Category Archives: Saudi Arabia

Khalid bin Farhan al-Saud: volcanic portents in Saudi politics

Trump’s negotiations with China, especially his trade-off between saving electronic giant ZTE from bankruptcy induced by his own sanctions on the company, in exchange for eliminating Chinese tariffs on US agriculture imports, reveals something of his hardball tactics.  This should tells us something about how he understands pulling out of JCPOA: a matter that is confusing hard-pressed European nations that are part of the agreement.

Although some in the Trump cabinet dream of world wars, for Trump himself, the Iran/Shi’a threat is a construction whose principal purpose is to leverage “protection money” from Saudi Arabia. The sums Trump is demanding from Mohamed bin Salman (some in exchange for actual weapons, and much not) will without a doubt bankrupt the desert kingdom. The rest of the royal family are appalled at the utter cupidity and self-serving moronity of the unknown and vindictive upstart who has taken over the kingdom in the fog of his royal father’s dementia.

David Hearst interviews Saudi Prince Khaled bin Farhan on the rumblings of régime change in Saudi Arabia as the embattled royals that bin Salman has put under house arrest wake up from the shock of the violent and ruthless ambush they have been subjected to. Here is a snipet from the interview.

2017 film “The Square”: Art as the religion of the rich

Early in the film “The Square,” a reporter called Anne asks a museum curator about the  challenges of running a museum. The museum in question is a modern art museum, the butt of much social criticism. Ruben Östlund is the film’s director. and his film asks the question about the function of the modern art museum and its exhibitions and performances. Is the art market, classical or modern, with its exhibitions and organised art-performances, anything other than a safe haven for the extremely rich where they can park their money whilst waiting for other opportunities? Are we all that surprised that a Saudi prince (Mohamed bin Salman or MbS) may not know what to do with his extra cash and invests it in one of those objects (Salvatore Mundi) that can hold so much sheer monetary value in excess of its physical worth?

The curator of this museum (called Christian) is the main protagonist. In answer to all the criticism he faces about art, he responds by mounting an exhibition involving just a square painted on the ground before the museum. This is supposed to represent a “space of safety”, or safe haven. Muslim viewers could draw  parallels with the 3-D cube at the center of their worship and their relationship with the Universe (the Ka’aba). Designating a specific area as a sanctuary goes back a long way in terms of religious practice, and the square Christian places at the center of this film proposes the idea that modern art is the new religious experience for an atheist liberal elite.

Östlund slowly chips away at the protective layers that Christian, a priest of the liberal religion, surrounds himself with. Accidents throw him into the lives of ordinary people who would never normally visit his museum, yet after each event he becomes obsessed with the people he meets. In a desperate attempt to find someone he lost contact with, Christian finds himself in a garbage dump on a rainy night trying to recover a piece of paper with the person’s phone number. Many scenes in the film explore the complacency of the art world in a radical way. In the film’s poster (above), an art-performance event is depicted where an “artist” acts like an ape to entertain the elite who, elegantly dressed, are dining in an ornate hall. The performer is supposed to test the boundaries of what his polite audience will endure in order to protect their investment in this act of modern art. Here, Östlund explores how much artistic license we are prepared to give the artist, on the basis that all art is a dare.

What the religion of the rich clearly indicates is the disdain and fear of lesser mortals felt by rich individuals and their search for safety through a sense of mutual reinforcement which the art market provides. A similar “religion of the nobility” existed in Zoroastrian fire worship in the period of Sassanian Iran, which held that all craftsmen, or people who worked with their hands, were unholy. It would be these craftsmen, who eventually locked in their tens of thousands to become Muslims in 7th century Iraq, which revolutionised Islam, turning it from an Arabic into a world religion.

For MbS, Saudi Arabia will be just another possession

Mohamed bin Salman it has been revealed is the owner of the Château de Louveciennes, in western suburbs of Paris, which he bought for $300m two years ago. Added to his purchase of a $450m yacht and most recently the Leonardo painting of Christ for similar amount, bought through a minor prince in his household (Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud), this completes a fairly complete psychological profile of the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

Given what we know of MbS from these facts, a clear avaricious streak in his personality allows us to interpret recent actions taken against the rich in his country, including members of his family, as a desire to “own” Saudi Arabia singly. Together with his vicious launching of the Yemen War and his ill treatment of the Yemeni population, it is also clear he has little or no empathy. With no counter-balancing forces within the atavistic Saudi polity a ruthless and coercive tyranny is unfolding, which is unlikely to garner legitimacy whether by sticking to traditional Islamic modalities or indeed attempting to move on to more “secular” modalities.

In fact, the announcement that MbS seeks a more secular Saudi Arabia is tied to his wish to sideline resistance, but as the Wahhabi establishment will merely now roll over and do whatever he wishes, it is likely that the potentially destabilising effects of a move towards secularism, will be followed by a harsh return to such traditional Saudi-Islamic mores that help reinforce tyranny. Instinctively MbS is expecting the US and Israel to provide the support for his rule, where legitimacy will be absent. This will reinforce the decline of American influence in the region and reaffirm the continuing rise of Iran.

Trump just gave a massive gift to Iran: the Arab autocrats should fear their street

 

Until now Iran had lost its credibility on the Arab Street, because of its rescue of the Assad regime. All will now be forgiven as the penny drops. The Iranians were perhaps right to support Bashar, despite his despicable character and his Neanderthal régime.

Trump’s move is -woefully, blatantly – in contempt of international law and UNSC resolutions, which the UNSC itself didn’t fail to point out to its US representative. The US has lost it’s position as a fair arbiter in the Middle East process – some say it has finally shown its hand – and now its international reputation is as sullied as Israel’s.

Liberal Jewish groups in the US see this danger clearly. The Union of Reform Judaism stated: ‘… any relocation of the American Embassy to West Jerusalem should be done in the broader context reflecting Jerusalem’s status as a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike…the White House should not undermine these efforts by making unilateral decisions that are all but certain to exacerbate the conflict.’

J- Street released a statement saying that a Palestinian capital must also be established in the East Jerusalem: ‘… the effect of moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or of declaring that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital prior to a negotiated agreement will be to anger key Arab allies, foment regional instability and undermine nascent US diplomatic efforts to resolve the larger conflict.’

New Israel Fund also criticized the decision in a statement: ‘President Trump many not understand what’s at stake here, but we do. Moving the embassy risks igniting the tinderbox of anger, frustration and hopelessness that already exists in Jerusalem. Throwing…balance off with this unilateral gesture could have grave consequences.’

The US has either been sowing discord or waging war directly in the Middle East for 35 years. So far Iran won the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, the 2003-9 Iraq war, and the 2011-7 Syrian war. Let’s see what happens in the next war. Ali Abdulla al-Saleh supporter and funder of violence and militancy across the board is dead. Yemen is open. What will the Arab autocrats, who are the allies of the US, do apart from buy paintings by Leonardo for $450m, and yachts for $500m, all the while mistreating former Gulf allies?

Saudi Arabia’s formal statement denouncing the Trump decision belies their co-operation with him over this new roughing-up of the Palestinians. It smells of fear and double-dealing. The news from Jerusalem is being “managed” by Saudi authorities.

Hopefully, the liberal voices in America above will help undo Trump’s idiocy and the influence of the Christian right on US Middle East policy. Turkey’s efforts to create international consensus against this move will definitely help to keep the pressure on. Erdoğan calling the OIC to a conference on the matter of Jerusalem is a symbolic move, although welcome of course. What people don’t recognise, on the other hand, is the crucial importance of Turkey’s position as the energy transit hub for Mediterranean gas, offering the cheapest route to Europe, which Israel is banking on for its future.

Certainly Abbas has kicked the so-called peace process into the long grass. He doesn’t look too phased by the events and Mike Pence will be disappointed if he thinks he can restart peace talks on his visit to Israel next month.

Although the Palestinian Authority has continually disappointed in the prime task of keeping the Palestinians united and resisting pressure, Abbas has shown more mettle recently in taking Israel to the ICC.

 

The collapse of the Hariri “mansion”

Madawi al-Rasheed writes about the uneasy post-civil war truce between the ‘mansions’ of the various sectarian leaders in Lebanon, in an allusion to the familial structures of medieval Italian city states, and the explosive potential of the mysterious departure to Saudi Arabia and subsequent resignation from the post of Lebanese Prime Minister of the Sunni leader, Saad el-Hariri.

“Today the famous central “Solidaire” area is a dying hub of finance and entertainment beyond the means of most Lebanese. The Solidaire Park is a legacy of the vision of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri (Saad’s father) who represented the Sunnis in Lebanon, as a dual national of both Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, while at the same time nurturing his Saudi Arabian interests. Under post-civil war reconstruction efforts, he emerged as a financial tycoon who, in the neoliberal vein, wiped out small traders and businessmen in favour of global capitalism.

With his assassination in 2005, his son Saad became the face of Sunni power in Lebanon, albeit that this power declined in the face of the rise of Hezbollah. Money earned in Saudi Arabia was translated into philanthropy in Lebanon. Patron-client relations became the core of the Sunni za’amat, leadership, like other sectarian leadership.

Saudi Arabia seems to have lost its historical importance in Lebanon as Iran consolidated its presence there. So the last card Saudi Arabia can play to snub Iran was to summon Saad Hariri, its man in Beirut, to Riyadh where he surprisingly and unexpectedly read his resignation letter on the same night that Mohammed bin Salman started his anti-corruption purge.” Read full article here.

Mass arrests: Replay of Egypt Sept. 1981 in Saudi Arabia

His tool is the new “anti-corruption committee” as Mohamed bin Salman (MbS) arrests Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, removing him from his post as leader of the National Guard; something he has been itching to do since launching the Yemen War for the sole purpose of consolidating his power over the country’s armed forces.

The new committee puts itself above and beyond the law, it is “exempt from laws, regulations, instructions, orders and decisions while the committee shall perform the following tasks: … the investigation issuance of arrest warrants, travel ban, disclosure and freezing of accounts and portfolios, tracking of funds, assets, and preventing their remittance or transfer by persons and entities who ever they might be. The committee has the right to take any precautionary measures it sees, until they are referred to the investigating authorities or judicial bodies”.

MbS also arrests 10 other princes, as well media moghuls Al-Walid Bin Talal (Rotana), Walid Al Brahim (MBC) and Saleh Kamel (ART), whilst freezing their assets. This puts MbS at the head of all of the Saudi media outlets. His arrest of Bakr bin Laden, and his recall of Saad el-Hariri from Lebanon (the Bin Laden group and Saudi Oger being the Kingdom’s two largest contractors)would appear to be part of MbS’s massive wealth grab. Hariri’s explanation that he is fear for his life in Lebanon, and cannot go back, is cover for the fact that he is under house arrest in Riyadh.

All this follows the arrests of many intellectuals, writers and activists as a pre-emptive measure to hinder potential opposition to new secularisation policies.  While this early phase of arrests was purely political, the quality of wealth grab clearly evident in this second phase points to failure of Riyadh’s Plan A in that regard: the invasion and absorption of Qatar. It would appear that all these arrests have been organised for MbS by operatives of his adviser and confidante, Mohamed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, whom he is relying on as an outside force unconnected to Saudi society and therefore not subject to any pressures to resist the crown Prince’s orders.

These events are an ominous replay of September 1981, when Anwar el-Sadat ordered a highly unpopular roundup of more than 1500 people, including many Islamic Jihad members in Egypt, but also the Coptic Pope and other Coptic clergy, intellectuals and activists of all ideological stripes, who were protesting the manner of his headlong peace deal with Israel.

A new totalitarian adventure in the Arabian desert

A precog being inducted into Saudi citizenship

Mohamed bin Salman has called for ‘Moderate Islam’ in Saudi Arabia. The words will mean nothing and will be the cause of much social instability, until some kind of process has taken place, where Saudi society has come to an understanding. Simply introducing a secular lifestyle into a previously rigid religious environment would be explosive. However, if a new process of dialogue about Saudi religious reformation has begun, the signs are not good, given that a large number of activists, clerics, professionals and even poets, not all of whom are radicals or critics of his new vision, have been jailed by Bin Salman in the latest wave of detentions a couple of months ago.

As Madawi al-Rashed explains: “For a religious reformation to take hold, it has to be the product of debates within Islamic circles, completely free from state control from above. Liberation theology is not always born in the courts of autocratic monarchs and princelings. But the prince has in mind something else, a royal theology that criminalises criticism, dissent, and even peaceful activism.”

A harbinger of what is to come is the scathing attack by the Supreme Council of Muslim Scholars (SCM), the highest religious body in Saudi Arabia, on the International Union of Muslim Scholars (ISU), a non-governmental organization headed by Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi, last Thursday. The SCM, under pressure from Bin Salman called the ISU a “partisan” organisation, directed by “political agenda”. If, by political agenda, the Saudi body meant the openness of the ISU to pluralism and democracy, then they would have been right. Now the Saudi body, ever seeking royal pleasure, and desperately trying to maintain a role for itself in the new Saudi totalitarian adventure launched by Bin Salman, has warned Saudis to stay away from the ISU and all organisations outside the Kingdom like it.

While the religious police in Saudi Arabia (the institution of which contradicts the most basic rights under the Qur’an) will be prohibited from monitoring Saudis indulging their inclinations, they will now acquire a new role in monitoring their political thoughts. Given Bin Salman’s science fiction vision of the future, he will probably engage Tom Cruise as an adviser to train “precogs” for the Kingdom’s very own “pre-crime” unit. Presumably the SCM will be engaged in the difficult task of generating the “majority reports” from conflicting precognitions as fatwas.