Abdel Bari Atwan
There is intense speculation in the Gulf media nowadays that Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz intends to abdicate in favour of his son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Gulf media is meanwhile singing the praises of King Salman’s one year reign which we find rather surprising given that he has presided over the ongoing war in Syria, started a new one in Yemen and precipitated oil prices into a disastrous freefall, started a spat with Iran, decimated the economy (imposing swingeing cuts in government and social security expenditure), and executed unprecedented numbers of prisoners – many for non-violent offences.
Under King Salman, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) also jeopardised its relationship with the US (on which is it greatly dependent) by running giant American oil fracking companies out of business (by forcing prices down to unsustainable levels) among other diplomatic faux pas. After the Gun lobby and the Israeli lobby, the oil lobby is the strongest and most influential group in Washington.
A report by Washington think-tank the ‘Gulf Institute’ suggested that King Salman has been spending ‘hundreds of millions’ in buying support for his plan among the Saudi royal elders. His rationale is that he wants his direct heirs to retain power and the throne – in the past, the sons of former kings have been marginalised after their fathers’ deaths.
The move would also remove the current Crown Prince – Mohmaad bin Nayef – from the succession; a US favourite, bin Nayaf has no sons and, it is alleged although we have no idea if this is true or not, a cocaine habit which affected his fertility, according to the ‘Gulf Institute’ report[i]
Salman would be the first Saudi King to voluntarily abdicate but Qatar’s Hamid bin Khalifah al-Thani gave up the throne in favour of his son Tamim in 2013.
We always incur a lot of heated criticism whenever we write about Saudi affairs and are accused of interference in the affairs of their state. The problem is that the KSA is directly involved in the affairs of Syria and Yemen militarily, and in many other nations around the region and the world through proxy militia and insurgencies, investments and their religious outreach programme.
KSA is also trying to cool regional attitudes towards Iran and possibly engineer an all out military confrontation with Tehran. Several alliances and coalitions have been formed and are in the making for various Saudi-led adventures in the region including the Islamic Coalition against terrorism and a strategic co-operation council with Turkey.
Riyadh is also seeking to dictate the identity of the Syrian opposition and the make-up of its delegation to the forthcoming Geneva talks via its Supreme Commission for Negotiations.
If all of the above is not interference with the affairs of another state, we do not understand the term.
Perhaps with a view to opening up the Kingdom, Riyadh has invited – or acceded to requests from – leading Western journalists for interviews recently, including US columnist Thomas Friedman. The Economist magazine has had two Saudi scoops in two consecutive editions – first, an interview with Prince Mohammad bin Salman and now with Major-General Saad Olyan who is presiding over the war in Yemen from Saudi Arabia’s southern front.
For those who, like the present writer, welcome such insights into the mysteries of KSA, this is a refreshing opportunity to view the Kingdom’s activities through a prism other than its own tightly-controlled media.
The Economist revealed that the Houthi rebels in Yemen, far from being defeated, are regularly sending rockets over the border into Najran, where General Olyan is based, and other towns. Hundreds of Saudis have been killed, and 7000 evacuated, Olyan’s own office had its windows blown out and a hotel was wrecked shortly before it was due to open. The same article reveals how, despite Prince Salman’s claims to control 80% of Yemen, the Kingdom has revised its ambitions to only contain the problem while General Olyan now limits himself to defending Saudi territory against an increasingly aggressive Iran-backed enemy. Some Houthi extremists are now agitating to invade the Kindom and re-establish Zaydi rule as far north as Mecca itself.
Another factor in Yemen is the increasing hold al-Qaeda and its rival IS have established in cities liberated from the Houthis by the Coalition. Aden, Mukalla, Abyan and al-Dhali are all in jihadist hands, either in part or entirely.
Riyadh’s challenge in Yemen becomes more taxing every day. The Houthi resistance is organized along the lines of Hezbollah in Lebanon, it has diehard fighters and the added ingredient of ex-republican army personnel led by the shrewd ex-President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. These forces have years of combat and guerrilla warfare experience, including the 1994 war which led to secession by the south and six wars against the Houthis themselves. They are also well-equipped with SCUD missiles and tanks.
Domestically, the floundering Saudi economy is being further stretched by the flow of half a million Yemenis across the Saudi border in search of work and security.
A Saudi victory in Yemen is inconceivable in the near future. A negotiated solution is also proving hard to achieve with the last round of talks in Geneva collapsing just a few hours after they began because the ceasefire was immediately breached. This war seems set to last for many years.
The Economist piece was ominously headlined ‘Getting Closer’ and that is what the Saudis most fear now. Nevertheless, prominent Wahabbi preachers are urging Riyadh to ramp up the confrontation with the Iranian proxy Houthis, for this is, essentially all about sectarianism and the struggle for regional dominance between Tehran and Riyadh. As one such cleric wrote: what is the point of thousands dead and billions spent ‘if it just left us where we started’?
Under the watch of Prince Mohammad bin Salman – soon, if reports are true, to be King – peace remains a distant prospect.