After the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, will Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman face greater criticism?
The recent disappearance of renowned Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi—a strong critic of the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—has once again put Riyadh and its inexperienced leader in an awkward spot.
Turkish government sources believe that Khashoggi, whose fiancee was Turkish, has been killed by a 15-member Saudi squad brought from the kingdom inside the consulate. Ankara has released the footage of the Saudi journalist’s entrance to the consulate. There is no footage of Khashoggi exiting, leading many to believe that he was killed inside, or was clandestinely removed and possibly killed later.
Experts and politicians are trying to make sense of why a state, which is one of the world's richest countries in oil and gas, would do something like this.
“I’ve never been more disturbed than I am right now,” said Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator close to US President Donald Trump.
“If this man was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community,” Graham observed.
MBS reportedly enjoys a close relationship with Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Trump, yet he was reminded by Trump two weeks ago that the kingdom can not last two weeks if Washington does not back up Riyadh.
For a while, MBS chose to remain silent about Trump’s bold remarks. Most of the Saudi press has also been mute since the provocative assertion.
“If these words made toward [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, the situation would totally be different,” said a former top Iranian official, who is still very influential in Tehran's policy making process and who wants to remain anonymous, indicating that Erdogan would just brush Salman out.
“If that kind of remark made against us, we would also act differently,” said the Iranian official. Iran and the Saudi kingdom have had numerous hot exchanges in the past.
“We would not and will not accept that kind of indignity,” he concluded.
Under MBS, Riyadh has taken unprecedented steps in the kingdom’s history to reform the country’s cultural and political life which are not in line with the core ideology of Wahhabism, the official sect of the state.
Salman has also gone after some of the most senior Saudi family members, imprisoning them on corruption charges last year.
Under the limelight of the recent Khashoggi crisis, now both American media and US policy-makers question the implications of MBS' close relationship with Kushner, a strong defender of Israel.
Kushner is also a close confidant of Benjamin Netanyahu, who is the the prime minister of Israel.
Both Trump and Netanyahu are facing corruption charges in their respective countries.
Has Riyadh lost its way?
Saudi Arabia's grand mufti Abdul Aziz al Ash Sheikh came up with a bold assertion in November.
He not only called the Palestinian political group Hamas a "terrorist organisation," but also cautioned Muslims worldwide that fighting against Israel was improper.
The grand mufti's remarks on the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict was expected to create an uproar from Muslims across the world – but it didn't. Israel was quick to welcome the statement, inviting the top Saudi cleric to Tel Aviv.
"I invite the mufti to visit Israel; he will be welcomed with a high level of respect," Ayoub Kara, Israeli Communications Minister, wrote in his official Twitter account.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have almost always maintained warm diplomatic ties with Israel, keeping their dealings with Tel Aviv away from the media glare. The two countries were reportedly even devising a plan to strike Iran in 2013.
Many leaders in Muslim-majority countries have now begun to question the role of Saudi Arabia in Middle Eastern affairs. With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman calling the shots, the country has pushed itself on the path of isolation as regional actors such as Turkey, Qatar, Lebanon and Iraq are pivoting away from the kingdom.
At the centre of their discontent is the Saudis' developing alliance with Israel. “There is co-operation between Israelis and Saudis relating to certain policies in the region," former foreign minister of Tunisia Rafik Abdul Salam told TRT World.
"Israelis have often declared that they have deep co-operation with some countries to face the Iranian threat.”
It's the Iranian threat that dictates the kingdom's foreign policy, bringing it closer to Israel and placing it at odds with other regional powers.
The latest example of Saudi's growing estrangement with other Muslim-majority countries is the recent summit held in Istanbul by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Several leaders from Muslim majority states came together to unanimously reject US President Donald Trump's announcement that he would give Jerusalem to Israel, thereby recognising it as the "eternal capital" of the Jewish people.
The Saudi kingdom snubbed the summit by breaking protocol. Instead of sending a ministerial level delegation, it sent a senior bureaucrat.
Although King Salman criticised Trump's position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the kingdom and its allies were accused of exerting pressure on Jordan to accept Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
The military missteps
The quarrel between the Saudi-led Gulf states and Iran dates back several decades. But in the last decade, Iran has been strongly asserting itself to gain the upper hand in the Middle East.
In response to Iran's geopolitical manoeuvring, the Saudi-led Gulf states have waged a war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The war has resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties and caused a deadly famine in the country.
The kingdom, far from achieving any success in pushing back the Houthis, has instead empowered them, even as it continues to follow its aggressive military doctrine in the country, brushing aside international criticism. And mounting civilian deaths.
The kingdom is also losing influence in Iraq, where the Iran-backed Shia government is now in full control of almost all of its territories, including Sunni-populated areas, following a bloody war with Daesh.
A similar downfall can be observed in Syria and Lebanon. The Saudis, alongside its Arab allies armed and supported anti-Assad forces in Syria's six-year civil war. The Syrian regime, led by Bashar al Assad, received Russian and Iranian military support. Together they pushed the rebels back, regained key towns and districts.
In Lebanon, the Saudis again faced a setback. Saudi Arabia's waning influence became clear after the country's prime minister Saad Hariri withdrew his resignation at the behest of most Lebanese political leaders, including, Hezbollah, a Shia-Lebanese force closely aligned to Iran.
“Iranians benefit from the power vacuum in the region as Americans are in retreat following their occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Iranian foreign policy was more effective and they took the positions of the Americans in the places they vacated” said Salam, Tunisia's former foreign minister.
Is Iran winning?
The Iranian revolution toppled Mohammad Raza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, in 1979. As Pahlavi abandoned the throne for exile, the country became the so-called Islamic Republic.
Soon after, Tehran began backing Shia militias across the Middle East, including Lebanon's Hezbollah. In response, Saudi along with its Sunni neighbours, formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with the aim of keeping Iran at bay.
The current Middle East is generally divided between two forces: the secularist autocratic regimes and the opposition groups inspired by both democracy and political Islam. Turkey and Tunisia are rare exceptions, where governments are democratically elected and judiciaries follow the laws that aren't immediately taken from religiously inspired jurisprudence.
But Iran’s case is totally different. The country follows a democratic structure, which is established by Shia theocracy and overseen by the religious leadership led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Richard Falk, a well-known American professor of international law, during an interview with TRT World argued, “The basic structure and ideology [of political Islam] comes out of the Iranian revolution. Particularly, the thought of Ayatollah Khomeini, who was very conscious what happened in Iran was based on the idea of an Islamic revolution, not an Iranian revolution.”
“It has underlined the idea that the nation-state is a European idea imposed on the Islamic world. The basic community for the Muslims is the belonging to an Islamic umma (community) not being the citizens of a state [according to him]. That was his radical idea.”
Many thought that Khomeini’s Iran would be unable to tackle the harsh political realities of the Middle East. But it has now existed for almost 40 years, surviving the Iran-Iraq war and decades of a Western embargo.
“It’s one example of stable and effective Islamic-oriented state. They have elections and have quite a pluralistic cultural life. It’s not repressive. It’s often portrayed by West as a very repressive state. It has human rights violations, but still compared to many countries in the Arab world, it is quite democratic and stable,” Falk remarked.
Even Crown Prince Salman recognised the power of the Iranian revolution. “After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
Today's Iran has a tightly knit power structure, where the Khomeini clergy ensures that the political and military forces work in tandem without undermining the core tenants of Shia Islam.
Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s charismatic military general, is a living embodiment of Iran's ambitious military machine and the Khomenian ideology. Regarded as “a deep strategic thinker,” Soleimani aspires to “be a martyr” for the Iranian revolution, according to Mowwafak al Rubaie, Iraq's former national security adviser.
Nation led by a neophyte?
To counter a highly organised and resurgent Iran, Saudis have 32-year-old Crown Prince Salman at the forefront. His military credentials are unknown, and it's hard to tell what really informs his political outlook.
So far Salman has played an audacious gamble to establish his authority over the kingdom. He, not only went against his own family members but also declared a war against what he calls "extremist ideologies" within and outside the country.
The kingdom's lifting of the driving ban on women is the latest example of Saudi Arabia's changing outlook from "conservative" to "modern."
Salman's rhetoric has been tough, too. “We will destroy them (religious extremists) now, and immediately,” Salman said recently.
Most of the extremist movements in the Middle East are either following a Salafist interpretation or they are the offshoots of the Iranian revolution.
Salman's unconventional approach indirectly puts him in a contradictory position to Wahhabism, the state ideology of Saudi Arabia. Almost every Salafist movement in the world follows the doctrine of Wahhabism, but not every Salafist Wahhabi is in line with Saudi's changing political currents.
“Saudi regime is based on Saudi family and the religious convictions of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab [who founded Wahhabism in the 18th century]. That’s why it’s a risky [political] game,” said Abdul Salam, Tunisia's former foreign minister.
Amid delicate national and strategic tensions, many members of the Saudi royal family were arrested on corruption charges. Salman has been widely criticised for launching the clampdown to remove any potential rival, which will eventually smooth his succession to the Saudi throne.
Since the Saudi state has largely functioned on consensus between different components of the royal family, a bureaucratic tradition established almost a hundred years ago, Salman is likely to face more resistance from within the kingdom, a situation that will further impact its role in the region.
“Wahhabism began as a violent movement, but it has been neutralised by the state itself," said Salam, former Tunisian foreign minister. "It became a state ideology. Right now, the mission is not easy because Wahhabism represents one of the foundations of the Saudi regime.”