Saudi Arabia

Saudi intrigues

Print edition : December 08, 2017

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP

Prince Miteb, son of the former King Abdullah, is among those arrested in the recent purge. Photo: Philippe Wojazer/REUTERS

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (right), said to be one of the world’s 10 richest men, who had criticised Donald Trump during the U.S. presidential election, was also arrested. Photo: AMER HILAB/AFP

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who recently announced his resignation on official Saudi television, here in a live interview from Riyadh on November 12. He said that he was not under house arrest in Saudi Arabia and intended to return to Lebanon soon. Photo: AP

Supporters of Hariri hold up placards seeking his return, on the starting line of Beirut’s annual marathon, an event in which Hariri was a regular participant. President Michel Aoun urged participants to use the run to demand Hariri’s return. Photo: ANWAR AMRO/AFP

Lebanese President Michel Aoun. He has rejected Hariri’s resignation. Photo: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS

The purge of the Saudi royal family, camouflaged as an anti-corruption drive, has torn apart its erstwhile unity, while the forced resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister has reinforced the battle lines in the volatile neighbourhood.

It WAS a hectic two weeks for the SAUDI Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is now popularly known. In the first fortnight of November, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia initiated a purge that involved the arrest of some of his royal half-brothers, leading businessmen, artistes and media professionals. He then announced a full blockade on Yemen after a missile fired from that country fell perilously close to the international airport in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. After that he did something unparalleled in the history of contemporary diplomacy or politics in the region. The Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, was urgently summoned to Riyadh by the Saudi King. According to reports, he was promptly arrested after landing and given a prepared speech of resignation to read.

In the speech, broadcast on Saudi television, Hariri virulently denounced the role of the Hizbollah and Iran in Lebanon and the wider region. In language echoing that of recent speeches made by Saudi leaders, Hariri blamed Iran for “all the disputes and wars in the region”. Only a day before, Hariri had held cordial talks in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Velayati, a former Foreign Minister, praised Hariri, describing him as a “respectable man”, and reaffirmed Tehran’s support for Lebanon’s government. The next day, Hariri, who holds dual Lebanese-Saudi citizenship, was summoned to Riyadh on the express orders of the Saudi monarch. The Saudi government also owes his construction firm billions of dollars in unpaid bills. The Lebanese Prime Minister was ordered to come alone to Riyadh by the Saudi authorities. Even his chief of Cabinet was barred from accompanying him.

Hariri, before his unannounced appearance on a Saudi television channel, was presiding over a Lebanese government that was, after a long time, working in a united and cohesive way. The Hizbollah is an important part of the government. Despite past differences, Hariri and the Hizbollah seemed to be getting on well at a time when Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv were busy denigrating the Shia resistance movement and calling for its destruction. The President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, has refused to accept Hariri’s resignation unless he comes back to Beirut and hands over his resignation letter personally. The Lebanese President has said that the Saudi authorities are holding the Prime Minister against his will.

A week before Hariri’s resignation speech, the Saudi Minister of State for Persian Gulf Affairs, Thamer al Sabhan, criticised the Lebanese government for its “silence” on the Hizbollah’s alleged acts of aggression against the Gulf monarchy. He demanded the use of force against the Hizbollah, adding that all those who cooperated with the movement “should be punished”. He said that there was no longer a distinction between the Hizbollah and the Lebanese state and that his government would treat the Lebanese government as a “government declaring war” on Saudi Arabia.

Hariri had obviously not endeared himself to the Saudi establishment with some of his recent moves. He had recently praised the Hizbollah for its role in driving Daesh- and Al-Qaeda-linked forces out of Lebanese territory. The Hizbollah movement’s key role in driving out extremist forces from not only Lebanon but also Syria and Iraq is precisely what infuriated the government of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, along with their Gulf allies, had pumped in billions of dollars to Al Qaeda- and Daesh-linked rebels in futile attempts at regime change in Syria.

Reactions to Hariri’s exit

Donald Trump’s election as the President of the United States has once again given some of the Gulf monarchs grandiose dreams. This time, they want to simultaneously target Iran and Lebanon, along with Syria. The Trump administration has been busy trying to scuttle the nuclear deal with Iran, while the U.S. Congress has imposed more punitive sanctions against the Hizbollah movement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a strong supporter of MBS and was quick to extend support for the young Crown Prince’s virtual declaration of war against Lebanon. He described in a statement Hariri’s resignation as “a wake-up call for the international community to act against Iranian aggression”. The Saudi government has ordered all its citizens to leave Lebanon forthwith. Israeli politicians are threatening to reduce Lebanon to rubble when the next war breaks out. The Hizbollah was responsible for kicking the Israeli forces out of Lebanon. They had fought the mighty Israeli army to a stalemate during its 2006 invasion of Lebanon.

The Lebanese street took the surprising developments in its stride. The Saudi attempts to reignite the sectarian strife in Lebanon have failed so far. Many of Hariri’s close associates and members of his party said that they were not aware of any intention on Hariri’s part to resign and suggested that the resignation was obtained under duress. The general refrain in Lebanon was that Hariri should have at least resigned on Lebanese soil for the sake of credibility. Speaking after the “resignation”, Hizbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said that Saudi Arabia had declared war on Lebanon. He accused the Saudi government of “arresting” Hariri and said that his “detention was an insult to all Lebanese”. He added that the Saudis were inciting the Israelis to launch another war against Lebanon. “I’m not talking here about analysis, but information,” he said. “The Saudis asked Israel to attack Lebanon.” Daniel Shapiro, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., told The New York Times that the Saudi Crown Prince “seems very impatient to actually spark the confrontation” between Israel and Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement in the second week of November warning “against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country”. Trump, however, has tweeted implicit support for the Saudi Crown Prince, saying he had “great confidence” in MBS. “They know exactly what they were doing.” After the arrests of the royals and the forced resignation of Hariri, Trump had a telephonic conversation with King Salman.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, said to be among the world’s 10 richest men, is among the more than 200 high-profile people arrested. He posted tweets critical of Trump during the U.S. presidential election and on one occasion called him “a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America”. He had revealed to the U.S. Ambassador in Saudi Arabia the corrupt practices of the royal court. A handful of senior princes controlled billions of dollars (amounting to the revenue generated by the sale of one million barrels of oil a day) in off-budget programmes. The State Department memo detailing the conversation between Prince Alwaleed and the American ambassador was released by WikiLeaks.

Two sons of the former King Abdullah, Miteb and Turki, are among those arrested. Miteb bin Abdullah was Commander of the National Guard and was a serious contender to succeed the present King. The construction magnate Bakr bin Laden, brother of Osama bin Laden, and four Cabinet Ministers are also under house arrest. The Saudi purge is being camouflaged as an anti-corruption drive. It is well known that senior members of the Saudi royalty have been freely dipping their hands into the treasury, without too many questions being asked. On a trip to France last year, MBS himself splurged around half a billion dollars on a luxury yacht that had caught his fancy. The Saudi authorities are claiming that $800 billion will be recovered in their anti-corruption drive. As many as 1,700 bank accounts have been frozen.

The unity of the large and extended Saud royal house, which provided stability to the kingdom, has been broken. It is unlikely to be restored as long as MBS calls the shots in Riyadh. A division has emerged between the Sudairi and Chamar clans within the royal family. King Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom, had taken wives from both the tribes. MBS is a Sudairi while Prince Miteb belongs to the Chamar clan.

The dramatic events in Saudi Arabia took place soon after a visit by Jared Kushner, Trump’s influential son-in-law, to the kingdom. MBS and Kushner, according to reports in the American media, had extensive discussions on important issues. The Washington Post reported that MBS and Kushner “stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. several nights swapping stories and planning strategy”. MBS has also been the architect of the policy to isolate Qatar. In the process he has made the already dysfunctional Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) an openly divided outfit.

Targeting Yemen

But his biggest blunder so far has been the ill-advised war against the impoverished state of Yemen. That war has truly boomeranged on the Saudi royals. The Houthi rebels, after firing a medium-range missile on Riyadh in early November, have threatened to unleash missiles on the United Arab Emirates, the closest military and political ally of the Saudis. The Saudis have blamed Iran and the Hizbollah for the attack. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, while denying any responsibility for it, said that the Yemenis had a right to retaliate as their country had been under sustained military attack and an economic blockade for almost two years. The country has been devastated by the Saudi-led military coalition supported by the U.S. and the United Kingdom. The huge profits that American and British armament companies are making by selling arms to Saudi Arabia and its allies have made their governments immune to the sufferings of the Yemeni people.

Today, more than 20 million Yemenis are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance, with seven million facing famine-like conditions. Yet, Saudi Arabia has now gone in for a complete air, sea and ground blockade of the country, pushing up food prices sharply and doubling the price of cooking oil. The U.N. has warned that millions of people will die unless the Saudis lift their blockade. Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council that if the blockade was not lifted immediately, “it will be the largest famine the world has seen in many decades, with millions of victims”.

The West, while shedding crocodile tears over the humanitarian crisis, has done nothing to discourage the Saudi blockade. The U.S. Ambassador at the U.N., Nikki Haley, while blaming Iran for the missile launch against Saudi Arabia, had nothing to say about the plight of the Yemenis or the Saudi blockade of the country. U.S. Navy warships are positioned off the Yemeni coast to help the Saudis implement their blockade.