MBS: New Saddam?

Saudi Arabia has been in front page news for the last two years. After the death of King Abdullah, his half brother King Salman came to power in 2015. Since then the Saudi royal family has undergone major changes. Firstly,  King Salman got rid of his crown prince Prince Muqrin who was appointed by late King Abdullah. In his place King Salman's full nephew and the interior minister Prince Mohamed bin Nayef was appointed as the crown prince. Prince Nayef  was known as the most trusted US prince in Saudi Arabia. King Salman's own son Prince Mohammed bin Salman aka MBS was appointed the second crown prince and defence minister. Soon the ambitious MBS took over the control of economy, started the war in yemen, blockaded qatar and controlled the access to the King. It was becoming clear that Prince Nayef is going to be sidelined and that is what happened on the 20th of June after Trump abandoned Prince Nayef. MBS is now the undisputed ruler of Saudi  Arabia. Rest of the royal family have been paying homage to MBS.  Never in the history of Saudi Arabia , power was concentrated in a single individual. What are the implications of this unprecedented change in Saudi Arabia?

Historically Saudi royal family ruled Saudi Arabia like a private property. Royal family claimed that right from the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud who unified the country. Abdul Aziz ibn Saud had tens of sons and daughters. By now the royal family has grown into thousands of princes and princesses. The family ruled by consensus like corporate and with the backing of religious establishment with Wahhabi doctrine as the basic ideology. Consensus meant large funds and stipends from oil wealth was distributed within the family. Family also dominated the government, provinces and every sector of Saudi economy. Abdul Aziz Saud's sons became kings one after another. US as the guardian of Saudi Arabia kept different channels to the royal family . US security establishment had direct links with Saudi interior minister which was run by Nayef family section. US defense department dealt with Saudi defence ministry (Late Prince Sultan and then Prince Salman)   and national guard (Prince Miteb son of late King Abdullah) separately and supplied arms to each of the two entities. US state department dealt with Saudi foreign minister (Late Prince Saud bin Faisal). In addition US dealt with thousands of members of royal family in various fields. US President dealt with Saudi king. Basically US was the "coordinator" of Saudi royal family. US did this to control Saudi economy and prevent any palace coups or external threats.

Externally Saudi Arabia followed US lead.  After 1980 Iranian revolution , US lost its valuable ally and policeman in middle east. Afterwards US propped up either Egypt or Iraq as the replacements depending on the situation. Saudi Arabia became the financier. Iraq under Saddam started war with Iran. Saudi Arabia became the financier of Iraq's war effort. After Iran war Saddam went "rogue" and developed his own ambitions and invaded Kuwait. Saudis financed the entire US/Egypt/ Syria operation to defeat Iraq. Important point is that Saudi royal family preferred to remain in the background and finance wars. They also used their wealth to buy weapons from US to be kept as toys. But Saudi population is growing and price of oil was dropping. In addition Wahhabi Sunni ideological monopoly was being challenged by ISIS and Muslim Brotherhood. Arab springs have become threat to Saudi royal family. Large unemployment among the youth is a huge problem. Royal family faced with all these threats needed a new "business model" to survive. This model is MBS. 

MBS along with the new interior minister Prince Abdul Aziz (nephew of Mohammed bin Nayef)  have been educated in Saudi Arabia unlike the previous generation which was educated and handled by West. MBS has consolidated all the power in his hands, thereby cutting off multiple channels US had with the  royal family. Now US have to go through MBS for anything and everything in Saudi Arabia. This also applies to Western business interests in Saudi Arabia. Everything goes through MBS and coterie around him. Suddenly the princes and princesses in the family have become servants to MBS and depend on stipends from MBS. Same thing applies to religious establishment. Evidence of this servility was clearly shown in the unprecedented oath of allegiance to MBS shown in the TV by entire royal and religious establishment. When MBS lifted ban on driving by women, the same religious establishment which issued fatwas against women driving and even calling women as having quarter of the brain as men somersaulted  and issued new fatwas which praised MBS's action.  On the economic front, MBS's vision 2030 envisages Saudi Arabia becoming a modern capitalist state and leader of the Arab world. This is a marked difference from previous position of being a quiet back room operator. US under Trump is encouraging this new transformation in Saudi Arabia to confront Iran and for the economic benefits arising out of privatization of Saudi oil industry. US under Reagan and Bush also did the same with Iraq until Iraq went "rogue". US thinks that  a modern Saudi Arabia will be the policeman of the middle east for US. But as always the policemen US creates can also  go "rogue".

MBS has been cultivating relationships with both Russia and China. Together with Russia , Saudis has embarked on the policy of cutting oil production to stop the slide in the price of oil. Recent visit to Russia by King Salman was a success for both Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is now officially " neutral" playing US against Russia and China.  Saudis have major agreements with Russia and China to produce weaponry in Saudi Arabia while at the same time importing advance weapon systems from West. . As part of Vision 2030, MBS as embarked on a policy of localization and arabisation  of economy to win the youth who can influenced by ISIS. There are social changes too as women are more in the workplace. Saudi Arabia is changing. MBS is the Saudi version of Shah of Iran. But the main difference is that unlike Shah, MBS is not totally under the control of US. Although US thinks that MBS can be a tool against Iran, MBS is using the Iran threat to actually consolidate Saudi control of Arab world. Adventures in Yemen and Qatar are not just an effort to contain Iran. Iran has  minimal involvement in these two countries. These efforts are to establish Saudi control over Yemen and Qatar. Although US requested MBS to provide " reasonable and actionable demands" to Qatar, MBS delivered an ultimatum to Qatar which literally converts qatar into a Saudi Arabia province.  Ultimatum demands include the closing of Turkish base.  Already Egypt has succumbed to Saudi pressure by handing over islands in red sea.

Saudi Arabia under MBS will strive establish itself as the leader of Arab world using it's economic and military power (with US supplied modern weaponry). US expects MBS to bring Israel into a Sunni alliance against Iran. There will be some cooperation between Israel and MBS . But the fact that Hamas was dropped from the list of ultimatum to Qatar points otherwise. US and western countries failed to notice that Saudis complaint against Iran and now Turkey stems from their alleged interference in the Arab world not just from a Sunni angle. It is inevitable that at one point Saudi effort to be the leader of the Arab world will come into confrontation with Israel as it is now with Iran and Turkey. Saudi efforts to dominate gulf and middle east too will also come into conflict with US, western interests who created small states such as qatar so that they can be divided and controlled. Ultimatum to Qatar shows Saudi intentions clearly.

Finally US and western countries such as Germany are taking stands which are critical of the ultimatum. Influential US senators are blocking sales of arms to GCC countries including Saudi Arabia. How will MBS react to this? Will he turn to Russia for arms? That will be a seismic shift in Middle east.


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Article posted on 24th of June 2017.
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