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VIEW FROM ABROAD: Saudi prince in a china shop

Updated November 20, 2017

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SAUDI Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.—Reuters
SAUDI Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.—Reuters

WHEN you watch a spoiled brat whose parents have never stopped it from doing anything walk into a curio shop, you know it’s just a matter of time before disaster strikes.

And sure enough, even when he didn’t wield the kind of power he does now, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, led his country into a savage war in Yemen. This conflict has killed thousands of innocent Yemenis, with incompetent Saudi pilots bombing schools, markets, weddings and funerals to produce tens of thousands of casualties. It has also triggered a humanitarian crisis with millions facing starvation and cholera. The Saudi embargo has stopped ships from unloading critical food and medicines.

The economic warfare being waged against Qatar is another example of immature policies scribbled on the back of an envelope after a heavy lunch. The tiny sheikdom was no threat to Saudi Arabia; the only real issue was its Al Jazeera TV channel whose Arabic service had become a real thorn in its side. Also, Qatar had, in the eyes of the Saudi and Emirati ruling elites, become too big for its boots. Its hosting of the football World Cup in 2022, and its acquisition of some of the most iconic properties in Western capitals had clearly irked the royals in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Then, of course, Riyadh is trying to cope with the collapse of its ill-conceived policy in Syria. Here, for years, the kingdom supported the nastiest jihadist factions on the battlefield. Now that Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah, have virtually won the war, the Saudis are looking for options. In particular, they want to roll back Tehran’s increasing clout in the arc that extends from Iran to Lebanon across Iraq and Syria.

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Here is where the recent Saudi intervention in Lebanon enters the equation. In a recent article, Robert Fisk, the finest Middle East correspondent in the business, speculated on the reason behind the apparent kidnapping of Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, to Riyadh. Fisk’s take is that to counter the rise of Iranian power in the region, the Saudis are trying to force Hariri to neutralise Hezbollah politically by throwing out their cabinet ministers.

Even Crown Prince Salman should know how delicately the Lebanese political system is balanced. In a multi-sectarian society, each community has been assigned a share in the pie — a share that is frequently (and violently) disputed. To pull the structure apart on a Saudi whim could cause repercussions that can only be guessed at. A new civil war would give Israel another excuse to intervene, triggering a fresh regional conflict.

Even the inexperienced Saudi prince must realise that just because he can throw his weight around domestically, his diktat does not run across the Middle East. His actions have, by design or not, been of huge benefit to Israel’s strategic position. In fact, both Trump and Netanyahu have egged on the aggressive but clueless prince in most of his incoherent policies and actions. But even Washington and Tel Aviv must be growing uneasy at the unpredictable ways old relationships are being ripped up. The status quo suits them, although they would like Iran to be checked. However, they must see that Riyadh lacks the military wherewithal to defeat Iran’s battle-hardened Guards, and their own intervention could commence a regional firestorm that would be hard to extinguish.

However, it is domestically that Prince Salman’s impetuous behaviour might cost him most heavily. By arresting dozens of princes and billionaire businessmen, and allegedly putting at least some of them through torture, he has sent a ripple of anxiety across the global business community that had invested — or was thinking of investing — in the wide range of infrastructure projects being marketed for a new city on the Red Sea. Foreign investors will dial down their earlier enthusiasm for these deals when they see well-connected royals being squeezed and humiliated on corruption charges.

The reality is that Saudi commercial life has always been built on graft with royals on the make demanding commissions on imports of expensive, top-of-the-line military toys, and big construction projects. So it would be difficult to find a successful Saudi businessman today who does not routinely give or accept bribes. One theory is that the ongoing crackdown represents the crushing of all potential rivals and opponents.

One victim of Salman’s unprecedented action against the Saudi business elite is the planned multi-trillion privatisation of a small part of the Saudi oil monopoly, Aramco. Already, there had been doubts about the flotation of shares on either the London or New York stock exchanges. The reason is the lack of transparency in the giant company’s financial reporting. Now, with the ongoing purge, it is difficult to see how this privatisation can proceed.

In the background hangs the spectre of the Saudi economy being dragged further down by lower oil prices. Already, the country has depleted a substantial part of its foreign currency reserves, and the long-term trend away from oil to sustainable energy sources is clear. Thus, to retain its lout and relevance, the kingdom must reduce its dependence on hydrocarbons and rebalance its economy. This is easier said than done.

For most of its modern existence, and especially since oil prices took off in the early ‘70s, the Saudis have chosen to import manpower, with the locals being virtually paid not to work. This indolent work ethic has produced generations of Saudis who are shocked when told to turn up at their government offices.

Salman’s Vision 2030 statement calls for greater ‘Saudization’ of the workforce, something nobody is really sure will work. The country has always functioned as a closed, backward tribal society that has kept foreign ideas out while selling the world its oil and buying arms to keep Western lobbyists, politicians and manufacturers onside. This strategy worked well until Salman landed on the scene, determined to rule without check from other royals. In a country governed for decades by ageing monarchs, he promised change. While he has certainly delivered, the change may be more than most Saudis bargained for.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2017