The attempted transition of Saudi Arabia is not going to be an easy affair. The strategic environment of the Middle East isn’t exactly conducive for that and the internal structure of the Saudi ruling family is a mixture of politics, deceit and subterfuge.
If you haven’t been following the events in Saudi Arabia you should start by knowing something about the ‘Sudairi Seven’. It is not a sports team or a fancy club but a lineage of royalty; to know more you need to go back to 1953. King Abdulaziz ibn Saud set up the current House of Saud in 1932 and named the desert territory he captured and consolidated, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He lived till 1953 and thereafter three successors followed, all his sons – kings Saud, Feisal and Khaled.
Thereafter, the throne has invariably been occupied by one of his seven other offspring from his favourite wife; Hassa bin Ahmad al Sudairi, thus called the Sudairi Seven. The current ruler King Salman is possibly the last of these sons although there was one more to follow, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, now disempowered. The next generation of the Sudairi Seven is currently hankering for power. It all started in 2015 when the current ruler King Salman ascended the throne. His nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was appointed the Crown Prince but that lasted till 2017 when King Salman’s young, dynamic and ambitious son Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), 32, usurped the appointment after labelling Prince Nayef a drug addict.
It is now MBS all the way; where he plans to take Saudi Arabia is where the nation could apparently go but there could be more palace coups waiting to take place. The attempted transition of Saudi Arabia is not going to be an easy affair. The strategic environment of the Middle East isn’t exactly conducive for that and the internal structure of the Saudi ruling family is a mixture of politics, deceit and subterfuge.
It just needs to be remembered that Saudi Arabia’s stability all these years has been based upon a ‘live and let live’ policy followed by various inter-related members of the royal family. Cocooned in comfortable high profile jobs they get paid obnoxiously high packages. Most have invested money obtained by selling royal largesse. Now the next generation of the Sudairi Seven is positioned to take power after King Salman and there is little time left for niceties.
On 5 November 2017, officials loyal to MBS moved rather quickly, to arrest 11 princes, along with dozens of other officials and businessmen, at his direction and that of his father, King Salman. Nominally, the arrests are part of an anti-corruption drive spearheaded by the prince but what’s really happening is that the Crown Prince and heir to the throne is consolidating power and eliminating potential rivals. The military and the National Guard, a 100,000-man praetorian guard that was the long-standing preserve of late King Abdullah, has remained silent in the wake of this weekend’s arrest of its commander, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a son of Late King Abdullah, and the dismissal of the navy commander. The National Guard is a force that evolved from late King Abdulaziz ibn Saud’s (founder of the House of Saud) original tribal army and later functioned as a sort of loyal protection for the regime from possible coups. Which side its loyalties will tilt will be an important factor, but it is likely that MBS would have catered for that while attempting his turbulent actions.
What are the internal and external dynamics related to Saudi Arabia’s immediate future and how does the arrival of MBS impact these is the key question that analysts are examining.
Internally Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly in the state of pink. Decline in oil prices, dilution of US energy dependence and a shrinking economy have led to lowering of its prestige and a weak economic situation. MBS wants to overcome this by preparing the nation for the post energy era, 2030 and beyond; a noble and pragmatic thought indeed. The carefully emplaced balance of power between the powerful Wahabi clergy and the royal house is under strain. This is because, internationally, the Saudi ideological footprint is being blamed for the rising tide of radical extremism in Islam. Saudi Arabia has been funding the spread of Wahabi ideology across the world through construction of mosques and seminaries. In fact, the Saudi-funded seminaries established in vicinity of Pakistan’s western borders with Afghanistan, post the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were responsible for the creation of Taliban and a host of others who spread the radical message across the world.
MBS is attempting to project a new Saudi Arabia, much more moderate towards different segments of society. Permitting women to drive and also attend sports events at stadia is a part of this move. The clergy who has been politically quiet because of the balanced equation thus far may not wish to remain so in the future; that could spell problems for MBS. The last time that the clergy really exercised its power was after the Ikhwan takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in December 1979. Its insistence thereafter on greater ideological responsibility by the royal house led to the worldwide increase in Saudi funding and activity towards its brand of Islam.
Will MBS be able to pull off his mission of creating a more moderate society even if resisted by the clergy? In the light of the fact that the Shia revival is moving forward strongly with the defeat of the ISIS, the Russia-Syria-Iran combine’s domination in the Syrian civil war and the Levant emerging as a virtual Shia territory, will the Saudi clergy loosen its ideological strings to accommodate MBS’ aim and intent? Whether MBS is schooled well in history is not certain but consolidation of power without the clergy’s support may prove to be a handful for the young and ambitious Crown Prince.
MBS is obviously hugely encouraged by the apparent support he seems to be getting from US President Donald Trump. Bruce Reidel, the US expert on the Middle East, had this to say - “the Trump administration has tied the United States to the impetuous young Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and seems to be quite oblivious to the dangers. But they are growing every day.” Trump visited Saudi Arabia early in the first year of his presidency but more for the purpose of consolidating a front against Iran. The finalisation of the Qatar standoff within the Gulf Cooperation Council can be traced to this visit although Trump remains uncertain on Qatar. It is Iran that he is after.
Iran as an entity in the Middle East politics plays a major role. Firstly, it provides the Shia pole in the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide. Ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, it is perceived to harbour ambitions of leading the Islamic world in which the Shias are as it is in minority. The ideological and sectarian divide manifests politically in a severe competition for domination. Currently, this is happening in two areas. First is in Yemen where Iran supports the Houthis by proxy. The Houthi movement champions Yemen's Zaidi Shia Muslim minority.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring the Sunni majority government of Yemen. The war has continued inconclusively, in fact politically quite disastrously for Saudi Arabia. Just as the virtual palace coup was in progress a missile is reported to have been fired over Riyadh by the Houthi rebels and was shot down by the Saudis. The Saudi reluctance to enter into a ground campaign leaves them with no possibility of a victory. This is going to be a mill stone around the neck of the young Crown Prince. Prudence demands that he declares a victory and ceases further conduct of the campaign and politically manages the post seizure of operations scenario as best as he can. It will, however, further weaken him in his conflict of interest with the clergy and also consolidate Iran’s growing clout.
The less than comprehensive defeat of ISIS (it still remains in a networked state much as the Al Qaeda did) and the impending domination of the Levant by the Russia-Syria-Iran combine is having its impact already. Threatened by the Shia march, Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri fled to Saudi Arabia and this week announced that he is stepping down. This creates another defeat for Saudi Arabia’s strategic hold over the Middle East and leaves one more precarious situation for MBS to handle. The Hezbollah’s hold now strengthened means Iran’s virtual control over Lebanon. Whether President Trump can even visualise the changing strategic balance of power in the Middle East is doubtful. A potentially rash action to disrupt the Iran nuclear deal could well follow leaving Iran even less responsible in its actions but fully backed by Russia.
To handle the complexities arising out of the fast changing strategic situation in the Middle East would require consensus within Saudi Arabia and not the divisiveness created by MBS’ actions. If Iran takes the battle inside Saudi Arabia by instigating the Shia minority which exists as majority in crucial locations such as the energy rich eastern segment of Dammam, it could well mean war. It is unlikely that Iran will be in a hurry so soon after scoring victories over ISIS and taking control of Syria and Lebanon.
MBS needs also to remain warned that the ISIS has only been defeated militarily in terms of territory. Where it has dissipated is not fully known. It thrives in a zone where turbulence exists and central authority is weak. Hypothetically the possibility of ISIS reaching out to a confused Saudi National Guard under instigation by the Saudi clergy, cannot be ruled out.
Thus Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for all his suaveness and youthful leadership is likely to remain embroiled in much more than he can chew. In such circumstances a counter revolution cannot be ruled out with disastrous consequences for the stability of the throne and Saudi Arabia’s very existence.
What is there for India in this emerging thriller? The greater the Saudi turbulence, higher is the likelihood of rise in oil prices. This is something that the Narendra Modi government can ill afford at a time when it is just emerging from the effects of goods and services tax (GST) and demonetisation. Secondly, a 2.3 million Indian diaspora in Saudi Arabia exists. In a state of internal turbulence its security will need to be safeguarded with a potential contingency of evacuation. Thirdly, India’s stakes in the stability of the Gulf region are extremely high. Saudi Arabia in turmoil is hardly likely to remain isolated as the same could spread to other kingdoms; a kind of late and perverse Arab Spring. The Indian diaspora all over the Gulf will remain in a state of flux. Fourthly, the Middle East in turmoil and state of potential conflict spells bad news for economics everywhere, especially for a nation like India, which is struggling to maintain an even keel in growth.
How much influence the US can exercise over this potentially negative situation to bring about any semblance of stability and freedom from conflict in the crucial region of the Middle East, is less sure than ever before. Russia’s cooperation will be sorely needed. Yet, for now all eyes should remain on how the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia pan out. The nation has suffered instability in the past too and emerged from it. This time too that may just be so.