The Saudi Trillions
It made perfect sense that the first port of call on President Trump’s first foreign trip, in May, was Riyadh. Saudi Arabia – the world’s second largest oil producer (after Russia), the world’s biggest military spender as a proportion of GDP, the main sponsor of Islamist fighting groups across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq, the leader of a coalition in a devastating war against Yemeni rebels now in its third year – is a country one can do business with, even as the most ardent Kremlinologists in the West struggle to understand it. It is a place often defined by its contradictions, in which tribal codes of desert and oasis – puritanical, patriarchal, frugal and austere – co-exist and frequently clash with lavish displays of wealth and such emblems of modernity as air-conditioned shopping malls, designer boutiques and six-lane highways flashing with supercharged vehicles exclusively driven by men. Trump returned from his visit with a promise – he claimed – of $350 billion in Saudi spending on American armaments over the next ten years, with $110 billion right away, of benefit particularly to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. The State Department celebrated the deal as supporting ‘the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of malign Iranian influence and Iranian-related threats’.
But the last few months have seen a series of changes in the kingdom that make its future more unpredictable than ever. At the beginning of June, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with its neighbour Qatar, demanding that its al-Jazeera network be shut down for broadcasting propaganda and launching a regional stand-off that is far from being resolved. Then, two weeks later, there was what appeared to be a palace coup. Since the death in 1953 of the modern kingdom’s founder, Abd al-Aziz Al Saud (generally known as Ibn Saud), succession has passed down the line of his sons. The present king, Salman, reportedly Ibn Saud’s 25th son, inherited the throne in 2015 on the death of his half-brother Abdullah and is close to being the last of his generation. At 81 Salman is in fragile health: he has had two strokes and suffers from Alzheimer’s. On 21 June the doting king promoted his favourite son, the 31-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known by the initials MBS), to the position of crown prince, putting him in line to be the first of the third generation – Ibn Saud’s grandsons – to occupy the throne. According to the New York Times, MBS’s elevation at the expense of his older cousin, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (known as MBN), was the result of a well-executed plot. MBN had been highly regarded by the US and its allies: as head of the interior ministry and chief of Saudi intelligence he presided over operations against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); he had attended training sessions with the FBI and was a powerful advocate of continued close relations with the Americans. In February the CIA honoured him with the George Tenet medal, in recognition of his ‘excellent intelligence performance in the domain of counterterrorism and his unbounded contribution to realise world security and peace’.
On the night of 20 June, the eve of the Eid al-Fitr festival that ends the holy month of Ramadan, MBN was summoned along with other senior princes for an audience with the king. Shortly before midnight courtiers answering to MBS – who was already chief of the royal court as well as the world’s youngest minister of defence – removed his phones and pressured him to relinquish his posts. MBN at first refused but eventually gave in and is now said to be under palace arrest. Afterwards clips of MBN paying allegiance to his younger cousin were shown on Saudi media, to demonstrate a smooth transition, and it was put about – this time by US as well as Saudi officials – that MBN had been suffering from the effects of the ‘arsehole bomb’ attack in 2009, when an al-Qaida operative masquerading as a petitioner approached him and blew himself up with an IED hidden in his rectum. MBN survived the attack but was said to have become addicted to medication he had been taking to mitigate the effects of the trauma. Members of the Allegiance Council, a body of 34 senior princes established by King Abdullah in 2006 to resolve disputes by approving changes in the line of succession, were told that MBN had a drug problem and was unfit to be king. Despite private reservations, the council deferred to King Salman and rubber-stamped its approval, in a vote of 31 to three.