Saudi princes and billionaires are locked up in a 5-star hotel and some of them are getting beaten, tortured and murdered! It’s the most astonishing coup/purge in Saudi Arabia’s history. Then Lebanese Prime Minister who visited Saudi Arabia became a hostage and resigned on Saudi TV! The chaotic and bizarre news from Saudi Arabia have been shocking in the last couple of weeks. WTH is happening? Let’s break it down.
The central figure in this Saudi drama is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a.k.a “MbS.” Crown Prince means that MbS is set to become the next king. And that itself is very controversial for three reasons:
1. He is very young — only 32 — and lacks experience. He’s also shown himself to be ruthless and impulsive.
2. He’s the son of the current king, and this breaks the well-established Saudi protocols that would have required the king’s brother or other senior royal members be the crown prince.
3. He kicked out another crown prince (in June 2017) and took the spot
MbS has been vigorously consolidating power for the last two years. In 2015, he became the defense minister when his dad became the king. Then immediately he started the war on Yemen, which is still going on and has caused the worst global humanitarian crisis in decades.
In 2017, he started describing a new socially liberal vision of Saudi Arabia — a country of moderate Islam. He stopped the “vice police” in Saudi Arabia from arresting people (for crimes such as not wearing the burqa properly etc.), allowed women to go sports stadiums, and has said that women can drive starting next year. All these reforms have been well received by young Saudis who constitute a big chunk of the population now.
Of course, in this process, MbS went against the clerics of Wahhabism, the version of Islam that has defined Saudi Arabia for two centuries. So, count the Wahhabi clerics as Salman’s first big potential enemy.
The Wahhabi clerics are very powerful, partly because Saudi Arabia has two Islamic holy sites – Mecca and Medina. The clerics give legitimacy to the Saudi kings and, in some sense, prevent the citizens from rising against the royalty. Many Saudi citizens are so ingrained in Wahhabi fundamentalism that they blindly follow the clerics as if the clerics have a direct hotline to Allah.
The clerics are also bribed/rewarded by the kings who spend billions of dollars on mosques and Islamic schools (“madrassas”) all over the world. Thus, when MbS says he wants to embrace “moderate Islam,” it also means that the Wahhabi clerics may find themselves unemployed. Not good.
Antagonizing Royal Families
In June 2017, MbS unceremoniously got rid of the crown prince and assumed the role. If this was shocking, he doubled down on the power grab two weeks ago and arrested dozens of Saudi elites, including princes, billionaires and media moguls. The official reason that nobody believes: crackdown on corruption.
(On a side note, how did MbS get all these globetrotting figures in one place? He organized a big event to discuss NEOM, a futuristic, robots-filled Saudi city that allegedly would cost $500 billion to build. Is that a big hoax? Only time will tell).
Some of the princes are sons of former Saudi kings and thus are extremely influential. One prince was shot to death and another died in a helicopter crash (was it shot down?). The billionaires included Alwaleed bin Talan, who is the richest man in the Arab world. Known as the Warren Buffet of Saudi Arabia, Talal is of the biggest shareholders of US corporations such as Twitter, apple, Citigroup and News Corp (parent company of Fox News).
To make things worse, all these rich and the famous people are held up in a hotel and photos show them sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor in a large room. Some of them might be getting beaten up and tortured. One prince was shot to death during the arrest and another prince was blown out of a helicopter. All these are extremely ruthless and are bound to create backlash and thirst for revenge from the families of the victims.
Saudi Arabia has run on consensus and sharing wealth and power among all the royal families (who almost are all descendants of the first modern Saudi king). Now MbS has upended all the rules.
Follow the Money
More than 1000 bank accounts have been frozen in the last two weeks, and potentially $800 billion might be seized from those arrested. Thus MbS might be executing the biggest heist in human history!!
Saudi Arabia has been in a lot of financial trouble for the last three years since the price of oil collapsed from $120 a barrel to $30. Although the price has bounced back to around $60, it’s still below the break-even price for Saudi Arabia. Thus the Saudi budget is bleeding and the Saudis are even contemplating privatizing their oil company, Aramco. US investment companies are salivating, and Trump tweeted on the morning of the coup (coincidence? Not!) that Saudi Arabia should do an IPO in the US with NYSE!
Chaos in Saudi Foreign Policy – Yemen, Syria, Qatar, Iraq and Lebanon
If MbS was causing immense chaos in domestic policies, he has been equally dangerous in foreign policies. Having apparently turned into a puppet of Israel, he has been viciously anti-Iran and anti-Shia Muslims.
From the moment he became the defense minister in 2015, he has been bombing Yemen, where Sunnis and Shiites are fighting each other over control of the country. Salman’s ruthless bombing and blockades have resulted in millions of Yemenis stuck in utter poverty and devastation. Over 400,000 children in Yemen are suffering from cholera and other diseases.
Then MbS also continued the disastrous arming of ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria until this year, which resulted in wanton destruction of Syria.
Few months ago, Saudi Arabia launched a devastating and surprising blockade against Qatar. It severed diplomatic relations and shut its border with Qatar. Considering that 90% of Qatar’s food used to come across the Saudi border, this was an extraordinary move. Then Saudi Arabia and others demanded that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera and do a whole bunch of humiliating things within the next 24 hours. Nothing happened. Then the ultimatum was given one more week. Qatar refused to budge. Since then, Iran and Turkey have come to rescue Qatar, and MbS lost his gamble.
When Assad won the war, Salman turned to Iraq and tried to destabilize it by supporting the Kurdistan referendum. That backfired when Iraq and Iran made a deal with one of the Kurdish opposition and quickly took back the oil-rich provinces. The Kurds have now agreed to nullify the referendum.
Finally, MbS turned his sight to Lebanon, the last piece of the Shiite-Crescent (Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon). He asked the Lebanese Prime Minister, Hariri, to visit Saudi Arabia. A day later, Hariri announced his resignation on Saudi TV! He claimed that Hezbollah was trying to assassinate him. The intended reaction was that Lebanese people would be shocked and would turn against Hezbollah; or that Israel could exhibit faux outrage and bomb Lebanon. Neither happened when Hezbollah leaders called it a bluff and simply asked Hariri to return to Lebanon. Then it turned out that Hariri doesn’t even have access to his own cell phone and is basically under house arrest in Saudi Arabia. Nobody knows when he will or can return to Lebanon. Since Hariri is a dual Saudi citizen and comes from a family which has made billions in Saudi business activities, he’s now seen as a puppet and has become a laughing stock. Another Salman’s brilliant plan that failed.
Another two weird things in recent Saudi foreign policy: it wants to recognize Israel (which almost no other Arab country does) and it’s also bullying the Palestinian leader to accept US/Israel demands.
Breakup of Saudi Arabia?
It’s beyond incredible that one person can make so many mistakes. Which makes me wonder … is this all just planned, controlled demolition of Saudi Arabia? In 2013, a New York Times article talked about breaking up 5 Middle East countries into 14 new ones.
And consider that just a few days after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in June, the Saudis launched the economic war against Qatar. In September, MbS secretly visited Israel. Then, in November, a few days after Jared Kushner’s visit to Saudi Arabia, MbS launched his purge/coup against Saudi royal families.
To summarize the extraordinary events, MbS’ plans to
– dismantle Wahhabism …
– change the entire nature of a whole nation drastically and suddenly …
– get rid of far too many powerful figures in the country …
– assume way too many jobs (Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Finance Minister, Head of National Guard, Chief of Military, Head of Intelligence and a few more!). This would make even despots like Kim Jong Un jealous …
– antagonize numerous powerful neighbors …
– privatize Saudi oil — the most important national resource …
– recognize Israel and beat up on Palestine’s leaders …
Nothing makes sense. It’s as if the entire script was written by Israelis and Neocons in Washington. So, if I were to believe in geopolitical conspiracy theories, I would say that Salman might as well be Saudi Arabia’s Manchurian candidate programmed to breakup the country.
Author – Chris Kanthan
( Check out Syria – War of Deception, my new e-book on the Syrian war, the most consequential war of recent times