Arab turnaround: Saudi Crown Prince tilts at windmills, Assad secure


The ghoulish murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi has set into motion a new dynamic in the Syrian, Yemeni, Palestinian and other incipient conflicts in West Asia. Popular perception globally has traced the macabre plot to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, even though the Saudi propaganda machine is deflecting guilt.

That the embattled Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has come out quite unambiguously in favour of MBS (as the Crown Prince is popularly known) without making any pretense to cover up his guilt, shows the tight embrace in which Tel Aviv and Riyadh arc. The jam in which MBS found himself he could only turn to his closest friends – President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Netanyahu. At this point Kushner is a much diminished figure after the White House Security Clearance review slammed on him by Chief of Staff John Kelly. He has been working on an interim clearance so far and after recent alleged misdemeanours is not expected to be granted full clearance.

Time was when MBS, Kushner and Netanyahu were the world’s most formidable trio. Alongside Kushner, Netanyahu too has his financial deals under scrutiny. And post Khashoggi, the third figure in the trio, MBS, is tilting at the windmills. The media is loathe to dwell on such truths, but Bashar al Assad, by comparison is looking secure and composed.

There is no reason why David Hearst, The Guardian’s former specialist on West Asia should not be given credence. In his new investigative forum, the Middle East Eye, he concludes that to deflect an avalanche of allegations linking MBS to the Khashoggi murder, the Crown Prince implored the Israeli Prime Minister “to go to war in Gaza”. This would deflect attention. The diversionary move is the brainchild of a new Emergency Task Force set up by the Royal Palace in Riyadh to counter facts that President Erdogan’s office is leaking drip by drip.

Netanyahu’s public utterances also betray a high level of nervous anxiety. Mistakes may have been made, he says, but Saudi Arabia must remain stable for the stability of the region and the world. With these words he hurtled headlong into lethal airstrikes against Gaza.

Gaza, Palestine, West Bank, these were concerns Jamal Khashoggi was most passionate about when I interviewed him in Jeddah a few months after 9/11. In this he was not different from Prince Turki al Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to London, Washington and the country’s intelligence Chief until a few days before 9/11. I mention Prince Turki in the same sequence because Khashoggi was a spokesman for Turki.

Hamas controlling Gaza was always under the spell of the Muslim Brotherhood. Khashoggi was not a card carrying member of the Brotherhood but like many educated Saudis, he was disheartened (privately) by the regime’s growing dalliance with Israel.

The late Saudi King Abdullah, even when he was Crown Prince had joined the Israeli chorus that Shia-Sunni, not Israel-Palestine, was West Asia’s defining faultline. But he had preserved some of the style of old world diplomacy. MBS has made brashness and a crude assertion of money power his style. Little wonder his statement before an American Jewish audience stunned the more reasonable Arabs. “For the past 40 years the Palestinian leadership has rejected all the offers it was given. It is about time that the Palestinians accept the offers …….or they should shut up.”

In February 2011, King Abdullah, came out of convalescence in Europe and rubbed his eyes in disbelief. He found an altered West Asia, his friends Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidin Ben Ali toppled in Cairo and Tunis by the Arab Spring. He swore that no monarchies or friendly dictatorships would now be allowed to fall. US, UK, France, Israel, Qatar, Turkey, responding to the Saudi initiative, fell upon Syria. Each one of the participants listed above have faced reversals.

MBS then dragged the US into a brutal war against the poorest Arab country, Yemen. Other than killing thousands of civilians including children and displacing millions, the four year old war has achieved nothing except inflating finances of American and British war industry. The Saudis had boasted that the Yemeni port of Hodeidah would be in their control. This would be a direct threat to Iranian ships seeking passage through the Red Sea. Iranian supported Houthis have doggedly held on to the port. And now MBS is on notice from the Americans to end the Yemen operations in weeks. Meanwhile the much touted “Deal of the Century” for Palestine remains something of a pipe dream. It created a scare in Amman because there is a subterranean Israeli dream to incorporate Jordan in a two state solution.

After the recent Merkel, Macron, Erdogan, Putin summit in Istanbul, MBS, Trump and Europe have cause for worry. Basically the two European leaders implored Erdogan not to allow European militants, holed up in Idlib, to be able to return via Turkish territory. Remember $4 billion were transferred into Turkish coffers in the past to compensate Ankara for keeping 3.5 million Syrian refugees. This time Erdogan is bargaining differently. He would seek autonomy of action on how he handles the Idlib militants provided he has a free run of the Kurdish enclave adjacent to Idlib and the Turkish border. This is anathema to the Saudis and Trump. The Kurds in this enclave are US and Saudi assets, a pressure on Bashar al Assad. But Erdogan holds the aces at this point: if he does not get the deal he wants he can open the sluice gates for European militant to return home. A Europe in convulsions on the immigration issue, would be in frightful frenzy if Erdogan carries out his threat.

As someone who has visited the region several times, I cannot help but wonder at the turn of events. It is astonishing that Assad in Damascus, Hassan Rouhani in Tehran and Hassan Nasrallah of the Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, even Erdogan have emerged from the seven year long mayhem with curable bruises. It almost seems that all those who stood by MBS when he was the shining new star in the West Asian firmament are distancing themselves from him, his incomparable oil wealth notwithstanding. Today, he is certainly not on the winning side.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)