Eighteen months ago Muhammad Bin Salman (often now known as MBS) was the darling of the global media, his tour of America was celebrated in a widespread way across society in a manner that recalled 1930s Hollywood. It was exotic and it was glamorous, full of hope and optimism. MBS met with heads of state, captains of industry, chief politicos and even The Rock.
And there was real substance to it all; Donald Trump, on his first state visit as President of the United States visited of all places, Saudi Arabia and MBS literally made Trump dance to his tune. Many people around the world simply did not know how to react and instead drew in their breath.
Only a few months later, MBS is again known all around the world, this time though, with the unstated epithet of the most evil tyrant on the planet. He is accused of the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a once close associate of the Saudi royal family who had become a measured critic of it. Accusations are flying but nothing is known about where responsibility lies for the murder.
Aside from the murder, the trajectory outlined above is interesting in of itself and should arouse questioning. The international chorus is clear in its message that he now must be removed. Why was MBS so lauded before and why is he now being set up for a fall? Why the wholly disproportionate response to the murder and why will this story refuse to go away?
Whoever is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and to a political observer, it does not appear to be MBS, a trap has still been set. It has all the hallmarks of a conspiracy and the whole thing stinks. One must ask in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, cui bono, who benefits? In no way does Mohammed bin Salman stand to benefit whichever way it were to unfold. If MBS wanted Khashoggi dead, he could have killed him in a myriad different ways and every single one would have been better than this one, not even Kim Jong-Un or Putin have taken people out in this way. It is a political assassination without parallel.
There is hardly a man alive who is a bigger target for assassination than MBS and after a number of attempts have his enemies changed tack and tried to destroy him in a different way?
Who then are his enemies?
Few have realised the significance of what MBS has done in only two and a half years whilst still only the Crown Prince and he was originally an outsider for that post too. One of his first acts was to institute a Saudi government Mawlid (celebration of the Prophet Muhaamad’s birth) in Medina. In one stroke, MBS rewrote the mythos of Saudi Arabia and the central pact between Al Saud and Al Sheikh that founded, governed and endured through Saudi Arabia through its twice destruction by the Ottomans from two centuries ago and into the modern era. It was an unbelievable move and one without precedent-that a governing ruler rewrites the founding mythos of his nation whilst in power. It was one of his first major moves which also underlines its significance and where MBS’s priorities lie. It also showed the limitations of the media who were totally blind to the world changing significance of this event where religion is politics and politics is religion and which has redrawn the Middle East.
The mawlid itself is a celebration of the birth of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, about which there is a small inconsequential debate in the fiqh as to its permissibility. In brief, if you want to do it fine, and if you do not want to do it then fine. The Wahhabis used this as a rallying cry to kill Muslims in Arabia, to reform Islam and thereby gain their own polity. In reality, it was just a pretext for their insane lust for power much as identity politics nowadays with all the zeal that that brings.
Yet, MBS has gone against that and has ended Wahhabism and redrawn the Middle East. This is a clear case where religion is politics and politics is religion and the ideologically fixed mainstream political analysis and media was totally unable to see this.
Vision 2030 – from America’s petrol station to viable regional power
It is no surprise that MBS had to curry favour in order to obtain power. Saudi has been in thrall, since its inception to first British and then American design, and the powers that be are a conglomeration of state, corporate and banking powers. In this, despite Saudi’s unusual origin and exotic geography, is no different from every other place in the world – banks and corporations wield vast unaccountable power. MBS had to finesse them, get them on his side to in turn wield any semblance of power. Now, from a position of increased power he is renegotiating his position. He did not sign the big arms deals that Trump was trumpeting from the rafters of Twitter, MBS led him on with letters of intent.
The Vision 2030 plan is to transform Saudi from America’s petrol station into an independent regional power. It is impossible to push through such a massive plan without heavyweight backing, ie the banks. MBS did this by promising liberalisation of the economy, which has to happen to some extent. He has led the banks on with promise of a virgin market for them. There are few such untapped areas for the banks which are stretched to their historic limit and so they are champing at the bit.
The old pact reasserting itself?
If the murder was a setup, as seems apparent, then it would have required both internal and external coordination – the old nexus between the Saudi-Wahhabi establishment and the military-industrial interests of Britain and America. It is hardly surprising that such an enduring alliance cannot be easily killed off and that they can organise such a sophisticated hit. They are intimately involved in each other over many decades and the alliance permeates the Saudi state throughout every level, even though MBS’ anti-corruption drive made a valiant attempt at shaking that out.
Forget the lionising of Jamal Khashoggi as a champion of free speech and democracy. He was the nephew of the most arms dealer of his generation, Adnan Khashoggi, who was very close to the Saudi royal family. He was very much part of the establishment that has been torn apart by the rise of MBS. He had been a strong supporter of the Saudi royal family and the rhetoric about freedom of speech and democracy was clearly just that.
The woefully inept Saudi response only points to their lack of knowledge of the murder and they were clearly utterly unprepared for it.
No matter who did indeed kill Jamal Khashoggi and irrelevant of one’s political ties and hopes, the key question is this –
Is it worth attacking one of the primary stabilizing forces in a historically unstable region in a particularly unstable time over the death of a politically relatively insignificant individual with questionable ties?