The “New” Saudi Arabia
– By Syed Haider Raza Mehdi
(5 – 7 minute read)
Recently we saw an assertive Saudi Arabia slam Canada with a volley of diplomatic and economic punches which left Canada reeling and a trifle stunned.
They expelled the Canadian Ambassador, recalled their’s, ordered 15000 college and university students and 900 medical students and doctors to leave Canada by September.
They announced they won’t buy Canadian wheat and barley, and also stopped direct airline flights to Toronto.
But they stopped short of halting oil exports to Canada and cancelling a $15 Billion light armoured vehicles deal. Two actions which would have had far more serious economic impact on Saudi Arabia then the other actions they announced.
MBS may appear impetuous and reckless which he is, in my opinion, but he’s also pretty smart as well, when it comes to money!
The Saudis have demanded nothing short of a full and unqualified apology from Canada for “…..interfering in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia….”
And all this because of an ill thought through tweet by the Canadian Foreign office on the arrest of Samar Badawi, sister of the already arrested and convicted Saudi Blogger and human rights activist, Raif Badawi.
The world’s silence was deafening!
The so-called human rights leaders, the crocodile and hypocritical tear shedding USA and UK, asked Canada to clean up their own mess.
Germany and Sweden, still smarting from Saudi knuckle raps in 2015 and 2017, offered no comment. The EU requested “more information” which really means “Sorry, Saudis, we have to do it for the sake of form, but kindly ignore”
Egypt, UAE and Pakistan announced support.
Pakistan’s stance perhaps the most surprising, indicating the emerging influence Saudi Arabia has again begun to exercise on us, which had considerably waned given our neutral positions on Syria, Iran and Yemen. They likely arm twisted and demanded this statement, in exchange for financial favors to follow.
Pakistan readily obliged given our dire economic condition and our desperation for financial help.
This position, will, in my view, come to haunt us tomorrow when we condemn human rights abuses in Indian held Kashmir or Assam or Myanmar or on Palestinians in Israeli occupied territories.
Smugly, I can then foresee India and Israel turning around and telling us to shut up and “stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries”.
Whatever our compulsions and whoever the architect, this was a stupid and ill thought through decision!
The three calls from King Salman and Crown Prince MBS to PM elect Imran Khan, and the invitation to visit Saudi Arabia, all within the space of a week are also unprecedented!
But this piece isn’t about the Canadian Saudi dispute but more trying to understand what’s happening in the Kingdom!
So what’s going on in Saudi Arabia?
Kamran Bokhari, Vice President at Center for Global Policy, a Washington-based research and policy think tank and author of Political Islam in the age of Democratization, believes that since MBS’s taking over as Crown Prince in 2017, and effectively the reins of Saudi Arabia, a massive sea change has taken place in their internal traditional power structures and their foreign policy.
For example the 90-year-old symbiotic and close relationship between the Saudi State and the Religious Clergy has ended.
He believes that the power and influence of the ultra conservative Wahabi Clergy was highly overrated to begin with, and today, MBS has easily managed to defang them by either buying them off, browbeating them into submission and in some cases putting the very few who didn’t toe his line, behind bars.
There’s also a common view amongst young Saudis, that MBS is as much a conservative Wahabi or traditional Muslim as is Netanyahu, the Israeli PM, an Iranian Shia!
MBS’s secular outlook is driving his desire to purge Saudi society of its centuries old baggage of religious conservatism and obscurantism and open it to modernization.
But, and here is where the problem lies, at the same time, he wants total and unquestionable power and autocratic control and absolutely no political dissent.
This approach of modernization and religious secularism endears him to a large segment of the 60% Saudi youth of both genders, his main constituency. Hence the widely welcomed curbs on the activities of the religious police, the limitations and restrictions on issuing religious Fatwas and the permission to women to drive cars.
But to retain total power, he realizes that the traditional power sharing structure with other members of the Royal family and power centers in the country would always pose an existential danger to his authority and writ!
Hence in one extremely risky but daring move, he imprisoned thousands of the very rich and powerful from within and without the Royal circle for several weeks, and defanged them by taking away their most lethal weapons, their wealth and their positions in government.
He must have surmised that as long they had wealth and political power, the Royals and other powerful people would continue to be a threat. By taking away their wealth and political clout, he believes he’s neutralized or minimised this threat.
Externally, he’s cleverly allied himself to Trump’s America and Netanyahu’s Israel to forestall any serious external pressures and threats.
This alignment gave him the space to play havoc with hapless Yemen, launch a political and economic boycott of Qatar, kick Canada in the shins, and assert Saudi Arabia’s new-found independance of no longer being a USA appendage, but an emerging regional power and partner.
A partner which, he thinks, will look after US interests and by proxy, Israel interests, as a regional policeman, especially in the context of Iran, Syria, Iraq and perhaps even Afghanistan.
The above makes sense to him, as the USA attempts to exit from very expensive operations in the Region, such as in Afghanistan, a $45 Billion hole. MBS believes this is the time to assert Saudi credentials as a regional power. The last more significant now given the serious disputes between Turkey and USA.
Easier said then done!
So who is MBS? This is how I read him!
He’s first and foremost a complete autocrat, wanting total and absolute power like a Kim Jong un of North Korea.
He’s secondly a Saudi, wanting to modernize the country but in his own way and style, much like the opening up of China by the Chinese Communist leadership and harshly stamping out any dissent by activists like Rauf and Samar Badawi, who can potentially snowball a tiny movement into a major political reform movement in which he is not a player!
Third, he’s an ambitious Arab nationalist, wanting to dominate the Region vying against Iranian or Turkish or even Pakistani, domination and influence.
And last and definitely the least, he’s a secular, indifferent Muslim who doesn’t really care a flying frog about religion or Muslim Unity or the so-called mirage of the Ummah, a daily dream of many simple Pakistanis!
So the big question is?
Will he succeed in his objectives in modernizing Saudi Arabia, becoming a dominant regional player and simultaneously retaining absolute and total control of the country?
I think he will partially succeed in opening up the country to modernization but not at the pace and manner he would want. A genie or movement once let loose no longer listens to its master and takes a life of their own. I don’t think he will be able to manage or control this “guided modernization”!
On becoming the Regional Policeman, the environment is even harsher!
His support from a more inward looking USA will no longer be a long-term guarantee. And may become even more questionable if Trump doesn’t win a second term.
The Turkish-USA divide, while seemingly an opportunity for MBS’s ambitions will create more instability as the battle heats up and as the big boys, Russia and China also step into the fray.
A post USA withdrawal Afghanistan conjures up several nightmare scenarios of the Warlordism of the 90’s or even Balkanization of the country but most likely the collapse of the Ghani government.
In any of these scenarious, Saudi Arabia has much less influence in Afghanistan then say, Pakistan and their arch-enemy, Iran.
So pretty much, no dice here.
And as we are seeing they will not be able to exercise any influence over an increasingly assertive Assad ruled Syria, now silently supported by the US, fearing a return of the Daesh phenomenon and their alliance with the Kurds, as well as a much more stable Iraq.
And finally closer to home in Pakistan.
Here we have a PM elect like Imran who unlike Nawaz, owes no personal loyalty or obligation to them, has no financial interests at stake in the Kingdom, and importantly has publicly stated to take a neutral policy in inter regional disputes and act as a mediator!
Given all this and their extremely limited military clout, despite their modern weaponry but poor training and small size, I don’t think his dream of being a regional Arab power will come true.
But he may get some short-term traction as he continues to exercise his economic clout, and for want of a better word, economic blackmail as used against Qatar and Canada, and silently against the Europeans and now becoming more visible in our case as well.
This clout becomes more potent given the recently imposed US sanctions on Iran and US tariffs on Turkey!
Internally, he will continue his path to modernization, which is quite the Catch-22 for him!
The more he modernizes Saudi society and “we are open for business” the stronger will be the demand by people for even more reform and more rights, especially given the large number of Saudis educated in Western Universities and the vibrant and extensive use of social media, especially Twitter in the Kingdom.
This will, in my opinion, set in motion harsher repressive measures by him to stamp out such activism and here is where I fear, the proverbial tipping point will happen.
Either towards a much more open society or leading towards an internal implosion.
If the former than its great for everybody, except MBS, unless he morphs his role into a Constitutional Monarchy. This seems unlikely given his style and character and autocratism!
The latter is a very real possibility given the presence of a large number of highly militant elements of the DAESH ilk stepping in and taking advantage of the chaos.
This, in my opinion, will be a far more serious nightmare scenario than any we have seen unfolding in the Middle East, thus far!
Young MBS must remember that controlled change or controlled chaos, has never succeeded! He will become a victim of his own change! And there’s no turning back now, as he rides the Saudi Tiger!
While we must retain our close ties and relations with the Saudi state, we must closely and privately work with MBS to ensure he takes measures which don’t implode Saudi society, resulting in its horrifying consequences for the Region and Pakistan.
We must caution and advise him against any further foolhardy military adventurism in the region, or exacerbate existing ones. More importantly, urge him to pull back and stop where they are involved, such as Yemen. It’s here where we can play a very effective mediation role!
We must not take or be seen taking sides and or partisan positions in regional disputes or get drawn into major military arrangements with Saudi Arabia or any other country in exchange for money.
And it will truly be a crowning glory for Pakistan if we can bring Iran and Saudi Arabia closer and to the negotiating table!
As the current Army Chief, General Bajwa stated in a conference in Germany in February 2018, with reference to regional conflicts:
“……… the Frankenstein was actually created by the liberal free world, with willing, but myopic cooperation from our side after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979…..”
Let not any myopic policies be adopted today!
Imran and Pakistan have to walk a very tight rope with great care, keeping our long-term national interests, paramount!
The three calls from the King and the Crown Prince and those from the Iranian President must be seen in this context as well !
Pakistan must not punch above its weight, but work for peace all around, including with India!
More later, on options with India!
Salaams and Prayers