By Madawi Al-Rasheed
The dominant narrative through which many observers understand Saudi Arabia depicts a progressive and modernist leadership struggling to gradually transform an allegedly conservative and traditional society. The amplified divide between the modernists, often believed to be consisting of the princes and their western-educated technocrats on the one hand, and the traditionalists, a large cohort of religious clerics, tribes, and almost everybody else in Saudi Arabia on the other, fails to provide a robust analytical framework to understand Saudi Arabia. However, this persistent narrative has made the country an enigma, not only in its Arab neighbourhood, but across the Muslim world.
The alleged binary opposition between Saudi modernists and traditionalists persists for purely political reasons. The narrative is a convenient paradigm that shows the country as blessed by enlightened leadership which, in the past, had been crippled by the vast sea of Saudi conservatism, traditionalism, and, by implication, backwardness. This paradigm had become the foundation for regime propaganda. Its advocates are not only outside observers, but also many Saudi intellectuals.
by Helen Lackner
Yemen remains in the grip of its most severe crisis ever: the civil war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition on the one side and those of the alliance between the Houthi rebel movement and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the other has devastated the country. ‘Chaos’ is an appropriate term to describe the situation in a turbulent region. With no immediate prospects for the stable, peaceful, and democratic state that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators called for during the 2011 uprisings, what went wrong? Why is there no prospect even of an internationally brokered plan to help end hostilities, let alone find peace? Conflicts in Yemen stem from a combination of internal rivalries between elites, rising demands of an increasingly impoverished population, interventions from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and western states and neoliberal financiers.
On 12 July 2017, the United Nations Special Envoy told the UN Security Council, ‘The situation in Yemen remains extremely grave. The intensity of the conflict increases day after day…The humanitarian situation is appalling…The country is not suffering from a single emergency but a number of complex emergencies, which have affected more than 20 million people and whose scale and effect will be felt long after the end of the war.’ The UN also declared the spread of cholera in Yemen the worst ever recorded worldwide. There are now over 300 000 suspected cases and over 1 700 people have died as a result of the epidemic. Fourteen million people are food insecure, of whom almost 7 million are at risk of famine.
This paper probes the main causes behind the disintegration of the Yemeni state established in 1990, and discusses early promises that were dashed by a succession of problems culminating in the 2011 uprisings, the failed transition of 2012-14, the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, their alliance with Saleh, and the Saudi-led intervention. It also deconstructs the rationale behind the events that led to the collapse of the Yemeni state, as well as the reasons why the international military intervention, starting in 2015, has ensured the prolonging of the war, and its catastrophic consequences for the population.
Origins of the New Republic
The Republic of Yemen was established in 1990 by the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the former resulting from the overthrow of the imamate in 1962 by a group of republican officers, and the latter emerging from British-administered Aden and the protectorates. These states had different political orientations; the YAR following a capitalist one while the PDRY was the only socialist state in the Arab world. Despite these differences, the two states shared common features that made Yemen a nation: a common culture, a similar fundamental social structure despite both regimes’ efforts to transform society in divergent directions, and a shared economic base of agriculture and fisheries with hopes of discovering oil. Families – and both states – relied considerably on remittances from migrant labour elsewhere in the peninsula and beyond.
Unification was the most popular political slogan on both sides of the border, and was embraced by both populations. But unification was born by forceps rather than through a democratic process: Saleh, who was president of the YAR (1978-2017), persuaded southern leader Ali Salem al-Beidh to agree to a full merger only hours after the PDRY’s ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) had confirmed its commitment to a federal agreement that left considerable autonomy to each former state. This shift laid the basis for tension and led to a short civil war in 1994, decisively won by Saleh with the military support of the factions that had been defeated in the 1986 internal conflict in PDRY, including current ‘legitimate’ president Hadi, and the Salafis returning from Afghanistan.
Mounting Crisis and The 2011 uprisings
The Republic of Yemen’s first two decades were characterised by economic crises. More than 800 000 Yemenis were deported from GCC states when Yemen voted against UNSC Resolution 678 that approved military action against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. This reduced foreign economic aid to Yemen to almost zero, and added close to a million job seekers at a time of high unemployment. Although this crisis receded by 1995 and aid was resumed, it is worth remembering that remittances from workers abroad, mostly in GCC states, remained more important to Yemen’s economy than aid. Moreover, remittances directly reached mostly rural households, while aid went to state institutions in the early years. This shift changed in the late 1990s when IFIs actively weakened the state by financing organisations such as the Social Fund for Development and the Public Works Project, which operated according to ‘efficient’ private sector principles, though in fact they are parastatals whose salaries allow them to poach the best staff from line ministries, thus reducing their technical capacity. Other factors, such as climate change, rapid population growth and the corruption of the ‘elite’, contributed to increasing poverty and worsened the gap between the majority of the population and the small group of beneficiaries of the Saleh regime. Earning potential within Yemen and beyond was negatively impacted by constraints on migration and lack of job creation policies at home.
Political tensions increased through three episodes:
Combined with the social and economic crises, the only missing element was a trigger for a major uprising. The turning point came in the form of the apparently successful overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, encouraging Yemenis to believe that fundamental change was possible. Symbolised in the slogan ‘Saleh out’, the movement included thousands of independent youth and women, and members of opposition parties who were later joined by their leaderships. With a split in the military/security forces in March 2011, the country came close to large-scale warfare between opposing military factions, while the anti-Saleh peaceful civil movement persisted but was increasingly influenced by the political parties, particularly Islah and the Houthi movement. These developments led to intervention by the ‘international community’ in the alleged pursuit of a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The GCC Agreement and the transitional regime
Various events in the course of 2011 gradually weakened the Saleh regime and led, by the end of the year, to the GCC Agreement, which included Saleh’s resignation and his replacement by his former vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was to lead a transitional regime. According to the GCC Agreement, the two-year transition would get the political and economic support of the international community. It included a government of national unity that brought together Saleh’s forces and the opposition’s forces, the restructuring of the military/security sector, and a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) to design Yemen’s post transition structures. This was to be followed by a Constitution Drafting Committee, a referendum on the draft constitution, and elections.
Most of these steps were formally undertaken between 2012 and 2014. However, they failed to achieve the desired result, largely due to inherent design faults, such as allowing Saleh not only to stay in the country, but to continue leading the GPC, and allocating half of the government posts to his party. While this arrangement reflected the actual balance of power in 2011, it jeopardised the national unity government’s potential as ministers from the two main groups (GPC and Islah) competed for power and actively undermined each other. The government developed an unenviable reputation of being Yemen’s most corrupt ever, while failing to halt the deterioration of living conditions. The international community also shared considerable responsibility for the absence of social and economic development. Close to USD 8 billion was pledged for Yemen in September 2012, but these funds were withheld under various pretexts, resulting in continued deterioration in public services.
This period witnessed the quiet rise of the Houthis, who consolidated their control over the northern governorate of Sa’ada. They expanded their control zone militarily and politically westward towards the Red Sea, aiming to control the small port of Midi to ensure they were not landlocked, as well as controlling the entire western part of the border with Saudi Arabia. They also moved east into Jawf governorate, again on the Saudi border, but this time in the belief that the area had significant oil resources. Moreover, they expanded southwards and reached Amran town in mid-2014, only fifty kilometres north of Sana’a, after taking over the stronghold of the senior Hashed leaders.
There have been several points of correlation between the waning transitional regime and the rise of the Houthis. The former was known for its corruption, incompetence, and inability to address the social and economic problems of the population, whereas the latter benefited from their (secret) alliance with Saleh. A final contributor to their success was the internal rivalry within the transitional regime. Hadi had sought to weaken Islah by allowing the Houthis to defeat it, with the intention of controlling the Houthis. One can only presume that he was unaware of their cooperation with Saleh.
In the summer of 2014, large anti-government demonstrations contested the IMF-recommended rises in fuel prices. The Houthis capitalised on their image as an oppressed minority, supporting the popular demands and pushing for government accountability. They managed to take over Sana’a on 21 September 2014, and consolidated their position in the following months.
By January 2015, the submission of the new constitution draft to the post-NDC body was an excuse for a final showdown. Both Houthis and Saleh regarded the proposed federal state as unacceptable for different reasons. Hadi and his new government were placed under house arrest as the Houthi-Saleh military forces moved further south and captured Aden by March. After escaping from Sana’a, Hadi named Aden the country’s interim capital. He and his ministers escaped to Riyadh, while requesting the GCC to provide military support to restore the transitional regime.
A Wider Radius of the War
In the regional context, there was a likelihood of victory in favour of the Saleh-Houthi forces in spring 2015. The newly-appointed minister of defence in Saudi Arabia, ambitious young Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), saw the Yemen downturn as an opportunity to prove himself as a new leader, full of initiative, and determined to solidify Saudi Arabia’s role in the region. He presumed his modern air force, equipped with the latest western weaponry, would easily defeat the ill-trained forces of the poorest Arab state. The Saudi-led coalition destroyed the Yemeni airforce on the first day of the war. By the summer of 2015, it became imperative to involve ground troops, mostly from the UAE and other coalition members, primarily Sudan, alongside mercenaries from various Latin American states. This tactic enabled the coalition forces to ‘liberate’ the area of the former PDRY and some of the northeast of the country by the autumn of 2015. However, the military stalemate has prevailed.
The UN-sponsored negotiation process has thrice failed to stimulate a settlement plan between the warring parties. Since mid-2016, UN mediation has not been able to convene another round of talks. There have been two main political developments in the last two years:
While the Arab Coalition includes several states, the decision-making process is controlled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, there is increasing divergence in policy and strategy between them, most visible in the south. Regardless of the rhetoric, Emirati forces are actively supporting separatists via the STC and the security forces. While claiming to address the problem of jihadi groups (AQAP and the Islamic State group), most of their interventions and arrests are against Islah, considered by the UAE to be Muslim Brothers, whom they pathologically detest. Outsiders have difficulty understanding support for extremist Salafi groups who are more dangerous to a moderate Islam than the Muslim Brothers. Divergence with the Saudi regime focuses on this aspect as it supports Ali Mohsen, who is an important Islah leader, and have had, for decades, very different approaches to Muslim Brother-related institutions.
Deepening humanitarian crisis
In the poorest Arab country with high levels of poverty and malnutrition, the current war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 22 million of the 29 million population are in dire need of humanitarian assistance; 16 million individuals lack clean water and sanitation; 18 million are food insecure, including 8 million ‘on the brink’ of famine; and more than 1 million are victims of cholera, another world record.
About 16 000 individuals have been killed by coalition air strikes, with the most effective weapon being the blockade of Yemen’s main port Hodeida and other Red Sea ports, as well as the imposed closure of Sana’a airport. Several thousands of Yemenis have died by hunger, disease and other side effects of the blockade, a driving force behind the humanitarian crisis.
An Open-ended war?
The perpetuation of the Yemeni war derives from two main reasons. First, international intervention has added another layer of complex issues, which seem irrelevant to Yemen and Yemenis. The main issue is Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Saudi accusations that the Houthis are no more than ‘Iranian proxies’ have become part of the official discourse throughout the region and beyond, including in the USA. While the reality is that Iran’s actual involvement is minimal, it benefits from a massive propaganda advantage in exchange for limited practical support to the Houthis. This added element tends to complicate the pursuit of a solution.
The second reason is both internal and external vis-à-vis Yemen. In the domestic context, numerous figures on all sides benefit from the war. Not only do they have no incentive to end it, but they have every incentive to prolong it. They include men and boys manning checkpoints and ‘taxing’ passengers and goods (including the basics to keep people alive: food, fuel and people seeking medical aid). Next are the Houthis in areas they control. They both fill their pockets and finance their ‘administration’ through the ransoming of traders and others, but do not use these funds to pay salaries of medical, education or any other civil staff. In the ‘liberated’ areas, the beneficiaries of the war include any number of groups, ranging from AQAP and IS militants to officials of everything from the various southern separatist groups to the few remaining Hadi loyalists. Outside the country, members of Hadi’s government collect massive salaries, submit exorbitant bills to the coalition, but fail to pay staff inside Yemen. This is the irony of the political economy of war.
On the international level, western states sell sophisticated and expensive weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to SIPRI, in the period 2013 to 2017, Saudi Arabia was the second largest importer of arms in the world, with 10 per cent of all arms imports. Its share of imports had risen by 225 per cent from the previous five-year period. About 61 per cent of its weapons came from the USA, 23 per cent from the UK, and 3.6 per cent from France. In the case of the UAE, the fourth largest importer, the USA is also its largest supplier (58 per cent) followed by France (13 per cent) and Italy (6 per cent). Recently, the US president, Donald Trump, sat with MbS and did a ‘show-and-tell’ display of the latest proposed sales.
This paper has provided a rapid sketch of the events which led to Yemen’s disintegration. Fundamentally, the collapse is due to a combination of internal rivalries between elites, the rising demands of a population which has experienced increased hardship, and the impact of international interventions, both from neoliberal international financiers and politically-motivated actors in support or opposition to the internal rival factions.
The Yemeni war shares some characteristics with the Lebanese civil war, with different external actors attempting to use local factions to pursue international rivalries. Yemenis suffer the consequences to a nightmarish extent. A small ray of hope emerged early 2018 with the appointment of a new Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General, as well as the presence in the UNSC of members who are committed to end this war. This window of opportunity, however, will demand major transformations of the current UNSC resolutions, as well as a new complex and sophisticated approach involving many actors currently excluded from the official negotiating process. This will not be easy, and success is not guaranteed, particularly in view of the complicated international dimension of Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
* This article was first published by AlJeazeera Centre for Studies
* Helen Lackner is a research associate at the London Middle East Institute in SOAS and author of the forthcoming book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, neoliberalism and the Disintegration of a State
 Helen Lackner (2017). Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, London: Saqi Books.
 Lackner (2017). “Yemen in Crisis”.
 A detailed analysis of the transition can be found in Helen Lackner (2016), “Yemen’s Peaceful Transition from Autocracy: could it have succeeded?” Stockholm, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
 UN News (2018). “Secretary-General's remarks to the Pledging Conference on Yemen”, 3 April. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2018-04-03/secretary-generals-remarks-pledging-conference-yemen-delivered.
 SIPRI (2017. “Trends in international arms transfers, 2017”. https://www.sipri.org/publications/2018/sipri-fact-sheets/trends-international-arms-transfers-2017.
By Justin Podur
Yemen is a small, poor country in a region empires have plundered for centuries. This civil war is a local struggle that has been escalated out of control by the ambitions of powers outside of Yemen—mainly Saudi Arabia.
The British Empire ruled the Yemeni city of Aden in South Yemen as a colony, a refueling station for ships on the way to the Empire's Indian possessions. Gaining independence in 1967, South Yemen had a socialist government from 1970 on, becoming the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).
Northern Yemen was ruled by a king from the city of Sana'a who followed of the Zaydi denomination of Islam, clashing periodically with both the British and with the Saudi kingdom over borders in the 1930s. Arab nationalist revolutionaries overthrew the king in 1962, starting a civil war between nationalists, backed by Arab nationalist (Nasserite) Egypt and royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran (then a monarchy too). A peace deal was reached and by 1970, even Saudi Arabia recognized North Yemen as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).
North and South Yemen talked about unification throughout the 1970s and '80s, and it finally happened in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union that had been South Yemen's most important ally.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed this December 3, was a military man who had been president of North Yemen since he was appointed by a junta in 1978. He became president of the unified country in 1990.
Saleh had to navigate a dangerous time for the Arab world. When Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US under Bush declared a New World Order, showing that the US could now operate in the region without any concern about a Soviet deterrent. Yemen happened to be on the UN Security Council in November 1990 when Resolution 678 authorizing the use of force to remove Iraq from Kuwait—authorizing the first Gulf War, in effect—came up for debate. Yemen voted against the resolution. The American representative famously told his Yemeni counterpart, “That was the most expensive vote you ever cast.” Yemen, which had hundreds of thousands of workers in the oil-rich Gulf countries including Kuwait, found its workers expelled and its Western aid programs cut when the war was over. Yemen was made an example of.
The post-1990 war sanctions on Iraq, which by most estimates killed hundreds of thousands of children through malnutrition and preventable disease, as well as the US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, were extremely unpopular in Yemen (as elsewhere in the Arab world). So was the lack of progress in ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, as people gradually realized that the Oslo Accords had frozen the occupation rather than ending it.
People from wealthy and powerful Yemeni families, among them veteran of the Afghan jihad Osama bin Laden (in fact there were numerous Yemenis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan), wanted to raise a local Arab force to secure the Arab peninsula and have the US military leave. But the idea was a non-starter with the Saudi kingdom that hosted the Americans.
When bin Laden's al Qaeda attacked US embassies (killing 44 embassy personnel and 150 African civilians), a US naval vessel (the USS Cole), and finally US civilians on 9/11, the US declared a war on terror. Saleh had learned his lesson from 1990 and agreed to cooperate with the US after 2001.
By this time, Saleh had been in power for more than two decades, and had enriched himself and his family in the process (his son, Ahmed Saleh, was a commander in an elite army unit). The vice-president, Abdrabbah Mansur Hadi, also headed a powerful and wealthy family. Other “big names” in Yemen include the Al-Ahmar family (which includes the current Vice President in exile and army general Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, billionaire media owner Hamid al Ahmar, and the founders of the Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islah party) and of course the Houthi family of Sa'ada, a mountainous governorate on the border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, like the old kings of North Yemen, are of the Zaydi denomination.
The term “tribe,” used by the British Empire for its imperial purposes of classification and rule, refers to a genuine social phenomenon, but is not especially useful in explaining the politics of Yemen. The country's elite is indeed organized in extended family networks, but this is arguably not so different from Western countries (how many Bushes and Clintons have participated in ruling the US empire by now?). Politicians and bureaucrats use public office to enrich themselves.
This, too, is not so different from Western countries, with the Trump brand being the starkest example. The Yemeni version of elite profiteering is exemplified in the smuggling of diesel fuel out of the country. Sarah Philips, author of Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, cites analyses suggesting that 12% of Yemen's GDP is smuggled out, the profits siphoned off by the elite – dollar estimates run as high as $900 million, with reports of a single man from a prominent family taking $155 million in smuggling profits in one year.
As Yemenis watched Israel crush the second Intifada from 2000 on, as well as the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Saleh's cooperation in the war on terror became ever more unpopular. One prominent scion of the Houthi family, Hussein al-Houthi, led followers in Sa'ada in a famous chant: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”
In the chant, "curse on the Jews" stands out from the group of otherwise hyperbolic items seeking victory for one's own side and death to the other. Even before this civil war, the Jewish community in Yemen was very small and long-suffering. Ginny Hill, author of the 2016 book Yemen Endures, found in her travels that “prejudice against the Jews was prevalent and unabashed,” and that Yemeni Jews in Sa'ada and elsewhere have suffered greatly from being caught in the middle of the Houthi insurgency.
Provoked by the Houthi chant and hoping to show his eagerness to fight the war on terror, Saleh sent the army into Sa'ada in 2004. The Houthis fought back. The army killed Hussein al-Houthi, who became a martyr of the Houthis' cause. Six waves of warfare followed over the next seven years, as Saleh's forces kept trying to quell the Houthis, whose power base in the north continued to grow. Saudi Arabia stepped in to support Saleh in 2009, and the Houthis responded with a quick raid from Sa'ada into the Saudi kingdom itself.
Meanwhile, in what had been South Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) was growing as well, and also challenging Saleh's government. President Obama's drone program blasted away in the south, leaving civilian casualties and terror in its wake. Saleh's strategy was to focus on fighting the Houthis and make exaggerated claims that they were sponsored by Iran, while keeping a lighter touch with AQAP, which had more powerful patrons in Yemen's elite.
At the same time, the Saudi royals were escalating their arms purchases, with contracts in the tens of billions with the US (and a $1.5 billion contract with a Canadian company now famous in that country). Saudi oil sales to and arms purchases from the US underpin the unbreakable bond between the kingdom and the empire. It explains why you hear much more about Russian (a competitor in the global arms trade) than Saudi (the greatest and most reliable purchaser of US arms) collusion in the US media. It also explains why the US provides military advice and help with targeting and intelligence to the Saudis as they use all their expensive purchases destroying Yemen.
In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen and an alliance from the elite families joined the mass call for the end of Saleh's rule. Saleh first agreed to step down, then refused. He was injured by a bomb blast in June and went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He finally did step down, handing power over to his vice-president, Hadi, in 2012.
Hadi presided over a constitution-drafting exercise. One feature enraged the Houthis: a plan to redraw the regions of Yemen, making Sana'a and Aden self-governing and merging Sada'a into a new highland governorate, “a formation that would deny the Houthis control over the Red Sea coast to west, cut them off from natural resources to the east, and fence them up against the Saudi border to the north,” as Ginny Hill wrote.
The Houthis, in alliance with the ex-president Saleh, arrived in force in the capital, besieging the presidential palace in 2014 and taking it at the beginning of 2015. Hadi fled to Aden, where he declared that he was still the lawful president of Yemen.
Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in support of Hadi in March of 2015. The Saudi intervention magnified the humanitarian impact of the civil war into a full-blown catastrophe, bombing, besieging, and blockading the entire country to try to force the Houthis out.
The Saudi blockade and bombing have scaled up a local power struggle to genocidal proportions. They believe Yemen is their backyard and that it is their right to impose a solution. Military victory has proven elusive for them, but their unlimited resources and the wide license given them by the Western media to freely commit crimes has allowed them to keep raising the stakes and nudging Yemen towards catastrophe.
The Houthis have held on, however, withstanding the bombardment and siege, even as the humanitarian catastrophe continues to expand. By now, the casualty figures are more than 10,000 dead, two million displaced, 2.2 million facing starvation, and one million infected with cholera since 2015 (27% of whom are under 5 years old). In addition to directly helping the Saudi military use its weapons, the US, including the media, has continued to run interference for the Saudi intervention. The humanitarian disaster is presented as a natural disaster, not a direct outcome of the way the Saudi kingdom has pursued the war.
Saleh, a wily operator who had survived in power since 1978, could not survive this last alliance with the Saudis: he was killed within 24 hours of making it. This December 3, Saleh announced he was switching sides, leaving his alliance with the Houthis and joining Hadi and the Saudis. The Houthis quickly routed his forces in the capital and blew up his house. The next day they stopped him at a checkpoint and killed him too, announcing that they had avenged Hussein al-Houthi. Saleh's son Ahmed quickly announced his plans to avenge his father.
The UN, Oman, Iran, and others have put forward peace plans to end the Yemeni civil war. Most feature a national unity government that includes the Houthis, who will convert their movement into a political party, with elections to follow. Saleh switching sides and the Houthi killing him makes a peace deal much less likely in the short term. But the biggest obstacle to peace remains Saudi Arabia, which has also been the biggest escalating force of the war.
* This article was first published on alternet.org
By Na'eem Jeenah
The dramatic news out of Saudi Arabia over the past week, including stories of arrests of members of the royal family, assassinations, purges and torture are not entirely a domestic matter. There is most certainly an international dimension to it, as evidenced by the coerced resignation of Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, Saudi threats against Lebanon and Iran, and the Saudi call for its citizens to leave Lebanon. That international dimension, it is becoming clearer, also includes the USA and Israel.
Soon after Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS as he is often referred to), the king’s son and now crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was appointed deputy crown prince, he began ingratiating himself to the US Trump administration – with the assistance of the UAE, and is now close friends with Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, who was briefed about last weekend’s crackdown a week before when he saw MBS on a ‘personal visit’ to Saudi Arabia. There are numerous reasons why MBS would want the kingdom and the US to strengthen relations that had frayed over the US approach to the 2011 uprisings in North Africa, and particularly, their lack of support – from the Saudi view – for Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. One of those reasons is the common hatred of Iran that both MBS and Trump have. Both administrations are bitterly unhappy about the Iran nuclear deal (which the US signed onto during the Obama administration).
In this, MBS has also made common cause with Israel. And that has led to a developing relationship between the Saudis and Israelis. It was recently reported that the Saudi crown prince visited Israel on a secret but official trip, an unprecedented occurrence. And, less than a day after MBS arrested dozens of potential rivals in Saudi Arabia, the Israeli foreign ministry sent a cable to its foreign missions asking them to piggyback on the Saudi repressive actions in order to ramp up criticism of and action against both Iran and the Lebanese group Hizbullah. The classified cable, made public by Israel’s Channel 10 News, also asked Israeli diplomats to express support for the Saudi war against Yemen, which has become a humanitarian nightmare.
Israeli diplomats were told to contact foreign ministries in their host countries, and reiterate the Saudi position on Hariri’s resignation, using it to paint Hizbullah and Iran as “destructive”, and to pressure the host governments to regard Hizbullah as a “danger to the stability of Lebanon and other countries of the region”.
Israel regards Hizbullah as probably its second most dangerous enemy after Iran. It was, after all, Hizbullah which forced Israel to end its occupation of areas in the south of Lebanon, and which withstood a sustained war by Israel in 2006. However, Hizbullah is a legal political party in Lebanon, and is part of the government headed by Hariri.
Not long after the Israeli cable, Saudi Arabia, strangely, announced that Lebanon had declared war on the Saudi kingdom – simply because Lebanon has Hizbullah as a political party. Many Lebanese interpreted that announcement as a Saudi declaration of war, a perception that was strengthened when, on Thursday, the kingdom called on its citizens in Lebanon to evacuate the country. Clearly, the Saudi and Israeli agendas not only dovetailed with each other, but were, in fact feeding off and reinforcing one another.
There is a strong belief among Lebanese people and commentators on Saudi Arabia that the Lebanese prime minister, Hariri, was forced by MBS to announce his resignation, and that he is being held prisoner in the kingdom, along with the scores of others arrested last Saturday night. Even Hariri’s own Future Party made similar comments to the media later in the week. Hariri announced his resignation on Saudi TV rather than on his own TV channel, and did so from Riyadh rather from his own country. In an announcement that was scripted for him, Hariri blamed his resignation on interference in Lebanon by Iran, and non-cooperation with Hizbullah.
Trump’s tweets of support for the authoritarian actions of MBS reinforce the common agenda between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US. “They know what they are doing,” he said, referring to MBS’ crackdown, which included Saturdays arrests – including those of two sons of the former king, a son of the former crown prince (who was also sacked from his position as head of the powerful National Guard), numerous businesspeople (including Waleed bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world), heads of three major media networks, and former ministers. Through these moves, MBS has taken full political control and sidelined all other sections of the Saudi royal family; he now has complete control of all sections of the Saudi security and armed forces; he is able to shape the Saudi narrative as he wants it; and he has prepared the way for his father’s abdication and his ascension to the throne – without any criticism from other Saudis.
That he is in the process of transforming an authoritarian system and power structure into an even more authoritarian absolute monarchy where all power is controlled by one person does not faze Trump or the Israelis. Indeed, as the Israeli cable indicates, such authoritarianism can be useful in the effort to isolate Iran and destroy Hizbullah.
The repercussions of this triumvirate of cooperation can be catastrophic for a Middle East region that is already mired in a number of wars – with large parts of Syria and Yemen completely destroyed, facing humanitarian disasters, and is dealing with more than 13 million displaced people (mainly from Syria and Yemen). While Iran is more than capable of defending itself against all three, Lebanon, more than 20 percent of whose population is refugees from neighbouring Syria and Palestine, is now under psychological, propaganda, diplomatic and military threat from both Israel and Saudi Arabia. With a fragile political system, the country is bracing itself for a possible external attack from Israel, and internal upheaval from Saudi-funded extremists. If such actions begin, Lebanon could be plunged into another civil war that could destroy the country. And it is quite likely that all three countries will bring their battle with Iran onto the African continent as well.
The newly-emerging Saudi-US-Israeli alliance could prove to be disastrous for the Middle region and for Africa.
Na'eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre
* This article was first published in the the Sunday Independent and Sunday Tribune in South Africa
In an extremely busy twenty-four hours in Saudi Arabia this past weekend, a series of moves by the palace sought to consolidate the power of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman – who already effectively runs the kingdom, centre all power in his office, and pave the way for his accession to the throne – even before his father, King Salman, dies. In the process, the power grab upends the slower, more consensual decision-making processes in the royal family, and establishes MbS, as the crown prince is known, as a more authoritarian ruler concentrating power in his person rather than in the family that has ruled the country since the 1930s. The moves this weekend (and earlier) achieve four major objectives for Muhammad: granting him control over a vast pool of assets around the world; putting him in charge of the Saudi voice outside the country through media networks owned by Saudis he has arrested; consolidating his power over the three main branches of Saudi military and security services; and removing (if temporarily) any voices of dissent to his father’s abdication and his becoming king.
The past weekend saw Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, announcing his resignation in Riyadh, at the instruction of MbS; the arrests of eleven members of the royal family (including two sons of the former king, Abdullah – Mut'ib and Turki), four ministers and dozens of former ministers, government officials and businesspeople, the disappearance of Abdulaziz bin Fahd (the son of another former king; while some reports say he was killed while trying to escape arrest, others suggest he was renditioned to Abu Dhabi where he is incarcerated and tortured); the death in suspicious circumstances of Mansour bin Muqrin (the son of a former crown prince, who perished in a helicopter crash close to the Yemeni border); the warning that assets of hundreds of other Saudis will soon be seized; and the dramatic ramping up of rhetoric against Iran and Lebanon. All of this threatens serious long-term consequences for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more generally.
The arrests and freezing of assets of the detainees were conducted ostensibly as part of an anti-corruption drive under the auspices of a newly-formed anti-corruption committee (headed by MbS), but it is clear that the reasons are much more comprehensive, and the move was planned before the committee was even inaugurated.
The arrests are part of an MbS pattern, with Salman’s acquiescence, of consolidating control over the levers of the country’s power, particularly the political, security, economic and media sectors. He has already centralised political power in his office – despite concern among many royals. Indeed, some sources claim that Mansour bin Muqrin, who died in the helicopter crash on Saturday night, had sent a letter to some 1 000 princes urging them not to support MbS’s accession to the throne. These same sources also claim that Mansour’s helicopter was deliberately targeted by state forces under instruction from MbS.
With the latest arrests, the crown prince has now taken over the military and security structures of the kingdom. In June, then-crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who was also interior minister, was fired (and has been under house arrest since), and a month later the interior ministry was stripped of many powers, which were given to a new homeland security agency headed by the king, thus giving MbS control of the country’s internal security and large amounts of security personnel and military materiel. As defence minister, MbS also controls the country’s defence forces. With this weekend’s arrest of Mut'ib bin Abdullah, MbS now also controls the third important security-military department, the National Guard. The Guard is an important arm of the Shammar branch of the royal family, and is a conglomeration of the tribal forces in the kingdom; the Shammar effectively control the various tribes through their control of the National Guard. By removing Mut'ib, MbS not only completes his control of the security and military forces, he also is attempting to take control of the kingdom’s tribal confederations. The influence of the National Guard is indicated by the fact that it was responsible for coercingKing Saud to hand over power to his brother Faisal in 1964, following a power struggle between the brothers over the division of political power. By surrounding Saud’s palace in early 1964, the Guard rendered it impossible for Saud to rule.
The arrests of the heads of the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), Rotana Media and ART – Walid bin al-Ibrahim, Walid bin Talal and Salih Kaamil respectively – gives the Saudi regime effective control of Saudi media that broadcast outside the kingdom. (The palace already tightly controls the media internally.) This will ensure a common narrative on issues such as foreign policy, MbS’s accession to the throne, and the demonisation of dissent.
Furthermore, dozens of clerics, scholars and academics, who might have been opposed to or critical of Salman’s abdication in favour of his son, were jailed in September for no apparent reason. This move also signalled to the clerical establishment, whose influence MbS wants to curtail, that only supportive voices from its ranks will be tolerated. The clergy will be a concern for MbS, who has been talking of Saudi Arabia as a ‘secular’ state, and about diminishing the role of religion and the clergy, which would upset a compact between the royal family and the clergy about them supporting each other. Like the National Guard, the clergy too had a hand in the abdication of Saud in 1964. It took only twelve senior clerics’ support, including that of the grand mufti, to legitimise Saud’s ouster.
The latest arrests also help shore up MbS’s economic control in the kingdom, and are, at least in part, related to the need for him to mobilise funds to drive his ambitious Vision 2030 initiative, which seeks to move the country away from its dependence on oil, and improve an economy that is worse than it has been in decades. Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit stands at ten per cent of GDP; unemployment has increased to twelve per cent; and popular discontent has forced him to drop plans to reduce state subsidies (which he hoped would free up funds for Vision 2030). The need for extra funding is exacerbated by his plan to construct a 500 billion dollar megacity (dubbed Neom), which has attracted substantial interest from Israeli businesses. Moreover, the Yemeni war, ongoing for two years and with no end in sight, is draining the kingdom’s coffers by between 100 and 500 million dollars daily. It has been estimated that the seizing of the wealth of the businesspeople arrested thus far will add around 33 billion dollars (half the 2017-18 budget deficit) to Saudi state coffers, a substantial contribution to the 2030 and Neom projects. With hundreds more people on the list for their assets to be seized, that figure could increase dramatically. Furthermore, MbS’s plan to list the oil company Aramco on the New York Stick exchange was not universally supported in Saudi Arabia; nor were his plans for Neom. The dissenting voices on these matters have now largely been neutralised through their detention.
It is suspected by many that Hariri’s forced resignation is partly also part of the effort to bolster Saudi state finances. Hariri’s assets are worth more than a billion dollars, and his business interests are mainly based in Saudi Arabia. Since the economic downturn that hit the Saudi construction industry, Hariri has been unable to pay his debts to the kingdom. His stake in Saudi Oger is worth just under a billion dollars, a reasonable contribution to MbS’s coffers. Interestingly, the disappeared Abdulaziz bin Fahd was the Saudi point person in charge of Saudi Oger, and, thus, Hariri’s partner. Hariri has, since his ‘resignation’, been rumoured to be interned in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, along with others arrested on Saturday. However, Hariri’s removal also has political objectives. MbS, with the support of the USA and Israel, hopes to increase the pressure on Iran through its proxies and associated groups. Thus the removal of Hariri can be read as part of the effort to escalate tensions in Lebanon, and to begin an offensive against Hizbullah.
He identified Iran’s role in Lebanon and the region, and his dissatisfaction with Hizbullah as reasons for the resignation. Yet, shortly before he left for Saudi Arabia, he met with Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor on international relations to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei; and Hariri’s party’s relations with Hizbullah have not been any rockier than usual.
MbS’s power grab has already caused much disquiet within the house of Saud, which previously divided government portfolios between the different family branches to prevent fractious succession battles, and to ensure continuity. Saturday’s moves have upended this policy, centralising immense power in MbS’s office. It is likely that the families of Nayef, Abdullah and Muqrin will join forces, especially if Salman abdicates power in favour of his son in the next weeks. Abdulaziz’s disappearance and Abdullah’s death will aggravate this urge. Any rumblings of protest from within the National Guard at the firing of its former boss, Mut'ib, to whom the Guard had been fiercely loyal, would be an indicator in this regard.
Further, despite earlier expressions of enthusiasm for MbS’s ‘modernisation’ proposals – especially from Saudi youth, it is uncertain whether the majority of Saudi citizens will accept MbS’s plans, even though Saudi Arabia has a bulging youth population, especially after the recent crackdown. He has already alienated many critical clerics who had previously called for such modernisation, and who enjoy much popular support, as well as created fear in the business community, and anger in many sections of the royal family.
Additionally, the arrests of young reformers such as Abdullah al-Malki and Mustafa al-Hassan, together with the arrests of cleric Salman al-Awda in September, suggest two faces of MbS’s ‘reform’ initiative. Despite, for example, voicing support for increased freedoms, relaxing conditions on Saudi women’s restrictions to drive, and advocating (rhetorically) a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, MbS instituted two committees (the Union of Electronic and Software Security, and the National Authority for Cyber Security) in October to monitor and control social media, and curtail freedoms. Already, the head of the Union of Electronic and Software Security, Saud al-Qahtani, called on Saudi tweeps to report citizens sympathising with Qatar in the issue of the blockade on that country. Another example of MbS’s two-faced policies is his commitment to ‘privatise’ Saudi assets such as Aramco, while the recent crackdown shows that he is just as happy ‘nationalising’ private assets of those he dislikes.
The increasingly gung-ho attitude from the Saudi palace will also have serious regional consequences. MbS and his deputies have hardened the kingdom’s stance toward Iran, used war-like rhetoric in reference to Iran and Lebanon, further threatened the Houthi in Yemen, and instituted a full blockade on Yemeni ports. While a war with Iran is unlikely, Riyadh’s moves threaten to destabilise Lebanon’s complex, sectarian consociational political system in a manner that could have disastrous consequences; some Lebanese are talking about the possibility of another civil war.
While there is concern in the Middle East about where this will lead to, MbS and his authoritarianism have won unqualified support from the USA and Israel. Both the US president, Donald Trump, and his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner enjoy a close relationship and mutual admiration with the crown prince. Kushner returned to the USA from a personal visit to Saudi Arabia just a week before the recent arrests, sparking speculation that MbS briefed him about his plans for the arrests and for Lebanon. After the arrests, Trump tweeted that he had ‘great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing’. Israel, which MbS reportedly visited in September, has also been jubilant about the new crown prince and his keenness to normalise relations with the Zionist state. The events of the past weekend have been pounced upon by Israel, with its envoys around the world being instructed to use the Hariri ‘resignation’ to attack Hizbullah and Iran. Whether this was coordinated with Saudi Arabia or not, events in the kingdom are proving useful to Israel in its battle with Iran, and, ultimately with the Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, thirty-two-year old Muhammad bin Salman, has thus cast his country and the Middle East region into a period of great uncertainty. From the time he was appointed deputy crown prince by his father in April 2015, he began to present himself as the face of the kingdom’s future, and many of his actions – domestically, regionally and globally – have been crafted to concentrate power in himself, show Saudis and the world that he is tough, willing to deal decisively with his enemies, fully in league with the United States, and to prepare for his coronation. This year, the blockade against Qatar, increased sabre-rattling on Iran, normalising relations with Israel, developing intimate relations with the the US Trump administration, and the events of the past weekend have all had a singular motive: strengthening MbS’s hand in preparation for his being handed the throne by his father. The latest arrests and firings are an attempt to silence criticism of his ascension to the throne, and to shore up his military, economic and media power.
Furthermore, MbS is transforming Saudi Arabia into a strong regional client that will help the USA maintain global ascendency, and serve, together with Israel, as a US proxy in the Middle East. MbS has set himself up as the new regional strongman whose role has been rubberstamped by Trump. The US administration has given him wide permission to consolidate his position in a way that will allow him to become an effective instrument of the USA in the region. The focus and escalating rhetoric on Iran (and its proxies) helps consolidate this position by ensuring that Saudi Arabia, the USA and Israel will be on the same page, with a common enemy that they each can rally their constituencies against.