Wishing upon a Saudi star

Haitham Nouri , Thursday 4 Jan 2018

Saudi Arabia hasn’t been faring well on the international front despite promising changes within the kingdom.

Mohamed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman

Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s political profile skyrocketed this year, a status he’s been groomed for since the ascension to the throne of his father, King Salman, in January 2015 after the death of King Abdullah.

The crown prince’s rise was quick, in contrast to what is customary in the Saudi monarchy, for crown princes to retain ministerial positions for decades until they have acquired the necessary political savvy to be proclaimed king when they are well into their 60s, 70s or may be even 80s.

Bin Salman’s rise in politics began in 2007 when he was appointed counsellor to his father, then emir of Riyadh, and the cabinet. On 21 June 2017, he was declared crown prince, replacing his cousin Mohamed bin Nayef, then interior minister.

Upon the emergence of Bin Salman as a most influential figure in Saudi Arabia, a number of royal decrees and government decisions were issued, all aiming at “restoring moderate Islam” to the kingdom. The 32-year-old crown prince, who had been absent from the laypeople’s lives for long, has returned to pledge social changes often demanded by Saudi Arabia’s middle class, in a bid to successfully achieve the “2030 Vision”.

Hence, the royal decree to grant women the right to drive — a right they had been denied since the early 1930s. The Saudi Shura Council issued a statement in support of the royal decree.

Saudi authorities also allowed the organisation of mixed gender musical concerts, and the government’s television channel started broadcasting songs of Um Kolthoum and other Arab singers.

A few months later, a royal decree ordered the establishment of King Salman’s Complex for the Prophet’s Hadith, a compound comprising elite scholars in the Prophet Mohamed’s sayings, and to revise and eliminate hadiths that may be interpreted as supportive of terrorism.

The crown prince’s boldest move, however, was the arrest of 11 princes and more than 300 ministers and government employees on corruption charges. The clampdown, the first of its kind in the kingdom, included Minister of the National Guard Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, his brother former emir of Riyadh Turki bin Abdullah and Prince Al-Walid bin Talal, the wealthiest man in the Middle East, according to Forbes magazine.

Bin Salman denied the corruption purge was a move to consolidate his steps to the throne, refuting the claims of some observers after the arrest of the minister of the National Guard (2005-2017) and deposing his cousin Bin Nayef from the Interior Ministry which was run by his father, then crown prince, for four decades.

The National Guard, under Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, was loyal to late King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, who had been at the helm of the monarchy for 48 years to be succeeded by his son. Some observers hint that the detained minister of the National Guard is a strong competitor to the crown prince.

The corruption purge has had an unprecedented impact on life in Saudi Arabia, which was based on the balance and compatibility between Al-Saud families. Now, all authorities lie in the hands of the king.

The flurry of royal decrees affecting social life in the kingdom have clipped the wings of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, known as the religious police. They also helped weaken the position of Wahhabi clergymen whose star had risen since the late 1970s after the Iranian Islamic Revolution, the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by the Saudi extremist group of Juhayman Al-Otaybi, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These three events led Saudi authorities to give the green light to Wahhabi clerics to control society and to forbid any activities that were not in line with Wahhabi interpretations of Islam.

Bin Salman, who enjoys the support of millions of Saudi youth hungry for change after a long period of stagnation, has taken quick and strong steps to both rise to power and eliminate his antagonists in the kingdom. But on the regional front, Saudi Arabia’s moves in 2017 were not as strong. Some may even call it a nosedive the full repercussions of which are not yet clear.

In Lebanon, where Riyadh enjoys a powerful position among Sunnis since the 1950s, it faced a political setback. In early November, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, a Sunni and a strong ally to Saudi Arabia, landed in Riyadh on a “personal visit” as was described by Lebanese media. He broadcast a televised resignation from the Saudi capital on 4 November in an unconstitutional move. Lebanon’s constitution decrees that the resignation should be presented in written form to the president.

The move led Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his ally Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah, to accuse Riyadh of detaining Al-Hariri against his will. In return, Saudi sources said Al-Hariri, owner of Saudi Oger construction company, was implicated in a corruption case. Saudi self-exiled journalist in the US Jamal Khashoggi said Al-Hariri was Saudi as much as he was Lebanese.

Despite Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s claim that Al-Hariri was not held against his will in Riyadh, the Lebanese prime minister left the kingdom only after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited the monarchy. From Riyadh, Al-Hariri visited France and Cairo before landing in Beirut on 21 November to resume his duties as prime minister amid an understanding with Hizbullah, Saudi Arabia’s enemy in Lebanon.

While Al-Hariri insists he will keep to himself “what happened in Riyadh” and Bin Salman refused to disclose any information on the matter in his interview with The New York Times’ journalist Thomas Friedman, it has become clear to many that Saudi power has waned in Lebanon, although others, like Lebanese writer Abdel-Wahab Badrakhan, insist on the opposite.

In Yemen, Riyadh has been waging a war since March 2015. Yemenis are on the verge of the worst famine the world is yet to know and are enduring a humanitarian catastrophe, especially with the outbreak of cholera. The situation in Yemen has reached a military and political stalemate after the failure of negotiations.

There was a glimmer of hope, however, when former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh started ridding himself of his Houthi allies only a couple of days before his assassination at the hands of his former allies, who belong to Shia Zaidism. But it was a short-lived hope and Saleh was murdered, throwing the country into chaos.

Another failure encountered Saudi Arabia in 2017: Syria. President Bashar Al-Assad, Riyadh’s archenemy, gets to stay in power after Hizbullah and its Iranian allies announced defeating the Islamic State group and freeing Al-Bukamal city, the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria.

As far as Bin Salman is concerned, his only step up is to the helm of the kingdom. On the regional level, the young crown prince has a lot to do to regain Saudi Arabia’s former international stature.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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