corruption has become so entrenched that to maintain the status quo is more in interests of PA and Hamas and they alone can do a good job of it and no longer need Israel. These entrenched realities and secret Israeli diplomacy with the Arab powers have changed the rules of the game. The secret Arab diplomacy with Israel to check the Persians is now very much public, thanks to MbS. Recently, Saudi Arabia, in an unprecedented move, granted Air India direct flights over its airspace from India to Israel, after Netanyahu-Modi meeting in New Delhi.
The rise of MbS and the persistent Kashoggi affair has brought most of these alliances out in the open, revealing that Arab empathies with Palestine are a hogwash designed to periodically appease their own domestic citizens and keep alive a false sense of solidarity and trust in the Muslim world, where none exists. In reality, geopolitics and entrenched power arrangements are most important. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt have, for years, been using the services of Israel’s private security firms and mercenaries to spy on their own enemies and citizens, with the UAE even putting them in an advisory role. After the Kashoggi case and the growing bonhomie between the Kingdom and Israel, the world witnessed Netanyahu embarking on a series of unprecedented visits to Onam and Bahrain, where in a sports event, Israel’s national anthem was played and open bilateral diplomacy conducted. MbS had already declared that Israel has a right to national self-determination, thus repudiating the Palestinians.
The Kashoggi affair has, thus, brought full focus on what the ascendancy of MbS means for the Kingdom and the region. While Iran equation will remain the same, critical issues like Israel-Palestine, failed wars in Syria and Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s shunning of conservatism in favour of populism, curbing powers of Muslim clerics and corrupt royal conservative interests bent on deriving the powers of the House of Saud from these clerics, are all witnessing marked changes. The Kashoggi murder was not a surprise, but very much in line with other actions like arrests of royals, businessmen, dissidents and feminists (MbS is ready to concede women’s rights issues, but has not taken kindly to the feminist bandwagon claiming credit or leadership or a parallel power constituency).
The last thing that one can expect from MbS is to spread any false illusions of Muslim unity all over the world. Migrants from South Asia – Muslim or otherwise – are being turned back. Recently, Saudi Arabia has started the process of forcible repatriation of Rohingya Muslims – lodged in Saudi detention camps – to Bangladesh. It can be expected that funding to countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh will be more symbolic and formal than enthusiastic or expansive, since clerics are no longer as powerful. This may, to some extent at least, dry up the roots of Pakistani terror outfits, spreading terror in Kashmir.
With the rise of MbS, we are about to come a full circle since the Arab Spring of 2011. In retrospect, it is clear that the point of Arab Spring was not democratic political systems – as western commentators had confidently predicted – but an unravelling of the carefully established Sunni Muslim order and lapsing back into the Arab roots of tribalism. Saudi’s sworn enemies like the Muslim Brotherhood – given refuge by Turkey – and the Houthis, are all a product of the Arab Spring.
The carefully cultivated façade of Muslim unity, Israel enmity and sophistication born of acquired material wealth – although behind the scenes it was always different: the appearances were just for the masses – is giving way to the inherent desert tribalism of Arab societies (not Persian, since it has always been a great and ancient civilization). Under this mental outlook, forget nation-states, even the common Arab citizens do not trust each other at all.
Paradoxically, instead of the Arab world imitating the western democratic systems as was expected after 2011, it is the West that has itself ended up witnessing a similar, parallel movement, with European governments and American systems (now, even Brazil), going back to the pre-World War II mentality, completely unravelling the liberal-secular young “international order” less than 70 years old, but in its abstract arrogance considering itself to be older than any past or national histories. While it was the “liberal order” in the West, it was the “Islamic” order for the Arabs. Both – superficially imposed and forcefully and brutally maintained – are now rapidly unravelling.
This has resulted in a search for an alternative system of stability, pointing to the shining beacon of light in Asia, which is witnessing rapid material progress, solid political stability, rising military power, and, most importantly, a confident upholding of its own culture and spiritual values. Its stability is not based on artificial foundations with some false political façade created to maintain stability among the people, but flows from its own cultures and unites the system and the society.