Opinion

Sunset of the Saudi Era

Even the super-rich can become poor

File photo: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reacts upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 24, 2015.
Charles Platiau/REUTERS

Some people compare the occasion that took place this week – when new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knelt and kissed the hand of ousted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef – to an occasion in 1964 between the victorious King Faisal and his brother, the ousted King Saud, who was exiled to Greece. Then, too, King Faisal kissed his brother’s hand. Both then and now the ousted prince said to the victor: “May God help you,” and the victor said to the defeated one: “May God cherish you.”

That’s how Saudi democracy works. To the credit of the royal family it should be said that the changes in the regime’s leadership, even if they are carried out by force, don’t involve any blood, at least not among the ruling class. It turns out that money – especially lots of money – heals the wounds. The billions of dollars promised to the defeated prince ensure good relations in the royal family.

But things in the kingdom are beginning to go wrong. As we know, wealthy people usually try to present the appearance of living modestly – due to fear of the evil eye and of revulsion on the part of the masses of poor people surrounding their glittering palaces. That is how Saudi Arabia behaved for a generation, working quietly, mainly behind the scenes, to conduct its policy. Now the kingdom has decided to expose its belligerent side. It is beginning to behave with brutality and impatience, and on the way has abandoned the Arab proverb, “Don’t be the head, because they get the headaches.”

The new crown prince, who has received broad powers, wants Saudi Arabia to become a regional leader. After all, the country is just as rich and strong as Turkey, Egypt or Iran. The steps that began in 2015 with Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthi rebels in Yemen will apparently continue even more forcefully against other targets. And in Saudi Arabia they’re beginning to think it’s impossible without cleansing the surroundings. The siege of Qatar is an introduction to what is also liable to happen in the conflict with Iran, which is already beginning to take shape.

The question is whether the Saudis are willing to pay the price involved in assuming the role of a regional power, and to use the money with which they used to buy regimes, political movements, leaders and intellectuals in order to purchase tanks, which only intensify the anger and hatred against them. The gamble is great, but apparently the die has already been cast. We should get used to the new Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile the Arabs won’t achieve a thing from the changes in Saudi Arabia, just the opposite. The arms race, which brings in billions to the arms industry, will impoverish the countries in the region, which are obliged to join this horrifying race. For every rifle purchased, another child is doomed to a life of poverty and even hunger. Welfare can wait, the Saudis are the gate.

In the past, too, in the days of behind-the-scenes politics, Saudi Arabia’s role was limited to exporting blind religious fanaticism, in the guise of the Wahhabi ideology, which is the mother of all the fanatical movements. And on the other hand, they fell into line completely in every area; first with the British and afterwards with the Americans. The founder of Saudi Arabia, the emir Abdulaziz, formed a alliance with the Wahhabi movement, and at the same time cunningly explained that his actions were in accord with the spirit of Islam.

In his book about the Palestinians, author Abdel Majid Hamdan relates that when the emir was asked for an explanation for the money he was receiving from England, he replied that it was a kind of tax he had imposed on the British heretics. Regarding the production of oil by the British, clerics speaking on his behalf explained that oil is a kind of black gold, which it is forbidden to keep inside the ground. Now too we can rely on the religious establishment to support all the activities of the new prince.

The 1970s were dubbed “the Saudi era” due to the increased importance of oil. Billions of dollars were wasted. But every blessing is accompanied by a curse, and after a series of conflicts begun by the Saudis in Yemen and Qatar, the Saudi era, despite all the noise, is gradually ending. After all, even the super-rich can become poor.