Illegitimate rulers, especially in the Muslim world, lead a precarious existence. They may project a macho image at home and even crush any dissent because they have all the instruments of oppression at their disposal, it is their foreign masters that are difficult to please.
Take the case of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). He won Donald Trump’s favour through his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Of course, it cost the Saudi exchequer a fortune but MbS was prepared to pay any price to not only survive in power but also pave the way for his ascension to the Saudi throne. He invested heavily in Trump assuming he would be re-elected in November 2020.
The pandemic and Trump’s gross mishandling of it, however, turned everything upside down. Kushner is now the ex-first son-in-law. Will MbS try to grease his way to President Joe Biden through his son Hunter? Given the new president’s publicly stated aversion to MbS, this may be difficult. Similarly, trying to curry favor with the new first son-in-law Howard Krein, a plastic surgeon, may not be easy either unless the Saudi crown prince offers to invest huge sums of money in Krein’s Covid-19 startup companies.
MbS’ real challenge would be the president’s daughter, Ashley Biden. She is a social activist and leads a very different lifestyle than Ivanka Trump, the former first daughter. In an interview with Delaware Today, Ashley said “Getting people out of the justice system, or simply getting them the services they need, is about hope and possibilities. I am in my job because our system is malfunctioning. Mass incarceration isn’t the answer.” She has made clear that she plans to use her platform as first daughter “to advocate for social justice, for mental health, to be involved in community development and revitalization.”
These are not activities that MbS supports even if his regime just released one human rights activist Essam Koshak after four years of incarceration. He still faces a four-year travel ban, according to ALQST Organisation for Supporting Human Rights. There are hundreds of others among them ulama, academics, human rights activists as well women’s rights activists that still languish in appalling conditions in Saudi prison.
The case of Sheikh Salman al-Awda is revealing. He was imprisoned in September 2017 for refusing to support the Saudi blockade of Qatar. Instead, he tweeted: “May Allah harmonise between their hearts for the benefit of their peoples.” He was charged with, among other offences, “supporting terrorism”. The regime sought the death penalty! Now that MbS has retreated from his ludicrous stance and kissed and made up with Qatar, Sheikh Salman’s son Abdullah al-Awda wrote an article in the British daily, the Guardian, asking that his father be released as well.
It is the new president’s dislike of MbS that is causing deep anxiety in Riyadh. Biden is on recoding as saying that the regime MbS leads has no redeeming features and that it is a “pariah” state. Further, on the second anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder (perpetrated inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul), Biden promised, “to reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” He went on: “I will defend the rights of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence. Jamal’s death will not be in vain.”
To lose the support of its godfather that had unwritten every Saudi regime since 1943 is a major blow to MbS. He has nobody but himself to blame. While Biden’s pronouncements about “defending the rights of activists, political dissidents” etc should be taken with a pinch of salt, the fact is he has realized the war on Yemen is unwinnable. The Saudis are so incompetent they cannot achieve the task despite acquiring billions of dollars of worth of US weapons.
Has Biden suddenly turned into a peacenik or given up on Saudi Arabia? Paying close attention to his words, he mentioned the Saudi “regime” as opposed to the kingdom. Biden has signaled his disdain for MbS and his disastrous policies. As a quintessential insider he is simply expressing the US deep state’s intention to get rid of him. Before MbS came on the scene, America’s favorite prince was Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN), the former interior minister and for a short period, crown prince. He had served the Americans well without causing so many political ripples.
To be sure, Bin Nayef is no less ruthless. The Saudi interior ministry is run by absolute thugs. In 2014 when Bin Nayef was still the interior minister, thousands of criminals—rapists and murderers—were released from Saudi prisons and sent to Syria to fight alongside the terrorist mercenaries trying to overthrow the government of Bashar al Asad.
Bin Nayef is CIA’s man. They want Saudi levers of power in his safe hands. David Hearst, editor of Middle East Eye writes: “Biden has every incentive to encourage MBS’s many enemies in the royal family to step forward to prevent the over-ambitious prince from becoming king. There are enough of them, by now.”
If MbS is spending sleepless nights, there are very good reasons for it. Muslims should be seeking not just his departure but the entire corrupt, archaic Bani Saud family that has plagued the Muslim world for nearly a century.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought