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
By Syed Haider Raza Mehdi.
Many have questioned why I haven’t taken the Army to task as I oft do with the other civilian public sector institutions in Pakistan.
The Pakistan Army, thank God, has not succumbed to the rot of say the Punjab Police. Yet. And this yet is why I’ve penned the perspective which follows. And secondly it’s done a pretty good job this last decade and a half. In fact saved the country! Literally!
But the ISPR announcement of troops to Saudi Arabia and Asma Jehangir’s death have resulted in this commentary. Both promoted several questions.
Why are we sending these troops and what are their terms of reference?
Was this discussed and debated in the National Assembly?
Did the cabinet discuss and approve it?
What are the regional geopolitical implications of such a deal?
And very puzzling!
Why did the ISPR make the announcement? Why didn’t the Minister of Defence or the Minister of Foreign affairs announce it in the Parliament or even through a press conference?
The issue here is not whether we should or should not send troops, which is a subject for another article, but of process, of the power of the army and the whole lot of questions listed above and many more.
While my views on the PMLN government are fairly well-known, even I was taken aback at this seemingly brazen hijacking of due process by the Army via ISPR. This wasn’t a Zarb e Azb, where time was of the essence and the civilian government was dithering and playing footsie with the TTP.
So why did ISPR announce this major defence and foreign policy initiative?
While wrestling with this I was reminded of the overwhelming emotion for Asma Jehangir on her sudden demise, both quite surprising.
While she was a controversial figure and to many even unpatriotic, but what stood out most about her, was her unrelenting, uncompromising and highly bitter vitriolic against the Army, especially its high command and senior officers.
She was willing to truck with anybody and everybody who was against the Army, despite many with highly dubious credentials such as Husain Haqqani, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, to name a few. Their acts and corruption notwithstanding, she still allied with them.
It was then that I realized that part of the outpouring of emotion on her death by many also represented people’s feelings towards the Army.
Why? I asked. Why should people hold such emotions for an institution which has paid in blood and sacrificed so much to save us from anarchy and near ruin?
Why is it that people fail to see how it’s young and old toil day and night for Pakistan? War on Terror. Earthquakes. Floods. Census. Elections. You name it and the Army’s there.
Why is it that despite supporting democracy, the institution is still plagued by its history of military dictators and military rule and Asma who symbolized the “anti army narrative” received such a heroine’s funeral?
While this may not be the only reason but several things stand out.
First and foremost, in my opinion, is the Army’s inability to hold its senior corrupt officers accountable.
While one does hear the oft-repeated refrain that “the Army has a very rigorous process of accountability”, I have not seen a single three star or two star or even a one star being stripped of their rank and titles and sent to jail. Yes we’ve had some minor raps on the knuckles and one Maj. Gen taken to task, but nothing about those who’ve looted and plundered tens if not hundreds of millions or a billion or two, in military procurement deals, in shady housing schemes and the many other ways that they do. Today ask any officer of reasonable mid to senior rank and above, serving or retired, to name at least a score or more of two and three star generals who in the last decades have looted and plundered while in service and taken the bank to the cleaners. And they will!
Yet no Army Chief including the current Chief, Gen. Bajwa has taken any action against these officers. The sad icing on the cake is that several were “honoured” with lucrative post retirement plum jobs.
This is a huge stain on the Army’s character and honour. Those senior officers who loot, steal and plunder are no different from the crooks and robbers who infest and plague our bureaucracy, our politics and other public sector institutions.
So, why aren’t they brought to book, I asked a senior retired officer? It’ll impact the Army’s morale, Sir, he said. I was aghast! Morale affected by not punishing corrupt officers? The logic was mind numbing!
If anything, as one would imagine, morale would be adversely affected when the rank and file see these corrupt looters getting away with murder. Imagine serving under a Div Commander or a Corps Commander or any other senior appointments, knowing that the boss has his hands in the till and yet continues to go unpunished.
Morality, ethics, integrity are the hallmarks on which we were trained to become officers right from our Military Academy days. Moral integrity and Moral courage, were and hopefully still are, values that mean something in this institution. But not to see a single senior corrupt looter sent to jail is a testimony to this institution’s failure to hold its senior leaders accountable.
The second factor, I think, is the manner in which the Army brazenly exercises it’s power and influence. By doing do it further alienates itself and opens itself to severe criticism.
The Saudi troops announcement by ISPR being one. In this case Gen. Bajwa should have sat in a press conference chaired by the Minister of Defence. The Minister should have announced the despatch of troops to Saudi Arabia, explaining the rationale and everything with any questions on their tactical role being answered by the Chief. This I say despite my genetic aversion to anything associated with Nawaz Sharif!
Others are examples of how State land has been continuously misappropriated on one pretext or the other for uses other than what it was given to the Army for. For instance land for military units converted to residential colonies!
The power, privileges and perks acquired by senior officers. General’s should not be travelling in BMW’s but in Toyota Jeeps. Their offices should not put the offices of Corporate CEO’s to shame! They should live in austere environments befitting their profession. The corrupt within the Army must be punished. The brazen display of brute force curbed.
Let’s not forget our Armed Forces are paid for by the poor people of Pakistan. The hundreds of millions who are indirectly taxed every time they load their phones or buy bread or switch on a fan or a lightbulb. It is incumbent upon the Army to spend this tax money from the blood, sweat and tears of its people, with care!
I know many of my fellow brothers in khaki will take great offence to this perspective. But while it is also painful for me, I must say so, because the Pakistan Army is one of the only two institutions in this country, the other being the Supreme Court, on which the very future of Pakistan depends.
The Army cannot go the route of other public sector institutions. They cannot allow their corrupt to go free or continue to misuse its strength and misappropriate authority which is not theirs. The institution must self correct, otherwise it will eventually succumb to the rot within!
And the sooner someone tells the General that the Army isnt wearing trousers, the better it is for Pakistan and the Army!
By Syed Haider Raza Mehdi
These protests are both a natural consequence of a fascist totalitarian regime which limits personal freedom and imposes its harsh version of Islam and the overt and covert external interventions and attempts for regime change, lead by the USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The current Iranian dispensation is into their 37th year. I’m surprised it’s actually lasted that long. But having said that, several factors contributed to its longevity. Firstly, the savagery of the Pahlavi regime and the subsequent amelioration of 90% of the population following the downfall of said exploitative and elitist regime.
Secondly, homogeneity of race, culture, religion and sect is a big help which binds the people together over 2500 years of recorded history and common culture.
Next, the 10 year Iran-Iraq war in which millions of Iranians died gave rise to an unprecedented wave of nationalist fervour and an insular mentality and was further aggravated by USA led economic sanctions.
Having said that, even the Soviet Union’s fascism couldn’t last beyond 80 years, even though it was a much more powerful and regressive police state. Eventually all such political models die because of the innate weakness of a totalitarian system in trying to regulate the personal lives of people to an extent that it becomes oppressive.
Such are the Iranian and Saudi regimes. Both realise the inevitable consequences of fascist type controls. And both have recently loosened controls on personal choices and liberty and freedom.
For example Iranian women not adhering to strict hijab standards in public will no longer be arrested. Similar steps have been taken in Saudi Arabia such as allowing women to drive, opening of cinema halls and a public declaration by MBS to move away from their oppressive and exclusivist version of Wahabi Islam.
For the Saudis these are huge paradigm shifts, having known nothing better, and one reason that MBS has been able to carry the day so far. But in Iran, the freedom of pre revolutionary Iran is still a reality and not too distant memory. Hence a desirable objective, sans the cruelty of the Pahlavi Savak driven autocratic rule or the oppressive fascism of the Iranian clergy.
The first big reaction against theocratic totalitarianism in Iran came in 2009, termed the Green Revolution. This movement was against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s questionable re-election. It was huge but crushed. It’s main leaders, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moosavi, Mehdi Karroubi, former Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi and thousands more were arrested. Its leaders still under arrest, even after 8 years.
The current system is not going to go away soon, because the people supporting it are still in an overwhelming majority, especially within the poorer segments of society.
Broadly speaking there are three big segments in Iranian society today.
The “Revolutionaries” who support the Revolutionary regime and are still in a majority accounting for perhaps 60% or more of the population.
The second group, very vibrant, active and growing are the “Nationalists” and comprise 30 to 35%, some say even 40% of the population. Accurate statistics are hard to come by. This group is more liberal in thought and action and were behind the Green Revolution movement of 2009. Today they have some representation in the government in the likes of foreign minister Javed Zarif. They are much more liberal in thought than the Revolutionaries and advocate much more openess in society while also being fiercely patriotic. They also advocate for closer ties to the USA but on equitable terms. This explains the close relationship between Foreign Minister Javed Zarif and former US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama administration.
The last and the smallest group are the “monarchists” who are about 5% to 10% of the population. This group is comprised of those who could not or did not leave Iran after the Islamic Revolution. They have deep ties to the extremely rich and wealthy Iranian diaspora spread across the globe, especially in the USA, mostly who fled Iran following the Revolution. Though small in number they are potentially critical to any regime change moves being orchestrated by external forces, especially in the areas of funding and information.
The last two groups can potentially align in instigating a regime change.
Since the Revolution,the USA has been assiduously cultivating the liberals and monarchists but have been consistently checkmated by the Islamic Revoutionary Guards Council, which today have their own Army, Navy and Air force and report directly to the Rahber, Ayatollah Khamenei.
The IRGC nearly upended the nuclear deal with the USA and EEC and are still virulently against any moves to mend ties with the USA and Saudi Arabia, considering them both extensions of Israeli / Zionist power in the region. A view also held by their Rahber and Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Therefore based on the above and in my opinion, the current anti government demonstrations in Iran, fueled by economic pressures and reaction against curbs on personal freedoms are actively, directly and indirectly financially supported by the USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel to create internal unrest leading to regime change.
The factors working in favor of such a move are of course the poor economy, the innate desire in people for more personal freedom and choices, the limitations and controls imposed on Iranians across the globe and the incessant stress of continuous warfare.
Factors against the US, Saudi and Israeli moves are a deep rooted suspicion and even hatred by Iran for all three, based on history. Current and past.
Secondly an economy thats on the up and on the mend, perhaps not as fast as the people want. Oil exports have doubled. Trade with Europe and China has increased in several multiples. This coupled with a robust and indigenous technology base, developed in response to international sanctions and serving both the civilian and military sectors.
Thirdly it’s increasing regional power.
Fourth. A loosening of the oppression of personal freedoms and finally and perhaps, certainly in the short run, the IRGC.
The IRGC, much like the Pakistan Army, is perhaps the most powerful institution in Iran both militarily and commercially and will counter any attempts as will the State apparatus to upend the current regime.
Iran will eventually have to allow greater personal freedom to control and mitigate dissent.
But two questions remain.
Will the IRGC and the Rahber, Ayatollah Khamenei, supported by the conservative clergy, many of whom if not most have accumulated enormous wealth and privilege, allow this ?
And the other question is whether the USA, supported by Saudi Arabia and Israel will allow this?
Because one thing that will be hard to overcome is the hostility between Iran and the three countries attempting regime range. The very strong Iranian nationalist segment, while though not as rabidly anti USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as the Revolutionary group is, are hyper nationalists by nature and definition and will not agree to any relationship dictated by these three.
So one doesn’t see a major upheaval in the offing. If anything it gives hope for a much more open and less totalitarian government in Iran.
A big indicator of the direction the Iranian regime is taking will be the choice of the next Supreme leader after Ayatollah Khanenei. If it is somebody like President Rouhani then once can see the beginnings of a much more liberal regime.
For Pakistan this is a golden opportunity to continue to re-establish it’s close ties with Iran and wean them away from India. This is crucial to build our bulwark against the USA and her attempts to weaken us and nuclear defang us.
Only a strong Pakistani Chinese Russian and Iranian bloc will thwart USA and Indian designs !
– Haider Mehdi
The General came, presented, answered questions and left. The questions were petty. As petty as the people who asked them.
The General’s briefings were detailed and deeply insightful with a message. Kindly get your act together.
His briefing to the Senate is being termed as a triumph for democracy and elevates its Chairman Raza Rabbani to the status of a near god and as the “true conscience” of Parliamentary democracy in Pakistan. Here’s my view about this so called great democratic pretender and conscience keeper.