For bet­ter or for worse, it was the year of Mo­hammed Bin Sal­man, who came un­der pres­sure at home and abroad af­ter the bru­tal mur­der of Ja­mal Khashoggi

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - 2018 REVIEW - Vin­cent Du­rac

2018 Mid­dle East

For most of the Mid­dle East and North Africa, 2018 was some­what less volatile than the past sev­eral years. The up­heavals of re­cent years – in par­tic­u­lar, the civil war in Syria and the emer­gence of Is­lamic State which fol­lowed – have di­min­ished in sig­nif­i­cance and im­pact. With some lim­ited ex­cep­tions, the re­gion has wit­nessed au­thor­i­tar­ian re­trench­ment in the past 12 months and the con­sol­i­da­tion of the sta­tus quo ante.

In most other years, the most im­por­tant story would have been the ef­fec­tive elim­i­na­tion of the threat posed by Is­lamic State to re­gional sta­bil­ity. An or­gan­i­sa­tion, which in 2015 con­trolled ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq ap­prox­i­mately the size of the United King­dom, to­day has been re­duced to be­tween one and two per cent of the ter­ri­tory it con­trolled at its peak – a small pocket of land on the Syria- Iraq bor­der. The group may not be com­pletely de­feated.

A UN re­port pub­lished ear­lier this year es­ti­mated that it still had be­tween 20,000 and 30,000 mem­bers and it has re­mained ac­tive in Iraq and in Syria. In Novem­ber it cap­tured at least 30 mem­bers of the Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Force while ear­lier this year it was re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of be­tween 150 and 200 mem­bers of the Iraqi se­cu­rity forces. And while, at its height, the group ac­crued up to $ 6 bil­lion, it may have suc­ceeded in smug­gling $400 mil­lion out of Syria and Iraq to sup­port on­go­ing mil­i­tancy. None­the­less, the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion rep­re­sents a dra­matic shift from just a few years ago when over­wrought pre­dic­tions of Is­lamic State threat­en­ing Bagh­dad or Dam­as­cus were not un­com­mon.

The ef­fec­tive de­feat of Is­lamic State has been fol­lowed by the re- es­tab­lish­ment of the con­trol of Bashar al-As­sad’s regime in Dam­as­cus over most of the coun­try’s ter­ri­tory, with sig­nif­i­cant sup­port from Rus­sia and Iran, al­though sig­nif­i­cant ar­eas of Syria re­main un­der the con­trol of op­po­si­tion forces, no­tably the swathe of ter­ri­tory on the Turk­ish bor­der which is now gov­erned by Kur­dish forces. In Iraq, from which Is­lamic State ini­tially emerged, the new prime min­is­ter, Adel Ab­dul Mahdi, cel­e­brated the first an­niver­sary of the an­nounce­ment of vic­tory over the group on De­cem­ber 10th.

How­ever, that coun­try still faces sub­stan­tial chal­lenges, not least the dif­fi­culty of as­sert­ing con­trol over the au­tonomous armed groups, in­clud­ing the Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion Units, on which the gov­ern­ment re­lied in or­der to de­feat Is­lamic State, deal­ing with hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis and en­abling mean­ing­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the coun­try’s Sunni Mus­lim mi­nor­ity in its po­lit­i­cal struc­tures.

Else­where, in Egypt, pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah al-Sisi spent the past year in a largely suc­cess­ful ef­fort to con­sol­i­date the power he has en­joyed since he over­threw the coun­try’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected ruler, the Is­lamist Mo­hammed Morsi, in a mil­i­tary coup in 2013. Since then, Sisi has sys­tem­at­i­cally re­moved ob­sta­cles to his power.

In the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of March 2018, he won a mere 97 per cent of the vote, fol­low­ing the hound­ing from the race of sev­eral le­git­i­mate can­di­dates. Hu­man rights abuses con­tinue un­abated as ac­tivists, blog­gers, civil so­ci­ety or­gan­is­ers and op­po­si­tion politi­cians join the tens of thou­sands of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers lan­guish­ing in Egypt’s prisons. De­spite this, al-Sisi is bol­stered by sup­port from re­gional ac­tors while both the US and the Euro­peans view him as be­ing essen­tially on the right side in the bat­tle against ter­ror­ism, some­thing for which they are pre­pared to ex­cuse ex­cesses far greater than those of most of his pre­de­ces­sors.

Un­lim­ited power

How­ever, un­doubt­edly, 2018 has, for bet­ter or for worse, been the year of Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, crown prince of Saudi Ara­bia. Bin Sal­man has en­joyed a rapid as­cent to the top of the Saudi po­lit­i­cal sys­tem since he was ap­pointed de­fence min­is­ter at the age of 30 in 2015. As heir ap­par­ent to the ail­ing King Sal­man, he has en­joyed al­most un­lim­ited power in the king­dom un­til re­cently.

Bin Sal­man ini­tially rep­re­sented him­self to his coun­try and the rest of the world as a long- awaited re­former, associated with re­strict­ing the power of the re­li­gious po­lice, re­mov­ing the ban on Saudi women driv­ing and eas­ing re­stric­tions on their ac­cess to pub­lic places. How­ever, a darker side quickly emerged. Two events in Novem­ber 2017 of­fered in­di­ca­tions of what was to come.

First, the prime min­is­ter of Le­banon, Rafiq Hariri, who was on a visit to Saudi Ara­bia, was sum­moned to the royal of­fices. Hariri be­lieved he was go­ing on a camp­ing trip with the crown prince. In­stead he was pre­sented with a pre-writ­ten let­ter of res­ig­na­tion which he was forced to read on Saudi tele­vi­sion.

His res­ig­na­tion was the price that bin Sal­man sought for what he per­ceived as Le­banon’s in­suf­fi­ciently obeisant po­si­tion in the de­struc­tive re­gional com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the Saudis and Iran. It was also in­tended to send a mes­sage to Hizbal­lah, Iran’s ma­jor ally in Le­banon. These events shocked the re­gion, and Hariri with­drew his res­ig­na­tion shortly af­ter­wards.

At the same time, the crown prince or- ches­trated the de­ten­tion in the Ritz Carl­ton Ho­tel in Riyadh of hun­dreds of mem­bers of the royal fam­ily and other prom­i­nent pub­lic fig­ures in what was de­scribed as an anti-cor­rup­tion drive. While cor­rup­tion is en­demic in the coun­try, no ev­i­dence was sup­plied in re­la­tion to any in­di­vid­ual. By Jan­uary 2018 the gov­ern­ment was re­port­ing set­tle­ments to­talling $ 106 bil­lion lead­ing to the release of many of those de­tained. Oth­ers have not been so lucky and are still im­pris­oned in a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity fa­cil­ity south of the cap­i­tal where Is­lamic mil­i­tants are de­tained.

By March of 2018, an even darker side to this story be­came clearer, pre­fig­ur­ing events later in the year, as de­tails emerged of the abuse and tor­ture of de­tainees. In one re­ported case, the body of a Saudi mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who died in cus­tody bore burn marks that ap­peared to come from elec­tric shocks while his neck ap­peared to have been bro­ken. Saudi of­fi­cials re­ject these claims. Worse was to come.

The dis­si­dent Saudi jour­nal­ist, Ja­mal Khashoggi, en­tered his coun­try’s con­sulate in Istanbul on Oc­to­ber 2nd to ob­tain doc­u­ments that would al­low him to marry his Turk­ish fi­ancée. He never emerged, hav­ing been bru­tally tor­tured and mur­dered in the con­sulate on the or­ders of the crown prince.

Khashoggi was a prom­i­nent fig­ure in Saudi life. He had been close to the royal fam­ily for decades and was a for­mer ad­viser to the gov­ern­ment. But he fell out of favour and moved to the United States where he wrote an influential monthly col­umn for the Washington Post that was fre­quently crit­i­cal of bin Sal­man.

The rev­e­la­tion of his mur­der, par­tic­u­larly i ts ap­pallingly bru­tal na­ture, has brought pres­sure on bin Sal­man both at home and abroad.

The vo­latil­ity and bru­tal­ity of his be­hav­iour – as re­cently as Novem­ber 2018, there were re­ports of the tor­ture of women’s rights ac­tivists who had been de­tained ear­lier in the year – raise some scep­ti­cism as to whether he will be al­lowed to suc­ceed his fa­ther as planned, al­though he re­tains the sup­port of the king at present. He also ap­pears to re­tain the sup­port of US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, whose son- in- law, Jared Kush­ner, re­port­edly ad­vised bin Sal­man on how to “weather the storm” af­ter the mur­der of Khashoggi.

Per­haps the only pos­i­tive out­come to emerge from this hor­rific set of events has been the fo­cus on the man­made hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe that is the Ye­meni con­flict, which has cost thou­sands of lives, threat­ens mil­lions more, and in which the Saudi crown prince is once more deeply com­plicit.

The fall­out from the mur­der of Khashoggi has, at least par­tially, fed the im­pe­tus for mean­ing­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions on the war in Ye­men, which opened in Swe­den in De­cem­ber 2018 and held out the first glim­mer of hope in years that the coun­try’s on­go­ing slide into dis­as­ter might be halted.

The fall­out from the Khashoggi mur­der has, at least par­tially, fed the im­pe­tus for mean­ing­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions on the war in Ye­men

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