Understanding the man and the reasons behind the Saudi purge.
(Analysis) — The ongoing purge in Saudi Arabia, together with the kidnapping and extorted “resignation” whilst on a trip to Saudi Arabia of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, is posing a host of questions about the man at the centre of this drama: the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the country’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
The enigma of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman
Views on Muhammad bin Salman vary between those which see in him a genuine reformer who understands that Saudi Arabia urgently needs to change in order to avoid eventual collapse and those which see in him a gambler and would-be dictator intent on centralizing power in Saudi Arabia in his own person.
These two theories are not mutually exclusive. It is possible that Muhammad bin Salman is both: someone who aims to become Saudi Arabia’s dictator in order to carry out the reforms which he believes Saudi Arabia needs to survive, and which he presumably also believes cannot be carried out in any other way.
I suspect that this is how he explains his actions to the other members of the Royal Family and to his father the King and that this is what his supporters within Saudi Arabia – of which for the moment he has many – also believe or profess to believe.
However, even if this is true Muhammad bin Salman’s actions and his “reforms” still seem to me giant steps in the wrong direction both for Saudi Arabia and for himself. In this article, I shall explain why.
In order to do this, it is, however, necessary to look both at Saudi Arabia’s current situation and at the steps Muhammad bin Salman is taking in order to “reform” and save it.
The state of Saudi Arabia
Turning to the state of Saudi Arabia itself, it is not, in my opinion, an exaggeration to talk of situation that is slipping towards crisis and eventual revolution and civil war.
Firstly Saudi Arabia is not a conventional state but is rather the private patrimony of its ruling family after whom it is named.
The Al-Sauds have ruled Saudi Arabia essentially in their own interests, treating the country’s huge oil wealth as their own, in some cases amassing colossal personal fortunes as a result.
All male members of the Al-Saud family – of whom there are thousands – carry the title “prince”, and though the bulk of the family’s – and therefore the Kingdom’s – wealth is said to be concentrated in ‘only’ 2,000 of them, all male members of the Al-Saud family expect and receive privileged positions within the Kingdom.
Moreover, because of the practice of polygamy, the number of ‘princes’ is constantly and rapidly increasing, steadily increasing the burden of supporting them on the Kingdom’s budget.
Since male members of the ever-expanding Al-Saud family monopolize the Kingdom’s top posts as their birth right even a semblance of a meritocratic system where posts are occupied on merit such as is supposed to exist in other countries in Saudi Arabia is impossible.
Though as it happens some members of the Al-Saud family are capable and intelligent men who take their tasks seriously, by no means all or even most of them are, with the result that the Kingdom’s bureaucratic and military structures are riddled with inefficiency, a fact which explains why Saudi Arabia’s vast army has proved incapable of defeating the Houthi militia in tiny Yemen.
To compound the problem, to the 15,000 or so members of the Al-Saud family must be added the members of various other tribes and families which are either traditionally allied to the Al-Saud or which are like the Al-Rashid powerful historic rivals to them, and who must therefore be kept loyal by being offered generous slices from the Saudi cake in the form of fiscal privileges and jobs.
Beneath this vast, unwieldy and already inherently corrupt structure is the mass of the Saudi population.
Their loyalty is maintained by a combination of coercion – the Al-Saud have repeatedly shown themselves utterly ruthless in suppressing challenges – tight information control, intense religious indoctrination, and a culture of economic largesse whereby the Al-Saud hand out numerous fiscal and welfare privileges in order to keep the population acquiescent if not exactly happy.
By definition, this is not a system likely to spur economic or technological innovation or growth, and though there are some highly educated Saudis and even a few highly regarded Saudi scientists the Kingdom has failed to diversify its economy away from oil or establish a proper civil society or genuine intellectual life.
The importance of oil
Oil wealth is, in fact, the glue that holds this whole system together and which keeps it going.
It is because of the Kingdom’s vast oil wealth that the Al-Saud are able to buy support or acquiescence at home, maintain their complex system of international and regional alliances, pay for their bloated defense and security complex, and enjoy the opulent lifestyles which they now see as their birthright.
The demands on the Kingdom’s oil wealth are however steadily increasing year on year as the size of the Al-Saud family and of the Kingdom’s other top families rapidly increases, and as the Kingdom’s population rapidly increases also.
Moreover, as the size both of the elite and of the population has been growing, so have their expectations, so that levels of wealth or living standards which would have seemed high in the 1970s are no longer seen as such today.
However though the country’s oil wealth has provided the Kingdom with a huge and reliable source of income, the size of that income has varied constantly in line with the oil price.
Since the oil price is subject to extreme fluctuations the pattern has been for periods of abundance (eg. the 1970s and the 2000s) to be succeeded by periods of scarcity (eg. the 1990s and the period since 2014).
The Saudi budget problem
The nature of the Saudi system is however such that it is very difficult to cut spending in line with a fall in the oil price since doing so cuts against the constantly rising demands both of the Saudi elite and of the population as a whole.
In practice, since it far more difficult to cut back on the wealth and privileges of the Al-Saud and the other elite families, the cutbacks during periods of scarcity are passed down disproportionately to the general population. The result is a rise in social tensions, which because of the intense religious indoctrination tends to find expression in Jihadi extremism.
Saudi history of internal conflict
The result is a country which beneath its monolithic surface has been repeatedly wracked by violent internal crises.
In 1979 a group of violent Jihadis mounted the single greatest challenge the Al-Saud have faced since the foundation of the Kingdom in the 1930s when they captured and held for several weeks the great mosque of Mecca – Islam’s holiest shrine – possession of which lends the Al-Saud their religious legitimacy. In the end – in a further humiliation to the Al-Saud – they could only be driven out with the help of Pakistani troops and French advisers.
During the 1990s – the longest period to date of low oil prices and therefore within Saudi Arabia of economic scarcity – the situation again deteriorated and in the end got so bad that by the early 2000s a Jihadi insurgency against the Al-Saud was starting to take hold across the Kingdom, with civil war only narrowly averted in part because of the rise in the oil price.
Saudi foreign policy: bid to obtain legitimacy by claiming leadership of Islam
As if these problems were not in themselves severe enough, the Al-Saud since the 1980s – partly by way of response to the shock of the 1979 Mecca mosque siege – have made them worse by embracing a recklessly over-ambitious foreign policy.
This has involved using the same Jihadist sentiments which have caused the Al-Saud so much trouble within the Kingdom to try to mobilize support for the Al-Saud internationally outside it whilst securing their legitimacy within it.
Whilst part of the intention was undoubted to get radicalized and dangerous young men with Jihadist sentiments out of the Kingdom by exporting them abroad to make trouble elsewhere, the Al-Saud have also attempted to manipulate these people to achieve their foreign policy goals.
This export of violent young men from the Arabian peninsula has gone hand in hand with a massive program whereby the Saudis have sought to use their oil wealth to convert Islamic schools and theological colleges across the world to the puritanical hardline Wahhabi doctrines which constitute Saudi Arabia’s official religious ideology. The intention is to change Wahhabism from a fringe doctrine within Sunni Islam into its mainstream.
The objective has been to legitimise the position of the Al-Saud both within the Kingdom and outside it by establishing them as the leaders of Sunni Islam and indeed ultimately of Islam as a whole.
The decisive step was the decision in 1986 to add the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” to the official title of the Saudi King.
The title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” was first used by the Sunni leader Saladin in the twelfth century, and has been used since then by the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt and the Ottoman Sultans of Turkey.
All these rulers assumed this title whilst claiming to be the leaders of Sunni Islam, with the Ottoman Sultans also claiming to be Islam’s Caliphs.
By adopting the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” the Saudi King was, therefore, claiming for himself the leading position within Sunni Islam and was pitching himself as Sunni Islam’s leader.
Saudi Arabia’s enemies and feud with Iran
In practice what this claim of leadership of Sunni Islam had led to is the targeted use of Jihadism against those political movements and states within the Muslim world which either contest the Saudi King’s claim to leadership or which – most dangerously – offer an alternative approach to Islam different from that of the Saudis.
First and foremost that is the Islamic Republic of Iran. I have previously discussed the fundamental differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran and how these two Muslim countries are profoundly different from each other, with Iran offering a vision of an Islamic society which is modern and democratic in a way that Saudi Arabia can never be.
The inevitable consequence of Saudi hostility to Iran is Saudi hostility to the Shia populations of the Muslim world, who are not only by definition attracted to Iran and the vision of an Islamic society practiced there but who also by definition reject the Saudi claim to world leadership of Islam. Unsurprisingly within Saudi Arabia itself, the Shia have become the target of deep Saudi suspicion and of discrimination and oppression.
However Saudi hostility also takes in such secular and multi-confessional states within the Muslim world as Afghanistan was in the 1980s and as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are today.
Saudi leverage of its alliances with the US and Israel
These policies have however made the Al-Saud a host of enemies across the Middle East.
They are also hugely expensive, committing the Kingdom to a quixotic quest for leadership of the Muslim world which is far beyond its actually very limited resources.
They are also contributing further to the radicalization of young men in the Arabian peninsula, compounding the Al-Saud’s internal difficulties.
To the extent that these policies have ever achieved any success it has been entirely due to the skill with which the Saudis have been able to leverage the support of their far more powerful allies: the US and Israel.
However, that has also left the Saudis exposed to manipulation by their allies so that in the Middle East in conflicts like the one in Syria it is not always easy to say who exactly is exploiting whom.
Saudi Arabia’s crisis – oil and Syria
On any objective assessment, it has been obvious for a long time that this situation – both domestically and externally – is not sustainable. Though the post-1980s Saudi bid for leadership of Islam may have briefly consolidated the Al-Saud’s legitimacy within the Kingdom, it has come at the price of growing hostility to Saudi Arabia regionally and a growth of dangerous Jihadist sentiments at home.
However, in the period 2014-2015 two events happened which have tipped this situation into an outright crisis.
2014 oil crash
The first was the crash in oil prices which took place in mid-2014.
For a time the Saudis thought they could not only ride this out but even turn it to their advantage by using the oil price crash to price out the shale producers in the US. However, by 2016 it seems that the social tensions within Saudi Arabia caused by the oil price fall were becoming too great, forcing upon the Saudis a change of course.
Since then the Saudis have worked together with other oil producers – especially with the Russians – to stabilize oil prices, which however remain far below their pre-2014 levels.
Here I should say in passing that I have always disputed the widely expressed theory that the Saudis deliberately crashed the oil price in 2014 at the bidding of the US in order to destabilize Russia. Not only has no one explained why the Saudis would do the US’s bidding in that way, but the Saudis increasingly frantic efforts since 2016 to increase the oil price shows how limited is their actual control over it.
In the event, as things have turned out, the fall in the oil price has hurt Saudi Arabia far more than it hurt Russia. Whilst the huge and diversified Russian economy has rapidly and effortlessly adjusted to the fall in the oil price, it is the Saudis – far more dependent on oil prices than the Russians – who are struggling.
Anyone who knew anything about the two countries in 2014 should have anticipated that. It is a testament to the blindness of so many that they failed to do so.
Defeat in Syria
The second event to have happened since 2014 which has shaken the Saudis is the defeat of the Saudi backed Jihadi insurgency in Syria following the intervention of Russia there.
Here it should be said that not only was Saudi Arabia’s commitment to that insurgency massive but one of the most hardline Saudi princes involved in supporting it was none other than Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, who is now King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s reigning King and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s father.
Not only does this defeat mean the survival – indeed the strengthening – of the Assad government in Syria which the Saudis sought to destroy. It also means a huge increase in the power and influence of Saudi Arabia’s nemesis and President Assad’s ally: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Compounding that failure is the seeming reversal of alliances of the other great Sunni power of the Middle East power – Turkey – which defeated in Syria like Saudi Arabia is now responding to that defeat by mending its fences with the winners of the Syrian war: Russia and Iran.
Whereas until recently Saudi Arabia was at the centre of a network of Sunni states, it now finds that two of the most powerful of them – Turkey and Pakistan – are now becoming increasingly friendly with its enemy Iran, whilst Iran with the help of Russia is now in the process of forging a potentially powerful regional alliance with Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, which Saudi Arabia is bound to see as a threat to itself.
Muhammad bin Salman’s actions are a response to the Saudi crisis
It is this background of failure and crisis which lies behind Muhammad bin Salman’s actions.
His actions since he emerged suddenly on the scene following the succession in January 2015 of his father King Salman do not have the look of a well-thought-out reform program.
Rather they look to be the impulsive and often ill-judged actions of an inexperienced young man intent on reversing Saudi Arabia’s recent defeats, so as to restore the position of the Al-Saud to something like what it was before those defeats took place.
Muhammad bin Salman’s actions since 2015
First, there was the invasion of Yemen – launched in March 2015, just weeks after King Salman succeeded to the throne – involving 150,000 Saudi troops, 100 Saudi aircraft, and contingents from various Saudi allied Gulf states.
Then in 2016, the previous Saudi policy of allowing the oil market to stabilize by itself was abruptly reversed, with Saudi Arabia agreeing first to a production freeze and then to a production cut, even though that meant coming to terms with the Iranians and above all the Russians.
Then this year there was the quarrel with Qatar – a longstanding rival to the Al-Saud whose television station Al-Jazeera is a longstanding thorn in their side – which was accused of getting too close to Iran, and is now under blockade.
Now there is the kidnapping, continued detention and coerced ‘resignation’ of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who leads a government which because it includes Hezbollah members is seen by Muhammad bin Salman and the Saudis as too close to Iran.
Lastly there is the purge within Saudi Arabia itself, with Muhammad bin Salman’s rivals for the throne – Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah – pushed aside, and all of Saudi Arabia’s security forces – the army, the various internal security agencies controlled by the Interior Ministry and the National Guard – brought under Muhammad bin Salman’s personal control.
Muhammad bin Salman’s repeated failures
The problem for Muhammad bin Salman is that none of these projects – with the partial exception of the stabilization of the oil price and his ongoing purge – are going well.
In Syria, the Assad government stands on the brink of total victory.
In Iraq, the government has rejected Saudi demands to realign away from Iran and to disarm the Iranian trained militias which now form the core of Iraq’s armed forces.
In Yemen, the war continues to go badly with the Houthis now launching long-range missiles one of which has just hit Riyadh airport.
The quarrel with Qatar has simply rallied Iran, Turkey and Russia behind Qatar, whilst bringing Qatar closer to Iran.
In Lebanon the extraordinary circumstances of Prime Minister Hariri’s ‘resignation’ seem to have provoked a backlash, with the government rejecting Hariri’s ‘resignation’, the government coalition (including Hezbollah) holding together, and with Lebanese opinion rallying strongly behind the government.
Failures proximate cause of the purge
It is this catalog of failure, and the growing criticism from other Saudi Princes which it has doubtless provoked, which is what almost certainly lies behind the purge.
Confronted by growing criticism and unnerved by his own failures, Muhammad bin Salman has gone for broke, trying to head off resistance and secure for himself the succession to the throne by launching a purge before he becomes the victim of a purge himself.
In my opinion, the person who has best captured the quality of all this is the former British diplomat Alistair Crooke, who has emerged as one of the most insightful commentators of the affairs of the region
It is always tempting. The Syrian war is coming to an end, and the losses to those who bet on the losing side – suddenly in the glare of the end-game – become an acute and public embarrassment. The temptation is to brush the losses aside and with a show of bravado make one last bet: the masculine “hero” risks his home and its contents on a last spin of the wheel. Those in attendance stand in awed silence, awaiting the wheel to slow, and to trickle the ball forward, slot by slot, and to observe where it comes to rest, be it on black, or on the blood-red of tragedy.
Not only in romances, but in life, too. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has wagered all on black, with his “friends” – President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) and Trump himself daring MbS on. Trump, in his business life, once or twice has staked his future on the spin of the wheel. He too has gambled and admits to the exhilaration.
And in the shadows, at the back of the gaming room, stands Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. The idea of going to the casino was his, in the first place. If the hero lands on black, he will share in the joy, but if it is red … never mind: Bibi’s home is not forfeit.
Let us be clear, MbS is severing all the various fetters that hold the Saudi kingdom together and intact. Saudi Arabia is not just a family business: it is also a confederation of tribes. Their diverse interests were attended to, primordially, through the composition of the National Guard, and its patronage. The latter henceforth reflects, no longer, the kingdom’s diverse tribal affiliations, but the security interests of one man, who has seized it for himself.
Ditto for the various cadet branches of the al-Saud family: the carefully judged sharing out of spoils amongst the many family claimants is finished. One man is clearing the table of everybody’s smaller stakes. He has snapped the wires connecting the Court to the Saudi business élite – and is slowly slicing away the Wahhabi religious establishment, too. They have been effectively kicked out of the partnership, which they founded jointly with ibn Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia who ruled during the first half of the last century, also known as King Abdul Aziz. In short, no one has a stake left in this enterprise, but MbS – and no one it seems, has rights, or redress.
Why? Because MbS sees the Saudi political and religious leadership of the Arab world slipping, like sand, through the king’s fingers, and he cannot bear the thought that Iran (and the despised Shi’a), could be the inheritor.
It follows from this that I agree with those such as Alistair Crooke and the Moon of Alabama that the current purge is not some purposeful step towards implementing some sort of well-thought-out reform program but is rather the desperate throw of an inexperienced and impulsive young man – Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman – who is in over his head.
Prospects for success of the purge
That does not mean that in the short term the purge will not succeed.
For the moment there seems to be no organized opposition to Muhammad bin Salman within Saudi Arabia – though in Saudi Arabia one can never know for sure – and with the army and his father the King apparently supporting him the odds must be that in the short term he will be able to pull his gamble off, seeing off or overawing the opposition and securing for himself the succession to his father when King Salman finally dies or abdicates.
The problems will however then start in earnest once the succession has taken place, with Muhammad bin Salman having angered and upset a lot of people on his way to the throne, and with no one left to blame but himself if or rather when things start to go wrong.
The ‘reform’ program
What then of Muhammad bin Salman’s reform program of which so much is being said?
As to that, it should be said first of all that Saudi Vision 2030 is not in any true sense a ‘reform program’ at all.
Rather it is a vast spending and investment program intended to provide Saudi Arabia with an industrial base in a heroically short time whilst leaving the position of the Al-Saud at the center of Saudi society untouched.
I have already made known my view that both the spending targets and the announced industrialization program are totally unrealistic and therefore certain to fail.
Comparisons which some have apparently made with the USSR’s industrialization program under Stalin and with China’s industrialization drive since the 1990s are in my opinion completely wrong. Those were the actions of revolutionary governments intent on mobilizing the entirety of their nations’ resources around a program of industrialization carried out as part of a larger program for the revolutionary transformation of their societies.
By contrast, there is nothing remotely ‘revolutionary’ about what Muhammad bin Salman is trying to do. On the contrary, what he is trying to do by giving Saudi Arabia an industrial base is shore up the existing Saudi status quo by strengthening the position of the Al-Saud both externally and internally.
It is not even properly speaking an industrialization program. Rather it is an attempt to graft an industrial base onto an unreformed Saudi society by leveraging the assets of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Aramco in order to buy one wholesale from abroad.
That ultimately is no different from what Saudi Arabia has been doing – unsuccessfully – since the 1960s. The only difference is one of scale.
There is no reason to think that Muhammad bin Salman will be any more successful than other Saudi rulers have been, doing unsuccessfully what he is now trying to do before him. Certainly, it is not a guarantee of his success where they all failed that he is proposing to throw a lot more money at it than they did.
Financing Saudi Vision 2030 via the purge?
What of the view that the vast fortunes Muhammad bin Salman has seized from those he has just purged will provide him with the wherewithal to bring his Saudi Vision 2030 to fruition?
In reality, the sums seized – reputed to be $800 billion but in reality, only a fraction of that amount – is nowhere near enough to finance a program of this scale. Suffice to say that Saudi Vision 2030 aims to increase Saudi Arabia’s non-oil revenue from $163 billion to $1 trillion a year.
I would add that for Muhammad bin Salman to try to finance his program on the back of money he has seized from Saudi princes who have fallen out with him is politically speaking a problematic idea, to put it mildly, and is a certain recipe for huge trouble down the line.
Outreach to Russia and the Eurasian powers?
Lastly, what of the view expressed by some that Muhammad bin Salman is planning to realign Saudi Arabia towards the Eurasian powers – ie. towards China and Russia and that the purge is intended to head off a pro-US coup that might be launched to prevent this?
In my opinion, this view is based on over-interpretations of Muhammad bin Salman’s comments in a recent Guardian newspaper interview of his wish to refocus Saudi Arabia towards a more “moderate version of Islam” and of the recent visit of his father King Salman to Moscow.
A more ‘moderate version of Islam’?
Turning first to Muhammad bin Salman’s comments about his desire to see within Saudi Arabia a “moderate version of Islam”, here is how the Guardian reports them
What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it…..
We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70% of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.
These comments are not only grossly unhistorical; they appear intended to blame Iran – Muhammad bin Salman’s and Saudi Arabia’s perpetual bête noire – for Saudi Arabia’s problems with radical Jihadism, which in light of previous Saudi policy (see above) is actually absurd.
In reality the Al-Saud – as Muhammad bin Salman of course knows – have been aligned with Wahhabism ever since the eighteenth century, when Muhammad bin Saud, the emir of Diriyah, invited the founder of Wahhabism Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to his court and they agreed together to bring the Arabs of the peninsula back to the ‘true principles’ of Islam.
Nothing Muhammad bin Salman has said or done suggests that he has any plans to change that. Frankly, I think there is as much chance of a non-Wahhabi becoming the King of Saudi Arabia as there is of someone who is not a Catholic becoming Pope.
These comments of Muhammad bin Salman are not intended to pave the way for a genuine move away from rigid Wahhabi type doctrines within Saudi Arabia. Rather they signal a slight easing of certain restrictions within Saudi Arabia in order to win support from younger Saudis whilst simultaneously seeking to win for Saudi Arabia and for Muhammad bin Salman personally a better image in the West.
Ultimately nothing much is going to change if only because real change would call into question Muhammad bin Salman’s religious orthodoxy, which would exclude him from the succession and therefore the throne.
King Salman in Moscow – no realignment away from the US
As to King Salman’s trip to Moscow, to see in it a realignment by Saudi Arabia away from the US towards the Eurasian powers is farfetched.
King Salman is the first Saudi King to visit Russia in an official capacity. He did bring a large delegation with him, though Muhammad bin Salman himself was not part of it. King Salman did also have a lengthy private face-to-face meeting with President Putin during his visit.
However, the deals the Saudis and the Russians did with each other whilst King Salman was in Moscow are totally dwarfed by the far bigger deals the Saudis did with the US just a few months ago during US President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
This shows that it is the relationship with the US not the relationship with Russia which for the Saudis remains the important one.
Explaining the S-400 deal
The most eye-catching deal agreed in Moscow – for the sale by Russia of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia – has in my opinion also been completely misunderstood.
The context for this deal is the ongoing discussions between the Iranians and the Russians for the sale by the Russians to the Iranians of advanced fighter aircraft for the Iranian air force.
The Russians are believed to have offered the Iranians fourth-generation fighters such as the MiG-29 and SU-27. The Iranians are said to be holding out – and will probably eventually get – more advanced fourth generation plus fighters such as the SU-30 and SU-35.
It is standard practice for Russian diplomacy in such situations to seek to balance arms sales to one country with arms sales to its rivals. In that way the Russians – for whom maintaining stability is always a priority – ensure that a balance of power is maintained, whilst avoiding excessive commitments to one side or another in a regional quarrel which might close off routes for cooperation in future.
In the case of the mooted Russian fighter aircraft sale to Iran, the weakest arm of the Iranian military is its air force, which depends on a mix of fighter aircraft delivered in the 1970s to the Shah’s air force by the US, supplemented by some 1980s era MiG-21 copies supplied by China and some ex-Soviet formerly Iraqi aircraft evacuated to Iran by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War of 1990-1991.
Iran urgently needs modern aircraft to upgrade this otherwise obsolescent air force with its strange hodgepodge of aircraft, and realistically Russia is the only Great Power which can provide them (delivery of Chinese aircraft to Iran such as the J-10 has also from time to time been mooted. However, it would also require Russian agreement since all current Chinese fighter aircraft use Russian or Russian derived engines).
Iranian acquisition of large numbers of advanced Russian fighters would however radically change the balance of power in the Gulf and in the Middle East.
Accordingly, the Russians are offering Saudi Arabia S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, which because of their defensive nature do not directly threaten Iran, but which do provide the Saudis with protection from the advanced fighters Russia is preparing to sell to Iran.
That way the Russians are able to keep all sides contented if not exactly happy; balancing their sale of advanced fighters to Iran with an equivalent sale of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, thereby preserving Russia’s relations with both the Iranians and the Saudis and the balance of military power in the Gulf and in the Middle East.
Undoubtedly the question of Russian military aircraft sales to Iran would have been touched on during this visit, with the Iranians doubtless holding out for advanced SU-30 and SU-35 fighters and seeking a production and licensing agreement, and with Putin explaining the rationale for the recent Russian agreement to sell S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia.
Purposes of King Salman’s Moscow trip
As for the other purposes of King Salman’s Moscow visit, the Saudis will have been anxious to ensure continued Russian agreement to oil production cuts, and will also have sought reassurances about the limits of Russian commitments to Iran.
Events since 2014 have shown that it is Saudi Arabia which is far more vulnerable to falls in the oil price than Russia (see above) and that it is Saudi Arabia which therefore needs Russia’s help with oil production cuts and not the other way round.
As to Russia’s relations with Iran, ultimately it is not in Saudi Arabia’s interests to drive Russia into a fully-fledged alliance with Iran, and King Salman’s various offers of Saudi investment in the Russian economy will have been made in part in order to ensure that does not happen.
The Russians for their part will not only have welcomed these offers; they also appear to have pressed King Salman into making financial commitments to restore Syria’s economy – devastated by six years of war – which for the Russians is a priority issue.
Summarizing King Salman’s Moscow trip
Overall King Salman’s visit to Russia is not evidence of a Saudi shift away from the US and towards the Eurasian powers. Rather it is an example of the sort of hard-headed bargaining for maximum advantage at which the Russians excel.
Instead of over-committing to Iran and thereby placing themselves on one side in an Iranian-Saudi quarrel which is of no direct concern to them, the Russians have leveraged their increasingly close relations with Iran to extract concessions from Saudi Arabia, whilst throwing in the sale of S-400 missiles both as a reassurance and as a sweetener.
It is a style of diplomacy which the US and the Western powers no longer do and which – lost in their intricate geopolitical strategies – they no longer seem able to understand.
In the Middle East, it is however understood completely. Not for nothing is Russia’s President Putin called in the Middle East “Putin the Fox”.
Muhammad bin Salman – not a reformer but an insecure young man in a hurry
Overall it is impossible to see in Muhammad bin Salman’s actions any truly well-thought-out ‘reform’ strategy.
As to what such a genuine – and realistic – reform program might look like, I discussed it in my previous article where I discussed his hopelessly unrealistic economic plans
In reality what Saudi Arabia needs to do is not engage in a gigantic program of over-spending which can only make the country’s economic situation worse, but on the contrary cut back radically on its existing spending, so that it can finally start to live within its means.
That means thinking of how to end the vast system of subsidies and privileges that are distorting and stifling the economy, and which are robbing it of vitality because they are unearned since they are paid for from oil revenues and are not paid for by taxes.
It means working towards ending the peg between the Saudi riyal and the US dollar, which is exaggerating the problems of the country’s budget at a time of low oil prices, and which is increasing its non-oil trade deficit by stifling the competitiveness of the non-oil part of the country’s economy.
It also means reining back on the country’s ludicrously over-ambitious and inherently destabilising foreign policy, which has achieved nothing save to spread terrorism throughout the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia itself, whilst locking Saudi Arabia into an arms race with Iran, which because of Iran’s vastly superior resources Saudi Arabia can never win.
As for the vast sums Saudi Arabia spends on arms – which it cannot use and often doesn’t intend to use – Saudi Arabia would be far better advised spending them instead on educating its people so as to prepare them for a genuine role in the country’s government.
As well as improving the national education system – which by all accounts is in an extremely poor condition, blighted by bigotry and prejudice – that means providing scholarships to young Saudis – men and women – from poorer families to study in universities abroad.
Objectively all this is possible, and it is not too late to do it. If it were done then in 10 to 20 years time Saudi Arabia would be transformed vastly for the better.
Muhammad bin Salman is proposing none of these things. On the contrary, he is planning to do the diametric opposite to them: increasing spending even further and even faster by committing to a grandiose and unrealistic industrialization program whilst increasing Saudi Arabia’s already bloated defense budget (reputedly the third biggest in the world) even further by increasing military spending to stratospheric levels.
At the same time he is doubling down on Saudi Arabia’s self-destructive feud with Iran – a far more powerful country than Saudi Arabia is or can ever be – whilst increasing the Kingdom’s already excessive foreign policy commitments even more.
His actions, in fact, show him to be not just an insecure young man in a hurry but one who responds to resistance and setbacks not by rethinking his strategies but by doubling down on them and by becoming aggressive.
Shocking treatment of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri
The decision to kidnap, detain and extort a ‘resignation’ statement out of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harari is a case in point. I am bewildered that so few have commented on just how outrageous and self-defeating this frankly bizarre step is.
Not only is it a gross violation of international law but it is an act which goes totally against the Arab nation’s longstanding and very deep tradition of hospitality and guest-friendship. Certainly in Lebanon and I suspect elsewhere in the Arab world (including in Saudi Arabia itself) most people will be shocked by it.
Beyond that, it is completely counter-productive. Having seen what Muhammad bin Salman has just done to Saad Hariri why would any other leader of any one of the smaller Arab states ever risk accepting an invitation from Muhammad bin Salman again?
Muhammad bin Salman’s treatment of Saad Hariri is not the action of a statesman but of a gangster. Even the most brutal tyrants of the Middle East – people such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – have never previously acted publicly in this way: kidnapping, detaining and extorting a ‘resignation’ statement out of the Prime Minister of a supposedly friendly Arab country whilst he is on a visit to their own.
Popularity of purge will be ephemeral
Muhammad bin Salman’s purge is all of a piece with this ruthless and counter-productive behavior.
Whilst passing off the purge as an anti-corruption crackdown may along with with the slight easing of social restrictions Muhammad bin Salman has recently announced win him a certain amount of popularity amongst younger Saudis (where most of his support is to be found) Saudi Arabia is not a democracy and that sort of popularity is of little value if it comes at the price of alienating the country’s traditional power centres, which is what at an ever-accelerating pace Muhammad bin Salman is doing.
It is likely that this popularity will prove ephemeral anyway. As Muhammad bin Salman is not proposing any really fundamental change to Saudi society but is instead simply aiming to concentrate all power in his own hands there is no reason why younger Saudis should support him or why Saudi Arabia should become any less corrupt in future under his rule than it is now.
If anything the opposite is likely to be true, with opportunities for corruption multiplying as a direct result of the runaway spending program Muhammad bin Salman has committed himself to.
Impossibility of ‘reforming’ Saudi Arabia
My opinion is that given the nature of Saudi society the very idea of ‘reform’ within Saudi Arabia is anyway an oxymoron. Whilst it is possible to see how such a thing could, in theory, be done, in practice the nature of the system (see above) all but rules it out.
Perhaps that is why as the horizons darken the only ‘solution’ anyone is offering is the one being offered by Muhammad bin Salman: to secure the future position of the Al-Saud by transforming the current oligarchy into a personal dictatorship centered on himself.
Certain failure of Muhammad bin Salman’s plans setting the scene for final collapse
That might suggest that Muhammad bin Salman’s actions are the Al-Saud’s last desperate but nonetheless calculated bid to avert an otherwise inevitable collapse. Frankly, I doubt that they are anything as carefully thought through as that.
Regardless, of one thing I am sure: they are far more likely to accelerate the coming collapse than they are to avert or delay it.
Here is what I wrote about Muhammad bin Salman in my article about his economic plans
Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s peculiar genius is to accelerate the now inevitable collapse, so that it will all happen far more quickly than it otherwise would have done, and at supersonic speed.
Patrick Cockburn, that most insightful of commentators on Middle East affairs, has compared the cost and extravagance of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reception of President Trump to the similarly empty and inflated pomp of the Shah of Iran’s Persepolis Party of 1971.
That event together with the Shah’s runaway spending on a manic and unsustainable industrialization program eerily similar to the one now planned by Prince Mohammed bin Salman led eventually to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Iranian monarchy. If the same thing happens in Saudi Arabia the results will be far more bloody.
All of Muhammad bin Salman’s subsequent actions since I wrote those words – on 20th May 2017 – only confirm these opinions.
Meanwhile, there is no justification for speaking of Muhammad bin Salman as Saudi Arabia’s ‘reformer’ or potential savior.
On the contrary, he comes across as an impulsive and arrogant young man in a hurry who has little idea of what he is doing and whose actions are as certain to bring the House of Saud crashing down around him as to secure his own downfall.
Top photo | Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, left, attend the opening ceremony of Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 24, 2017. (Saudi Press Agency/AP)
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