King Salman: Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown
I was sitting at a Washington café when the news of the late Saudi monarch Abdullah’s passing broke. This café is one of the favourite hangout locations of Middle Eastern and Persian origin men and women of letters and those from the corps diplomatique.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve been no admirer of the Saudi Kingdom. Other than the fact that for years I’ve personally vociferously raised my voice against the Kingdom’s horrendous human rights record as well as its fallacious policies toward other regional states, both Muslim and otherwise. I hardly ever paid attention to the fact that King Abdullah was the one responsible, directly or indirectly, for the domestic morass as well architecting the sketchy foreign policy of Saudi Arabia. His 20 odd years of de facto rule, first as a fill-in for his half-brother, King Fahd, and later on officially ascending to the throne in 2005, was characterised by his absolute iron-fisted, unfettered and despotic ways.
Talking to folks in the café and exchanging views about the possible repercussions that King Abdullah’s exit from the scene might have in the Middle East, most were of the opinion that nothing much will change. He has been preparing and cultivating his successor, now King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz for a few years now, especially after the death of his two elder brothers in 2011 and 2012 respectively. King Salman is being touted as a liberal outsider. Being almost 80 years of age, he is too old and worn out to effect any mass scale reconfiguration of policies. Even if he has any grand plans of changing the Kingdom’s socio-political landscape, the shackles of power and political realities will not allow him much space to manoeuvre.
Saudi Arabia will continue to cooperate and be friends with the US, all and sundry agree. This has a multi-fold, mutual advantage. Firstly, the US needs Saudi oil and the Saudis need the US money in exchange. Secondly, the Saudis are anti-Shia and anti-Iran and hence that suits the US. Although this does not make the Saudis essentially friends with Israel but their tacit, non-active attitude and silence toward Israel’s policies vis-à-vis other countries in the region is a sign of approval. Abdullah did come up with a proposal to accept Israel’s existence but never really seriously tried to make inroads towards making peace. Thirdly, it is widely believed that the Saudis are funding and supporting anti-Syria – Assad forces. That is a huge plus since the Kingdom’s strategic geographic positioning is critically important for US interests.
The Saudis and the US, although strange bedfellows, are destined to remain the best of buddies, which obviously means that US officials will stay reluctant to point fingers at the Saudis for their human rights record and on-going evolving violations. The fact that President Obama adjusted his India trip itinerary after tremendous verbal gymnastics to pay his respects to the Saudi royals, and break the ice with the new king speaks, volumes of US commitment to the Kingdom and its leadership.
Our rather open discussion at the café took us to the difficult question that if, hypothetically, one is led to believe that the Saudis, because of Iran, have a soft spot for Israel and that they base their relationship with Tel Aviv on the premise that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, why can’t they just give official recognition to Israel and be done with it?
Will it hurt their pride if they acknowledge Israel’s existence without setting any preconditions or contingencies? Is it bad for Saudi image in the Muslim world? Do they even care about what other Muslim countries think about them?
Recognising Israel will take care of most of Middle East ills and follies. It may stir up some emotional conflict within the Muslim world but time is a great healer and the feeling will go away before we know it. Given the respect that many Muslim states have for the Kingdom and a steady flow of Saudi Riyals can shut the worst of detractors and antagonists up. The ‘atrocious’ act of Riyadh recognising Israel will be forgiven and forgotten, and life will go on with much less friction, anarchy or conflict. Moreover, apart from Iran, Israel will have no more insecurity excuses and hence may stop nagging the US for aid and assistance. This could prove to be a game-changer in Middle Eastern politics.
One doesn’t expect Saudi support for militant fundamentalists to either slow down or ever stop. It keeps messing up poor, developing, Muslim nations for the sake of dominating and strangulating their populations. Don’t expect the Kingdom to ‘un-sponsor’ madrassas in Pakistan or discontinue brainwashing kids to sacrifice and wage ‘jihad’ against the ‘infidels’. Let this wave of sympathy due to Abdullah’s passing away not cloud our judgment and understand that Pakistanis have a right to be cross with the Saudis because of the chaos they’ve managed to create in Pakistan. The people of the country want to root out religious radicalism. A nice momentum has been created and Pakistanis are headed in the right direction. The pressure on the government and army must be kept on relentlessly to go after those who contaminate raw and ignorant minds.
Internally, the house of Saud is pretty well entrenched. Obviously, the regimen of draconic, prehistoric punishment system keeps most of the population under check. No one uttering a word against the officially recognised religion is spared. Raif Badawi’s story is a living example of how nerve-pinching circumstances are. Free expression is an unknown commodity in the Kingdom. The population is trained to stay tight-lipped and under no conditions ever make their voice heard.
Although highly unlikely, the dramatic lowering of gas prices may dent the Kingdom’s prosperity and hence may instigate public outrage. The price drop may actually turn out to be a non-issue since the Kingdom has enough wealth coming from other sources. It keeps dumping money into the society to buy loyalties of its people. A ‘Saudi Arabian Spring’ is not going to happen.
In light of the massive reserves of wealth, one wishes that Abdullah could have left a better legacy had he worked for peace in the Middle East. He will be judged by history as someone who literally did not care about anything or anyone beyond the boundaries of his own Kingdom’s selfish interests. He could have contributed in a much more wholesome manner compared to what he ended up doing – creating confusion and chaos in the satellite states and regions of the world that are dependent on Saudi oil and money. Abdullah played hardball with his critics both internationally as well as domestically. Someone had to take care of family business in a no nonsense manner. Abdullah was the right person for the right job.
Muslim countries should stop looking up to the House of Saud as the leader of the ‘Ummah’.
Firstly, international politics has changed incredibly since the time this term was initially coined.
Secondly, the concept is absolutely obnoxious and absurd. In this day and age, there is no Muslim Ummah; it’s all about money, oil, power and control. National, transnational and international bonds, linkages and alliances are not faith based but contingent upon economic and political status, and standing of States.
Some of my café friends chuckled when I mentioned how Pakistanis hold their Saudi Arabian brethren in high esteem, as if they are the ‘holy’ people from the hold land. Saying anything against the Saudi Shaikhs is considered nothing less than blasphemy, especially when it comes to the religious heads of institutions. I’ve always felt that Arabs never respected Pakistanis and hence the very premise of Muslim brotherhood is nothing but flawed. The Saudis have caused ginormous train wrecks in their quest to spread their brand of Islam in Pakistan.
I have no high hopes from King Salman. He is far from being my hero but can be one if he uses the Saudi money muscle and clout, goes an extra mile to contribute wholeheartedly to the cause of regional peace. In the meantime, the world will certainly be watching him closely as he settles down in his new role. He has a plateful of issues to deal with – ISIS, Israel, Iran and ‘radical’ Islam, to name a few.
While we, at the café, carry on sipping Mediterranean coffee and smoking hookah thousands of miles away from the Saudi capital, one wishes the new king all the luck and sanity. It’s a messy, dusty road ahead. After all, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.