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The Saudi purge shaking the Middle East

The seeming power grab consolidates all the major security forces and the military in the hands of the current King Salman and his son, the 32 year old Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman.

President Donald Trump speaks with Prince bin Salman, Washington, D.C., 14 March 2017
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“They were careless people… they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby)

In the dead of night on Sunday, November 5th, as the American President was preparing for a trip to east Asia amid tensions on the Korean peninsula, a number of distinguished Saudis were rounded up by authorities. Many were later brought to the Ritz Carleton hotel in the capital, Riyadh, where they remain under a kind of luxurious house arrest. Among them are some of the richest people alive, including at least 11 princes, several high ranking government ministers and a number of prominent businessmen.

The most well known names among the more than 200 believed to have been detained are probably Alwaleed bin Talal, a man with large stakes in some of the world’s biggest companies, and Bakr Bin Laden, Osama’s half brother, who runs the kingdom’s largest construction firm.

Perhaps the most powerful in Saudi terms of those still in custody, stripped of his post as leader of the National Guard, a force as large as the Kingdom’s army and responsible for the safety of its royals, is Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah. This prince was a favored son of the previous king whose surname he shares and who passed away at the beginning of 2015.

The seeming power grab consolidates all the major security forces and the military in the hands of the current King Salman and his son, the 32 year old Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). Historically, these security related posts have been shared among various branches of the royal family.

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Officials in the kingdom have been tight lipped about the purge, saying that the arrests of the princes and other notables are just the end of “Phase 1“ of a drive to halt corruption in the country. In the days since the round up, a large number of bank accounts have been frozen and a no fly list has been put in place.

Earlier events seem to point to some other reasons for the detentions of these powerful Saudis than just the stated goal of rooting out corruption. While it mostly went unreported in the mainstream Western press, the November 5th arrests follow a mid-September purge of religious leaders, activists and critical journalists from across the political spectrum, although a clear majority are seen as sympathetic to Islamism, viewed as the greatest near term political threat to the continued rule of Middle Eastern despots like the Saudi monarch.

Still, the fallout from the arrests could create more peril for King Salman and MBS than they bargained for.

Like many countries in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, patronage networks are often the glue that holds a dizzying set of interests, from the familial to the tribal to the religious, together. This isn’t to say that corruption and outright bribery don’t exist outside of these systems, just that the way that Saudi Arabia has functioned since the beginning is based on these networks that, viewed in another context, would look very similar to widespread corruption at all levels of society.

It also doesn’t change the fact that the hundreds of billions to be seized, some of it rumored to have been obtained through torture, will become the property of the state, a state that increasingly seems to be in the hands of one 32 year old man.

The detentions could shake the foundations of the Saudi kingdom, which has been ruled by a kind of royal concord for most of its history because, as Mohammed Ayoob, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Michigan State recently explained in the National Interest, “The Saudi monarchy (has) survived so far on the basis of a shared consensus among the leading princes that they must hang together, lest they be hanged separately.”

Many experts have warned that MBS is cementing what looks like absolute power while King Salman, who some long term watchers, including the German foreign intelligence agency, the BND, believe is suffering from dementia, leaves the day to day running of the kingdom to his favorite son.

This includes the possibly destabilizing neoliberal economic reform efforts called Vision 2030, the stated goal of which is to wean the country off of its reliance on the income produced by oil and create what can only be called a ‘financialized’ economy through the sale of state assets and reinvestment of the resulting short term gains, all in a decade and change.

One of the other possible problems with the plan, as explained in great detail by the anonymous author of Middle East Eye article cited above, is that it presupposes a level of educational accomplishment in a country where this precise thing isn’t encouraged or widespread. Ordinary Saudi citizens as a general rule receive little more than an education in religion and obedience to the monarchy, not exactly fertile ground on which to build a knowledge based or creative economy, especially in such a short period of time.

A violent distraction in ‘Happy Arabia’

Just a day before the surprise arrests targeting the cream of Saudi society, what the world was at first told was a Yemeni made Burkan H2 missile was intercepted close to an airport just outside of the kingdom’s capital. It was reported by some early sources to have been fired by loyalists to former President Saleh and by others to have been fired by Houthi rebels, who are in an on again off again alliance.

Rather than seeing this as retaliation for the ongoing pummeling of its poorer neighbor, with at least 26 killed in a market and nearby hotel in northern Yemen bombed by the Kingdom and their allies just a few days earlier, Saudi officials were soon looking in a familiar direction for the ‘real’ culprit.

This was not fast enough for U.S. President Trump, who took to Twitter with characteristic speed to blame Iran for the missile and take credit for the Patriot batteries that stopped it, seemingly threatening world peace in the process, writing, “That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make and now we’re selling it all over the world.”

The Saudi leadership then took an unexpected turn, claiming that the Lebanese group Hezbollah had somehow infiltrated Yemen with Iranian weapons and were responsible for the missile launch. The U.S. Air-force later made a statement that the missile was Iranian made but didn’t offer any proof that this was the case beyond unspecified ‘markings’ they claimed they had found on the debris.

The kingdom then announced it was tightening the already ruinous sea, air and land blockade on the country.

The argument that Yemen’s problems are caused by Iran and not its aggressive neighbors are being made about a somewhat lawless country so full of weapons no group would need to look for a foreign sponsor to supply them. To put this in perspective, Yemen is second only to the U.S. in terms of per capita gun ownership, without any of the restrictions on automatic and heavier weapons that exist there. On top of this, large numbers of soldiers deserted before the Saudi led invasion, bringing massive amounts of foreign made firepower to the Houthi-Saleh alliance.

The country, in better times known to the ancient Romans as Arabia Felix (‘Happy Arabia’), imports most of its food and is currently suffering an unprecedented cholera epidemic. Imposing an even more stringent blockade means that many more people than will fall at the hands of all the military forces in the country, including the Saudis and their partners, the Houthis, a growing Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that now controls a large amount of territory, the country’s fledgling ISIS affiliate and forces aligned with two former presidents, will die from hunger and sickness.

The seriousness of the situation was made clear by reporter Bonnie Khristian, who explained on the web-site Rare, that, because of the blockade already in place, “No container ships carrying pharmaceuticals have been permitted to dock in Yemen since 2015, and just 21 container ships of food were allowed to dock from January to August of this year.”

Rattling the saber at Lebanon

Earlier the same day the missile was launched, Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, who made his fortune in the kingdom and is a dual citizen there, announced his resignation from office during a trip to Riyadh, in his own words, “in protest against Iran’s undue influence in Lebanese politics.”

The sudden, televised resignation that some observers believe was made under duress, stunned Lebanon’s political establishment and may cause its parliament, divided along sectarian lines and including representatives of the political wing of the Shiite militia Hezbollah in the governing coalition, to collapse.

The move could throw the tiny country of 6 million, which hosts a million and a half Syrian refugees, already fraying the delicate social and religious balance of the country, into chaos and has led some to predict a new Israeli intervention against Hezbollah.

It also means that Saudi Arabia, itself home to 32 million people, is now at war or threatening war with Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Qatar and Iran.

Jared Kushner and the U.A.E.’s man in Washington

There isn’t really much on the public record about Saudi Arabia’s future monarch besides a few soft ball interviews where he appears at best a little pompous. Barring more information about him, it may be instructive to look at some of the better known figures that seem close to him.

At the end of October, MBS had as his visitor another young prince in all but name, the son of a disgraced New Jersey real estate developer and the son in law of the most powerful man in the world. Jared Kushner, a 36 year old with vast resources at his disposal who has accomplished very little, has been put in charge of a wide portfolio by the U.S. President including but not limited to Middle East peace, relations with China and Mexico, solving the opioid crisis and reinventing government.

The unannounced trip was Kushner’s third so far this year. For his part, Kushner’s father-in-law has been supportive of the purge in the Kingdom on social media, fully endorsing it in one tweet that read, “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing.”

One thing that seems to be true is that Kushner and MBS have become fast friends, and they may have been brought together by the ambitious UAE Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al Otaiba. The ambassador may have been trying to leverage these associations in the interests of his own King, Sheikh Khalifa, whose own regional influence is growing through investments in Western think tanks and increased lobbying efforts.

This growing sway in both Washington D.C. and Riyadh became clear when Otaiba showed a level of incompetence bordering on hubris by storing his plans and conversations with American journalists and think tanks on his unsecured Hotmail account, which was hacked and leaked at the beginning of this year.

By attacking three pillars of his future kingdom simultaneously, the royal family, the business community and much of the Wahabbi religious establishment, none of whom are in any way defensible, MBS is taking a big gamble. There’s no guarantee that even an absolute monarch can transform a deeply conservative society like Saudi Arabia into a more liberal, modern one in a short period of time by force of will. He has rightly been given credit for stripping the country’s notorious religious police of some of their power and giving women the right to drive next year, but these are the definition of baby steps for a country with one of the most troubling human rights records in the world.

The Crown Prince has also already sacrificed many lives in Yemen to further his ambitions and his willingness to risk even larger conflicts should give his allies in the White House and beyond some pause as he continues his ascent in a country that, for good or ill, remains vital to the functioning of the global economy.

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