Saudi prince’s rise hides dark side

Is Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion em­pow­er­ing Mo­hammed bin Sal­man?

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Canada & World - JON GAM­BRELL

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMI­RATES — In

a king­dom once ruled by an ev­er­ag­ing ro­ta­tion of elderly monar­chs, Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man stands out as the youth­ful face of a youth­ful na­tion. But be­hind the care­fully cal­i­brated pub­lic-re­la­tions cam­paign push­ing im­ages of the smil­ing prince meet­ing with the world’s top lead­ers and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives lurks a darker side.

Last year, at age 31, Mo­hammed be­came the king­dom’s crown prince, next in line to the throne now held by his oc­to­ge­nar­ian father, King Sal­man. While push­ing for women to drive, he has over­seen the ar­rest of women’s rights ac­tivists. While call­ing for for­eign in­vest­ment, he has im­pris­oned busi­ness­men, roy­als and oth­ers in a crack­down on cor­rup­tion that soon re­sem­bled a shake­down of the king­dom’s most pow­er­ful peo­ple.

As Saudi de­fence min­is­ter from the age of 29, he pur­sued a war in Ye­men against Shi­ite rebels that be­gan a month af­ter he took the helm and wears on to­day.

What the crown prince chooses next likely will af­fect the world’s largest oil pro­ducer for decades to come. And as the dis­ap­pear­ance and feared death of Saudi journalist Ja­mal Khashoggi in Is­tan­bul may show, the young prince will brook no dis­sent in re­shap­ing the king­dom in his im­age.

“I don’t want to waste my time,” he told Time Magazine in a cover story this year. “I am young.”

Khashoggi, a U.S. res­i­dent who wrote sev­eral col­umns for The Wash­ing­ton Post crit­i­cal of Prince Mo­hammed, dis­ap­peared Oct. 2 on a visit to the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul. Turk­ish of­fi­cials have of­fered no ev­i­dence, but say the writer was killed and dis­mem­bered by a Saudi team of 15 men — an op­er­a­tion that, if car­ried out, would have to have been au­tho­rized by the top of the Al Saud monar­chy. The king­dom de­scribes the al­le­ga­tion as “base­less,” but has pro­vided no proof that Khashoggi ever left the con­sulate.

For decades in Saudi Ara­bia, suc­ces­sion passed down among the dozens of sons of the king­dom’s founder, King Ab­dul-Aziz. And, over time, the sons have grown older and older upon reach­ing the throne.

When King Sal­man took power in Jan­uary of 2015 and quickly ap­pointed Prince Mo­hammed as de­fence min­is­ter, it took the king­dom by sur­prise, es­pe­cially given the im­por­tance of the po­si­tion and the prince’s age.

He was lit­tle-known among the many grand­chil­dren of Saudi Ara­bia’s pa­tri­arch, a young man ed­u­cated only in the king­dom who stuck close to his father, who pre­vi­ously served as the gover­nor of Riyadh, the Saudi cap­i­tal.

As de­fence min­is­ter, he en­tered of­fice fac­ing a cri­sis in Ye­men, the Arab world’s poor­est coun­try, which lies south of the king­dom. Shi­ite rebels known as Houthis had over­run the coun­try’s cap­i­tal, Sanaa, un­seat­ing the deeply un­pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment of Abed Rabbo Man­sour Hadi.

When Hadi fled and it ap­peared the coun­try’s port city of Aden would fall to the rebels, Saudi Ara­bia launched a coali­tion war against the Houthis — a con­flict that soon be­came a stale­mate.

The United Na­tions es­ti­mates 10,000 peo­ple have been killed in Ye­men’s con­flict, and ac­tivists say that num­ber is likely far higher. It has ex­ac­er­bated what the UN calls the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, with hunger and cholera stalk­ing civil­ians, wors­ened by the king­dom’s block­ade of ports.

Mean­while, the Saudi-led coali­tion has faced wide­spread crit­i­cism for its airstrikes hit­ting clinics and mar­ket­places, which have killed civil­ians. The Houthis, as well, have in­dis­crim­i­nately used land­mines and ar­rested po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.

The coali­tion says Iran has fun­neled weapons to the Houthis rang­ing from small arms to the bal­lis­tic mis­siles now reg­u­larly fired into the king­dom, which Iran de­nies.

For Prince Mo­hammed, the con­flict re­mains part of what he sees as an ex­is­ten­tial strug­gle be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran for the fu­ture of the Mid­dle East. Asked about Western con­cerns over civil­ian ca­su­al­ties, he of­fers this: “Mis­takes hap­pen in all wars.”

“We don’t need to have a new Hezbol­lah in the Ara­bian Penin­sula. This is a red line not only for Saudi Ara­bia but for the whole world,” the prince re­cently told Bloomberg, re­fer­ring to the Iran-al­lied Shi­ite mil­i­tant group and po­lit­i­cal party dom­i­nant in Le­banon.

The prince also found him­self in­volved in the bizarre res­ig­na­tion-bytele­vi­sion ad­dress of Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri, who an­nounced he would step down af­ter a visit to the king­dom in Novem­ber 2017, fu­elling sus­pi­cion he was co­erced into do­ing so.

Prince Mo­hammed’s harsh rhetoric ex­tends to liken­ing Iran’s Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei to Nazi Ger­many’s Adolf Hitler. He’s also hinted Saudi Ara­bia would be will­ing to fight Iran in other ways, lead­ing Tehran to link the king­dom to an at­tack on a mil­i­tary pa­rade in Ah­vaz last month that killed at least 24 peo­ple killed and wounded more than 60. Both Arab sep­a­ratists and the Is­lamic State group claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the as­sault.

“We won’t wait for the bat­tle to be in Saudi Ara­bia,” the prince told the Saudi-owned broad­cast­ing com­pany MBC last year. “In­stead, we will work so that the bat­tle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Ara­bia.”

His ag­gres­sive pos­ture against Iran has won the sup­port of U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion, which pulled out of the Iran nu­clear deal struck by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, whom the king­dom deeply dis­trusted.

Prince Be­fore Mo­hammed be­com­ing crown vis­ited prince, the White House and forged a close re­la­tion­ship with Trump son-in-law Jared Kush­ner. The two are be­lieved to be work­ing on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s peace plans for Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans.

over­seas Trump as made pres­i­dent, Riyadh a his visit first com­plete stop with Arab pageantry and opu­lence.

Be­hind the scenes, many an­a­lysts be­lieve Saudi Ara­bia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emi­rates saw a green light to move ahead with the on­go­ing boy­cott of Qatar, a small Ara­bian Penin­sula na­tion, over a po­lit­i­cal dis­pute.

Trump ini­tially seemed to favour the boy­cott of Qatar, which is home to alUdeid Air Base, the for­ward head­quar­ters of the U.S. mil­i­tary’s Cen­tral Com­mand.

Trump’s first Sec­re­tary of State, Rex

Tiller­son, sought in vain to pres­sure the Saudis into re­solv­ing the spat and com­plained pri­vately that the ties be­tween the White House and Prince Mo­hammed were hurt­ing the ef­fort, of­fi­cials said at the time. Tiller­son’s dis­missal in March and the ar­rival of Mike Pom­peo as Trump’s top diplo­mat markedly re­duced the State Depart­ment’s heat on Saudi Ara­bia about the de­ten­tions of hu­man rights ac­tivists,

in­clud­ing women, and the con­flict in Ye­men.

De­spite the mount­ing civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in Ye­men, Pom­peo cer­ti­fied to Congress in Septem­ber that Saudi Ara­bia was tak­ing steps to re­duce and limit them, draw­ing se­vere con­dem­na­tions from law­mak­ers and hu­man rights groups.

Saudi Ara­bia soon em­barked on the prince’s am­bi­tious pro­posal to al­low women in the ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Wah­habi na­tion to drive. The re­sult­ing pic­tures of women in long black abayas be­hind the wheel rep­re­sented a pub­lic-re­la­tions coup for the im­age-shap­ing firms em­ployed by the king­dom, as did footage of women at­tend­ing soc­cer matches and movie the­atres for the first time in decades.

But be­fore women started their en­gines, a new crack­down emerged: The king­dom rounded up and im­pris­oned women’s rights ac­tivists, in­clud­ing re­port­edly grab­bing one woman who was in the neigh­bour­ing United Arab Emi­rates. Prince Mo­hammed has wowed the busi­ness world with prom­ises of an ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing for the state oil be­he­moth Saudi Ara­bian Oil Co., known as Saudi Aramco, sug­gest­ing it would have a $2-tril­lion val­u­a­tion. Stock mar­kets around the world have pitched hav­ing the IPO on their ex­changes, but it has been re­peat­edly de­layed. The young prince has trav­elled across the U.S. as part of his busi­ness pitch, meet­ing lead­ers like for­mer New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Ama­zon bil­lion­aire Jeff Be­zos, who owns The Wash­ing­ton Post. Prince Mo­hammed also hosted a ma­jor busi­ness sum­mit at Riyadh’s Ritz Carl­ton, com­plete with a hu­manoid ro­bot named Sophia be­ing awarded Saudi cit­i­zen­ship. Only weeks later, the ho­tel turned into a lux­ury pri­son as part of a mass ar­rest of busi­ness­men, roy­als and oth­ers or­ches­trated by Prince Mo­hammed in a move de­scribed as tar­get­ing cor­rup­tion. Those re­leased agreed to sign over some of their as­sets, how­ever, giv­ing it the feel of a shake­down. “If I have the power and the king has the power to take ac­tion against in­flu­en­tial peo­ple, then you are al­ready fun­da­men­tally strong,” Prince Mo­hammed told CBS ear­lier this year. For now, the anger over Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance ap­pears to have gal­va­nized in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism of the young prince, about whom the colum­nist wrote crit­i­cally for the Post. royal The fam­ily opaque­ness makes of it the dif­fi­cult Al Saud to see what ef­fect the con­tro­versy is hav­ing on sup­port for Prince Mo­hammed at home. State tele­vi­sion con­tin­ues to air footage of him at­tend­ing meet­ings and greet­ing of­fi­cials as if all is nor­mal. And as the son of the king, an­a­lysts say he has the full pro­tec­tion of the throne’s pow­ers.

CLIFF OWEN THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

EVAN VUCCI THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, above, holds a chart high­light­ing arms sales to Saudi Ara­bia dur­ing a meet­ing with Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, left. The young prince will brook no dis­sent in re­shap­ing the king­dom in his im­age.

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