Saudi crown prince's bizarre, destructive world revealed in interview

Saudi crown prince's bizarre, destructive world revealed in interview
Comment: On Khashoggi, Yemen and Iran, Mohammed bin Salman repeated old and meaningless policy positions that have been catastrophic for the region, writes Rami Khouri.
7 min read
30 Sep, 2019
Mohammed bin Salman was interviewed on CBS' '60 Minutes' which aired on Sunday [Getty]
If Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman's storm of recent media interviews aimed to blunt foreign criticism of his domestic and regional policies, it has instead emulated those policies and achieved exactly the opposite. 

His performance adds a new layer to the high-level lack of credibility associated with Saudi policy deficiencies that have in recent times robbed the country of much of its former clout.

The crown prince and other Saudi officials seem befuddled by the world's focus on the assassination and dismemberment a year ago of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

They offer unconvincing and often insulting answers on this issue, partly because they also grapple amateurishly with other crises: The five-year-long war in Yemen, the second year of the failed siege of Qatar, their ongoing attempts to blame Mideast problems on Iranian meddling, and their bewilderment about why even US and Israeli pressure and threats have not secured Tehran's submission.

These and other policies are all associated with the advent of Mohammed bin Salman as the crown prince and key policy-maker in the kingdom just over two years ago, as his ageing father, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz hands him the reins of power.

It is now clear that Mohammad Bin Salman will go down in modern Arab history as the first monarch who emulated the brutal Arab republican autocrats who amassed all power in their hands.

His media barrage this week adds to this legacy of policy miscalculations

Like Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Zein el Abedin Ben Ali, Hafez Assad, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and others, the Saudi crown prince personally heads or effectively controls the levers of political, economic, military, media, religious, and social-cultural decision-making in the country.

It is not surprising that, like those other Arab autocrats who ravaged or wrecked their countries, he has embarked on bold policies that have largely failed and now see the country caught in a bind of its own making.

His media barrage this week adds to this legacy of policy miscalculations by offering a series of excuses and explanations that have no credibility and will only further tarnish his image, except perhaps with the foreign PR companies that advise him on these matters, or Arab and other "allies" who seek Saudi financial support.

On the three critical issues of the Khashoggi murder and cover-up, the Yemen war, and Iran, he offered new explanations that were meaningless and repeated old positions that have been catastrophic.

His assuming "responsibility" for the Khashoggi murder because it was the work of Saudi government employees is a meaningless statement that does not acknowledge the Khashoggi the assassination team's many direct links to his office and to himself personally.

It ignores the hard evidence that caused the CIA and a UN investigation - two rather serious parties - to link the killing to his office and perhaps to him personally, with the UN calling it a state-sponsored murder.

The crown prince also offered no indication that the reported "trials" of 11 of the 18 Saudis who were arrested for the killing would be transparent to global public opinion or would adhere to credible international standards of justice.

The bizarre and fantastic world as imagined by the Saudi crown prince has only brought the region war, tension, destruction and insecurity

His insulting explanations to his accusers included questioning how he was supposed to keep tabs on roughly three million Saudis who work for the government. This also mirrors Arab autocrats who claim they pursue only righteous policies, while he will identify and punch the few 'rogue' individuals who misbehave to prevent any future crimes - which, of course, never happens.

The tone and content of his comments on the Khashoggi assassination tended mainly to perpetuate the cover-up that prevailed immediately after the murder last year. His responses only add to a widespread perception of him as an under-qualified national leader who uses violence whenever it suits him, and then hides behind platitudes when questioned.

Mohammed bin Salman's main dilemma today is not just that much of the world will not drop the Khashoggi matter, demands answers and real accountability, and in the meantime applies punitive measures like arms embargoes or downgraded political, economic, or strategic contacts.

It is that everything that he has tried to do in the Middle East to assert Saudi power and protect national interests has for the most part failed, or even backfired. Yemen and Iran are the two bookends of this dilemma for him, which his remarks this week suggest he is incapable of addressing effectively, preferring sloganeering to hard-nosed impactful policies.

The Yemen war he launched with the United Arab Emirates five years ago has become an embarrassing quagmire that seems likely to leave Yemen split into northern and southern parts, with the Ansarullah movement (Houthis) firmly in control of the north.

The war that aimed to assert Saudi Arabia's decisive use of power, eject the Houthis from Sanaa, and weaken Iran's ties to them, astoundingly has achieved the exact opposite.

It has made the Saudis look militarily incompetent, even with US and British military assistance in the field, vastly strengthened the military capabilities and political power of the Houthis, and deepened Iranian links to them.

The embarrassing blowback from the Yemen war for the Saudis included the attack on the Aramco Abqaiq oil processing facility - widely assumed to be an Iranian-Houthi joint operation of some sort - and the reported Houthi capture or killing this week of several hundred Saudi soldiers and hundreds of military vehicles.

Read more: A year after Khashoggi: Clarity but no accountability

In the meantime, the UAE that launched the war with Riyadh five years ago seems to have recognised its futility, and is in the process of reconfiguring its role there, while apparently supporting southern Yemeni separatists to create an independent state (again) in the south, with close ties to Abu Dhabi.

The Saudi crown prince reacted to these and other developments by calling for greater US pressure to stop what Riyadh sees as Tehran's mischief-making in the region.

The problem with this strategy of serial failures, is that the US of President Trump and some Gulf and other allies have tried it for two years now with zero results to show for their coercive ways.

Mohammed bin Salman, like his Emirati mentors and other allies, refuses to admit that Iranian aggressive actions in the Gulf are a direct response to the Saudi-Emirati-Israeli-American attempt to strangle its economy and bring the country to its knees.

It's puzzling why the Saudi leadership continues to pursue failed policies that have turned it into a diplomatic laughing stock

Instead, he warned against a war that could send oil prices skyrocketing or stop oil exports from the Gulf. This seems like a desperate attempt to scare the world into new pressures against Tehran, when all other recent attempts have failed.

The exception to the failures, of course, was the P5+1 agreement on nuclear/sanctions issues signed in 2015 that enjoyed international legitimacy and ruled out any dangerous nuclear activities by Tehran - until Trump unilaterally withdrew the US, and launched this new round of escalating threats and attacks from all sides.

So it's puzzling why the Saudi leadership continues to pursue failed policies that have turned it into a diplomatic laughing stock, vastly strengthened its foes on its borders, heightened Iran's regional network of allies, reduced its political impact globally, made the US also seem dazed by events in the region, and elicited serious and credible accusations of pre-meditated murder plots linked to the crown prince's office.

The bizarre and fantastic world as imagined by the Saudi crown prince has only brought the region war, tension, destruction, insecurity, and expanding human impoverishment.

The better antidote to this painful and destructive Saudi (and Emirati) legacy would be to follow up the successful nuclear/sanctions accord with negotiations in the Gulf, free from foreign military threats and sanctions, with local powers themselves guaranteeing its security and their common economic well-being.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism, and Journalist-in-Residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.