Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s new look

A new dawn? The irresistible rise of Mohammad bin Salman

If Thomas Jefferson were able to look over the last forty years of Gulf politics, he may wish to add a third concept to his old adage; ‘only three things are certain: death, taxes, and the rule of the House of Saud’. In the most tumultuous region of the world, Saudi Arabia has stood alone as a paragon of stability and continuity.

The extent of this certainty relative to its neighbours merits some attention. A quick glance across the Red Sea to Egypt reveals a country that has experienced over the last century (deep breath): freedom from British colonial rule, the 1952 coup d’état and revolution, the Suez Crisis, a union with Syria to form the United Arab Republic, the dissolution of that union, the Six Day War with Israel, the assassination of a sitting president, the 2011 revolution and counter-revolution in 2013. Each of these events threatened to profoundly alter the nature of the Egyptian state, and this is one of the more stable, successful countries in the region. Meanwhile in that same century, Saudi Arabia has been lead by members of just one family, the House of Saud, and with minimal changes in style throughout the period.

What we mustn’t forget here, of course, is the astonishing effect of oil. It has transformed the country from a mostly uninhabited desert to perhaps the most important geopolitical players in the region, able to exert control not just over its well-paid citizens but also the wider Muslim world, most strikingly through its funding of mosques, schools and imams sent to preach the Saudi brand of Islam to the world.

It comes as quite a shock, then, that the country is undergoing its most tumultuous internal period in decades. Women, it has been announced, will soon be allowed to drive, and then can already attend football matches for the first time. Cinemas have been opened for the first time in Saudi history. A fund of $64 billion is to be provided for the development of the Saudi entertainment industry (a contradiction-in-terms if ever I saw one). And perhaps most shockingly the arrest of dozens of Saudi royals under charges of corruption, held against their will in the palatial Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.

All of these developments can be laid squarely at the feet of one man: Mohammad bin Salman. Shortened quite unpoetically to MBS in the West, bin Salman has in the space of a few short years gone from being a rather minor royal to the new Crown Prince, a title he took from his uncle, and thereby the next in line to lead the country. He has helped shape much of Saudi Arabia’s new social policy, including the aforementioned changes for women and the arts, as well as curbing the powers of the religious police. His social reforms are matched by his plans for the Saudi economy, after announcing his ‘Vision 2030’ plan to diversify and privatise much of the country’s assets. And over the last year, there have glimpses of what the new foreign policy for the regime could look like, with the united front against Qatar and intervention in Yemen hinting at a more active role for the Saudi state itself, rather than simple funding of interests in the region.

This doesn’t quite cover what is causing all the fuss, though. The Saudi state is predicated upon an agreement between the ruling House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious clerics. In exchange for religious legitimacy and their continued allegiance, the House of Saud provides the clerics with religious and cultural control over Saudi society, and enormous levels of funding, to push its Islamist agenda abroad. This relationship has been in place in one form or another since the establishment of the first Saudi state in 1744, and in real terms it is difficult to argue with its effectiveness (not to excuse the torture, the stonings, the murder committed as a direct result of it).

It is this relationship, upon which Saudi Arabia has been built up to this point, that bin Salman threatens to undermine with his sweeping reforms. There are fears, both in his own country and elsewhere, that as one of the only royal family members not to be educated abroad, with minimal political experience and aged just 32, that MBS doesn’t know what he’s doing. Let’s hope for the sake of the region that he does.

 

The Middle Eastern cold war

In the last year, Saudi Arabia’s flirtation with religious realism has already caused the most pressing humanitarian disaster in world affairs, now it threatens to destabilise Lebanon.

Lebanon is a country defined by religious and political instability. It seemed these issues were going to be allayed with the accession of Michel Aoun as President.

Saudi Arabia continues to mount high profile proxy wars to strengthen its influence over other Arabic nations. It is locked in a cold war with Iran. One where polarised religious interpretation influences political decision making. Covert operations and surreptitious support for either Sunni or Shi’a paramilitaries are how the conflict has perpetuated for many decades. But recently it has reached a dogmatic fever-pitch.

The Shia paramilitary, Hezbollah, has been a fracture point in this battle for dominance for many years. It has provided opposition to Maronite Christian militias, it has fought Israel during the Lebanese civil war and it has given aid to Bashar Al Assad’s government in Syria.

Lebanon is what is known as a transitional democracy. Against all the odds it had finally attained some stability.

But the political machinations of Saudi Arabia have rudely disrupted this short-lived serenity. Lebanon’s state sovereignty has once again been breached.

The country’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, along with Yemen’s President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, have been detained in Riyadh under mysterious circumstances.

What is clear, is that Lebanon’s old foes present a very tangible threat once more. Saudi Arabia has issued a travel ban and advised that its citizens leave Lebanon as a so-called proclamation of war has been predicted. This has prompted widespread concerns about armed conflict within Lebanon – but also between Iran and Saudi Arabia- and between Hezbollah and Israel.

It is speculated that Saudi Arabia blames Iran and Hezbollah for a rocket strike from Yemen that was aimed at Riyadh airport. It is more likely the Saudi’s are disappointed by Hariri’s perceived tolerance of Hezbollah.

Of course, the role of Iran cannot be underplayed here, however,  its direct role is still unclear. Its allegiance with Hezbollah has troubled Saudi Arabia and Israel for many decades.

One factor in the escalating conflict that won’t be so widely discussed is the complicity of the West. Its unmistakable allegiance to Israel seems to be a motive in its appeasement of Saudi Arabia. It has actively supported Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In fact, the war has been waged using US and UK arms, security and tactics – leaving millions of Yemeni people enduring famine and a cholera outbreak.

The pessimists in the region will wince at the alliance of Trump and Kushner’s US with Israel and Saudi Arabia, especially as Trump backs Mohammed Bin Salman’s efforts to strengthen his grip on the house of Saud.

The Middle Eastern heavyweights are engaging in a cold war. They are inviting a battle of destabilisation. Attentive Western powers have designs to scavenge on the political carrion. With transparency in intention becoming harder to decipher, a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is becoming an increasing possibility. The blame game is intensifying as Middle Eastern nations meddle in each other’s affairs, exacerbating perennial religious tensions. It is states resembling Yemen and Lebanon, that standby to be left in the wreckage of religious realism.

Anglo-Saudi Relations: A Study in Realist International Theory

As we in the western world wrestle with the cultural theatrics that come with a modern brand of political correctness. From internet trolls to gender and racial tolerance; issues which are a far-cry from the cultural norms of Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of numerous basic human rights abuses and of funding international terrorism. So why does the UK, the birthplace of parliamentary democracy and a self-proclaimed cradle for modern liberal values overtly engage in the sale of arms and support to the Saudi regime. Realism is a theory of international politics which insists that states act in a rational manner and only to further their own self-interests, as opposed to liberal theory; which posits that states ally themselves in accordance to shared values (known as norms).



In a realists’ world, the UK aligns itself with the House of Saud because the relationship is a beneficial one – in the sense that the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia helps to expand the UK economy. The fact that such weapons are being used with complete disregard for Yemeni civilian life, does not seem to be a concern for the British government, as it should be according to subscribers of Liberal Theory (human rights being a supposed UK norm). In its 2016/2017 report, Amnesty International outlines the ways in which the Saudi state has also tightened its restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. It continues to detain, arrest and prosecute writers and online commentators based on vague charges. It also pursues those who attempt to defend human rights within its borders: including founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) and the Union for Human Rights (Amnesty International, 2017).

Though there is no conclusive evidence that the ruling class in Saudi Arabia is actively involved in the support of ISIL, there are sources which give credence to such allegations. In the famous leaked Emails which plagued Mrs. Clinton’s 2017 bid for the presidency, John Podesta wrote that the Saudis were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” (Wikileaks, 2015) Published diplomatic cables from the US State Department serve to reinforce Podesta’s claim: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide” (Wikileaks, 2009).

But all of this is disregarded by our government, because to address it would be counter-productive to the UK’s plans in the region. Which are representative of the West’s grander plan for the Middle-East; with the Saudi trade partnership and the mutual exchange of oil and arms at its centre. Besides the economic benefits of such a partnership, the UK is willing to ignore Saudi funding of ISIL because the alliance provides the West with a somewhat reliable ally in opposition to Iran, the Taliban and other actors the UK deems as a threat to her interests.

So a few people have their rights infringed upon, and some people may lose their lives because of terrorism, or paradoxically find themselves imprisoned on vague anti-terrorist charges. The fact is, in a realist world system, these things clearly don’t count for much.

 

Amnesty International, “Saudi Arabia 2016/2017” (2017): Accessible: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/saudi-arabia/report-saudi-arabia/ (Accessed 17/09/2017)

WikiLeaks, “Congrats!, John Podesta Email Chain” (2015): Accessible: https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/3774 (Accessed 17/09/2017)

WikiLeaks, “Terrorist Finance: Action Request for Senior Level Engagement on Terrorism Finance” (2009) Accessible: https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09STATE131801_a.html (Accessed 17/09/2017)

Any Progress in Saudi Arabia Has To Be Applauded

Recently Saudi Arabia as a country has made news for the wrong reasons largely due to their poor human rights record and links to extremism. These headlines have not perturbed the British government though who maintain a good relationship with the country.

The British government have always claimed the best way to challenge Saudi Arabia on their human rights record was to engage in a relationship with them. This weekend we might have seen the first signs that this pressure and that from other Western countries is having an impact. In elections which took place over the weekend, women for the first time were allowed to vote and participate with up to 20 women being elected to municipal councils.

Progress as history shows can often be slow. Great reform doesn’t always happen instantly. Saudi Arabia as a country has a long traditional, conservative background. This type of thinking is deep rooted in the country and will take time to change. These are deep obstacles and hurdles which need to be overcome, but can be overcome as the weekend begins to show before reform can truly flourish.

Despite what happened in these elections life is not great for women in Saudi Arabia. They were not allowed to address men directly and the councils they have been elected to only have limited powers. They are not allowed to drive and are treated as second class citizens. The progress made in these elections is notable but is only the first part of a long journey.

Rightly criticism of Saudi Arabia has been fairly harsh in recent times. As a country their values are questionable and should represent an era long-gone. However these elections were good news. They were a signal that the country is moving in the right direction. This deserves praise. Saudi Arabia still has a way to go but any progress is positive and should not be underplayed. Therefore we should applaud greatly what has just happened and the signal it sends.

That is real- Saudi Arabia is elected as a chair of the UN Human Rights Council panel

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the new chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) panel, despite the fact that the Kingdom holds terrifying human rights records. For many individuals that choice was absolutely unexpected. The Kingdom will be chairing the group of 5 ambassador members, which is also called- the Consultative group. The group is responsible for the appointment of more than 77 experts worldwide. These experts monitor and assess the human rights records in various countries around the world. These positions are considered to be from crucial importance for the UN Human Rights Council.

By appointing fundamentalist theocracy that is constantly violating the human rights of its own citizens, as well as these of the neighbouring countries places their legitimacy under question. Saudi Arabia has beheaded more than a hundred people only this year. That amount is even higher than that of the Islamic State. Moreover free speech is still a dream in Saudi Arabia. The number of people like the blogger Saif Badawi, jailed for pledging about democracy and criticising the government is unknown. Another activist Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, just 17 years is sentenced to death by crusification. The reason is that he took participation of the anti- government protests. The rights of the women are another issue, which deserves significant attention. In addition to the varieties of restrictions imposed on women, they are not allowed even to drive.

For some the fact that the Saudis are presiding that panel might seem insignificant. Unfortunately the facts are different. The last couple of weeks have demonstrated the opposite. The Netherlands has made a proposal the war crimes in the Yemeni war to be investigated by an independent commission. The proposal included investigation on Saudis and the opposition Houthi rebels. Also the Dutch proposed the Yemeni ports, which are occupied from the Saudi army to be opened in order to facilitate deliveries of humanitarian aid for Yemeni citizens. Riyadh, the Yemeni government in exile and their allies in the UNHRC (the UAE, Qatar and Morocco) strongly resisted the Dutch proposal. The reason for that is that the Saudi government is aiming to conceal its own war crimes. On 7-th of September the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report which concluded that both parties in the Yemeni conflict committed violations. According to the report- the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for 62% of civilian casualties. Furthermore on 28-th of September 130 civilians were killed by a single Saudi air strike.

However the proposal was rejected and instead was passed an alternative resolution. The resolution supports the decree of the Saudi backed Yemeni government in exile. It proposes appointing of a national commission of inquiry and requires only technical assistance from the UN. The absence of an independent Yemeni inquiry will result to predictable outcome of the investigation. It also gives us an example of how the UN commissions might be used to protect the national interests. In the case with Saudi Arabia that might be just the beginning. As the UN watch executive director- Hillel Neuer states: “This UN appointment is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief, and underscores the credibility deficit of a human rights council that already counts Russia, Cuba, China, Qatar and Venezuela among its elected members.”