Oct 8, 2019
It is quite
possible that Saudi Arabia may face an internal churn now, nullifying its
capacities to intervene abroad.
Iranians or their Houthi proxies could not have factored for the quick recovery
of markets after their September 14 strikes on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities.
Likely prepared for retaliation from Anglo-American powers egged on by Saudi
Arabia, there was a second surprise — none came. While Saudi Arabia cannot
express its deep-seated fears, it would be facing its moment of truth. The
74-year alliance with the United States cannot be counted on in Riyadh’s moment
of grave peril. Iran has dealt a blow to Saudi Arabia’s none-too-peaceful rise
since 2015 under the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
option, Saudi Arabia has to abandon foreign adventures in neighbouring Yemen,
where the September attack likely originated, Syria, and elsewhere. It has to
accept the word of former US President Barack Obama that Riyadh shares the
neighbourhood with Tehran and make peace with it however repugnant the prospect
to the present White House. Furthermore, states like India have to accept Saudi
Arabia’s limited role in Muslim affairs. A Kashmir solution does not lie in the
absolutist hands of Mohammed bin Salman who the CIA says ordered the murder of
the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Middle East
is no longer the mildly decipherable place of the late-sixties and
early-seventies when Saudi Arabia and Iran formed the “twin pillars” of US
policy for the region. Chiefly, the US is not in the region for oil, having
enough and more shale which rescued the markets from the September 14
catastrophe of halved Saudi production. Nothing like the 1973 oil shock should
be experienced again when Saudi oil sales to Western powers were embargoed for
supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War.
When the US
lost Iran to the Khomeini revolution, the region never recovered from the
change. Wracked by Wahhabi fundamentalism, Saudi Arabia proved an inadequate
residual ally. Narrowly saving itself from the Grand Mosque siege of 1979, it
exported its Islamist youth in consequence to the Afghan mujahideen war. When
the Iran-Iraq war exposed the dreaded face of Shia political Islam and the
irredentism of Saddam Hussein, it took cover vainly in the Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC) of Arab monarchies. The two Gulf Wars led by the United States
finished Saddam but unintendedly spurred the rise of Saudi Arabia’s greater
on, it has been downhill for Saudi Arabia till the Crown Prince, bin Salman,
propped it up with steroids in 2015 with disastrous consequences. Iran’s rise
on Saddam’s fall was paralleled by the ascent of Recip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey
who smelled opportunities in the Arab regions of the former Ottoman Empire.
Abandoning military-led secularism and reorienting Turkey away from Liberal
Democratic Europe, he wooed the richest and most conservative Arab state, Saudi
Arabia, on the basis of their common antipathy for Iran, for business
investments and tourists, and gave short shrift to the pro-Israel policies of
Arab Spring came in 2011, Mr Erdogan as quickly seized the opportunities it
provided for his brand of political Islam as did Iran for its. Their common
sights were set on Egypt, which came under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Terrified of the Brotherhood’s impact on its absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia
opened its purse to see it ousted, became wary of Turkey, and took to greater
loathing of Iran.
not immune to the Arab Spring. When Saudi Arabia proposed peace with Israel
during the second intifada, Hamas of Gaza, derived from the Brotherhood, became
close to Iran. That alliance broke when Hamas joined the opposition during the
Arab Spring stirrings against the Syrian regime backed by Iran. Relations are
back on track because Hamas needs the money and Iran needs Hamas’ goodwill to
win the Arab street.
shifting currents tell something, they speak of the flexible approaches of all
parties except the Saudis. Blindsided by the Arab Spring, the US couldn’t make
it easier for Riyadh. In Riyadh’s own backyard, there was trouble when Qatar, a
GCC member, broke ranks in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and did the
further unspeakable act of making peace with Iran. Recklessly leading a
regional blockade of Qatar in 2017, the Crown Prince opened the space for
Turkey, which came with food and garrisoned a detachment of troops in the tiny
peninsular state as a matter of abundant caution. It is madness in the
circumstances to consider that the Crown Prince or his aides chose the Saudi
consulate in Istanbul to liquidate Jamal Khashoggi and provided Ankara with a
handle on Riyadh.
that, the Crown Prince is not mad. He is a man in a hurry but cannot brook
opposition. He can’t be faulted for rousing Saudi Arabia when Iran started
stealing the show all too often. But his judgment to intervene in Yemen’s civil
war against Iran’s Houthi proxies was disastrous for the human casualties it
has produced (over 7,000 civilians killed and several millions facing
starvation) and for endangering key Saudi assets as the September 14
destruction shows. The US is no less to blame for providing arms, intelligence
and logistics support for the war of which only aerial refueling has stopped.
with the war, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has opened other fronts, but inside
the kingdom. For a life after oil, he has proposed Vision 2030 based on foreign
investment, peak local employment, removal of subsidies, etc. This needs
settled internal conditions at the least but that’s far from the case.
Nationalism in the name of the Crown Prince is raging. Anyone who dares
question Yemen or Qatar or raises local controversies is branded anti-national
on the social media. While women-related reforms are welcome, such dissent as
Saudi Arabia is capable in the best of times has been driven underground.
In the year
of Qatar, billionaires from the Saudi royal family and businessmen commoners
were locked up for three months in a Riyadh luxury hotel and $100 billion
extracted from them apparently constituting corrupt earnings. Royal privileges
are notoriously widespread and by one account revenue from one million barrels
of oil was skimmed off as payments to the House of Saud. When a previous king
wanted to rationalise the privileges, the present monarch, King Salman, the
Crown Prince’s father, protested. His protest became a US diplomatic cable
which found its way out in Wikileaks. The son is no better. In recent years,
the Crown Prince has splurged altogether $1.3 billion on a yacht, a French
chateau and a Leonardo da Vinci painting. He refuses to answer questions about
his wealth but plays Savonarola.
Trump’s backing, he could have gone on for longer, but the September 14 strike
has damaged him and Saudi Arabia even more. He has asked the leaders of
Pakistan and Iraq to speak with Iran, whose terms would be tough, starting with
the removal of US sanctions, which have produced rather unintended gains for
Tehran like Saddam’s removal by an earlier American action. Iran has correctly
diagnosed that Mr Trump is in no mood to provoke a Middle Eastern war when the
Syrian and Afghan ones show no signs of ending and his re-election is due with
the sword of impeachment hanging over his head.
Crown Prince seeking Pakistan’s intermediation with Iran, it makes little sense
for India to expect him to pull its Kashmir chestnuts out of the fire. It is
quite possible that Saudi Arabia may face an internal churn now, nullifying its
capacities to intervene abroad. The House of Saud has withstood all efforts to
dislodge it so far. It remains to be seen if the future is as kindly.
Subramanian is a political, economic, strategic and risk analyst for media,
thinktanks, industry and governments.
Headline: Oilfield attacks have damaged House of Saud
Source: Asian Age