Prince Salman Breaks the Saudi Status Quo, Wages War and Gives Interviews
The House of Saud: Prince Salman, now the power behind the King
NEW DELHI: Saudi Arabia, from the more acceptable quiet, behind-the-scenes role, has emerged on to the world stage with all guns blaring. The war on Yemen, the open support for the extremists against Syria, the execution of the Shia cleric, the snapping of diplomatic ties with Iran all indicate a change in approach that some experts insist is a reflection of its growing nervousness about wars within the House of Saud and without, but many recognise as part of the shift of power to 30 year old Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman al-Saud.
He will complete a year in office on January 23 and from attracting some attention because of his age initially he is now the cynosure of all eyes. And has started 2016 by a break in tradition by sitting with a woman journalist with her head uncovered, in a five hour interview with The Economist. And has answered hard questions with an air of authority that confirms speculation that Salman al-Saud is in command, and control, being the favourite son from the third wife of King Salman.
In a government and society where all big issues remain hidden, and rumours often assume wild proportions, it has been difficult for journalists the world over to confirm much of what is said about the young Prince. That he is volatile, he is wild, are some of the rumours suggesting that power has gone to the wrong hands, and that the House of Saud full of young royal contenders is brimming with resentment. This may or may not be true, but the fact remains that he is the favourite son of his father, and he has been given power as the Defence Minister that takes him across the world to negotiate policy. He was with Russian President Vladimir Putin just weeks ago to discuss Syria; he was in Pakistan more recently to discuss that country’s on the ground participation in the Saudi war against Yemen, as part of a larger coalition.
Prince Salman, part of the 70% under 30 population of Saudi Arabia was described by a royal advisor to the media as , “ a young man proceeding at 250 kilometres an hour.” And added, “. There are bound to be people who are upset.”
Last year, in what is highly significant, the Independent reported that BND, the German intelligence agency published and ‘leaked’ a one and a half page memo portraying Prince Salman “as a political gambler who is destabilising the Arab world through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.”
As the Independent noted, “spy agencies do not normally hand out such politically explosive documents to the press criticising the leadership of a close and powerful ally such as Saudi Arabia. It is a measure of the concern in the BND that the memo should have been so openly and widely distributed. The agency was swiftly slapped down by the German foreign ministry after official Saudi protests, but the BND’s warning was a sign of growing fears that Saudi Arabia has become an unpredictable wild card.”
And central to the unpredictability is clearly Prince Salman who is finding increasing space in the world media, and not all of it complimentary. The new aggressiveness in Saudi policy towards other countries in the region is being attributed directly to the Defence Minister, who is even more in control as his father is said to be suffering from dementia. The execution of the Shia cleric Nimr-al-Nimr is seen as a direct challenge posed by the young to the old status quo, where the cautious approach is being discarded fairly rapidly.
The interview with the Economist clearly reveals the power that the young Prince now enjoys, the confidence with which he speaks of policy, where the “we” is liberally interspersed with the “I”. He justifies the execution of the Shia cleric maintaining it was as per court order and not determined by the Shia or Sunni factor; he rules out the possibility of a war with Iran: “It is something that we do not foresee at all, and whoever is pushing towards that is somebody who is not in their right mind. Because a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region, and it will reflect very strongly on the rest of the world”; is clear about continuing the war on Yemen; is committed to regime change in Syria; speaks at length about the economy; and interestingly insists that women’s reforms in Saudi Arabia are being resisted by the women themselves. Speaking for himself, he says that he would like to see more women working, “No doubt. A large portion of my productive factors are unutilised. And I have population growth reaching very scary figures. Women’s work will help in both of these.”
Like the affluent of his generation, the Prince parties hard. And last year was in the news for what was reported as a $8 million private island party in the Maldives. Entertainment reportedly came in the form Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Gangnam but details of the guest list participating in the extravaganza remained a secret.
Time will tell whether the Saudi’s are feeling the heat of isolation for their policies in the region, or whether the muscle flexing is because of the young man in power whose ambitions ride high. As said in the interview to the Economist, “ My dream as a young man in Saudi Arabia, and the dreams of men in Saudi Arabia are so many, and I try to compete with them and their dreams, and they compete with mine, to create a better Saudi Arabia.”
“Better” is the qualifying term, central to the current controversy surrounding the Prince. Is he indeed moving towards a “better” Saudi Arabia or plunging it into war and conflict in the search for personal power?