The Saudi intelligence chief, Bandar bin Sultan is a worried man these days. He has plotted to have the Americans attack Syria by supplying chemical weapons to the rebels. Instead, recent developments have left the Saudis exposed and sulking.
The speed with which Saudi policies have unraveled over the past six months has forced the Najdi clan to retreat to the tent and sulk. Most “Third World” countries — and Saudi Arabia is still “Third world” material despite its enormous oil wealth — would be ecstatic if they were given a chance to serve on one of the rotating seats at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Not so the Saudis. After lobbying for months, when Saudi Arabia was elected unopposed on October 17 to the seat vacated by Pakistan, it spurned it. Riyadh said since the Security Council had failed to bring an end to the Syrian crisis, it would not sit at the table. The Saudis also called for reforming the UN. While few would argue with that, reforms should begin in the archaic desert kingdom where a single family has usurped all power, decision-making and resources.
Ending the conflict in Syria is a noble objective but that is not what the Saudis meant. They want the West led by the US to remove Bashar al-Asad from power by military force in the manner of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi of Libya in 2011. The Saudis had even created an alibi: use of chemical weapons near Damascus on August 21 that they blamed on al-Asad’s government. Western rulers were aware of the reality. It was Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan who had supplied the chemical weapons to the rebels. Besides, the vast majority of people in the West, including the US as well as the US Congress, were not prepared to support another war when Afghanistan and Iraq have already bankrupted them.
Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in Syria, financially, politically and diplomatically. It is the principal purchaser of arms for the rebels that have so far failed to dislodge al-Asad. Instead, deft diplomacy by Russia and Iran as well as Syria has reduced, at least in the near term, any prospects of direct Western military involvement in Syria. Diplomacy is now the buzzword, something the Saudis are loathe to hear, hence their angst. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal cancelled his October 7 speech to the UN General Assembly to express the kingdom’s unhappiness with UN policy on Syria. Few took notice. Rejection of the Security Council seat of course made news but the sky did not fall. On October 21, Bandar told European diplomats that Saudi Arabia would “shift” its policy away from dependency on the US. Americans must have trembled in their pants!
Nawaf Obaid, fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, tried to draw attention to Saudi displeasure in an article in Al Monitor on October 17. He said there would be consequences for ignoring Saudi demands. He went on to propose that “the only way the Arab world can make progress is through a collective security framework initially consisting of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the GCC nations. It is time for the Arab states, working through a much-needed, reformed Arab League, to assume responsibility for their own region and work together to increase their collective security. Such a shift away from Western dependency and toward more local (and successful) interventionism will take some time.”
Brave words but Arabian rulers are not capable of much. Developing a collective security arrangement is a non-starter. Of the countries on Obaid’s wish list, Egypt’s military-backed regime and hence the military, despite being supported and financed by the Saudis, is opposed to intervention in Syria. This would bring another Muslim Brotherhood dominated government to power in Damascus when the generals just got rid of one in Egypt. Apart from Egypt, no other Arabian military has much military or security muscle despite possessing a great deal of military hardware.
The Saudis and their allies are also upset over the US decision to open talks with Iran. They feel jilted. Perhaps it was to smooth their ruffled feathers that the US announced on October 17 to sell $10.8 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The deal would include 1,000 bunker-buster GBU-39 bombs to the Saudis and 5,000 to the UAE. Air-launched cruise missiles that can be used on US-made F-15 and F-16 fighter jets are also part of the deal as are attack helicopters. The US has already supplied fighter jets to both countries.
This is not the first time that the US has supplied billions of dollars worth of weapons to family-based Arabian monarchies. In 2011, US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia totaled $34 billion. A year earlier, Washington had announced it would supply $60 billion in weaponry to the desert kingdom, spread over many years. None of these regimes is capable of using such weapons that ultimately end up being used by the US to attack other Muslim countries. Despite this, Obaid talked up the “ever-growing Saudi leadership” based on its successful interventions in Bahrain and Yemen that “must rise to the challenge and prepare for a new paradigm in the security of the Arab world.”
As Saudi displeasure was being made known, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made public what was known for many years. He told the Knesset on October 16 that Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf were in close contact with the Zionist regime. He said they felt a common threat (meaning from Islamic Iran) and since the US was not prepared to help, they were rushing to cling to the Zionist State. Whither the Saudi “leadership role” or is the banner with the kalimah now going to march under the Star of David instead of the Stars and Spangles?
The one area where Saudi policy has been quite successful is to keep people at home docile while stoking militancy abroad such as in Syria and Iraq. This of course has been possible through an alliance with the religious establishment that has been given the regime a virtual carte blanche to do as it pleases in clamping down on people’s rights. Women are prohibited from driving under their archaic interpretations. Similarly, fathers cannot be executed for killing their children or husbands for killing their wives.
This was most vividly demonstrated in the case of Fayhan al-Ghamdi, a Saudi celebrity preacher with his own television program, who raped and murdered his five-year-old daughter Lama early this year, after accusing her of “losing her virginity.” The hospital where Lama was taken reported she had a broken skull, broken back, broken ribs, fractured arm and leg as well as being raped repeatedly. Al-Ghamdi did not deny torturing his daughter who died a few weeks later in hospital.
When brought to court, the judge said he had already “served his sentence” (after being arrested) and that he should pay $50,000 in compensation to the girl’s mother as “blood money.” This outraged people both in the kingdom and abroad and a petition was submitted to King Abdullah to take this matter seriously. Last month, al-Ghamdi was sentenced to eight years in prison, 800 lashes and ordered to pay $270,000 in compensation to the girl’s mother. It is unlikely that the preacher would be lashed. Contrast this with the beheading of a Sri Lankan maid, Rizana Nafeek in January 2013 after she was accused of choking an infant who was in her care to death. Rizana was 17 and had been in the kingdom for only one week when she was accused of killing the child in 2005. She was neither provided a lawyer nor told what she was charged with. Despite appeals from her distraught family, the Sri Lankan president and many others worldwide, she was beheaded.
The alliance between the House of Saud and the clergy, however, appears to be gradually unraveling. Following the July 3 coup against the elected government of President Mohamed Mursi in Egypt, the Saudi regime backed the coup but some ‘ulama spoke out against it.
While many Muslims naively respect the Saudi regime because of their deep attachment to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah and Islam’s sacred sites, the idiosyncratic behavior of the House of Saud is exposing its true nature. Informed Muslims have no illusions about the illegitimate nature of the regime. They do not accept hereditary kingship as a political model to emulate because it has no sanction in Islam. Differences between the House of Saud and the ‘ulama are bound to create more problems and lead to people rising up against the most oppressive regime in the Muslim East.