The events that have been shaking the Middle East in the past several days and taking even the politically weathered Middle East analysts by surprise, on the one hand, underscore tribalism as a key determinant in Arab politics and, on the other, shine a bright light on an emerging alliance among Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel.
The region is not unknown for its snake-and-dagger politics among multiple tribes. Prophet Muhammad brought unity among warring tribes known for their sword-happiness, vengeance and brutality. He condemned blind loyalty to one’s tribe at the cost of justice and unity. But within years of the Prophet’s demise, tribalism that Islam sought to eradicate in its bid to create a commonwealth of man began to raise its ugly head once again. Fourteen centuries later, tribalism still thrives in the Arab world, underneath the veneer of modernity which for some oil rich Arab rulers and billionaires meant hedonistic lifestyles represented by lofty palaces, sky-high towers, super-luxury cars, jets and yachts, holidays in Europe and regular pilgrimages to Las Vegas casinos.
Hierarchical and highly conspiratorial, Arab tribalism based on kinship and ancestry delineation is a male-dominant, one-sheikh social order where tribal interests rise above public interest or national interest.
Inter-tribe rivalry made the task of Britain easy to get the tribal sheikhs to betray their Ottoman caliph during World War I. The Brits achieved their goal by dangling before the sheiks the promise of an Arab kingdom.
Saudi Arabia was born out of this betrayal, which was followed by bitter and inter-tribal war between Hejaz province ruler Hussein bin Ali and Nejd’s ruler Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. The sons of Hussein became the rulers of newly created Jordan and Iraq, while ibn Saud subjugated other tribes and formed Saudi Arabia, a country named after him in keeping with the tribal practice.
The present king Salman is the sixth son of Ibn Saud and his wife Hussa bint al-Sudairi. Hussa’s seven boys formed the famous Sudairi Seven -- the most powerful alliance in
"The sons of Hussein became the rulers of newly created Jordan and Iraq, while ibn Saud subjugated other tribes and formed Saudi Arabia, a country named after him in keeping with the tribal practice"
Saud, Feisal and Abdullah, who were Ibn Saud’s children from his other wives, had occupied the throne, but the Sudairi Seven wielded the biggest influence among the children of Ibn Saud’s 22 wives. These intrigues are part of Saudi tribalism which was at its peak when last Saturday King Salman’s son, Muhammad bin (son of) Salman or MBS as he is also known, ordered the arrests of more than forty top Saudis, including princes, ministers and billionaire businessmen.
There cannot be two leaders in Arabia. Just as Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Valentinois in the renaissance Italy, eliminated his plotters after a feast, MBS moved with an element of surprise to politically sideline potential rivals. Or perhaps it brings to mind the 1972 movie Godfather where Michael Corleone played by Al Pacino gets rid of rival bosses and their heirs in the battle for the Mafia kingdom.
The 32-year-old MBS is trying to put his country on the fast track to modernity through his vision 2030. He was the man behind the decision to allow women to drive and visit sports stadiums to watch men’s sports. He has also set in motion a Dubai-like development process with beach resorts and industrial zones. These moves have made him popular among the Saudi youth. And this has given him courage to stage
Saturday’s purge. Muhammad bin Salman’s rise to power was meteoric. The deaths of two crown princes is 2011 and 2012 paved the way for his father, the present King Salman, to move from the post of governor of Riyadh to crown prince. Salman groomed his fifth son, Muhammad (MBS), a law graduate, for high posts. MBS became the chief of the crown prince court in what was seen as the first in a series of shake-ups.
When King Abdullah died in January 2015, his ailing and senile half-brother, octogenarian Salman, became king. He appointed MBS as Defence Minister and Secretary General of the royal court. With his father said to be suffering from Parkinson’s disease, MBS became the power behind the throne, overshadowing the then crown prince Murqin bin Abdul Aziz, the last surviving son of the kingdom’s founder.
"The events last Saturday were as seismic as they were momentous. The removal of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of the previous King Abdullah, as commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard and bringing this elite force under MBS were moves aimed at establishing a unicentric power centre"
In the first clear indication of a game of throne drama in the royal court, in 2015, a royal decree reinforcing the power of the Sudairi Seven removed Crown Prince Murqin and appointed Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, a son of King Salman’s full brother Nayef, to the post. MBS was made the deputy crown prince.
But within two years, in a palace coup, another royal decree took the post of crown prince away from Muhammad bin Nayef and gave it to MBS. The ousted crown prince has ever since been under house arrest.
The events last Saturday were as seismic as they were momentous. The removal of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of the previous King Abdullah, as commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard and bringing this elite force under MBS were moves aimed at establishing a unicentric power centre. Mysteriously killed a day later in a helicopter crash was prince Mansour, son of Muqrin, whom King Salman removed from the post of crown prince. There were reports about gun battles when a prince was being taken into custody.
Eleven princes, including the flamboyant al-Waleed bin Talal, were among more than forty people being held under luxury hotel arrest, with their wealth frozen and fate in uncertainty. Their arrests follow the announcement of an anti-corruption drive. The arrested lot are said to have amassed nearly 1000 billion dollars.
Corruption in the kingdom is rampant. A famous case is the multibillion dollar sewage pipeline project. The Jeddah project was completed at a highly inflated price. But when completed, it had only manholes with no pipes underneath. The beneficiaries are the royal family members. Billion dollar arms deals are yet another way some royal family members amass wealth. The Yamamah arms deal with British Aerospace is a case in point. Citing national interest provisions, the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped an anti-corruption investigation into payments of a billion dollar commission to a Saudi Prince.
It’s is more than interesting to note that a day prior to the purge, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy Jared Kushner was in Saudi Arabia discussing issues with MBS, staying up till 4 am. Were they discussing about how to execute the purge? Did Kushner urged the arrest of prince al-Waleed to avenge the scorn the prince heaped on Trump by calling him unsuitable for the presidency and asking him to withdraw from the race?
The arrests came at a time when events related to one another kept analysts busy. First it was Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s shocking resignation which he announced while in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Hariri holds dual citizenship of Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Reports say Hariri’s resignation came under duress and he was threatened with arrest if he did not resign. The resignation has created a power vacuum in Lebanon, but surprisingly not the destabilization the Saudis want to create to pave the for another Israeli invasion of South Lebanon aimed at draining Iranian and Hezbollah military resources which have enabled the Syrian regime to defeat pro-Saudi rebels. Keeping Iran under check was a key foreign policy goal of MBS. In recent years, Saudi Arabia and Israel are said to have increased behind-the-scenes contacts.
Another significant development was Saudi Arabia’s virtual declaration of war against Iran following a missile attack from Yemen’s Houthi rebels on the Riyadh airport. The war in Yemen was an MBS initiative. The Saudis have been accused of committing war crimes in Yemen. Yesterday, the UN warned that millions of people would die in Yemen, in what would be the world’s worst famine in decades, unless Saudi Arabia ended a devastating blockade and allowed aid into the country.
The Saudis bid to subjugate Qatar in a bid to isolate Iran has also backfired.
The purge seen together with the Lebanese Premier’s resignation, Saudi Arabia’s warning to Iran, Kushner’s secret visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel-Saudi relations indicate the region is moving towards another phase of destabilization. Perhaps they indicate the formalization of an anti-Iran alliance. Certainly such a development is not in the interest of the region’s people. But do princes pursuing power care?