Royal Rumble – Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family

From Dr Hamid Hussain

‘In a western democracy, you lose touch with your people, you lose elections; in a monarchy, you lose your head’. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Former Saudi ambassador to Washington.

In the last two years, Saudi Arabia has gone through many changes. Absolute monarchies are not easy to decipher. There are many opacities and it is very difficult for any outside observer to have a real sense of events. Two main factors are very limited expression by Saudis in their own country and opaque decision making process in the form of decrees with flavor of palace intrigue. A Saudi will not express his honest view in the presence of another Saudi due to fear factor. In view of these limitations, the perspective of an outsider has severe limitations.

Current system of governance of the country is based on accession to throne of one of the sons of the founder of the country Abdul Aziz bin Abdur Rahman al-Saud (d. 1953). He works with other family members especially senior princes, Council of Ministers (most of whom are also royal family members) and Council of Senior Clerics in running day to day affairs of the country. There is a fair amount of competition among all these groups about various issues and King carefully balances his act to avoid open conflict.

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Clarifying Two Misconceptions

First up, I want to admit that I been a harsh critic of Pakistan Army’s interference in political matters, their gross inefficiency during all the wars that they fought (and lost), their myopic worldview and land grabbing in the garb of ‘National Security’. However, I believe that two very common misconceptions about our army need to be addressed.

  1. While talking about General Zia, an Islamist dictator who ruled Pakistan for eleven years (1977-88), many people refer to his role in the ‘Black September’ events from 1970. If you try to look this up on the internet, there are conflicting stories about his involvement. What we know for sure is that he was stationed in Jordan as part of a military training mission (Read here) sent by Pakistan in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israel war. The Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Amman at the time was Mr. Tayyab Siddiqui. According to an article he wrote in 2010, (Read here)

“Following the June 1967 military debacle, the Arabs requested Pakistan for military training. Pakistan sent training contingents to Syria, Jordan and Iraq.”

In August-September 1970, the Palestinians, aided by the Syrians, revolted against the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. During the battle, the Commanding Officer (CO) of a Jordanian infantry unit deserted. King Hussain asked Brigadier Zia to take charge of that unit temporarily. Zia sought permission from the embassy where Mr. Siddiqui established contact with Secretary Defence, Mr. Ghiasuddin. Ghias’s comments are the most cringe-worthy issue in this whole affair. He cabled Amman that

“We had [performed] Istikhara, Hashmite Kingdom’s star is ascendant. Go ahead. Follow king’s commands.”

In Ambassador Siddiqui’s words:

“That the foreign and defence policy of Pakistan was formulated not on a dispassionate analysis of the situation but on the dubious religious invocation still amazes me”.

Zia took temporary charge of the unit but before any fighting could take place, the Syrians withdrew and the offensive ended. Later on, Zia developed contacts with Palestinian leadership and was not accused of being the ‘Butcher of Palestinians’ by any Palestinian fighter. In fact, Yasser Arafat visited Pakistan three times during Zia’s regime.

2. You might have seen a picture of a soldier inspecting a Bengali man’s Dhoti, from 1971. That is provided as a proof that Army folks there used to inspect Bengali men’s genitals to decide if they were Muslim or not (based on circumcision status). While the Pakistan Army indulged in some of the worst atrocities against the Bengalis, this picture is not a valid evidence.

This picture was taken by Indian photographer Kishor Parekh. In an interview, his son Swapan Parekh mentioned that it was a photograph of Indian army personnel checking the [Bengali] collaborators for weapons. The caption in Kishor Parekh’s book validates this backstory.

Six Days of War. June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Today was the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war. What follows is a review I wrote last year of Michael Oren’s book about the 1967 war. I am posting it today to commemorate the anniversary, and to think about what has changed, and what has not, about the equation between the “Muslim world” and its more modern competitors.

To the extent that it existed, this sense of the Muslim world being one of several “competitors” in a war of civilizations  existed mostly in the Muslim world in the last 100 years; and even there, mostly in the minds of religious fanatics such as Maudoodi or Sayyed Qutb or modern Islamists such as the Indian Islamist Mohammed Iqbal.  Most Western, Chinese or Japanese thinkers were unlikely to have something called “The Muslim World” on their list of civilizations competing in the modern world. This has certainly changed in recent time, with at least the Right wing of Western Civ and (and to a lesser extent, of Chinese and Japanese Civ) becoming almost hysterical about the threat posed by Islam. But has the balance of power changed? and if it has, has it changed enough? I think today’s drama in the GCC (among many things) indicates that the balance on the ground has not changed by much. The Muslim world is richer, and some countries (Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia) are more powerful than they were in 1967; Pakistan is even a nuclear power (and in the minds of many of its own citizens, if not all its power brokers, an “Islamic nuclear power”), but in many other ways the dreams of May 1967 were the high point of (delusional) confidence in the Muslim core region. In that year, many, perhaps most, in the Muslim street were eager to believe that their armies could, if given the opportunity, annihilate the “Zionist entity”. Which is why so many spent the first few hours of the war celebrating what their leaders were describing as “great successes”; that reaction seems unlikely today. If there were a new war, and Arab radio stations claimed the Israelis were losing, most people would not believe it, even if the Israelis really WERE losing.
Anyway, on to the review. And don’t miss the documentary at the end.

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