Stung by an apparent defeat in Syria, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has arrested rivals within the kingdom’s elite and provoked a political crisis in Lebanon, reports Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Change is clearly afoot in Saudi Arabia — with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) engineering the dubious resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister and arresting some of the kingdom’s richest businessmen and rivals within the royal family on charges of corruption — but exactly what it foretells is hard to read.
The Saudis also are reeling from the apparent defeat of Saudi-backed Sunni jihadists in Syria, including Al Qaeda and Islamic State militants. So what are the consequences for Saudi Arabia and its regional allies?
On Nov. 20, after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri left Saudi Arabia and resurfaced in France, I spoke with Vijay Prashad, professor of International Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut. (Hariri has since returned to Lebanon where he remains prime minister at least for the time being.)
Prashad is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author of 20 books including The Death of a Nation and The Future of the Arab Revolution.
Dennis Bernstein: Where do you think the Prime Minister of Lebanon is now, and why is he there?
Vijay Prashad: Saad Hariri is currently in Paris. Emmanuel Macron went to Saudi Arabia and essentially rescued Saad Hariri from house arrest there. Hariri resigned on Saudi television. He was probably instructed to resign in order to create a political crisis in Lebanon. Hariri has indicated he may return to Beirut this week but there is no certainty that this is going to happen.
Dennis Bernstein: Do you think this is driven by the same forces behind the Crown Prince’s arrest of key businessmen and political figures?
Vijay Prashad: It is important to point out that the crisis in Lebanon is both internally and externally generated. It is internally generated because Lebanon has a curious sectarian constitution where the various sects in the country–the Sunnis, the Shia, the Christians–have divided power.
One of the very important players in the divided government is Hezbollah. Hezbollah is, of course, very close to the Iranian government and has been an adversary of Saad Hariri’s and his father’s Future Movement.
But the external pressure from Saudi Arabia is much more important. Since the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, Saudi Arabia has seen Iran stretch its wings in the region. It has tried various strategies to essentially put Iran back into its borders. The war in Syria was one such episode, as is the fight in Yemen and the attempt to strangle Qatar. Now, having failed in each of these attempts, Saudi Arabia is going after what is perhaps the most sensitive country in the region, which is Lebanon.
By forcing Mr. Hariri to resign and creating a political crisis inside Lebanon, the Saudis want to see a block form inside Lebanon that will try to push Hezbollah out of the political consensus. This is not going to happen, but it is raising tension in the region.
Dennis Bernstein: This is not a moderation in Saudi policy, as it is being portrayed in the Western press.
Vijay Prashad: It is important to recognize that the descendants of the founder of Saudi Arabia have basically shared power over the past ninety years. They have parceled out the institutions among the different lines and made sure that no single line dominated the entire kingdom. They have all exploited the oil and have been provided with a nuclear umbrella by the United States. That has been the basic order in Saudi Arabia. Because they were very helpful to the Americans in the anti-Communist crusade, they were allowed to export their brand of Islam across the Islamic world.
So this was the basic order until Mohammed bin Salman , the current Crown Prince, decided to consolidate power. He has arrested sections of his own family and tried to bring all power under this own control. It is a centralization of power that is taking place. His reason for doing this is actually very interesting.
For the past decade, Saudi Arabia has been running its oil wells at enormous capacity. It has been flooding international oil markets with oil, keeping prices down. Of course, this has not been good for Saudi Arabia, which has never diversified its economy. It has been facing a serious balance of payments shortfall.
Mohammad bin Salman has pushed a so-called “reform” agenda to liberalize the Saudi economy. He wants to have the Saudi oil company, Aramco, go on the public market. He has taken a stand against corruption, which he claims has cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars. He is going after the very rich in an attempt to recover some of these billions to help close the budget deficit inside Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, he has talked about the need to rein in extremism. But while he is saying all these things, he is prosecuting a decidedly anti-Iranian agenda, which is of course red meat to the extremists. It is not clear how he could, on the one hand, put the extremists in their place, while at the same time basically parroting the rhetoric of the extremists.
He might not only consolidate power from the rest of his family, he might consolidate power from some of the clerics and become the most extremist player in Saudi Arabia with his rhetoric against Iran. It is not a very comforting sight.
If this Saudi monarchy precipitately collapses, there will be serious chaos in Saudi Arabia. The entire institutional framework has been set up around the monarchy and there is no easily identifiable separate power base.
Dennis Bernstein: By the way, who is under arrest at the fancy hotel there in Riyadh?
Vijay Prashad: One of the people under arrest was a former employer of mine. He is the richest man in Saudi Arabia and part-owner of Twitter. Another person under arrest is also one of the richest men in Saudi Arabia, who is heavily involved in Ethiopia. He is brokering the vast buy-up of Ethiopian land and gold mines by Saudi Arabia. These are the wealthiest people in the country. There are also about 200 businessmen of various means who are being held on charges of corruption.
It is interesting because, on the one hand, this is going to earn the Crown Prince some goodwill among the population, who are fed up with the crony corruption of the royal family. But this is not an entire shake-up of the system. After all, the Crown Prince and his circle will continue to feed at the trough of the oil profits of the kingdom.
Dennis Bernstein: As you point out, the timing is interesting.
Vijay Prashad: I was a little surprised that the corporate media didn’t pick up on this. About a week before the arrests were made, there was a major investors’ conference in Saudi Arabia. The Crown Prince had asked a consultancy firm to write an important report titled “Saudi Vision 2020,” where he laid out the plans to diversify the Saudi economy away from reliance on oil to make Saudi Arabia a kind of “Singapore in the Sand.” To use the country’s wealth to help it track into the future.
He has plans to build a vast new high-tech city in northern Saudi Arabia bordering Jordan and Egypt. At this conference, many banks and hedge funds appeared to be very excited to get involved in this project. Now, if you want to raise investor confidence, the last thing you should be doing is arresting some of the richest people in your country.
But I think this was a message the Crown Prince wanted to send to these investors, saying that he was not going to tolerate internal corruption. This is a kind of neoliberal message to the banks, that you won’t have to worry about paying bribes, etc., this is going to be run in a modern way.
Dennis Bernstein: How do you see the US and Trump fitting into all of this?
Vijay Prashad: The US position is a little curious. Some have taken Jared Kushner’s visit to Saudi Arabia as a green light given to conduct this kind of internal coup and perhaps also to push against Lebanon and Hezbollah. I’m sure there is some truth to that but, as I’ve said, this is a long-term policy of the Crown Prince to centralize power and put pressure on Iran.
This policy predates the Trump administration. Obama was quite happy with the idea of centralization of power in Saudi Arabia. Only recently has Congress begun speaking out against the war in Yemen. There is a long-term trend of the United States backing this Crown Prince, especially to push back against Iranian influence in the region.
Trump is far more aggressive in his anti-Iran position than Obama ever was and I think he has emboldened the Israelis. When the Crown Prince called Saad Hariri to Saudi Arabia he also summoned Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority. We don’t know what was said in that meeting but since then the Saudi and the Israelis have been leaking stories saying that the two of them are meeting. At the same time, the United Arab Emirates has been making friendly gestures toward Israel.
Perhaps the Saudis are hallucinating that they will be able to use Israel and the Trump administration to do their dirty work vis-a-vis Iran. Perhaps it will begin with a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. But Hezbollah, which was able to withstand the Israeli attack in 2006, is now much more battle-hardened as a result of its participation in Syria.
It is not likely that Hezbollah is going to crumble under Israeli fire. In fact, it might inflict considerable damage on Israel. Sensible politics at this point would lead one to say that there needs to be a serious conversation between these countries about dialing down the tension, but no one is really calling for that.
Dennis Bernstein: The situation with the Lebanese Prime Minister could become fairly explosive, couldn’t it?
Vijay Prashad: Hezbollah is integrated fully into the Lebanese security apparatus. It is inconceivable that the Future Movement would actually like to set aside Hezbollah. And it is inconceivable that the Future Movement would welcome an Israeli attack on Hezbollah.
Lebanon is a very small country with 4 million to 5 million people. In 2006, when Israel bombed what was considered to be Hezbollah areas in Beirut, that bombing affected the whole city. I don’t think the Future Movement are stupid enough to welcome an Israeli assault on their own society. They must realize that the entire Lebanese security structure is intertwined with Hezbollah’s battlefield experience and its ability to defend the south of Lebanon.