Dmitry Babich: ''There is a feeling a fight between impulsive young people is taking place in Saudi Arabia''
How the principal heir to the Saudi throne created a corruption scandal in the kingdom
These days 11 emirs of the royal family and 4 ministers have been arrested in Saudi Arabia – princes who are influential members of the ruling dynasty of Al-Saud were also among them. Famous journalist and expert in international relations Dmitry Babich thinks that it is the handiwork of young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who clears the way to the desired throne so. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya's reporter, the expert told about the sources of the ''anti-corruption purge'', real ruler of the Arab kingdom, his impulsive gestures and their consequences.
Young impulsive ruler
Dmitry, why did the ''anti-corruption purge'' in Saudi Arabia start?
What we've been observing in neighbouring countries is happening in Saudi Arabia is an attempt to upgrade. It's necessary to upgrade to conserve. It's already happened in Jordan where young King Abdallah II came to power, in Morocco where Hassan II was substituted by his son Mohammed, and in Syria where Bashar al-Assad changed Hafez al-Assad. All countries of the region try to leave this gerontocracy. Mohammed bin Salman has been chosen as a reformer in Saudi Arabia. But now he hasn't achieved anything he has tried to do. He undertook everything vigorously and radically, but at the moment we see only failures.
The intervention in Yemen is a complete shame for the kingdom. The attempted intervention in Syria (mainly the crown prince's project) also failed. The visit of the king of Saudi Arabia to Moscow became a sign. It seemed in the 2012-2013s that the Saudi king would never go to Moscow or would go but only as a winner. And here we see almost a recognition of the defeat.
And a new attempt to put everything in order in the family has been made. As far as you know, the number of princes in Saudi Arabia is counted in hundreds. They all need to be employed. Princesses need to be given a substantial dowry, they need to be maintained somehow. It all lasted for tens of years. And now we're seeing a radical attempt to take this business under control.
But I'm not sure it will work. Firstly, I will repeat that Mohammed bin Salman hasn't achieved anything he has done now. Secondly, I don't believe in some sudden radical throws. A real civil society is created very slowly, by movements that aren't seen from outside. It's created when people stop feeling the fear of having a social life. So in this respect, I'm pessimistic.
''Mohammed bin Salman has been chosen as a reformer in Saudi Arabia. But now he hasn't achieved anything he has tried to do.'' Photo: kremlin.ru
And back to Russian-Saudi relations. It's said the Soviet Union was stronger and more successful than modern Russia. But the Soviet Union joined the war in Afghanistan that it did not need, several ventures in Africa. And whom did we get instead? Spongers. Najibullāh (Editor's Note: Mohammad Najibullāh was the Afghanistan president in the 1987—1992s) had to be backed up, fed. The same thing had to be done with Ethiopian and Angolan regimes. And now, after the war in Syria that has obviously become more successful with fewer losses than that Soviet bloody war in Afghanistan, we got serious people who come to us – the president of Turkey, the king of Saudi Arabia. They aren't spongers, on the contrary, they're people who can give money, business opportunities. The thought that Russia is a wreckage of the former greatness of the Soviet Union is denied by this interesting course of the event.
Is the aggravation of relations with Qatar also bin Salman's handiwork?
Nothing is done with him now. At least, he gave his approval for it. In general, his style is some impulsive. There was a wild conflict with Russia on Syria first (with some accusations and with God knows what else) – then his personal visit to Russia. Because Mohammed bin Salman was who started ''defrosting'', not the king.
It all creates an impression that the young man sat at the wheels and started to perform sudden turns trying to get the maximum of the car. This is not how things work. Russia, of course, benefited as much as it could. But the situation is quite unpleasant for very Saudi Arabia. The country has been suddenly taking off and landing in the last 5 years. The peak of the take-off was in 2011 when it suddenly turned out that not Egypt but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other monarchies that tried to change the regime in Syria ruled. And now we see again the incapability to support its adherent in Yemen. In addition, Saudi Arabia behaves in Yemen in the way how Russia is accused by western countries of its actions in Ukraine. There was a coup, the Houthis came (who are supporters of the oppositionist protests in Ukraine, in fact). And the neighbouring country – Saudi Arabia – not just supported the rebels but also started to bomb itself, generated movements of the armed forces (what Russia is accused of). At the same time, it doesn't manage to control the whole territory. It's quite a humiliating result for them.
Does it mean that Prince Mohammed bin Salman rules the country, not his father?
Absolutely correct. The father performs a role of the figurehead. There is a feeling that if the son turns out a loser and gets out of control, the father can appoint another heir. But the son, in fact, has been ruling for several years already. Pay attention that Saudi Arabia has left Russia behind in expenditures on armament. Now the kingdom is the second country in the world in this indicator. A serious of notorious step in foreign policy has been made. But the results are negative now.
''The father performs a role of the figurehead. There is a feeling that if the son turns out a loser and gets out of control, the father can appoint another heir. But the son, in fact, has been ruling for several years already.'' Photo: kremlin.ru
Fight for the king's throne
Mohammed bin Salman announced he was going to open the country to all regions and the whole world. Is it part of the prince's populist rhetoric?
It is very dangerous rhetoric. Revolutionary movements, the discontent have always existed traditionally inside Saudi Arabia. And the founder of the Al-Saud dynasty came to power with an armed coup. But he remained thanks to the conservatism that resonated with the population. It was the king who favoured the creation of the League of Public Morality that made Saudi Arabia the country living by Sharia rules. In the end, a union of the royal power with conservatism spirituality and conservatively psyched up population reigned. Here a young adventurer comes. On the one hand, he joins 2/3 of the war in the neighbourhood. On the other hand, he says he's going to open the country for all religions. It is like saying that the Soviet Union was open to all ideologies. It was open, but not for long. It seems to me it's quite an ill-conceived step if he is going to develop it seriously.
What influence groups, clans exist in the elites of Saudi Arabia?
Nobody knows it well. They appear and disappear secretly. It's completely clear that the group of Mohammed bin Salman is the biggest one. The arrests that are taking place prove that he is getting rid of his opponents. What's more, it isn't separation of, for instance, liberals and conservatives, but bin Salman's supporters and opponents, his impulsive management method. Speaking of alternative groupings, head of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah (Editor's Note: who has been ousted from this post these days) who has serious influence chairs the biggest one. But he hasn't shown this influence yet. The most interesting thing what I'd recommend to follow is the situation with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. He arrived in Saudi Arabia and made an unexpected statement that he was resigning. Now Lebanon doesn't accept this statement. They say they want to see him with their own eyes in the country. Meanwhile, he doesn't appear. He announced from Riyadh he was afraid for his life, that Iran and Hezbollah pressed him – he repeated what the Saudis like to hear. And he remained in Saudi Arabia. What is more, he comes from the most influential family in Lebanon. President of Lebanon Michel Aoun who traditionally represents Christians said he would not accept the resignation until he met the prime minister and talked to him. The party of very Hariri (Al-Mustaqbal) announced he was going to declare his candidacy again if there were elections. Chairman of the parliament Nabih Berri – a Muslim Shia who is closely connected with Hezbollah – said he did not understand as well what's going on because the resignation was to happen in reality, people didn't resign being abroad. Take into account that we're talking about young people. Saad Al-Hariri is 48, Mohammed bin Salman was 32 – just a young man by Saudi standards. There is a feeling a fight between impulsive young people where approaches that have never been applied are used is taking place.
''Al-Hariri was almost seduced from the country and made him announce his resignation. Who could do it? Only Mohammed bin Salman.'' kremlin.ru
Al-Hariri was almost seduced from the country and made him announce his resignation. Who could do it? Only Mohammed bin Salman. Head of Hezbollah Sheikh Nasrallah said that this statement seemed to be made under pressure. But now we can't say it for sure because he isn't back yet.
Is the situation taking place in Saudi Arabia within the plans of America in Near East or, on the contrary, does it destroy Trump's plans in this macroregion?
Here two flows that cross sometimes need to be distinguished. Obama had an ideological vision of the situation: he expected the American influence to distribute in Near East. In other words, he wanted to finish off what George Bush Junior with his aggression in Iraq, Bush Senior with his war in the Persian Gulf started to do. He acted within the ideology of ultraliberalism: the West was to win around the world and gradually change the game rules in all countries.
We see that Trump has a more earthbound, pragmatic approach: just to sell as much weapon as possible, get an impulse to develop the American economy, its military and industrial complex. Ideological things concern him the least. We see that Trump, in fact, engaged with Saudi Arabia, signed many weapon supply contracts with it. It seems to me to be not a very forward-looking policy. What if an uncontrolled process starts in Saudi Arabia and it falls? It is very likely. Where will these weapons go? How can they be used? Won't the USA be accused of the bad consequences? The country can lose its prestige, future investments because of the greed – much more than it will get by selling military hardware. The USA wants Saudi Arabia to become a stable ally. It isn't interested in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar: both are allies, have American bases. Some conflicts are taking place without the USA's role and influence.
Do you think that the ''anti-corruption purge'' will affect oil prices?
Any instability affects oil prices. Now it's clear that methods of a sudden reduction of oil demand have been accumulated, that's to say, they learnt how to decrease black gold prices. Destabilisation in the region always leads to a rise in oil prices. We can look at the recent story of the oil crisis in the early 1970s.
''We see that Trump, in fact, engaged with Saudi Arabia, signed many weapon supply contracts with it. It seems to me to be not a very forward-looking policy.'' Photo: kremlin.ru
Won't this conflict bring to a civil war or a new Arab Spring in Near East?
It can bring to some unpleasant clashes, impulsive steps. Not some revolution in Saudi Arabia but aggressive clashes with Iran are more likely and dangerous. Saudi Arabia behaves with some hatred towards Iran. As usual, Yemen that is suffering next to it anyway can become the scapegoat. Saudi Arabia can take stricter approaches against it.
Won't the unfolding situation affect the pilgrims who go to Mecca for Hajj and Umrah?
If there is serious fuss inside Saudi Arabia, for instance, a state of emergency or something similar, it will also indirectly affect the pilgrims. In general, there is a consensus in the Saudi elite that pilgrims are the good, it is their duty, it is a source of income. Whichever grouping wins, it is unlikely to take this issue lightly.