Saudi Arabia; Kingdom at the Crossroads..

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Overview of challenges faced by Saudi Arabia and role of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS). His meteoric rise from obscurity in an interesting phenomenon.

“Men in great fortunes are strangers to themselves, and while they are in the puzzle of business they have no time to tend to their health either of body or mind”.  Francis Bacon’s Of Great Place

Enjoy

Hamid

 

Kingdom at Crossroads

Hamid Hussain

“We always take criticism from our friends.  If we are wrong, we need to hear that we are wrong.  But if we are not wrong, we need to hear support from our friends.  What I request is that the thing you actually believe, to say it”.  Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman interview with The Economist, January 6, 2016

External environment of Saudi Arabia changed dramatically in the aftermath of murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018.  It made international headlines and many started to ask questions about Saudi Arabia and the royal family.  This event also strained relationship of Saudi Arabia with its western allies as governments came under increasing pressure to raise this issue.

Saudi Arabia operates in a zone of opacity and not much is known about royal family dynamics and Saudi public opinion.  Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (nick named MBS) moved rapidly to consolidate all power centers under his own personal command since the ascension of his father King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz to the throne in 2015.  Very little is known about how MBS consolidated his power inside the Kingdom.  He also broke with the tradition of family consensus and removed many powerful royal family members and their sympathizers from important centers of power.

MBS was first appointed Defence Minister and in this capacity, he gradually took control of all branches of the military. Defence procurement and defense construction contracts are a major source of patronage and in June 2017, MBS took control of this cash cow of patronage.  He established Saudi Arabia Military Industries (SAMI) and made it a defense subsidiary of Public Investment Fund (PIF).  PIF is country’s sovereign wealth fund under direct control of MBS. In August 2017, General Authority Military Industries (GAMI) was established and made responsible for all defense procurement.  SAMI and GAMI are controlled by an inter-ministerial committee headed by MBS.  In July 2017, commander of Royal Guard was removed, and six months later Chief of Staff of land forces and air force and air defense commanders were also removed.  Within few months of becoming heir apparent, MBS was in full control of operational and economic aspects of all defense establishments.

Parallel to these developments, interior ministry; a potential rival power center that had become a behemoth patronage center of deposed Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef was gradually neutralized. In July 2017, a new ministerial level agency named Presidency of State Security (PSS) was established that reported to Crown Prince.  Counter-terrorism, internal surveillance, cyber-intelligence and national information center functions of interior ministry were transferred to PSS. MBS also took control of all economic activities as Chairman of Council of Economic and Development Affairs.  In this capacity, he cancelled and revised many previous civilian contracts most likely creating new networks of patronage loyal to him. Continue reading “Saudi Arabia; Kingdom at the Crossroads..”

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Dynamics of the Saudi Royal Family

From Dr Hamid Hussain

This piece written in summer of 2017 is a backgrounder for Kingdom at a crossroad.  This will help in understanding the background to my upcoming piece about challenges faced by the Kingdom in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi murder. Stay tuned.

Hamid

Royal Rumble – Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family

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.

In January 2015, Salman bin Abdul Aziz ascended to Saudi throne after the death of his brother Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.  He came quite late into the complex inner power circle of the al Saudi royal family.  He was appointed Governor of Riyadh province in 1962; a post he held until 2011 when he was appointed Defence Minister.  For five decades, his main influence was in business and media through his sons and a half-brother (Sattam bin Abdul Aziz).  His sons controlled different business and media interests.  Abdul Aziz was Assistant & Deputy Minister of Oil and now Minister of State for Energy Affairs, Faisal owned Sharq-al-Awst newspaper and appointed Governor of Medina in 2013.  Sultan is a pilot and worked at Saudi Ministry of Information.  He now heads tourism commission with the rank of a minister.  Khalid is also a fighter pilot and in April 2017 appointed ambassador to Washington.  Turki, Saud, Rakan and Nayef are little known and involved in various business ventures.  Fahad; a business tycoon and Ahmad with media interests died in their 40s from heart disease.  Continue reading “Dynamics of the Saudi Royal Family”

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Why Kill Jamal Khashoggi? (A personal view from Dr Hussain)

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Someone asked my two cent worth opinion on ongoing saga of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. More informed people have commented on the subject and many details are still murky. Based on my own work on the Kingdom’s power dynamics in the past, following is may take;

Thanks. With time, we change and our thoughts also evolve. This may be the case with Mr. Jamal Khashoggi and he may have been genuinely convinced that some kind of people’s participation in government is the way forward. However, we need to keep in mind the broader context as this incident is related to struggle inside the royal family. Khashoggi held some progressive views by Saudi Arabian standards related to extreme austere code of Wahabbism. However, he never questioned the legitimacy of the rule of al Saud family. He advocated increased consultation with population on important issues. He was employed by many government newspapers and any significant alternative view no matter how mild is simply a career ending move. He was not a dissident but mild critic of some policies of Prince Muhammad Bin Salman such as blockade of Qatar, Yemen war etc.

There are many Saudis in exile who are much harsher critics of royal family but why Khashoggi? More important to remember is his links with members of royal family who have been sidelined by the meteoric rise of the mercurial Prince Muhmmad Bin Salman (MBS) in 2015. Government’s view is published by a number of influential newspapers (Arab News, Sharq-ul-Awst etc) run by Saudi Research and Marketing Group. Owner of this group is Prince Turki Bin Salman. Khashoggi worked for some of these newspapers in the past. He also worked with former intelligence chief Prince Turki al Faisal and billionaire Waleed Bin Talal. He served in some advisor capacity to Turki projecting his softer image to the outside world. In 2015, Waleed opened a satellite channel Al Arab in Bahrain and in this venture partnered with Bloomberg News. Khashoggi was to be the star kid of Al Arab. This channel lasted mere eleven hours on air before it was shut down by Bahrain; a close Saudi ally and dependent on Saudi forces on its soil to protect its royal family from the restless Shia majority population.

MSB started grand purge on two fronts. One front was to sideline powerful brokers in royal family such as Crown Prince designate Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef; former interior minister, Prince Mitib Bin Abdullah; former head of Saudi National Guard (SNG). Head of SNG is a powerful position as SNG is royal family’s insurance policy against army coup. SNG recruits on tribal basis and head inserts his loyalists at various levels of positions. The second front was to weaken the financial muscle of some princes. This resulted in famous/notorious Ritz Carlton saga of billionaire princes hauled up there until they coughed up billions to get their limited freedom. Waleed was the prized prisoner of Ritz Carlton; the world’s only five star jail. Members of both groups cannot leave the country. On the other hand, other family members who have kept their heads down in the tent like Prince Turki are allowed to travel. With this in background, alleged rumor of an assassination attempt on MBS by his guards raised the fear factor by several degrees. Some reports suggest that most of his inner circle of security is now manned by foreigners.

Where Khashoggi fits into this picture? He was the window of these disgruntled royal family members to the outside world. Everybody in Washington who wanted to know what was happening in the Kingdom would knock at Khashoggi’s door. This was the main threat that MBS feared that angry royal family members may attempt to make some kind of deal with Washington to pull the royal rug from under his feet. A close study of MBS personality suggests that he acts rashly without thinking through and no one around him would even suggest an alternative thought. Hence, a very sloppy operation which is not even an intelligence operation. A rag tag team of guards, special forces people and a forensic doctor was to emulate a Mossad style overseas hit a la 2010 Dubai saga of assassination of a Palestinian operative.

Looking at the fall out of the operation, Khashoggi’s own words seem prophetic that ‘Saudi brand has been severely damaged’. What will be MBS likely response? The old Arab bedouine tradition is that when a big dust storm come down furiously (haboob), the Arab ducks down in his tent covering his head and wait until it passes away. For the next few weeks, MBS will be spending more time in his $500 million yatch parked in red sea than in his palaces. The only suggestion one can give to MBS is the words of one his own elders late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz; “a friend is someone who tells you the truth; not someone who believes in you’.

“Man’s history is waiting in patience for the triumph of the insulted man.” Rabindranath Tagore

Regards,
Hamid

Postscript:

Follow up intelligent questions from well informed people were inevitable thus a follow up. I wandered a little bit further as my personal quest of learning about military and conflict is to paint the horrible picture of the killing fields so that we can all avoid filling more graves.

Thanks Sir. You are correct. Trump will give him cover in view of personal/business relationship. However, there is a little bit shift in other power centers. In senate, recent vote to approve munitions to KSA was 53-47; a significant shift against KSA. If in mid-term, democrats take house of representatives, then there will be little more heat. In the long run, KSA is important and MBS cannot be pushed aside without arrangement with alternative leadership from royal family. This usually takes time. However in short term, single point agenda of getting Iran is making things complicated and they don’t want to quarantine MBS/KSA at this stage.

Anti-Iran camp of current administration coupled with almost messianic change in Bibi Netanyahu personality where he thinks his historic role is to strike nuclear assets of Iran is the possible ‘escape hatch’ for MBS. If Bibi wins in elections called early then watch for who he picks for IDF chief; who is retiring by the end of the year. In 2009-15, IDF COS, heads of all three intelligence agencies (Mossad, MI & Shin Bet) pushed Bibi back on military strike against Iran. This was complemented by Obama administration warning to Israelis that they will be alone in the mission with no military or diplomatic cover. Bibi wants a security team that will not second guess his mission. Bibi has covered a lot of ground by appointing his former national security advisor Yossi Cohen as head of Mossad, a more mellow head for Shin Bet and a new director of MI. The only chip left is COS. Two top contenders (Yair Golan & Aviv Kochavi) are their own men especially Kochavi is considered a ‘prince’; very well respected and highly professional man who cannot be bullied. Bibi may go for one of the two juniors ones for the post. If two conditions are met; first Bibi wins elections and still PM and then he picks one of the juniors as IDF COS, then I’ll put chance of Israeli strike on Iran around 50%. To hold the Arab bag, they will need MBS with General Sisi playing the second fiddle. Water is too muddy in the middle east to read tea leaves.

MBS is following the footsteps of all autocrats; thinking that they are invincible and normal rules don’t apply to them even if they see things like Saddam caught like a rat and Qaddafi dragged on the streets. This they watched with their own eyes and not something read in history books of decades or centuries old events. Power has its own logic not comprehended by commoners like us.

I can only think about words of Voltaire when I closely review personalities of three main actors on the stage for coming production; Trump, MBS & Bibi Netanyahu. “If you are desirous of obtaining a great name, of becoming the founder of a sect or establishment, be completely mad; but be sure that your madness corresponds with the turn and temper of your age. Have in your madness reason enough to guide your extravagances, and to not forget to be excessively opinionated and obstinate. It is certainly possible that you may get hanged; but if you escape hanging, you will have altars erected to you”.

As far as bankrupt leadership is concerned, Arab poet and philosopher Nizar Qabani has summed up nicely;

Every twenty years

Comes to us a gambling man

To stake our country and culture

And resources and rivers

And trees and fruits

And men and women

And the waves and the sea

At the gambling table

We die; broken, hated

Cursed like dogs

While our philosopher in his shelter cogitates destruction into victory

In the post-world war II period, in mad search for security, humanity has invented modern and more lethal killing machines to find itself less secure and living in fear. A whole new model of peaceful co-existence emerging from the wretched of the earth is needed. War mongers are busy 24/7 while those who wish peace are sleeping. They need to wake up, shake dust of their clothes and reach to the ‘other’ over the head of their leaders. The question for present generation is whether they will continue to fight the wars of their grandfathers and fathers on the altars of religion, nation etc. or choose a new path.

“Ishmael, my brother hear my plea

It was the angel who tied thee to me

Time is running out, put hatred to sleep

Shoulder to shoulder, let’s gather our sheep”

Shin Shalom, an Israeli Jewish poet

Regards,

Hamid

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