Vol. XLIII No. 12 March 24, 2019

Saudi Arabia: Crown Prince

Yohannan Chemarapally

IT had been a hectic couple of years  for the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman or MBS as he is now popularly known, since he became the de facto ruler of  the kingdom. He started by imposing a war on Yemen two years ago that has devastated the country, the poorest in the Arab world. Then he decided to do regime change in neighbouring Qatar. He has failed in achieving his goals in both Qatar and Yemen. In the first fortnight of November, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia initiated a purge that involved the arrest of some of his royal half brothers, leading businessmen, artistes and media professionals. He then announced a full blockade on Yemen after a missile fired from that country fell perilously close to the international airport in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. After that he did something unparalleled in the history of contemporary diplomacy or politics in the region. The prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, was urgently summoned to Riyadh by the Saudi King. According to reports, he was promptly arrested after landing and given a prepared speech of resignation to read.

In his speech broadcast on Saudi television, Hariri virulently denounced the role of Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon and the wider region. In language echoing that of recent speeches made by Saudi leaders, Hariri blamed Iran for “all the disputes and wars in the region”. Only a day before, Hariri had held cordial talks in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior foreign policy adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Velayati, a former foreign minister, praised Hariri, describing him as a “respectable man” and reaffirmed Teheran's support for Lebanon's government. The next day, Hariri, who holds dual Lebanese-Saudi citizenship was summoned to Riyadh on the express orders of the Saudi monarch. The Saudi government also owes his construction firm billions of dollars in unpaid bills. The Lebanese prime minister was ordered to come alone to Riyadh by the Saudi authorities. Even his chief of cabinet was barred from coming with him on his official trip.

Hariri, before his unannounced appearance on a Saudi television channel, was presiding over a Lebanese government, that after a long time was working in a united and cohesive way. The Hezbollah is an important part of the government. Despite past differences, Hariri and the Hezbollah, seemed to be getting on well at a time when Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv were busy denigrating the Shiite resistance movement and calling for its destruction. The president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, has refused to accept Hariri's resignation unless he comes back to Beirut and hands his resignation letter over personally. The Lebanese president has said that the Saudi authorities are holding the prime minister against his will.

Hariri had obviously not endeared himself with the Saudi establishment with some of his recent moves. The Lebanese prime minister had recently praised Hezbollah for its role in driving out Daesh and al Qaeda linked forces out of Lebanese territory. It is precisely the Hezbollah movement's key role in driving out the extremist forces from not only Lebanon but also Syria and Iraq that had so infuriated the government of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, along with their Gulf allies, had pumped in billions of dollars to al Qaeda and Daesh linked rebels in the futile attempt at regime change in Syria.

The election of Donald Trump has however once again given some of the Gulf monarchs grandiose dreams. This time, they want to simultaneously target Iran and Lebanon, along with Syria. The Trump administration has been busy trying to scuttle the nuclear deal with Iran, while the US Congress has imposed more punitive sanctions against the Hezbollah movement. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has chimed in with a statement describing the resignation of Hariri as “a wakeup call for the international community to act against Iranian aggression”. The Saudi government has ordered all its citizens to leave Lebanon forthwith. Israeli politicians are threatening to reduce Lebanon into rubble when the next war breaks out. Hezbollah was responsible for kicking the Israeli forces out of Lebanon. They had fought the mighty Israeli army to a stalemate during their 2006 invasion of Lebanon.

The Lebanese street took the surprising developments in its stride. The Saudi attempts to reignite the sectarian strife in Lebanon have failed so far. Many of Hariri's close associates and members of his party have said that they had no clue whatsoever about his resignation to resign and suggest that the resignation was done under duress. The general refrain in Lebanon was that Hariri should have at least resigned from his office on Lebanese soil for the sake of credibility. The Hezbollah chief, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, speaking after the “resignation” of Hariri, said that Saudi Arabia had declared war on Lebanon. He accused the Saudi government of “arresting” Hariri and that his “detention was an insult to all Lebanese”. He said in his speech that the Saudis were inciting the Israelis to launch another war against Lebanon.

The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, issued a statement in the second week of November warning “against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country”. His boss, the American president, however has tweeted implicit support for the MBS, the crown prince.

The dramatic events in Saudi Arabia had taken place soon after a visit by Jared Kushner, Trump's influential son in law, to the kingdom. MBS and Kushner, according to reports in the American media, had extensive discussions on important issues. The Washington Post reported that MBS and Kushner “stayed up till nearly 4 am several nights swapping stories and planning strategy”. The Israeli prime minister has been a strong supporter of MBS and was quick to extend support for the young crown prince's virtual declaration of war against Lebanon. MBS has also been the architect of the policy to isolate Qatar. In the process he has made the already dysfunctional Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) an openly divided outfit.

But his biggest blunder so far has been the ill advised war against the impoverished state of Yemen. That war has truly boomeranged on the Saudi royals. The Houthi rebels after firing a medium range missile on Riyadh in early November have threatened to unleash missiles on the UAE, the closest military and political ally of the Saudis. The Saudis have blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the missile attack on Riyadh. The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, while denying any responsibility for the attack, said that the Yemenis have every right to retaliate as their country has been under sustained military attack and an economic blockade for almost two years. The country has been devastated by the Saudi led military coalition supported by the United States and UK. The huge profits, American and British armament companies are making selling arms to Saudi Arabia and its allies have made their governments immune to the sufferings of the Yemeni people.

Today, more than 20 million Yemenis are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance with seven million facing famine like conditions. Yet Saudi Arabia has now gone in for a complete air, sea and ground blockade of the country. An immediate impact of the Saudi blockade has been a sharp increase in food prices and the doubling of the price of cooking oil. The UN has warned that millions of people will die unless the Saudis lift their blockade. Mark Lowcock, the UN's humanitarian chief told the Security Council that if the blockade of Yemen is not lifted immediately, “it will be the largest famine the world has seen in many decades, with millions of victims”.

The West while shedding crocodile tears over the humanitarian crisis has done nothing to discourage the ongoing Saudi led carnage in Yemen. The American ambassador at the UN, Nikki Haley while blaming Iran for the missile launch against Saudi Arabia had nothing to say about the plight of the Yemenis or the Saudi blockade of the country. US Navy warships are positioned off the Yemeni coast to help the Saudis implement their blockade.