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Crown Prince Mohammed reform: Saudi Arabia attacks high level corruption

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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.[55] 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.

Reforms

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.

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Middle East

Can the Idlib Memorandum Freeze the Conflict?

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During their Sochi talks in September 2018, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an agreement on preserving the de-escalation zone in Idlib and abandoning the military operation that the Assad regime had been preparing to launch against the opposition groups in Idlib. The main provisions of the Sochi agreements boil down to the establishment of a demilitarized zone, 15–20 kilometres deep in the de-escalation area and the withdrawal by the conflicting parties of their heavy weaponry, including armoured vehicles, artillery, mortars and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) by October 10, and of radical terrorist groups by October 15 (the units of moderate rebels will hold their positions). Free movement and freight carriage is set to be restored on the M4 (Aleppo to Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo to Damascus) roads.

A Step Toward a “Turkish Republic of Northern Syria”?

Ankara has consistently advocated for the preservation of the opposition-controlled de-escalation zone, and it was the efforts of Turkey, and of Erdogan personally, that averted the military threat to Idlib, even if temporarily. Many provisions of the Sochi agreements rely on the so-called “white paper” that Turkey conveyed to Russia back in July. Ankara’s demonstration of military power also played a role. Between the Tehran summit of the “Astana troika” and the Sochi talks, the Turkish military was actively building up its forces in the Idlib de-escalation zone, boosting them with tanks and artillery. At the same time, additional weapons were supplied to the Syrian National Army units deployed in the Turkish “buffer” zone in Northern Aleppo, and its forces were ready to move to Idlib to assist the local opposition groups.

These steps indicate that Turkey is ready to press for the Province of Idlib to gradually turn into a Turkish “protectorate,” as happened in the regions of Northern Aleppo, which fell under the country’s “security umbrella” following the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations. Accordingly, preserving the opposition’s control over the regions remaining under its power gives Turkey a chance to head up and supervise the peaceful process together with Russia. Should Idlib transition under Assad’s control before a final political settlement in Syria is achieved, Turkey would essentially be left out of Syrian settlement, which would strip its fosterlings in the ranks of Syria’s opposition of any say and the opportunity to be represented in the transitional governmental bodies.

Therefore, it is important for Turkey to prevent the fragmentation of Idlib’s de-escalation zone and keep it under Turkish control without allowing the Russian military police to “take root” there as patrols or outposts, let alone as any administrative bodies of the Syrian regime. This is why Ankara supported the position of the Syrian rebel groups that opposed the Russian military presence in the demilitarized zone or their deployment along M4 and M5 routes. Ankara believes that Turkish troops are capable of handling the task independently. A compromise with Russia could be achieved on the issue. Turkey agreed to the demilitarized zone going exclusively through opposition-controlled territories. Consequently, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry will only apply to the insurgents, and not to the “conflicting parties” as the memorandum stated. In response, Ankara insists that any Russian military presence in the demilitarized zone is unacceptable.

Additionally, Syrian refugees pose an extremely grave problem for the Turkish leadership. The country’s population is growing progressively more discontented with accommodating several millions of Syria’s forced migrants in the long term. Applying the Lebanese scenario to resolve this problem is unacceptable for Ankara, since it would mean pushing the refugees back into Syria while the current regime is in power. Recep Erdogan has repeatedly stated that Bashar al-Assad is guilty of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and has even called him a “murderer.” For Turkey, the most convenient solution would be to create the necessary conditions for accommodating Syrian refuges in opposition-controlled territories. Camps are being built in Northern Aleppo that can take in over 150,000 forced migrants. Nonetheless, the Turkish “protectorate” areas in Northern Aleppo may not be enough. Therefore, the de-escalation zone in Idlib could become the principal region for returning Syrian refugees from Turkey once the required infrastructure is in place. However, it will only be possible if the danger of Syria’s governmental troops conducting a military operation there is averted and if the issue of terrorist groups present there is resolved.

Has the Triumphant Progress Stopped?

For Damascus, the Sochi agreements effectively put an end to a victorious 2018. Over that time, Damascus took control over opposition enclaves one by one: Eastern Ghouta, Al-Dumayr and Eastern Qalamoun, Yarmouk, Homs, Deraa and Quneitra. It seemed that one last push would have been enough to ensure a complete triumph for Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, there is reason to believe that, despite official statements, the Syrian authorities were not satisfied with the terms of the Sochi memorandum. The Syrian regime insisted on a military operation without taking into account many risks, such as the large numbers, motivation and equipment of the Idlib insurgents, who, unlike in other regions where Bashar al-Assad had achieved success, could count on military and other support from Turkey. In addition, Ankara had 12 observation points transformed into fortified bases along the perimeter of the de-escalation zone.

Nonetheless, Damascus did not resign itself to the current situation, and its representatives have said that the opposition has until December to reconcile and put down their weapons, although there are no such provisions in the Sochi agreements. For the Syrian regime, transforming Idlib into a Turkish “protectorate” is all the more unacceptable because it essentially rules out a military solution to the Idlib problem in the foreseeable future. That is, al-Assad’s regime would like to view the Sochi agreements as the first stage of the process to force the Syrian opposition to lay down their arms and reconcile following the scenario implemented in the south of the country. Damascus is likely to put pressure on Russia to pay greater attention to Syria’s wishes and channel the process of implementing the Sochi agreements into the direction that Damascus needs.

Moscow between Ankara and Damascus

Moscow is in a rather tricky position as, on the one hand, it is forced to take the position of Damascus into account, while, on the other, it understands that it is futile to engage in an open confrontation with Ankara. Moscow is still forced to look for compromise options in implementing the Sochi agreements. Nonetheless, Russia has demonstrated that it still has a decisive word in Syrian affairs, as well as enough influence on both Damascus and Tehran to prevent a military operation with as much as a decision only. In addition, Russia can count on Turkey making concessions on the political track of the Syrian settlement process. In practice, Turkey can be expected to promote various “frozen” projects more actively within the peace process that would stand no chance of being implemented in the event that military actions were to start. This applies in particular to those initiatives that were spearheaded and elaborated by Moscow, such as forming a constitutional committee where serious shifts were taking shape following the Geneva talks on September 10–11. Such a situation could have a positive effect on Russia’s plans to involve the countries of the European Union and the Persian Gulf in restoring the Syrian infrastructure, which would allow the process of returning the refugees to start.

Therefore, if the military escalation around Idlib continues to defuse, Ankara will be able to influence the Syrian opposition, forcing it to be more receptive to suggestions coming from Russia as part of the political settlement process. Thereby, Turkey will attempt to preserve Russia’s interest in further deferring the military operation until it is removed from the agenda completely, which, on the one hand, will promote the success of Russia’s peaceful initiatives and, on the other, oppose radicals in Idlib and demonstrate specific steps taken in that area.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham

Turkey consistently works to undermine the standing of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that in early 2017 subsumed Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) in Idlib. In summer 2017, the large group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki split from the HTS. The presence of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki had made it possible to claim that the transformation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was not another re-branding of Jabhat al-Nusra. The HTS’s positions were further weakened when Jaysh al-Ahrar split from it as it set a course for restoring ties and developing cooperation with its “parent” structure Ahrar al-Sham. Turkey appears to have played the key role in the HTS split, since the excessive strengthening of the radicals, who had established their control of the province’s capital of Idlib shortly before that, was against Turkey’s interests. Ankara still has influence over various groups that are part of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, as well as over the leaders of the organization. Apparently, further steps should be expected from Ankara to stimulate individual HTS factions capable of reaching and maintaining an agreement to split from the alliance and join the moderate opposition. To make the HTS more amenable, Ankara put the alliance on the list of terrorist groups in late August. Thus, even though today Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham controls a little over a half of Idlib’s de-escalation zone, it remains significantly weakened compared to the winter–summer of 2017. The HTS numbers have fallen almost twofold since then and are now estimated at 12,000–15,000 militants. Additionally, the Turkistan Islamic Party consisting of 2300 Uighur militants actively interacts with the HTS.

The HTS units are highly combat-effective and, in terms of their combat capabilities, are no worse than the larger groups of moderate opposition. Nonetheless, during the fighting that took place in February–April 2018 between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the Syrian Liberation Front), the former lost many of its positions in Idlib. After moderate groups assembled in the National Front for Liberation, these factions gained even greater superiority in numbers, which could push the HTS to make further concessions and comply with the provisions of the Sochi agreements on the HTS withdrawing from the 15-kilometer demilitarized zone.

The HTS is split on the issue of implementing the Sochi agreements. Consequently, as of the writing of this article, this group has not yet declared its position. The debate between followers of the two major factions still continues in the HTS’s Shura Council. One faction is the pro-Turkey Syrian bloc that insists on withdrawing the HTS forces from the demilitarized zone and further integration into the moderate opposition, since they connect their future with Syria. The other group is comprised of hard-liners, the “intractables,” many of whom are foreigners who may make their presence known once again in the event of a fresh exacerbation. And in case of failure, they plan to leave the country and continue their subversive activities in other regions.

Al-Qaeda

The “Syrian” part of the HTS is ready to gradually transition to the moderate opposition camp. Should the group continue to fragment, its radical wing is ready for a rapprochement with their former partners who had split from the HTS when it declared it was cutting ties with Al-Qaeda. These radicals have formed their own association, Hurras ad-Din, which is currently an Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. However, it is not a serious force, with no more than 800 people. Another group of the “intractables” is Ansar al-Din, numbering 300 people, which is a part of the HTS that refused to join the organization, judging it to be too moderate. Thus, radical groups in Idlib number up to 20,000 people in total. The province also has IS units, however, they are represented solely by secret underground cells.

The National Front for Liberation (Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir)

In addition to causing dissent among radicals, Ankara has been working successfully on rebuilding the positions and consolidating the forces of the moderate opposition. In February 2018, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the Syrian Liberation Front), an alliance that proved capable of opposing the HTS and of pushing back against HTS radicals in Idlib, was established. The next stage was deploying the National Front for Liberation in May 2018; Jabhat Tahrir Suriya joined in August.

Establishing the National Front for Liberation in May 2018 was an important step on the way toward installing Turkey’s control over the armed opposition in Idlib with the prospect of its further integration in the united Syrian National Army. Establishing the National Front for Liberation drew a line under the process of separating moderate opposition from radicals: all the groups (besides Jaysh al-Izzah) that are outside the National Front for Liberation in Idlib can be called “radical.”

The next stage, in turn, envisions the merger of the National Front for Liberation deployed in Idlib with the Syrian National Army (SNA) formed in the Syrian protectorate of Northern Aleppo. The plan is to gather all the moderate opposition forces under its banner. However, the National Front for Liberation can merge with the SNA if the Idlib problem is resolved in accordance with the “Turkish scenario,” i.e. after de facto transforming the region into Turkey’s “protectorate.” It should be kept in mind that the SNA forces did not take part in the military operations against Assad’s regime in Idlib. They operate solely in the regions covered by the Turkish “security umbrella” and were primarily geared for military operations against Syrian Kurds from the Democratic Union Party.

Virtually all factions surviving into the eighth year of the Syrian conflict and operating under the Free Syrian Army “brand” joined the National Front for Liberation: the Free Idlib Army, Jaysh al-Nasr, Jaysh al-Nukhba, the Free Syrian Army 2nd army (Jaysh al-Thani), the Free Syrian Army 1st Coastal Division, the Free Syrian Army 2nd Coastal Division, the Free Syrian Army 23rd Division, Daraya’s Shuhada al-Islam, Liwa al-Hurriya and several other small Free Syrian Army factions, including units brought into Idlib from Damascus and other regions. Nonetheless, the National Front for Liberation’s principal assault force is comprised of moderate Islamist groups such as Faylaq al-Sham, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (a coalition of Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki), Suqour al-Sham and Jaysh al-Ahrar (with the exception of the first group, they all joined the National Front for Liberation somewhat later, in August 2018). Today, the National Front for Liberation numbers 50,000–55,000 militants.

The Syrian National Army

Even though the Syrian National Army (SNA) is not deployed in Syria’s de-escalation zone, it does have an immediate influence on the situation in the region. Should the army’s units be retrained, re-armed and equipped by Turkey and shifted to Idlib, the situation there could change in terms of both possibly repelling Bashar al-Assad’s offensive and suppressing radicals there. Additionally, should the need arise, SNA units may come over to the National Front for Liberation side and join their “parent” units on the front, since both the National Front for Liberation and the SNA often comprise brigades from the same groups, for instance, Ahrar al-Sham.

The SNA is formed in the regions of the so-called Turkish “protectorate” or “buffer,” i.e. in those Syrian regions where the Turkish military operates and which are covered by Turkey’s aviation, thereby minimizing the possibilities of al-Assad’s regime and its allies carrying out a military operation.

The SNA includes five legions or corps. Three (the 1st, 2nd and 3rd) were deployed in Northern Aleppo and one (the 4th) in Homs. After the region was surrendered to al-Assad’s regime in May 2018, it was also deployed in Northern Aleppo. In July, the 5th legion began deployment in north-eastern regions of Idlib’s de-escalation zone (the Aleppo province). Factions from the National Front for Liberation are expected to join it, and the legion may become a transition model for integrating the National Front for Liberation’s Idlib factions into the SNA.

The 1st legion was formed from Turkoman brigades such as Mehmed the Conqueror Brigade and the Samarkand Brigade that formed the legion’s core. It also includes the Descendants of Saladin Kurdish Brigade (pro-Turkish), Victory Brigades, the 21st united Free Syrian Army division, the 101st Free Syrian Army division etc. The SNA’s 2nd legion is also considered Turkoman, and its principal parts are the al-Sultan Murad Division and the al-Hamza Division. Additionally, the legion includes the Mutasim Billah Brigade, the al-Safwa Battalions and others. The 3rd SNA legion may be called “Islamic,” since it comprises moderate Islamic groups, such as three factions of al-Jabhat al-Shamiya: the Northern Storm Brigade, the Sword of the Levant Brigade and the Soldiers of Islam Brigades, as well as some Ahrar al-Sham units operating in Northern Aleppo such as Tajammu Fastaqim Kama Umirt and Liwa al-Manbij, among others. The 4th SNA legion is also considered “Islamic.” It comprises Liwa al-Haqq, Faylaq Homs and Ahrar al-Sham brigades that had previously operated in Homs. As of August 2018, the SNA numbers 35,000 militants in total.

The process of units from other factions integrating into the SNA continues. The SNA may be boosted by units of Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam being withdrawn from around Damascus and positioned in two camps around Afrin and al-Bab in the Turkish “protectorate” of Northern Aleppo. Today, at least Jaysh al-Islam already operates under the SNA’s “umbrella,” although it has not been fully integrated into its corps structure. Therefore, once fully deployed, the SNA may number 50,000 troops. Accordingly, if the NFL joins the SNA, they will number 100,000 troops total: these are the forces at the disposal of Syria’s moderate opposition.

In addition to the National Front for Liberation and the SNA, the Jaysh al-Izzah group should also be counted as moderate opposition. It is the only faction flying the Free Syrian Army’s flag that still preserved its independence and did not join alliances. It numbers 3500 fighters.

Thus, the balance of power between the moderate opposition and radicals gives reason to hope that Ankara’s measures to ultimately free Idlib from terrorist groups will succeed. Although the Sochi memorandum does not provide a timeframe for “cleansing” the region of terrorist groups, or indeed the terms and methods of doing so, the temporary or long-term preservation of Idlib’s status quo will largely hinge on the resolution of this very question.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Turkey plays Khashoggi crisis to its geopolitical advantage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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With Turkish investigators asserting that they have found further evidence that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed when he visited the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, Turkey appears to be leveraging the case to enhance its position as a leader of the Islamic World and reposition itself as a key US ally.

To enhance its geopolitical position vis a vis Saudi Arabia as well as Russia and Iran and potentially garner economic advantage at a time that it is struggling to reverse a financial downturn, Turkey has so far leaked assertions of evidence it says it has of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing rather than announced them officially.

In doing so, Turkey has forced Saudi Arabia to allow Turkish investigators accompanied by Saudi officials to enter the consulate and positioned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the kingdom’s saviour by engineering a situation that will allow the kingdom to craft a face-saving way out of the crisis.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering announcing that Mr. Khashoggi, a widely-acclaimed journalist critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who went into self-exile because he feared arrest, was killed in either a rogue operation or an attempt gone awry to forcibly repatriate it him back to the kingdom.

US President Donald J. Trump offered the Turks and Saudis a helping hand by referring this week to the possibility of Mr. Khashoggi having been killed by rogues and dispatching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and Ankara.

Mr. Khashoggi, seeking to obtain proof of his divorce in the kingdom so that he could marry his Turkish fiancé, visited the consulate two weeks ago for the second time after having allegedly received assurances that he would be safe.

Turkey emerges as the crisis moves towards a situation in which an official version is agreed that seeks to shield Prince Mohammed from being held responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and likely murder with its international status significantly enhanced.

Turkish leverage is further boosted by the fact that Saudi Arabia — its image in government, political and business circles significantly damaged by the crisis — and the Trump administration that wants to ensure that the kingdom’s ruling family emerges from the crisis as unscathed as possible, are in Ankara’s debt.

As a result, the denouement of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to alter the dynamics in the long-standing competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Islamic world.

It also strengthens Turkey’s position in its transactional alliance with Russia and Iran as they manoeuvre to end the war in Syria in a manner that cements Bashar al-Assad’s presidency while addressing Turkish concerns.

Turkey’s position in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is likely to also benefit from the fact that whatever face-saving solution the kingdom adopts is likely to be flawed when tested by available facts and certain to be challenged by a host of critics, even if many will see Turkey as having facilitated a political solution rather than ensuring that the truth is established.

Already, Mr. Khashoggi’s family who was initially quoted by Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled media as backing Saudi denials of responsibility, insinuations that his fate was the product of a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and casting doubt on the integrity of the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, has called for “the establishment of an independent and impartial international commission to inquire into the circumstances of his death.”

Turkey and Saudi Arabia differ on multiple issues that divide the Muslim world. Turkey has vowed to help Iran circumvent Saudi-supported US sanctions imposed after Mr. Trump withdrew in May from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear agreement.

Turkey further backs Qatar in its dispute with a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance that has diplomatically and economically boycotted the Gulf state for the last 16 months. The credibility of the alliance’s allegation that Qatar supports terrorism and extremism has been dented by the growing conviction that Saudi Arabia, whether in a planned, rogue or repatriation effort gone wrong, was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

Mr. Khashoggi’s death, moreover, highlighted differing approaches towards the Brotherhood, one of the Middle East’s most persecuted, yet influential Islamist groupings. Saudi Arabia, alongside the UAE and Egypt, have designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Many brothers have sought refuge in Turkey with Mr. Erdogan empathetic and supportive of the group. A former brother, Mr. Khashoggi criticized Saudi repression of the group.

The Saudi-Turkish rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world was most evident in the two countries’ responses to Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his as yet unpublished plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Turkey emerged as the leader of Islamic denunciation of Mr. Trump’s move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognition of the city as Israel’s capital after Prince Mohammed tried to dampen opposition. Ultimately, King Salman was forced to step in a bid to clarify the kingdom’s position and counter Turkish moves.

No matter how Turkey decides to officially release whatever evidence it has, Saudi Arabia figures out how to respond and halt the haemorrhaging, and Mr. Pompeo holds talks with King Salman and Mr. Erdogan, Turkey is likely to emerge from the crisis strengthened despite its increasingly illiberal and increasingly authoritarian rule at home,

Turkey’s success is all the more remarkable given that it has neither Saudi Arabia’s financial muscle nor the mantle the kingdom adopts as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

A successful political resolution of the Khashoggi crisis is likely to earn it the gratitude of the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia, and its other detractors like the UAE who support the kingdom even if it may help it to regain popularity in the Arab world lost as a result of its swing towards authoritarianism, alliance with Iran and Qatar, and support for Islamism.

One immediate Turkish victory is likely to be Saudi acquiesce to Mr. Erdogan’s demand that Saudi Arabia drop its support for Kurdish rebels in Syria that Ankara sees as terrorists – a move that would boost Turkey’s position the Turkish-Russian-Iranian jockeying for influence in a post-war Syria. Turkey is also likely to see Saudi Arabia support it economically.

Turkey may, however, be playing for higher stakes.

Turkey “wants to back Saudi Arabia to the wall. (It wants to) disparage the ‘reformist’ image that Saudi Arabia has been constructing in the West” in a bid to get the US to choose Ankara as its primary ally in the Middle East, said international relations scholar Serhat Guvenc.

Turkey’s relations in recent years have soured as a result of Turkish insistence that the US is harbouring a terrorist by refusing to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the preacher it accuses of having engineered the failed 2016 coup; detaining American nationals and US consulate employees on allegedly trumped up charges, cosying up to Russia and purchasing its S-400 surface to air missile system, and aligning itself with Iran. Relations were further strained by US support for Syrian Kurds.

Mr. Trump, however this week heralded a new era in US-Turkish relations after the release of unsubscribeAndrew Brunson, an evangelist preacher who was imprisoned in Turkey for two years on charges of espionage.

Mr. Guvenc argued that Turkey hopes that Saudi Arabia’s battered image will help it persuade Mr. Trump that Turkey rather than the kingdom is its strongest and most reliable ally alongside Israel in the Middle East.

Said journalist Ferhat Unlu: “”Turkey knows how to manage diplomatic crises. Its strategy is to manage tensions to its advantage,”

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MbS: Riding roughshod or playing a risky game of bluff poker?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A stalemate in efforts to determine what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is threatening to escalate into a crisis that could usher in a new era in relations between the United States and some of its closest Arab allies as well as in the region’s energy politics.

In response to US President Donald J. Trump’s threat of “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is proven to have been responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia is threatening to potentially upset the region’s energy and security architecture.

A tweet by Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy thanking the United States for not jumping to conclusions did little to offset the words of an unnamed Saudi official quoted by the state-run news agency stressing  the kingdom’s “total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations.”

The official was referring to the kingdom’s insistence that it was not responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and assertion that it is confronting a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The kingdom also affirms that if it is (targeted by) any action, it will respond with greater action,” the official said noting that Saudi Arabia “plays an effective and vital role in the world economy.”

Turki Aldhakhil, a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and general manager of the kingdom’s state-controlled Al Arabiya news network, claimed in an online article that Saudi leaders were discussing 30 ways of responding to possible US sanctions.

They allegedly included allowing oil prices to rise up to US$ 200 per barrel, which according to Mr. Aldhakhil, would lead to “the death” of the US economy, pricing Saudi oil in Chinese yuan instead of dollars, an end to intelligence sharing, and a military alliance with Russia that would involve a Russian military base in the kingdom.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Aldhakhil was reflecting serious discussions among secretive Saudi leaders or whether his article was intended either as a scare tactic or a trial balloon. Mr. Aldakhil’s claim that a Saudi response to Western sanctions could entail a reconciliation with the kingdom’s arch enemy, Iran, would make his assertion seem more like geopolitical and economic bluff.

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be a coordinated response aimed at demonstrating that Saudi Arabia was not isolated, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt rushed to express solidarity with the kingdom. Like Turkey, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE have a track record of suppressing independent journalism and freedom of the press.

Ironically, Turkey may be the kingdom’s best friend in the Khashoggi crisis if its claims to have incontrovertible proof of what happened in the consulate prove to be true. Turkey has so far refrained from making that evidence public, giving Saudi Arabia the opportunity to come up with a credible explanation.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip “Erdogan wants to give Saudis an exit out of #Khashoggi case, hoping the Saudi king/crown prince will blame ‘rogue elements’ for the alleged murder, then throwing someone important under the bus. This would let Erdogan walk away looking good & prevent rupture in Turkey-Saudi ties,” tweeted Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

The Saudi news agency report and Mr. Aldakhil’s article suggest that Prince Mohammed believes that Saudi Arabia either retains the clout to impose its will on much of the international community or believes that it rather than its Western critics would emerge on top from any bruising confrontation.

Prince Mohammed no doubt is reinforced in his belief by Mr. Trump’s reluctance to include an arms embargo in his concept of severe punishment. He may also feel that Western support for the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and reluctance to credibly take the kingdom to task for its conduct of the war was an indication that he was free to do as he pleased.

Prince Mohammed may have been further strengthened in his belief by the initial course of events 28 years ago, the last time that the fate of a journalist was at the centre of a crisis between a Western power and an Arab country.

At the time, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, similar to Mr. Trump’s inclination, refused to impose economic sanctions after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the arrest, torture and execution of Farhad Barzoft, a young London-based Iranian journalist who reported for The Observer.

Since declassified British government documents disclosed that Mrs. Thatcher’s government did not want to jeopardize commercial relations despite its view of the Iraqi government as a “ruthless and disagreeable regime.”

The comparison between the Khashoggi crisis and the case of Mr. Barzoft goes beyond Western governments’ reluctance to jeopardize commercial relationships.

Mr Barzoft was executed months before Mr. Hussein’s military invaded Kuwait prompting US-led military action that forced his troops to withdraw from the Gulf state, crippling economic sanctions, and ultimately the 2003 Gulf War that, no matter how ill-advised, led to the Iraqi leader’s downfall and ultimate execution.

Prince Mohammed’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen, of which Mr. Khashoggi was critical in one of his last Washington Post columns, has tarnished the kingdom’s international prestige and sparked calls in the US Congress and European parliaments for an embargo on arms sales that have gained momentum with the disappearance of the Saudi journalist.

To be sure Saudi Arabia enjoys greater leverage than Iraq did in 1990. By the same token, 2018 is not 1973, the first and only time the kingdom ever wielded oil as a weapon against the United States. At the time, the US was dependent on Middle Eastern oil, today it is one of, if not the world’s largest producer.

More fundamentally, Prince Mohammed appears to show some of the traits Mr. Hussein put on display, including a seeming lack of understanding of the limits of power and best ways to wield it, a tendency towards impetuousness, a willingness to take risks and gamble without having a credible exit strategy, a refusal to tolerate any form of criticism, and a streak of ruthlessness.

“We’re discovering what this ‘new king’ is all about, and it’s getting worrisome. The dark side is getting darker,” said David Ottaway, a journalist and scholar who has covered Saudi Arabia for decades.

Mr. Hussein was public and transparent about Mr. Barzoft’s fate even if his assertion that the journalist was a spy lacked credibility and the journalist’s confession and trial were a mockery of justice.

Prince Mohammed flatly denies any involvement in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi and appears to believe that he can bully himself out of the crisis in the absence of any evidence that the journalist left the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate of his own volition.

Mr. Hussein miscalculated with his invasion of Kuwait shortly after getting away with the killing of Mr. Barzoft.

Prince Mohammed too may well have miscalculated if the kingdom is proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Mr. Hussein’s reputation and international goodwill was irreparably damaged by his execution of Mr. Barzoft and invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance has dealt a body blow to Saudi Arabia’s prestige irrespective of whether the journalist emerges from the current crisis alive or dead.

King Salman and the kingdom appear for now to be rallying the wagons around the crown prince.

At the same time, the king has stepped into the fray publicly for the first time by phoning Turkish president Erdogan to reaffirm Saudi cooperation with an investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate.

It remains unclear whether that phone call will pave the way for Turkish investigators to enter the Istanbul consulate as well as the Saudi consul general’s home and whether they will be allowed to carry out forensics.

The longer the investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate stalls, the more Saudi Arabia will come under pressure to put forth a credible explanation and the harder Western leaders will be pressed by public opinion and lawmakers to take credible action if Saudi Arabia is proven to be responsible.

A Saudi decision to act on its threats to rejigger its security arrangements and energy policy, even if overstated by Mr. Aldhakhil, in response to steps by Western nations to penalize the kingdom,  could prove to have not only far-reaching international consequences but, in the final analysis, also equally momentous domestic ones.

“Looks like #Saudi royal family is coming together to protect the family business. Eventually there will be internal reckoning with what transpired. Not now. Now is the time to save the family reign,” tweeted Middle East scholar Randa Slim.

Said former US State Department and White House official Elliott Abrams: “Jamal Khashoggi lost control of his fate when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Mohammed bin Salman must act quickly to regain control of his own.”

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