In December 2015, in what can only be described as a highly unusual move, a German intelligence agency was compelled to release a public statement disparaging the internal politics of a foreign power, even pinpointing a powerful figure central to the ‘Game of Thrones’-like intrigue as a potential bad actor.
The document released by the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, ran to less than two pages. Yet the explosive nature of the information it contained - part warning, part exposé -meant even the German foreign ministry was forced to rebuke the BND, and disown its conclusions in the aftermath of the memo’s publication.
Yet in episode after episode centring the subject of the memo that has since played out, at times in full view of the world’s gaze, what stands out is the BND’s prescience at each turn. Following the latest such episode, we can now state with confidence that despite the criticism it received at the time, the BND have been vindicated, particularly in their sense of urgency to get the message out early by forgoing established protocols.
When most ‘intel briefs’ deal in generalities, the BND’s memo with the rather ungainly title “Saudi Arabia - Sunni regional power torn between foreign policy paradigm change and domestic policy consolidation,” should today be feted as a work of remarkable precision. Of course, it singled out the country’s powerful defense minister, then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as “trying to strengthen his place in the royal succession while putting Saudi Arabia’s relationship with erstwhile regional allies in jeopardy.”
The spy agency accused Bin Salman, then-second in line to the throne, and his father, King Salman, of trying to create an image of Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world. Given that most Arab nations would probably be happy to accord them exactly that status anyway, indeed many have done so traditionally, if not formally. In point of fact, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam as well as home to its holiest sites, coupled with the oil wealth it came by in the 20th century, has always enjoyed a premium in clout not just among Arab nations, but also throughout the Muslim world. That is why this newfound ambition on the part of MBS, not to mention actions taken to that end, carry the strong whiff of insecurity rather than strength. And nowhere is the stench stronger or more foul than Yemen.
The accursed of Yemen
Mohammad bin Salman, the eldest of King Salman’s children from his third wife Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan bin Hathleen, assumed his first post of any real importance in January 2015, when his father took the throne and appointed him defence minister. Within months Saudi Arabia became embroiled in what was still essentially a civil war in Yemen, launching an aerial campaign targeting the Houthi rebels, who were in the ascendancy.
It is important to understand just how uncharacteristic this was of the Saudi state. Historically they have relied on their allies such as the US to have their back militarily, for example in the early Nineties when they feared an invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Despite getting their hands on the best weaponry money can buy, they suffer from gross incompetence compounded by plain lack of experience. Weaknesses that are bound to be even more exposed in expeditionary operations such as the one they have undertaken in Yemen - a fact seemingly ignored by the young defence minister. Madawi Al Rasheed, a prominent Saudi dissident and lecturer at the LSE, is only half joking when she insists that the Saudi army is using Yemen as a practice yard.
“The careful diplomatic stance of older members of the Saudi royal family has been replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention,” that note from the BND said.
With logistical support from the US, the Saudi-UAE alliance have now carried out more than 16,000 raids on Houthi-held areas in an attempt to reverse their gains. Human rights organisations have accused the Saudi-led coalition forces of indiscriminately bombing civilians and hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.
Besides a prolonged air campaign, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also blockaded the strategic port of Hodeidah, which they see as the main entry point of weapons for the Houthis, which are backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival. As a result of that blockade, crucial humanitarian aid has not been able to reach Yemen.
Since 2015, at least 10,000 people have been killed in the Yemen war, many thousands more have died from famine resulting from the war and millions of people have been displaced. According to the UN, the number of internally displaced is 3 million, and 8.4 million people are at severe risk of starvation. The war has also triggered a major cholera outbreak that threatens to re-emerge in ongoing rainy season. Speaking to Time magazine during a high profile tour of the US in April 2018, MBS defended the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, saying: “In any military operation mistakes happen ... Of course, any mistakes made by Saudi Arabia or the coalition are unintended mistakes.”
These ‘unintended mistakes’ have by now bred what is regularly described by different agencies as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today.
Abduction of a PM
The dramatic and gory details emerging from Turkey of how Jamal Khashoggi met his end almost overwhelm the senses. It’s possible that ultimately it is this crime that Bin Salman will be remembered for, even if it proves to be his downfall. Yet arguably the most brazen and ill-considered of all the moves made by MBS since his father ascended to the throne, was the shocking November 2017 abduction of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, and subsequent confinement in Riyadh, from where he announced his resignation. Clearly facing the cameras under distress, he blamed Iran and Hezbollah for poisoning Lebanese politics.
Reading through the farce like a book, Lebanese President Michel Aoun refused to accept Hariri’s resignation and called on the authorities in Riyadh to release his country’s “detained” prime minister. The cat was then out of the bag. The sheer audacity of the move sparked outrage in Lebanon over what was publicly perceived as the abduction of a sovereign state’s prime minister by another country. What made it all worse was that MBS and his inner circle of mischief had clearly not planned to face any defiance, and therefore had no idea what to do next. Hariri was kept for nearly two weeks or a fortnight, lounging almost in Riyadh, before French President Emmanuel Macron, on a bit of a diplomatic hot streak at the time, decided to pay them a visit and introduce some sense into the situation.
Macron did succeed in securing Hariri’s release, with some selfies of the three of them thrown in for good measure, if only to depict the absurdity of the situation. Remarkably there was no significant aftermath in its wake, and the Saudi regime almost completely escaped even questioning over this shameful incident, that above all made a mockery of its own gripe that Iran sought to exercise outsize influence in Lebanon’s internal politics. It is only in light of the Khashoggi murder that this, and other similar transgressions by the reckless crown prince, are being regurgitated.
Enough of wilful blindness
“The (Khashoggi) murder is the culmination of a persistent and systematic targeting and repression of a whole range of activists, dissidents, and frankly anybody who dares to express a critical opinion,” wrote Madawi Al Rasheed, in a column for Middle East Eye.
Against this systematic and wholesale record of despotism, you have some superfluous or obvious steps - just low hanging fruit really, that any move to reform would target first. It’s all very well that women can now drive in Saudi Arabia, but shall we go through the list of things they still can’t? Will MBS review the male guardianship laws that are at the heart of repression against women in Saudi Arabia? And what good reason could there be for still keeping the women who were jailed for agitating in favour of their right to drive incarcerated? Saudi was never any paragon of freedom and liberty. Yet under MBS, even mild disagreement or criticism of the regime would seem to be unwelcome.
The truth is that in the ascent of MBS, never in modern history has so much of such unfettered power ever been vested on anyone’s person, on so little evidence of worthiness. Heirs may only just have a date with destiny, but whatever the field may be, you see scions learn and grow into their future positions by doing apprenticeships, spending long years in their father’s court or otherwise. Yet literally all that MBS has done is take advantage of his terribly weak and clearly incontinent father, the wretched King Salman, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Laughably, he was portrayed in some effusive journalistic accounts of the ‘new Saudi Arabia’ as the true reformist. But the only reform he brought about was in how to break with the line of succession and fast-track your favourite son. And to hell with the consequences. Having whispered it all in the old King’s ear, something that is now clear to everyone, could MBS be made to pay for it?