Saudi Arabia, the birthplace as well as spiritual home of Islam, has been in news in recent years as it makes strenuous efforts to enhance its global profile as a leader of (Sunni) Islamic world. It managed the Arab Spring so well that though the phenomenon had struck entire Arab world, starting from Tunisia, just passed by that nation without making any real impact on the Saudi life and politics.
However, Saudi government and the king himself were in anxiety and despair until the “spring” died down.
The fact that Saudi Arabians and royal families are corrupt like other materialistic countries has shocked the world as they thought Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of holy Prophet of Islam, was free from bribery and corruption and Saudi kingdom is a nation of honest people.
Corruption is rampant in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The ruling classes and their allies, close relatives are engaged in wealth creation activities by engaging themselves in corrupt practices.
As the first ever Arab leader Saudi king Salman bins Abdulaziz Al Saud, through his son Crown Prince Mohammad, is now seen taking bold steps to cleanse the Saudi system off corruption and give Islamic laws due place in the system that would g a long way streamlining the Islamic governance in Islamic world beyond Arab nations.
All of a sudden Saudi government under Crown Prince Mohammad decided to check growth of corruption in the Islamic nation, found even many of the royal families within the government corrupt, arrested and put them in jail. According to initial report, at least 11 princes, four current ministers and several former ministers had been detained in the anti-corruption probe.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman has dismissed a number of senior ministers and detained nearly a dozen princes in an investigation by a new anti-corruption committee on Saturday. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman who owns investment firm Kingdom Holding, was among those held. The senior ministers who were sacked include Prince Mitaab bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard.
Those involved in the historic corruption scandal of Saudi kingdom include: Alwaleed bin Talal, owner of Kingdom Holding group; Prince Mitaab bin Abdullah, minister of the National Guard; Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former governor of Riyadh ; Prince Turki bin Nasser, former head of meteorology, environment; Waleed al-Ibrahim, chairman of MBC media group; Khaled al-Tuwaijri, former president of the Royal Court; Adel Faqih, minister of economy and planning; Amr al-Dabbagh, former president of the General Investment Authority; Saleh Abdullah Kamel, chairman of Dallah al Baraka Group; Saud al-Tobaishi, head of Royal ceremonies and protocols; Ibrahim al-Assaf, state minister and executive of Saudi Aramco; Bakr Binladin, owner of construction company Saudi Binladin Group; Saud al-Dawish, former CEO of Saudi Telecom Company; Khaled al-Mulhem, former director general of Saudi Arabian Airlines.
In a statement Salman alluded to the “exploitation by some of the weak souls” who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money” for the creation of the anti-graft committee.
The detentions follow a crackdown in September on political opponents of Saudi Arabia’s rulers that saw some 30 clerics, intellectuals and activists detained. Prince Alwaleed, a flamboyant character, has sometimes used his prominence as an investor to aim barbs at the kingdom’s rulers. In December 2015, he called then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump a “disgrace to all America” and demanded on Twitter that he withdraw from the election.
The arrested officials are believed to be being housed in the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel, which two weeks ago held a high-profile investment summit under the auspices of Prince Mohammed. The convention centre next door was used to receive Donald Trump in May, when the US president travelled to Saudi Arabia to reset relations with his country’s long-term ally, which had deteriorated under the Obama administration that had pivoted to Iran.
Saudis really are on the brink of dramatic changes. In 2015, Mohammed bin Salman became minster of defence. Just a few months ago, he became the head of all the internal security forces because they got rid of the Mohammed bin Nayef, then crown prince. Now he’s taken control of the third most important security apparatus within the country, so he has defence, he is in control of interior and now he is in control of the guards.
Clearly he has the stage set. Clearly all the heads of all the major media networks, newspapers, and commentators were all already groomed, set in motion in order to defend the crown prince and his policies. There are already new songs for the crown prince and his glory, so internally they are definitely setting the stage in terms of the three security apparatuses, the media and so on.
President Trump has given his blessings and support to the crown prince Mohammad with the hundreds of billions of dollars of promised contracts, so he’s certainly supporting his various ambitions in the region, most importantly that of the confrontation with Iran in the region. This is something that Trump really wants as well as apparently a promised rapprochement with Israel.
Rise of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia houses the holiest Mosques of Islam. As the motherland of Islam, Saudi Arabia was a poor nation until oil was discovered last century.
Saudi Arabia is geographically the fifth-largest state in Asia and second-largest state in the Arab world after Algeria. Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan and Iraq to the north, Kuwait to the northeast, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to the east, Oman to the southeast and Yemen to the south. It is separated from Israel and Egypt by the Gulf of Aqaba. It is the only nation with both a Red Sea coast and a Persian Gulf coast and most of its terrain consists of arid desert and mountains.
Discovery of oil greatly enhanced the economic and financial prowess of Saudi kingdom. Petroleum was discovered on 3 March 1938 and followed up by several other finds in the Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia has since become the world’s largest oil producer and exporter, controlling the world’s second largest oil reserves and the sixth largest gas reserves. The kingdom is categorized as a World Bank high-income economy with a high Human Development Index and is the only Arab country to be part of the G-20 major economies. However, the economy of Saudi Arabia is the least diversified in the Gulf Cooperation Council, lacking any significant service or production sector, apart from the extraction of resources.
Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on oil for income and has been suffering since oil prices crashed from more than $100 a barrel in 2014. The kingdom has been desperately trying to diversify its economy away from the commodity, but is still focused on trying to raise oil values and restore its main income source. Saudi Arabia’s risky plot to raise oil prices to save its economy has failed sending the country into crisis. The kingdom tried to manipulate prices by slashing output to increase demand, but the plan backfired as US shale producers continued to pump more oil. Prices have fallen as low as $43 a barrel and remained well below $50 since the end of May when OPEC announced its plans to tackle oversupply. OPEC members Libya and Nigeria were previously exempt from the cap announced in May, but desperate OPEC and Saudi could now pressure the two countries to comply in the hope of denting supply. Russia has already called on OPEC to cap output from Nigeria and Libya in the near future and it will be interesting to see if any new agreements are proposed for both nations to join the oil production cut agreement.
Among the challenges to Saudi economy include halting or reversing the decline in per capita income, improving education to prepare youth for the workforce and providing them with employment, diversifying the economy, stimulating the private sector and housing construction, diminishing corruption and inequality.
In addition to petroleum and gas, Saudi also has a small gold mining sector in the Mahd adh Dhahab region and other mineral industries, an agricultural sector, especially in the southwest, based on dates and livestock, and large number of temporary jobs created by the roughly two million annual Hajj pilgrims. Virtually all Saudi citizens are Muslim (officially, all are), and almost all Saudi residents are Muslim. Estimates of the Sunni population of Saudi Arabia range between 75% and 90%, with the remaining 10–25% being Shia Muslim. The official and dominant form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia is commonly known as Wahhabism.
According to estimates there are about 1,500,000 Christians in Saudi Arabia, almost all foreign workers. Saudi Arabia allows Christians to enter the country as foreign workers for temporary work. Americans enjoy special status in Saudi as they are not punished there for their crimes and there could be some CIA agents too among them. In 1980, Saudi Arabia bought out the American interests in Aramco.
Saudi Arabia’s command economy is petroleum-based; roughly 75% of budget revenues and 90% of export earnings come from the oil industry. Saudi Arabia officially has about 260 billion barrels of oil reserves, comprising about one-fifth of the world’s proven total petroleum reserves It is strongly dependent on foreign workers with about 80% of those employed in the private sector being non-Saudi.
Saudi Arabia is called in the West as a monarchical autocracy. Saudi Arabia is considered a regional and middle power. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer in 2010–2014. By 1976, Saudi Arabia had become the largest oil producer in the world. King Khalid’s reign saw economic and social development progress at an extremely rapid rate, transforming the infrastructure and educational system of the country; in foreign policy, close ties with the USA were developed.
In 1979, two events occurred which greatly concerned the government, and had a long-term influence on Saudi foreign and domestic policy. The first was the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It was feared that the country’s Shi’ite minority in the Eastern Province which is also the location of the oil fields might rebel under the influence of their Iranian co-religionists. There were several anti-government uprisings in the region such as the 1979 Qatif Uprising. The second event was the Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca by Islamist extremists. The militants involved were in part angered by what they considered to be the corruption and un-Islamic nature of the Saudi government. The government regained control of the mosque after 10 days and those captured were executed. Part of the response of the royal family was to enforce a much stricter observance of traditional religious and social norms in the country (for example, the closure of cinemas) and to give the Ulema a greater role in government. Neither entirely succeeded as Islamism continued to grow in strength.
This partly explains why Saudi kingdom is touchy of Sunni branch of Islam and opposes Iran, accusing it of fomenting troubles in Sunni nations. .
King Khalid died of a heart attack in June 1982. He was succeeded by his brother, King Fahd, who added the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” to his name in 1986 in response to considerable fundamentalist pressure to avoid use of “majesty” in association with anything except God. Fahd continued to develop close relations with the USA and increased the purchase of American and British military equipment. Saudi used a good part of its income from oil sales on terror goods from USA, UK and other western countries.
As the USA began pushing its own religious and capitalist agenda in the nation of Islam, many Saudis opposed Washington and Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West began to cause growing concern among some of the ulema and students of sharia law and was one of the issues that led to an increase in Islamist terrorism in Saudi Arabia, as well as Islamist terrorist attacks in Western countries
The vast wealth generated by oil revenues was beginning to have an even greater impact on Saudi society. It led to rapid technological modernisation, urbanization, mass public education and the creation of new media. This and the presence of increasingly large numbers of foreign workers greatly affected traditional Saudi norms and values. Although there was dramatic change in the social and economic life of the country, political power continued to be monopolized by the royal family leading to discontent among many Saudis who began to look for wider participation in government
In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia spent $25 billion in support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran–Iraq War. However, Saudi Arabia condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and asked the US to intervene. King Fahd allowed American and coalition troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Hidden economy and rampant corruption
Oil made many poor Arabs rich and billionaires in a few years and they also began looting the nation’s resources by all possible means. In fact, Saudi is no difference from other corrupt nations like India, Pakistan or USA or UK.
Arabs make huge sums and wealth, both legitimate and illegal. The line between public funds and royal money is not always clear in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ruled by an Islamic system in which most law is not systematically codified and no elected parliament exists. WikiLeaks cables have detailed the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives as well as various money-making schemes some have used to finance lavish lifestyles.
Most of rich Arabs keep their wealth in USA and UK. Trump responded in typically combative terms accusing the prince of wanting to control “our politicians with daddy’s money”. Trump tweeted: “Dopey Prince Alwaleed_ Talal wants to control our US politicians with daddy’s money. His father, Prince Talal, is considered one of the most vocal supporters of reform in the ruling Al Saud family, having pressed for a constitutional monarchy decades ago”. Al-Waleed had in fact recently promised to donate all his wealth to charity – although he had years earlier purchased a yacht from Trump, and according to Forbes’s profiles, shares the president’s predilection for mocked-up Time magazine covers apparently featuring his exploits.
Prince Al-Waleed a grandson of Saudi’s first ruler and son of a Saudi finance minister, has an estimated net worth of $17bn (£13bn), although he has used them for underestimating his own wealth. He came to prominence internationally as a major backer of Citigroup in the 1990s, and more so when continuing to back the firm as its value evaporated during the financial crisis. His investments extended into major media groups, with substantial stakes in Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, Apple, Time Warner, Twitter, and owning Rotana, whose TV channels broadcast widely across the Arab-speaking world. He has reduced his share in NewsCorp, but his clout was such that an intervention in 2011 in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal was seen as the coup de grace for News International’s Rebekah Brooks, telling the Murdochs from his superyacht in Cannes that “she has to go”.
The investment group he set up in 1980, rebranded as the Kingdom Holding Company in 1996, also owns several global luxury hotel chains, as well as landmark properties such as London’s Savoy Hotel and the George V in Paris. More recently it has backed Uber’s rival ride-hailing firm Lyft. On Twitter in 2015 he called Donald Trump a “disgrace to America” after the Republican candidate floated the idea of a ban on Muslims, and he urged Trump to quit the campaign.
Prince Al-Waleed was an early advocate of women’s employment in Saudi Arabia – hiring a female pilot for his jets, at a time when there was no prospect of women driving on the ground, and speaking out against the driving ban before the regime agreed this year to lift it. His wife, Ameera, who he divorced in 2013, usually appeared unveiled.
Al-Waleed’s international profile was extraordinary – frequently seen with top politicians, Wall Street executives and British royals. But he was an unofficial public face of the Saudi kingdom rather than a key part of the ruling elite – a status underlined by his arrest in King Salman’s crackdown.
In a 2013 court case in London, a judge said that Prince Al-Waleed’s evidence in the witness box was “confusing and too unreliable” as he was forced to pay out in a business dispute. And while the prince already owns a Boeing 747 for his personal use, complete with throne, his ambition to have the world’s biggest superjumbo, the A380, refitted with a concert hall, Turkish baths, luxury suites and a parking bay for his Rolls Royce, remains unfulfilled. Despite placing an order with manufacturer Airbus in 2007 at the Dubai airshow, the plane remains on the tarmac in Toulouse to this day.
Hidden economies promote corruption more than the open ones. Transparency deficit automatically causes corruption on a large scale as it had happened in Russia and now happening in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan etc are ordinary third world countries without any definition of good governance and so corruption is the order of the system in these countries.
The regime and system promote and encourage corruption as a state policy.
Now Arab government seriously considers multi-pronged approach to diversify its economy from oil into other fields of economy, including industries, agriculture, services, military equipment production, modernization, etc.
The highest profile arrest in Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption purge is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a multibillionaire with huge investments in western firms. Prince Al-Waleed, 62 and one of the world’s richest men, has become one of the most familiar – and progressive – faces of Saudi in western media. While he has the lifestyle, jets, yacht and palace of a stereotypical Saudi billionaire, he has burnished a different image with interventions such as backing rights for Saudi women and denouncing President Trump on Twitter.
Arab leaders do not distinguish between their wealth and state wealth as they loot national resources for private use.
Anti-corruption probe and purge for accelerated change
Earlier, former British PM Tony Blaire had to resign for serious charges, including ones related to bribery scandals involving top Saudi officals and ministers. But the issue was never raised in Saudi Arabia or Arab world. Saudi government and king himself were keen not to publicize the corruption sandals of their ministers or officals because that would bring bad name for the nation with Holy sites. But the king or government did not purse anti-corruption drive to cleanse the system and present a positive image of Saudi Arabia.
Now for the first time in modern Arabian history a King, namely Salman has ventured to contain corruption prevalent in Saudi life by his launch of the anti-corruption drive and catching the top culprits in the royal dynasty itself red handed. Well done.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has tightened his grip on power through an anti-corruption purge by arresting royals, ministers and investors including billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal who is one of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen. Prince Alwaleed, a nephew of the king and owner of investment firm Kingdom Holding, invests in firms such as Citigroup and Twitter. He was among 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers detained.
The purge against the kingdom’s political and business elite also targeted the head of the National Guard Prince Miteb bin Abdullah who was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard by Prince Khaled bin Ayyaf. News of the purge came after King Salman decreed the creation of an anti-corruption committee chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his 32-year-old favourite son who has amassed power since rising from obscurity three years ago.
The new anti-corruption body was given broad powers to investigate cases, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions, and seize assets. “The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable,” the royal decree said.
King Salman issued a statement saying that the committee shall “identify offences, crimes and persons and entities involved in cases of public corruption”. The committee has the power to issue arrest warrants, travel bans, disclose and freeze accounts and portfolios, track funds and assets, and “prevent their remittance or transfer by persons and entities, whatever they might be”, according to the statement.
The shake-up of the Saudi government comes just months after King Salman replaced his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef with his son Mohammed bin Salman as the kingdom’s crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman has been responsible for pushing through a number of changes both at home and abroad since he became first in line to the Saudi crown. Ian Black of the London School of Economics said the move fit a “pattern of accelerated change” since Mohammed bin Salman became heir. “We’ve seen since June this year, very far-reaching changes,” he said, adding: “That was when Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman, was appointed crown prince.”Since Mohammed bin Salman became the crown prince in June, we’ve seen a lot of upheaval. We’ve seen the announcement of this very ambitious Saudi plan to transform the country the Saudi economy, Vision 2030.”
The dismissal of Mitaab bin Abdullah as National Guard minister came shortly after a missile attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport. However, Black said the two were probably not related as the sacking came bundled with changes to other ministerial portfolios.
In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has announced an end to its long-standing ban on allowing women to drive, and Mohammed bin Salman has also promised to return the country to a “moderate” form of Islam. Since 2015 Saudi Arabia has been at war against Houthi rebels, who control much of northern Yemen on the kingdom’s southern border.
It is not clear if the Trump visit emboldened the kingdom, which has been locked in a decades-long tussle with Iran for power and influence across the region. Since then, a swath of economic policies has been launched, along with cultural reforms unprecedented in Saudi history. By mid next year, women are expected to be allowed to drive, to enter sports stadiums and travel abroad without the endorsement of their male guardians.
It is also said the arrests were another pre-emptive measure by the crown prince to remove powerful figures as he exerts control over the world’s leading oil exporter. The round-up recalls the palace coup in June through which he ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne and interior minister. MbS, as he is known, was expected to follow at least by removing Prince Miteb from leadership of the National Guard, a pivotal power-base rooted in the kingdom’s tribes. Over the past year MbS has become the ultimate decision-maker for the kingdom’s military, foreign, economic and social policies, causing resentment among parts of the Al Saud dynasty frustrated by his meteoric rise.
Saudi Arabia’s stock index was dragged down briefly but recovered to close higher as some investors bet the crackdown could bolster reforms in the long run. The royal decree said the arrests were in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money.”
Many ordinary Saudis praised the crackdown as long-awaited.
King Salman’s purge should be seen as a part of his reform policy.
In September, the king announced that a ban on women driving would be lifted, while Prince Mohammed is trying to break decades of conservative tradition by promoting public entertainment and visits by foreign tourists.
The crown prince has also slashed state spending in some areas and plans a big sale of state assets, including floating part of state oil giant Saudi Aramco on international markets. Prince Mohammed also led Saudi Arabia into a two-year-old war in Yemen, where the government says it is fighting Iran-aligned militants, and a row with neighbouring Qatar, which it accuses of backing terrorists, a charge Doha denies. Detractors of the crown prince say both moves are dangerous adventurism.
The most recent crackdown breaks with the tradition of consensus within the ruling family. Prince Mohammed, rather than forging alliances as the usual strategy, is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military, and the National Guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war.
In September, Prince Mohammed authorised the detention of some of the country’s most powerful clerics, fearing they may not be loyal to his agenda and supportive of his boycott of Qatar, which Saudi leaders accuse of destablising the region. The state moves on the home front followed a striking foreign policy stance earlier in the day that appeared to put the kingdom on a political collision course with Iran. Under Saudi pressure, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, unexpectedly quit his job, citing Iranian interference across the Middle East. Hariri made his statement in Riyadh after twice being summoned to the Saudi capital during the week.
The attorney general, Saud al-Mojeb, said the newly mandated corruption commission had started multiple investigations. The decree establishing the commission said: “The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable.” “The suspects are being granted the same rights and treatment as any other Saudi citizen,” he said. “During the investigation, all parties retain full legal privileges relating to their personal and private property, including funds.”
Prince Mohammed will oversee the corruption commission, adding to his already formidable list of responsibilities, including his role as defence minister and champion of the economic transformation, dubbed Vision 2030, that aims to revolutionize most aspects of Saudi life within 12 years. Prince Mohammed told the Guardian last month that the kingdom had been “not normal” for the past 30 years and pledged to return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam.
According to Al Arabiya, the new committee, which is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is looking into the 2009 floods that devastated parts of Jeddah, as well as the government’s response to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus outbreak.
The interests of the Al Saud would remain protected. Both King Salman and heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman are fully committed to them. What they wish to instill, and seem determined to execute, is to modernize the ruling establishment, not just for the 2030 horizon but beyond it too.
Observation: A step in the right direction
Corruption is alien to Islam. The action against corruption shocked the world- not just the Arab nations or Islamic world alone. The world is under the impression, rather illusion that as the Islamic nation Saudi Arabia would not at all allow corruption in any meaner and that Saudis as the decedents of the first ever Muslims of the world would care for projecting a positive way of thinking and living.
The evil of corruption is deep in Saudi Arabia but without any state efforts to contain and reduce corruption the malice has become large scale corrupt practices. The kingdom’s top council of clerics tweeted that anti-corruption efforts were “as important as the fight against terrorism”, essentially giving religious backing to the crackdown.
The state attack on Saudi corrupt machinery at the top level is a well thought out step to root out corruption from the land of birth of Islam and of Holy Prophet of Islam and His infallible companions.
Nearly six months into his tenure as crown prince, which will eventually see him succeed his father as monarch, Prince Mohammed has launched a dizzying series of reforms designed to transform the kingdom’s moribund economy and put the relationship between the state and its citizens on a new footing.
Saudi arrests show crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is a risk-taker with a zeal for reform but the move would enormously strengthen his place in the governance. The move strengthens Prince Mohammed’s control of the kingdom’s security institutions, which had long been headed by separate powerful branches of the ruling family.
Crown Prince is raising the leverage of power in Saudi Arabia. He certainly has the blessings of his father King Salman and he’s determined to make all kinds of changes in Saudi Arabia itself and in Saudi foreign policy, which led to the war in Yemen and the Gulf crisis. But on domestic front, this is new. Not only do we have a new chapter opening up in Saudi Arabia, we have a whole new book: it’s still all done in secrecy. Why those 11 princes, why those four standing ministers? Is it really just to consolidate power or is there more to it?
In the tradition of Saudi Arabia, revolting against the royals is not a good idea. It’s never been recommended. But does it all end with this or will it lead to more? There have been signs over the last two and a half years that more of this is coming.
Corruption has been rampant in recent generations in Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed had vowed to make business dealings more transparent. The spectacle of royal family members being arrested would add weight to claims of a crackdown on graft. However, such is the manner in which business is done in the kingdom, there would be few senior figures not connected to contract deals that would be considered corrupt in many other parts of the world.
Saudi Arabia’s leadership has pulled off its boldest move yet to consolidate power around its young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, arresting 11 senior princes, one of the country’s richest men and scores of former ministers in what it billed as a corruption purge. The move aimed to reshape public behavior in a kingdom where patronage networks often determine business deals and prominent families secure substantial cuts from lucrative contracts.
However, some in the Saudi capital describe the move as a naked attempt to weed out dissent, and political rivals, as the ambitious heir to the throne continues to stamp his authority across most aspects of public life in Saudi Arabia.
The purge aimed to go beyond corruption and aimed to remove potential opposition to Prince Mohammed’s ambitious reform agenda which is widely popular with Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning youth population but faces resistance from some of the old guard more comfortable with the kingdom’s traditions of incremental change and rule by consensus.
Saudi Arabia, if it becomes a totally corruption free, can positively influence not only Arab world or Islamic world but even entire world of capitalism and imperialism to change for the better providing genuine scope for redistribution of nation’s wealth on a possible perfect principle without corruption and inflation.
Saudi Arabia and Iran want to be friends again
Eventually the ice-cold relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia began to melt. The two countries sat at the negotiating table shortly after Biden came to power. The results of that discussion are finally being seen. Trade relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have already begun to move. Although there has been no diplomatic relationship between the two countries since 2016, trade relations have been tense. But trade between Iran and the two countries was zero from last fiscal year until March 20 this year. Iran recently released a report on trade with neighboring countries over the past six months. The report also mentions the name of Saudi Arabia. This means that the rivalry between the two countries is slowly normalizing.
Historically, Shia-dominated Iran was opposed to the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids of Persia have been at war with the Ottomans for a long time, However, after the fall of the Ottomans, when the Middle East was divided like monkey bread, the newly created Saudi Arabia did not have much of a problem with Iran. Business trade between the two countries was normal. This is because the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran at the time were Western-backed. That is why there was not much of a problem between them. But when a revolution was organized in Iran in 1979 and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established by overthrowing the Shah, Iran’s relations with the West as well as with Saudi Arabia deteriorated. During the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the ouster of Western-backed rulers from the Middle East. After this announcement, naturally the Arab rulers went against Iran.
Saddam Hussein later invaded Iran with US support and Saudi financial support. After that, as long as Khomeini was alive, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran were bad. After Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi tried to mend fences again. But they didn’t get much of an advantage.
When the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s influence in Shiite-majority Iraq continued to grow. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s influence in the region has grown. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a series of shadow wars to reduce its influence. It can be said that Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Cold War just like the United States and the Soviet Union. Behind that war was a conflict of religious ideology and political interests. Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a complete standstill in 2016. Iranians attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran after executing Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimar al-Nimar. Since then, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations.
Finally, in April this year, representatives of the two countries met behind closed doors in Baghdad. And through this, the two countries started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations again. The last direct meeting between the two countries was held on September 21.
Now why are these two countries interested in normalizing relations? At one point, Mohammed bin Salman said they had no chance of negotiating with Iran. And Khomeini, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, called Mohammed bin Salman the new Hitler. But there is no such thing as a permanent enemy ally in politics or foreign policy. That is why it has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran back to the negotiating table. Prince Salman once refused to negotiate with Iran, but now he says Iran is our neighbor, we all want good and special relations with Iran.
Saudi Arabia has realized that its Western allies are short-lived. But Iran is their permanent neighbor. They have to live with Iran. The United States will not return to fight against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. That is why it is logical for Iran and Saudi Arabia to have their ideological differences and different interests at the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia has been at the negotiating table with Iran for a number of reasons. The first reason is that Saudi Arabia wants to reduce its oil dependence. Prince Salman has announced Vision 2030. In order to implement Vision 2030 and get out of the oil dependent economy, we need to have good relations with our neighbors. It is not possible to achieve such goals without regional stability, He said.
Saudi Arabia also wants to emerge from the ongoing shadow war with Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon to achieve regional stability. The war in Yemen in particular is now a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are unable to get out of this war, nor are they able to achieve the desired goal. Saudi Arabia must normalize relations with Iran if it is to emerge from the war in Yemen. Without a mutual understanding with Iran, Yemen will not be able to end the war. That is why Saudi Arabia wants to end the war through a peace deal with the Houthis by improving relations with Iran.
Drone strikes could also have an impact on the Saudi Aramco oil field to bring Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. Because after the drone attack, the oil supply was cut in half. The Saudis do not want Aramco to be attacked again. Also, since the Biden administration has no eye on the Middle East, it would be wise to improve relations with Iran in its own interests.
Iran will benefit the most if relations with Saudi Arabia improve. Their economy has been shaken by long-standing US sanctions on Iran. As Saudi Arabia is the largest and most powerful country in the Middle East, Iran has the potential to benefit politically as well as economically if relations with them are normal.
While Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Iran, its allies will also improve relations with Iran. As a result, Iran’s political and trade relations with all the countries of the Saudi alliance will be better. This will give them a chance to turn their economy around again. The development of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia will also send a positive message to the Biden administration. It could lead to a renewed nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran.
Another reason is that when Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Iran, it will receive formal recognition of Iran’s power in the Middle East. The message will be conveyed that it is not possible to turn the stick in the Middle East by bypassing Iran. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran need to be normalized for peace and stability in the Middle East.
But in this case, the United Arab Emirates and Israel may be an obstacle. The closeness that Saudi Arabia had with the UAE will no longer exist. The UAE now relies much more on Israel. There will also be some conflict of interest between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Prince Salman wants to turn Saudi into a full-fledged tourism and business hub that could pose a major threat to the UAE’s economy and make the two countries compete.
Furthermore, in order to sell arms to the Middle East, Iran must show something special. Why would Middle Eastern countries buy weapons if the Iranian offensive was stopped? During the Cold War, arms dealers forced NATO allies to buy large quantities of weapons out of fear of the Soviet Union. So it is in the Middle East. But if the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is normal, it will be positive for the Muslim world, but it will lead to a recession in the arms market.
Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power
The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.
The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.
The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.
Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.
Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.
That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.
In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.
Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.
More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.
A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.
Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.
Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr. Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.
FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets, and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.
Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.
A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.
In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.
In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.
A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”
Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.
In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.
Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.
Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.
The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.
“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.
It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.
Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.
One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.
Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.
Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.
With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”
He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.
Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week
The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.
Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.
The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday.
Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.
“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.
“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”
The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.
An important contribution
The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.
This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.
For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning.
He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”
Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”
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