by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 7, Shawwal, 1434)
The Saudis have adopted an uncharacteristic position over the coup in Egypt. King Abdullah was the first foreign ruler to welcome it and immediately arranged for a $12 billion aid package for the mass murderers to continue their rampage unencumbered by financial woes.
There is no shortage of commentary on the military coup in Egypt even if US President Barack Obama refuses to call it by that name. The reason is clear: it will necessitate cutting off $1.5 billion in annual aid as stipulated by US law. Since this is a bribe paid to the Egyptian military to keep it out of the struggle against Zionist Israel, Washington cannot terminate this aid. For the US, the most important policy decision is to safeguard the interests of the Zionist State; principles and even US interests can go down the drain.
But what explanation is there for the Saudi regime’s strong backing of the military coup and open support for the slaughter of innocent people in Egypt? This is quite uncharacteristic of Saudi behaviour; they prefer to operate quietly behind the scenes. These are, however, unusual times and the Saudis feel vulnerable, hence their actions that carry serious risks.
Let us recount what the Saudis have done since the military coup in Egypt on July 3 that ousted the first-ever elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Mursi. King ‘Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was the first foreign ruler to welcome the coup and send a congratulatory message to ‘Adly Mansour, the military’s front man to head the “interim regime.” Mansour is a remnant of the Mubarak regime and had served in his judiciary for 30 years.
Within three days of the coup, the Saudis, together with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait, announced an aid package of $12 billion for the military-backed regime. Given the dire straits of the Egyptian economy, this was a lifeline that the military was desperately seeking. Egypt may still sink if the situation continues to deteriorate — and it may — but that is a different story.
What really exposed the Saudi rulers was the blunt speech by King ‘Abdullah on August 16. It was delivered against the backdrop of the Egyptian military’s slaughter of civilians on August 14 and 16. Let us recall who were the people that were so mercilessly butchered by the military without warning? These people had camped in the blistering heat of Cairo since the July 3 coup. They stayed outside the Rabia al-Adawiya Masjid in Nasr City and at al-Nahdah Square in Giza City throughout the month of Ramadan. They fasted and prayed together and built solidarity. They were completely peaceful as evident from the fact that they brought their families including children with them.
It was the slaughter of these people that the Saudi monarch backed and financed. He said in his speech of August 16, “Let the entire world know that the people and government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stood and still stand today with our brothers in Egypt against terrorism, extremism and sedition, and against whomever is trying to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.” For the Saudis to interfere in the internal affairs of Egypt is deemed legitimate and beyond reproach but others must not even criticize the slaughter of innocents. ‘Abdullah’s words were aimed at the US and such other regional rivals as Qatar and Turkey. He accused both of “fanning the fire of sedition and promoting terrorism, which they claim to be fighting.” While Qatar has been circumspect in its criticism of the coup since the appointment of Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad as the new ruler, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been blunt. He denounced the coup in no uncertain terms because he saw his entire policy of dominating the region in alliance with such rulers as those in Qatar and Egypt (under Mursi) crumbling.
While Saudi Arabia and Turkey have led the campaign against Bashar al-Asad’s government in Syria, their divergent positions on developments in Egypt have once again brought them on a collision course. The Saudi-Turkish alliance was unnatural; the only thing that brought them together was their visceral hatred of al-Asad. The Saudis are hardcore Wahhabis whom the Sufi-inclined Turks detest. The Saudis return the compliment in equal measure by denouncing the Sufis as deviant. Further, neither side has forgotten the long Turkish rule over the Muslim East. The Saudis — and indeed Arabians elsewhere — brood over Turkish rule as being “foreign” while the Turks have not forgiven the Arabians, especially the Saudis for betraying the Muslims by aligning themselves with the British at the beginning of the last century that saw the demise of the Turkish empire and brought an end to a largely impotent khilafah. It also facilitated the implantation of the Zionist entity in Palestine.
Erdogan did not let it rest there. He called on the UN Security Council to meet after the massacre of Egyptian protesters, and reprimanded Europe for remaining silent. Turkey, France and Britain then requested a meeting of the Security Council that met on August 15 but issued a meaningless statement calling on all sides to “show restraint.” It was evident that the Americans were not prepared to allow the Council to do more. Even the Chinese and Russians went along with this charade. Turkey’s appeal to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) headed by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a Turk, fell on equally deaf ears. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag condemned the OIC’s inaction following the Egyptian army’s brutal crackdown of Brotherhood supporters as “dishonourable passivity.”
In their meeting in July, Erdogan had rhetorically asked Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, “How could a country claiming to uphold Islam and Shari‘ah support the overthrow of an elected president of an Islamic party who came to power after fair elections?” Erdogan’s assumption of the Saudi regime’s upholding Islam and Shari‘ah was based on false premises. How can a monarchical regime that has never allowed the people to have a say in how their affairs are governed be described as “upholding Islam”? Not surprisingly, Turkish media, both pro-government and secular, have been full of stories denouncing the Saudi and Persian Gulf monarchies’ support for the coup, as the “collaborators’ evil alliance.”
While Saud al-Faisal, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, did not respond directly to Erdogan’s rhetorical question, he replied with an announcement on August 19 that if the US and European Union (EU) were to cut off aid to Egypt, the Saudi regime would make up the shortfall. The question is, why is the Saudi regime so desperate to prop up a brutal dictatorship, one moreover, responsible for overthrowing a democratically elected government in Egypt? Mursi’s problem, as far as the Saudis are concerned, was precisely this: he was democratically elected and represented a party, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood) that stood to challenge the Saudi model as representative of the Muslim world. This point was even noted by David Hearst in The Guardian newspaper. The Saudis, uncouthed bedouins from the desert, have no intellectual credentials. The Ikhwan’s ranks are filled with highly qualified individuals that are able to present a credible choice to Muslims even if some of their approaches are deeply flawed (such as assuming that they can work within the system to establish an Islamic state). For the Saudis the Iranian challenge was bad enough but some Muslims could be turned against Iran by playing up the sectarian card. How does one convince Muslims not to follow the “Sunni” Ikhwan model?
For the Saudis, the choice was simple: the Ikhwan had to be removed from power regardless of the number of lives lost. The Saudis were extremely nervous when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011. King ‘Abdullah had publicly chastised Obama for not saving Mubarak because it left the Saudis dangerously exposed. Based on that experience, the Saudis decided to not rely too much on the Americans and fend for themselves. Whenever the Americans can help, the Saudis would gladly accept such help, but if there are differences with the Americans, the Saudis would go it alone.
It is unrealistic to accept that the US and the Saudis are on opposite sides in the Egyptian crisis. The major difference is one of style. In this case, the Americans are playing it safe while the Saudis are out in front.
The Saudi policy is not without risks. By alienating the Ikhwan, they may arouse their supporters’ anger both at home and abroad. This has already happened. There have been rallies in many countries against the military coup. In Saudi Arabia, the social media has gone viral in support of Mursi. A group of 56 ‘ulama issued a statement on August 8 denouncing the coup calling it “unquestionably a military coup and an unlawful and illicit criminal act.” This was a direct challenge to the position adopted by the king. The Imam of al-Masjid al-Nabawi in his Jumu‘ah Khutbah denounced not only the coup but also attacked the king for supporting it. These are unprecedented developments.
What has been the response of the Saudis? It has responded to the campaign on social media by sacking a Kuwaiti TV preacher, Tariq al-Suwaidan, who admitted to having links with the Brotherhood. He has more than 1.9 million Twitter followers but was told by Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, whose media group owns several TV channels, that there was no place for those with “deviant thoughts” at al-Risalah channel.
Hitherto, the Saudi regime had relied on the support of the ‘ulama to seek legitimacy and silence critics. The regime appears to have opened too many fronts simultaneously and may have over-stretched itself. Internally, there is great discontent against the regime despite spending its billions of dollars to buy the people’s loyalty. The fact that there are at least 30,000 political prisoners in the kingdom points to the scale of internal opposition.
The regime is apparently working on the assumption that the coup has come to stay and it is a safe bet to back the military. This may not work out. If the Ikhwan can maintain pressure through street protests, the army can be forced to back down. There is also the possibility of turning the rank and file against the officers that issue orders to kill innocent people. A tipping point may be reached if too many civilians are killed.
There are other critical points also. The Saudi plan in Syria is not working according to script. Ahmed Jabra, the newly appointed head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) who has strong Saudi links admitted to Reuters that when the rebels captured a military base in Aleppo, they discovered crates full of Saudi weapons sent to the regime. They were stunned by Saudi duplicity. It appears the Saudi regime is hedging its bets in Syria because the rebels have not been successful in their assigned task. The Saudis would be very happy if some Syrian general, in the manner of General al-Sisi, were to overthrow al-Asad and grab power.
Policy, however, cannot be formulated on pious hopes. The Saudis might discover that they have chewed more than they can swallow. By getting so directly involved in numerous places — Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and now Egypt and taking on regional players as well as their foreign masters — they may end up losing everything. The global Islamic movement must formulate serious plans of getting rid of the House of Saud so that the Haramayn, the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, are freed from their clutches. Most, if not all the problems of the Ummah would then be resolved fairly quickly.