Saudi/US/Is­raeli part­ner­ship could bring war into Africa

The Sunday Independent - - DISPATCHES -

THE dra­matic news from Saudi Ara­bia over the past week, in­clud­ing sto­ries of ar­rests of mem­bers of the royal fam­ily, as­sas­si­na­tions, purges and tor­ture, is not en­tirely a do­mes­tic mat­ter.

There is most cer­tainly an in­ter­na­tional di­men­sion to it, as ev­i­denced by the co­erced res­ig­na­tion of Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri, Saudi threats against Le­banon and Iran, and the Saudi call for its cit­i­zens to leave Le­banon. That in­ter­na­tional di­men­sion, it is be­com­ing clearer, also in­cludes the US and Is­rael.

Soon af­ter Muham­mad bin Sal­man, the king’s son and now crown prince of Saudi Ara­bia, was ap­pointed deputy crown prince, he be­gan in­gra­ti­at­ing him­self to the US Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion – with the as­sis­tance of the United Arab Emi­rates – and is now close friends with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s son-in-law and ad­vi­sor Jared Kush­ner, who was briefed about last week­end’s crack­down a week be­fore when he saw Sal­man on a “per­sonal visit” to Saudi Ara­bia.

There are nu­mer­ous rea­sons why Sal­man would want the king­dom and the US to strengthen re­la­tions that had frayed over the US ap­proach to the 2011 up­ris­ings in North Africa, and, par­tic­u­larly, their lack of sup­port – from the Saudi view – for Egypt’s pres­i­dent, Hosni Mubarak. One of those rea­sons is the com­mon ha­tred of Iran that both Sal­man and Trump have. Both ad­min­is­tra­tions are un­happy about the Iran nu­clear deal (which the US signed dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion).

In this, Sal­man has also made com­mon cause with Is­rael. And that has led to a de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Saudis and Is­raelis. It was re­cently re­ported that the Saudi crown prince vis­ited Is­rael on a se­cret, but of­fi­cial trip, an un­prece­dented oc­cur­rence.

Less than a day af­ter Sal­man ar­rested dozens of po­ten­tial ri­vals in Saudi Ara­bia, the Is­raeli for­eign min­istry sent a ca­ble to its for­eign mis­sions ask­ing them to pig­gy­back on the Saudi re­pres­sive ac­tions in or­der to ramp up crit­i­cism of and ac­tion against both Iran and the Le­banese group Hezbol­lah.

The clas­si­fied ca­ble, made pub­lic by Is­rael’s Chan­nel 10 News, also asked Is­raeli diplo­mats to ex­press sup­port for the Saudi war against Ye­men. Is­raeli diplo­mats were told to con­tact for­eign min­istries in their host coun­tries and re­it­er­ate the Saudi po­si­tion on Hariri’s res­ig­na­tion, us­ing it to paint Hezbol­lah and Iran as “de­struc­tive”.

Is­rael re­gards Hezbol­lah as prob­a­bly its sec­ond most dan­ger­ous en­emy af­ter Iran. How­ever, Hezbol­lah is a le­gal po­lit­i­cal party in Le­banon and is part of the gov­ern­ment headed by Hariri.

Not long af­ter the Is­raeli ca­ble, Saudi Ara­bia an­nounced that Le­banon had de­clared war on the Saudi king­dom be­cause Le­banon has Hezbol­lah as a po­lit­i­cal party.

Many Le­banese in­ter­preted that an­nounce­ment as a Saudi dec­la­ra­tion of war, a per­cep­tion that was strength­ened when, on Thurs­day, the king­dom called on its cit­i­zens in Le­banon to evac­u­ate. Clearly, the Saudi and Is­raeli agen­das were feed­ing off and re­in­forc­ing one an­other.

There is a strong be­lief among Le­banese peo­ple and com­men­ta­tors on Saudi Ara­bia that Hariri was forced by Sal­man to an­nounce his res­ig­na­tion and that he is be­ing held prisoner in the king­dom, along with oth­ers ar­rested last Sat­ur­day night. Even Hariri’s own Fu­ture Party made sim­i­lar com­ments.

Hariri an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion on Saudi TV rather than on his own TV chan­nel, and did so from Riyadh rather from his own coun­try. He blamed in­ter­fer­ence in Le­banon by Iran and non­co­op­er­a­tion with Hezbol­lah.

Trump’s tweets of sup­port for the au­thor­i­tar­ian ac­tions of Sal­man re­in­forcethecom­mon­a­gend­abe­tween Saudi Ara­bia, Is­rael and the US.

“They know what they are do­ing,” he said, re­fer­ring to Sal­man’s crack­down, which in­cluded last Sat­ur­day’s ar­rests – in­clud­ing those of two sons of the for­mer king, a son of the for­mer crown prince (who was also sacked from his po­si­tion as head of the Na­tional Guard), nu­mer­ous busi­ness­peo­ple (in­clud­ing Waleed bin Talal, one of the rich­est men in the world), heads of three ma­jor me­dia net­works, and for­mer min­is­ters.

That Sal­man is in the process of trans­form­ing an au­thor­i­tar­ian sys­tem and power struc­ture into an even more au­thor­i­tar­ian ab­so­lute monar­chy where all power is con­trolled by one per­son does not phase Trump or the Is­raelis. In­deed, as the Is­raeli ca­ble indi­cates, such au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism can be use­ful in the ef­fort to iso­late Iran and de­stroy Hezbol­lah.

The reper­cus­sions of this tri­umvi­rate of co-op­er­a­tion can be cat­a­strophic for a Mid­dle East re­gion that is al­ready mired in a num­ber of wars – with large parts of Syria and Ye­men de­stroyed, fac­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ters and deal­ing with more than 13 mil­lion dis­placed peo­ple (mainly from Syria and Ye­men).

While Iran is more than ca­pa­ble of de­fend­ing it­self against all three, in Le­banon, more than 20% of the pop­u­la­tion are refugees from neigh­bour­ing Syria and Pales­tine and the coun­try is now un­der psy­cho­log­i­cal, pro­pa­ganda, diplo­matic and mil­i­tary threat from both Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia.

With a frag­ile po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, the coun­try is brac­ing it­self for a pos­si­ble ex­ter­nal at­tack from Is­rael and in­ter­nal up­heaval from Saud­i­funded ex­trem­ists. If such ac­tions be­gin, Le­banon could be plunged into an­other civil war and it is quite likely that all three coun­tries will bring their bat­tle with Iran on to the African con­ti­nent as well, so the Saudi-US-Is­raeli al­liance could prove to be dis­as­trous for the Mid­dle re­gion and for Africa.

Jeenah is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Africa-Mid­dle East Cen­tre in Jo­han­nes­burg.

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