The Slaying of the Saudi Spider
The palace coup is complete. In a far-reaching decree on Thursday night, the new Saudi king Salman unraveled the legacy of his half-brother Abdullah and set the kingdom on course for a significant regional realignment. A possible rapprochement with Turkey and Qatar, a return to the traditional role Saudi Arabia has occupied as mediator between Fatah and Hamas, and a qualitative change in the support Riyadh has given the military rulers of Egypt are all now on the table.
Blowing away the cobwebs also means dealing with the spider. Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been stripped of his last remaining role as head of the National Security Council. This, one senses, really is the end of the line for Bandar, and the region will be all the more stable for it.
Abdullah’s two sons, Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah, who is the governor of Mecca, and Prince Turki, who governed the capital Riyadh, have been dismissed. Abdullah’s only son left in power is Prince Muteb, who stays as head of the National Guard. There is no love lost in this family.
A conservative cleric, Saad al-Shethri, who backed gender segregation in higher education, has become Salman’s personal adviser. But a balance has been struck with the addition of the new information minister, Adel al-Toraifi, a young liberal who is a former head of Al Arabiya news channel.
The two men to emerge with the power to run the country are Mohammed bin Nayef, the deputy crown prince, and Salman’s son Mohammed, who now has three roles: defense minister, general secretary to the royal court, and president of the newly formed Council of Economic and Development Affairs. Another Salman son, Abdulaziz, is deputy petroleum minister. The second generation has now been firmly secured by the Sudairi clan.
Salman started his reign by buying the love of his people, the same thing the late King Abdullah tried to do during the first months of the Arab Spring. All state employees will receive two months of bonus salary, and all retired state employees will receive two months of bonus pension. Students who receive state grants and those on social security will get two months of extra funds as well. The bill comes to a mere $30 billion.
“Dear people: You deserve more and whatever I do I would not be able to give you what you deserve,” the newly inaugurated monarch said on Twitter, just a few weeks after Riyadh signaled it would have to cut back on public spending because of the oil-price crash. Salman was retweeted 250,000 times.
King Salman has had rave reviews. All manner of former opponent of King Abdullah are now singing Salman’s praises. Informed Saudi observers note that King Abdullah became dogmatic in his last years. Salman, for them, marks a return to the moderation of King Fahd.
The new king stressed continuity, but his first seven days in power have been anything but. And the gear change will be noted first abroad. In a world in which personal relations play out in politics, it is important to remember who Salman’s and Bin Nayef’s friends are.
King Salman has remained close to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, the emir of Qatar, so the threat that Saudi Arabia made last year to lay siege to its tiny neighbor or have it expelled from the Gulf Cooperative Council now looks like a bad memory. Similarly, bin Nayef is close to senior Turkish officials, Saudi sources tell me.
The rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia after the Arab revolutions of 2011 will have pained him, not just because the two regional powers need each other to contain Iran’s expanded influence in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria but personally. It is likely that he will repair that rift.
It is also payback time for bin Nayef’s personal enemies. The interior minister has still not forgotten that two-hour conversation that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, had with Richard Hass 12 years ago, which we know about courtesy of WikiLeaks. Speaking about bin Nayef’s father, who was the Saudi interior minister at the time, the Emirati prince observed that Darwin’s theory that man was descended from the apes was correct.
Bin Nayef, the son, has more recent scores to settle with Abu Dhabi’s ruler. Erem News, which, like every Emirati news outlet, is controlled by the royal court, questioned bin Nayef’s appointment as deputy crown prince. Saying that Salman failed to consult the Allegiance Council, the UAE mouthpiece noted, “The mechanism of choosing Mohammad Bin Nayef from among several prominent grandsons has attracted the attention of observers.”
This was not a casual post. An Egyptian TV anchor, Yousef Al-Hosseini, tried the same thing on as soon as Abdullah’s latest illness became known. According to Arab Secrets, this was part of a campaign masterminded by the ousted Khaled al-Tuwaijri, Abdullah’s confidant, to keep Prince Meteb lined up for the role of deputy crown prince. The website named the route through which the anchor’s script was dictated, from the Saudi royal court through to Sisi’s office manager, Abbas Kamil, the man who has been secretly recorded asking for the satirist Bassim Yousef to be taken off the air.
Tuwaijri, Bandar and bin Zayed ran out of time. The king died before a serious challenge to Salman could be mounted. And now two of them, at least, are yesterday’s men. We will watch with interest what happens to the third. This food chain of intrigue from Riyadh to Cairo is likely to be broken.
The changes taking place in the Saudi royal palace are already having their effect. Bin Zayed stayed away from Abdullah’s funeral, as did the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And just at the time when Sisi needs a fresh injection of Saudi cash, Egypt is more unstable than ever, with full-scale military operations in the Sinai and mass protests around the country that never seem to die down. The Egyptian Pound is at an all-time low. The options for Sisi appear to be narrowing.
This is not a good time for the Egyptian army to lose its chief bankroller in Riyadh, but this now is a real possibility. Even if bin Nayef decides to keep the funds going — and there was always a difference between funds promised and hard cash received — it may now come with strings attached.
The policy of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization may also be about to change. Salman himself received Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennadha, in his condolences for the late king. This is the most senior Islamist to be welcomed in Saudi Arabia. The removal of Suleiman Ab Al-Khail as the minister of endowments and Islamic affairs, who was an arch opponent of the Brotherhood, is another sign that the policy might be about to change.
Even if it doesn’t, the outcome of the earthquake this week in Saudi Arabia will be received with quiet satisfaction by senior foreign office officials who bridled at David Cameron’s launching of an inquiry into the Brotherhood in Britain, which was done under Saudi and Emirati pressure.
Up until Salman took over, the inquiry headed by Sir John Jenkins has proved to be a political embarrassment. It has been unpublishable because it came to the “wrong” conclusion, clearing the Brotherhood of any involvement in terrorism in Egypt. Now the new masters of Riyadh might even welcome such a conclusion.
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