Kevin Ovenden writes:
The Speaker of the British House of Commons granted an “urgent question” from Labour on the Saudi blockade of Yemen on Tuesday 7 November. We could already foreshadow the line that the British government, and perhaps some opposition MPs, were likely to take over the dramatic developments in the last 72 hours in Saudi Arabia.
Those have seen the arrest of scores of billionaires, prominent figures and members of the bloated royal family, and the summoning to Riyadh of the Saudi-sponsored prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri. There he resigned his position via pre-recorded statement, broadcast on the Kingdom’s Al Arabiya channel. His statement denounced “Iranian interference” in Lebanon and the Levant.
Donald Trump yesterday warmly embraced the consolidation of power in the hands of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the purge he is undertaking. Today the Saudi regime has claimed that a missile fired from Yemen, where it has been losing a war of intervention, was “an act of war” by Iran.
The Saudi war and blockade of Yemen have contributed to at least 10,000 dead. It has produced the world’s worst cholera epidemic. The World Health Organisation estimates over 815,000 cases – and the outbreak continues to rage. The British government is up to its neck in the atrocities, both via continuing massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and in direct assistance through specialist British military personnel.
But already we are seeing the outline in various news media of how the US, British and other western governments are likely to spin the power struggle in Riyadh as a reason to renew and extend relations with Saudi Arabia, and to rebuff what has been growing concern over the Yemen war from international NGOs, peace and human rights campaigners. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being variously described as “a young man in a hurry”, a “reformer”, and even as a “revolutionary”.
His arrest of rivals is proclaimed in several leading western papers as “an anti-corruption drive”. And over the last few months there have been some gushing portraits describing him as a “social reformer”, particularly in the field of women’s rights – which have been all but non-existent in Saudi Arabia for decades.
The reality is that the changes from above that the Crown Prince (MBS) is trying to push through are in no sense driven by a commitment to social progress or liberal-democratic reform. He is the third richest Royal in Saudi Arabia with a personal wealth of over $3 billion. His political gambit is an extremely risky attempt to reorganise Saudi capitalism, the state and their relations with the big imperialist powers – aimed at intensifying a struggle for regional domination.
There has been a developing crisis of the Saudi system for many years. Unlike almost all the other Gulf States it is actually a “real country”, with a population of 32 million people. It has large numbers of foreign workers – westerners in high end occupations; many more Arab, Pakistani and Asians at the lower end. But unlike other Gulf States it has an actual and large working class of citizens (or rather subjects), and a big but disenfranchised middle class.
The immense concentration of wealth in the hands of the royal family and a gilded elite of billionaires has meant that despite the fabulous oil revenues there has been growing unemployment, underemployment and a squeeze on the majority of the population for two decades.
Additionally, the corruption and inertia of the elite and state have meant a continued reliance on oil even though sections of the Saudi capitalist class have looked to diversify the economy and produce a modern-industrial revolution in the country and through investments in the region.
The Saudi state itself for many decades has been a clientelist arrangement with competing centres of power – headed by rival Royals – colonising different parts of the state machine and forming concentrations of power with networks of billionaires and functionaries. That’s why any serious Arab political commentator or figure would answer your question of “what is the Saudi policy” by saying, “That’s the wrong question. You mean what is the policy of each faction, and who has dominance at this moment.”
It is this and the malaise of the Kingdom that MBS has set out to transform. That means centralising and rationalising the state. It also means the “modernisation” of the economy, with the offer to US and European capital that economic liberalisation will provide opportunities for inward investment. Thus, central to the “reforms” is what could be called privatisation, though it has a particular meaning.
Vast areas of the economy were not “nationalised” but more precisely “statitified”, with competing centres of power monopolising those economic milch cows. So breaking those up is simultaneously about market-driven reform and, because economic power is so closely enmeshed with clientelist political clout, a political reorganisation of the state and its relationship to the elites.
There has been rising discontent at flagrant corruption, so “an anti-corruption drive” is the perfect banner under which to carry through this reorganisation from above. It also means breaking the system which Saudi Arabia shares with the other oil states of the Gulf of compensating for a lack of social and labour rights, and of a redistributive welfare state, with a social compact in which a small portion of the oil super-profits was used to buy off discontent.
The modernising capitalist reforms also bring the breakup of that compact, in the belief that the spread of more modern market relations will unleash a new generation of young entrepreneurs and a more dynamic economy. There can be many losers in this process. Those vested interests above who have failed to produce capital return in the areas of the economy they have run as fiefdoms are one. The events of the last 72 hours resemble Al Pacino in The Godfather II “taking care of family business”.
But also in this transition the working and middle classes face upheaval. That is the rationale for the modest civic reforms that have been proposed, the reining in of the religious police and the slenderest of loosening of the barbarically social conservative public mores. The hope is to consolidate a popular base for the core capitalist reforms which necessitate bitter clashes at the top – hence the scores of arrests – and turmoil for the whole society in moving towards a more neoliberal model.
The drive to wider war
It is a highly risky operation to try to pull off. It means re-balancing the state’s authoritarianism, not moving to any genuine democracy. That’s why the “liberalisation” has been accompanied by a clampdown on Saudi dissidents and on the Shia Muslim minority in the Qatif province.
And it is all taking place in the context of the overarching MBS policy: more coherent and bellicose projection of Saudi power in the region. He is not a novelty in that. The Saudi regime, under the excuse of countering Iranian influence, has sought for a decade to place itself at the centre of the shifting regional balance of power. Indeed before then Saudi Arabia made a turn to, and then exported, a more extreme version of its state Wahhabist ideology in an effort to counter the attractive power of the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Running through political Islamism as a whole is a tension. It is between mining the religious tradition for ideological resources to support actual social and economic change, even revolution, or falling back on the idea that the imposition of personal relations held to be those of an earlier golden age, be it of the time of the prophet and his companions or after, provides a path to renewal. One has radical political implications, of diverse kinds.
The other is what the Saudi-sponsored publishing houses pumped out in opposition to revolutionary developments in Iran. It was an effort to steer Islamist opinion of many strands back along a course which was compatible with western imperial hegemony – displacing economic and social discontent onto some purification of relations between men and women, or different classes in society who might live harmoniously, if only they followed the deen as properly understood. The petri dish for this experiment was the Saudi component of the western intervention into the war in Afghanistan.
The only successful revolution that brought Islamist political forces to power took place in Iran, toppling a critical US ally. The Saudi state and ideologues promoted as a counterweight an Islamist gloss on US anti-communism in Afghanistan. That produced Osama bin Laden. Similarly, Saudi plutocrats seized upon the uprising in Syria six years ago to try to bend the outcome to their advantage, and to the US’s, through sponsoring sectarian Sunni Islamist groups. That failed.
And one conclusion that MBS and those around him drew was that it failed because of the diffuse and amateurish nature of the intervention. It rested, as did the Afghan adventure, upon sponsorship by differing elements of the Saudi state and billionaire class. Each of them promised that their favoured sons in Syria would be the ones to deliver the desired result – not the fulfilment of the hopes of those who protested in 2011, but a reorientation of the Syrian state to be more compatible with Saudi interests. It was no match for the intervention of more robust and rational states – be they Russia, Iran or Turkey.
So coherent state intervention was what MBS championed in Yemen. A direct military intervention, not through billions of dollars gifted to flakey forces hundreds of miles away in territories with which you do not share a border. The failure of the Yemen intervention is leading the now dominant faction in Riyadh to double down. The moment is the fall of nearly all the ISIS strongholds in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, and also the collapse of the move by the Barazani regime in the Kurdish Regional Government area of Iraq to declare independence on an expanded territory.
Three years ago Saudi Arabia was a gauche player in the Syrian conflict, hosting meetings of oppositionists or holding a significant seat at the table of endless conferences sponsored by the great powers. Not now. For the last 18 months both the Kingdom and the US have been wholly eclipsed by developments. Neither likes it.
Nor does Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel. He used his visit to Britain last week to proclaim that Israel was working with the Arab “good guys” (the axis headed by Saudi Arabia) to confront Iran. If ever there were a fitting coda to what Britain’s Balfour declaration has led to it is that a century on the prime minister of Israel came to London to threaten yet more military action in the Middle East.
Trump has continued in office with the anti-Iranian rhetoric of his campaign trail. In part it is that he sees himself as the “anti-Obama”. It was the previous US president’s policy to manage the decline of US power in the Middle East through concerting some balance between the four or five big regional powers, including Iran. Trump has abandoned that with a dependence on just two limbs – Israel and Saudi Arabia. Perforce, given how the course of events has escaped US draughtsmanship.
It’s not only a Trump fixation. This has deeper resonance among US Republicans, and some Democrats. It is not only to do with the over-vaunted Israel lobby, and the closely associated pro-Saudi faction with its roots in US foreign policy going back to 1926. The neo-con/liberal-imperialist axis around the George Bush White House believed that the Iraq War of 2003 would provide a “demonstration effect”.
They did not mean merely that it was to show the “shock and awe” of American military might. It was further to provide a political demonstration, a nudge to history, so that that singular deployment of power would not be required again… and again and again. The theory was that the “liberation” of Iraq would lead to pro-western transitions in Syria and Iran – parts of the axis of evil. And, to speed the process, there was a moment when Bush’s White House tried to exert pressure on Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and the House of Saud – all pro-Western despots – to carry through something like the modernisation which MBS is attempting today.
The fanatical ideologues among the neo-cons and liberal imperialists believed in some grand historical design in launching war for that end. The more pragmatic merely pointed out that the sink of reaction that is Saudi Arabia was hardly helpful in trying to claim that the US-led military push was going to bring democracy to somewhere like Iran. Whatever its many faults, it is on every index a better place than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner may well have been putting in the air miles between Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh. But these are not developments that can be boxed off as an extension of his grisly family’s business interests. There is no point looking for a grand US or western strategy in the Middle East these days, because there isn’t one. There is only trying to manage the cumulative catastrophe of the last century.
And it is onto that stage that steps MBS with his inflated reputation as a “moderniser”. There is something deeply archaic about this so-called modernisation. It is pivoted upon militarism and imperial redivision, as much as all the previous promises to “bring the Middle East into the modern era”. None who desires peace or who is of the progressive left in the west should be fooled by this. Do you think that Donald Trump is deepening ties with the emergent centre of power in Saudi Arabia because either or both of them care about the rights of women or liberal freedoms? Or is that why Netanyahu’s Israel talks of the “good guys”?
The weak link in this chain of hypocrisy is Britain, thanks to the sustained anti-war and pro-Palestinian movements. And it is there that a big blow can be struck. It is time to renew the pressure which has been building on and off for two years upon the Tory government and its coalition predecessor to sunder the corrupt relationship with the House of Saud.
If the labour movement in Britain can mount that pressure effectively, it will be the most enormous contribution to peace in the Middle East and, by weakening the gendarme of reaction that is the House of Saud, will open up pathways to truly radical, indeed revolutionary, change.