Bin Salman risks his throne
Robert Baer spent 21 years as a case officer with the CIA, much of that time in the Middle East.He is the author of six books, including “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism” and “Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude.”
Now that it’s settled Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was premeditated, not to mention about as cold-blooded as they get, it’s time to come to the why, and from the why to the much more important question about what it means for Saudi stability.
Before getting into it, keep in mind that extrajudicial murder is not the Saudi way. Saudis who run afoul of the king traditionally were thrown in jail to rot. As for royals, instead of a cell it was a gilded cage, minus internet and phone. It may be tempting to write off Khashoggi’s murder as the inexplicable, one-off lethal whim of Saudi Arabia’s inexperienced, impetuous and out-of-touch Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, shortened these days to MbS. But that would overlook the brawl raging behind the Saudi curtain.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, for one, appears to be worried about it. Recently in Bahrain he said in a speech that Khashoggi’s murder has the potential to destabilize the Middle East. Although he wouldn’t come out and say it in so many words, I’d imagine he’s got to be wondering whether the Saudi kingdom itself is teetering on the abyss. Even without Khashoggi’s murder, a morbidly suspicious 33-year-old dictator who possesses the power to torch the world’s economy by shutting off the oil tap is not a comforting thought for anyone, to include bien pensant Saudi apologists.
Anyhow, anyone with any understanding of how the Kingdom is run these days understands it could only have been MbS who ordered Khashoggi’s murder. MbS is a despot who doesn’t brook rogue operations. Not that Saudi Arabia will ever name MbS or, for that matter, extradite to Turkey the 18 patsies the Saudis have arrested. In fact, the Saudis won’t even comply with the simplest and easiest of requests — namely explain what they did with the body. All of which leaves us, as usual when it come to Saudi Arabia, with informed analysis.
A reliable and particularly plugged-in Saudi contact warned me that it would be a mistake to look at Khashoggi’s murder as simply the silencing of a critic. Instead, it’s more accurate to frame it as MbS’s liquidating a man MbS deemed a traitor to his tribe. In the opaque world of Central Arabian tribal politics this makes sense if you factor in there’s a civil war going on for the soul of Sunni Islam, a war that’s sucking Saudi Arabia into the worst political crisis of its 86-year rule. On one side there’s Saudi Arabia, on the other Turkey. At the risk of gross over-simplification, it amounts to the centuries-old struggle between the Saudi hardline Wahhabis vs. the more temperate Ottomans. But worse, within the Saudi-Turkish battle lines there’s a much nastier civil war between tribal cousins — Saudi Arabia’s predominant Shammar tribe against Qatar’s predominant Shammar cousins. It’s what induced the Saudis to embargo Qatar, and now threaten to dig a ditch between it and Qatar, effectively turning the latter into an island. That’s bad enough but not the worst of it.
Adding accelerant to the fire, Saudi Arabia’s mortal enemies the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran have lined up with Turkey and Qatar. Accurately or not, most Arab leaders look at Turkish President Erdogan and his AKP party as Muslim Brothers who are bent on unseating Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms and replace them with a Brotherhood-inspired caliphate. It’s not to say Gulf Arab fears are unfounded. For instance, they’re well aware that For decades Iranian intelligence has been successfully courting the Muslim Brotherhood, including Islah, Yemen’s branch. I could go on, but the point is when you start taking a closer look at this mare’s nest of Saudi grievances you begin to understand what pushed MbS off his rocker and order a Washington Post’s columnist’ murder.
Never mind no one’s produced a shred of evidence that Khashoggi actively conspired with Turkey, Qatar or the Muslim Brotherhood against the Al Sa’ud. For MbS, a callow despot who navigates by intuition and fear, evidence doesn’t matter. It was enough that Khashoggi casually consorted with MbS’s real and perceived enemies to seal his fate; ancient codes of tribal justice may seem quaint to us but not to MbS. I suppose the only inexplicable part of the affair is why Khashoggi didn’t see it: that going anywhere near MbS’s assassins was a bad idea.
It’s worrisome enough that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are locked in an undeclared civil war, but it’s all the worse for Saudi stability because MbS is well on his way to blowing up the twin pillars of Al Sa’ud power — rule by royal consensus and the Wahhabi clerical establishment. Not only did he depose two crown princes standing between him and the throne, he’s completely shut out of state counsels every prince with any governing experience or common sense. Say what you like about the Al Sa’ud, but its their collective wisdom that’s allowed Saudi Arabia to endure for so long, a country nearly coup-proof. (The lone exception occurred in 1964, when the family decided King Sa’ud was no longer competent and, thanks to family consensus, replaced him with his brother Faysal.) As for the Wahhabis, they may not be our cup of tea but they’ve reliably served to legitimize the Al Sa’ud. Without them, the Al Sa’ud would be just another dysfunctional Middle Eastern royal family, a breed that hasn’t fared well in modern times.
And it wasn’t just royal consensus and the Wahhabis that MbS has thrown under the bus. He went out of his way to humiliate and defang Saudi Arabia’s still-important tribes when on Nov. 4, 2017 he arrested the commander of the National Guard, Mut’ib bin ‘Abdallah, the son of King Abdallah. This was particularly alarming for Saudi watchers because the National Guard, a sort of tribal levy, is roughly equivalent to a praetorian guard, and at the same time an independent player who Saudi kings have traditionally avoided alienating. Add the fact that the National Guard is reportedly suffering serious losses in MbS’s ill-conceived war in Yemen, and you get an idea what MbS has taken on, putting Saudi Arabia’s stability in question.
Considering the black box that is Saudi Arabia, predicting what comes next is always iffy. Discontent in the National Guard — or the military — may percolate into action, or it may not. Although a long shot, MbS may just be able to turn the Kingdom’s into a dictatorship á la Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But more likely King Salman will replace MbS in order to save Saudi Arabia. Let’s hope for the latter.
Robert Baer spent 21 years as a case officer with the CIA, much of that time in the Middle East. He is the author of six books, including “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism” and “Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude.”