Can Saudi monarchy trade Yemen peace deal for MBS? | Sunday Observer

Can Saudi monarchy trade Yemen peace deal for MBS?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud

Will war-torn, starving, Yemen wriggle out of its current military assault by Saudi Arabia thanks to the Saudi monarchy’s attempt to save bumbling young Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s Crown Prince status? Sweden last week began hosting the much-touted peace talks between Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement and the Western and Saudi-backed weak ‘government’ in Aden, amid indications that the sudden readiness of the Aden-based ‘government’ to talk peace is a ploy by their Saudi backers to placate a US upset over Riyadh’s clumsy geo-politics.

Meanwhile, the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday narrowly fended off a move by Washington to get the world body to ban the Gaza-based Palestinian Hamas movement as a ‘terrorist’ organisation. And, both in Iran and Afghanistan, insurgents struck last week with sudden bombings – in southern Iran by suspected Saudi-backed minority Sunni-Arab guerrillas and in Herat, Afghanistan, by the Taleban insurgents.

In Palestine, of course, the Palestinian tourism and pilgrimage industry (or, what’s left of it) is gearing up for the annual influx of Christmas pilgrims from around the world. ‘Gearing up’, for the hapless Palestinians, means also trying to cover up their own immense suffering under the restrictive Israeli military occupation and continuing population displacement by illegal Jewish settlements.

As all tourism operators well know, incoming visitors want to focus on their sightseeing and leisure or religious observances and, dislike the slightest distraction by any sight of local suffering or violence. In order that the pious foreign Christian pilgrims may find a spiritual fulfilment of sorts, the struggling Palestinians (Muslims, Christians alike) must create a ‘normal’ and ‘holy’ atmosphere in their tiny country amid the multiple military checkpoints, barriers, barbed wire, security walls, displaced encampments and other permanent horrors of war and ethnic cleansing. Sadly, very few of the visiting foreign pilgrims are given any guidance by their own clergy on the harsh human realities they enter into in the ‘Holy Land’.

Amateurish

As one world religion prepares for its biggest annual festival this month, the self-proclaimed ‘guardian’ of Islamic holy sites, Saudi Arabia, is facing further humiliation due to the cruel machinations and miscalculations of its amateurish, presumptive young leader. Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 33 years, named Crown Prince in early 2017 by his ailing father, King Salman Al Saud, quickly made himself the power behind the throne by taking on the multiple posts of deputy prime minister (King Salman is also Prime Minister), chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, chairman of the Council of Political and Security Affairs and minister of defence.

His blundering foreign policy is causing havoc in his own West Asian region. Sunni Saudi Arabia’s unrealistic attempts at rivalry with Shia Iran’s for regional influence took on a new and clumsy momentum under MBS.

Riyadh, which has long thrown around its oil largesse supporting Arab Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalism across the world, now seeks to militarily impose its Islamic dominance in West Asia itself. Facing a militarily far more powerful Iran (a socially stable, resource rich and densely populated state), Riyadh has, in recent years thought fit to associate itself with the only other military power in the region, Israel. This policy unrealistically ignores the obvious dangers of allying with the one non-Muslim, non-Arab country in the region that is seen as the biggest enemy of all the other states of West Asia.

Tel Aviv, of course, is delighted with its new friend, no less than the pre-eminent Islamic country thanks to the location of both Medina and Mecca under Saudi rule. Washington, caught up as it is with its own Jewish political influence, has happily encouraged the alliance, despite the mounting outrage in the entire Islamic world over Riyadh’s friendship with the state that threatens the sacred status of Jerusalem as the holy site for Islam (as well as for Christianity and Judaism).

Blundering

But MBS’s clumsy foreign policy is more one of bullying everyone around, from economically dependent Lebanon (he tried to force its secular-oriented Prime Minister to resign) to Shia-majority (but Sunni dominant) Qatar, just across the Gulf from Iran, to multi-ethnic, under-developed and politically divided Yemen. As Washington and other Western capitals watched in horror, after all this blundering, Riyadh went on to antagonise NATO ally Turkey by murdering dissident publisher Jamal Khashoggi inside the Arabian consulate in Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul.

But it is in Yemen that MBS seems to have really burnt his aristocratic (but bloody) fingers. Tired of the long-drawn inter-ethnic conflict in that very poor state to its South, Riyadh last year, under MBS’ guidance, dramatically increased its role there from the previous cautious support for Sunni movements.

Last year Riyadh launched an outright military invasion of Yemen by combined Saudi and client Gulf emirate forces. Their principal target is the Iran-supported Shia Houthi tribal movement that had, due to its non-fundamentalist and more secularist style, already won over several other groups in Yemen in opposition to the growing Al Qaeda-type movement in the southwest of the country.

To date, the Saudi led alliance has reportedly launched some 18,000 air attacks on Houthi-held areas, turning Yemen, according to the UN, into the world’s worst humanitarian disaster ever.

Washington has quietly supported the Saudi invasion with American commando units on the ground and logistical military support (mid-air refuelling of attack planes, etc), but the mounting human tragedy and loud UN complaints has resulted in Washington beginning to tire of its role in the otherwise strategically un-important Yemen.

The Khashoggi murder blunder by MBS has resulted in rising pressure by the entire mainstream US establishment for Washington to demand that Riyadh eases out the Crown Prince. The West worries that more such blunders by MBS will endanger the current regional geo-political balance that favours Israel.

Embarrassment

But both Trump and Tel Aviv seem to favour keeping MBS in power in the hope that a dependent Crown Prince will be even more pliant to the demands of the US and Israel.

The US congress last week introduced a resolution that, if passed, would label the Crown Prince as accessory to murder (Khashoggi) and would impose sanctions on him as well as several other top officials in Riyadh and, worse, begin restricting US military aid to Riyadh.

What the Western world and its allies in West Asia would like to see is the removal of the embarrassment that MBS has become and a sanitising of the Saudi monarchy, an outdated, repressive regime that the CIA long ago concluded would not last more than a few decades.

True enemy

Now, suddenly, the Saudi backed Yemeni government in Aden has entered into talks with the Houthis who, for long, have been calling for negotiations to end the fighting between most of the religious and ethnic groups in order to focus on the true enemy of Yemeni stability, Al Qaeda. Indeed, suddenly, the Aden regime and the Saudis have begun facilitating prisoner of war exchanges and a reduction in the assault on the Houthi-held strategic port of Hudeida. These are seen as gestures to appease the West and to convince them that Riyadh is serious about peace in Yemen.

But many West Asian analysts see the moves with regard to Yemen as an oblique tactic by MBS to soften Western hostility to his dominance in Riyadh in order that he survives in power in the long term. Most West Asian analysts believe that any further tolerance of MBS will only endanger Saudi Arabia’s currently influential role in the region thereby upsetting the delicate geo-political balance of power in the region.

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