Saudi power play

  • A little insight

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia called back its ambassador in Canada, giving his counterpart in Riyadh 24 hours to pack up his bags, following Canadian foreign ministry’s statement on Friday expressing concerns after the arrest of activists in the kingdom.

The statement also mentioned the arrest of Samar Badawi, who is the sister of detained rights activist and secularist Raif Badawi.

On Monday, the Saudi state airline suspended all flights to and from Toronto, with all trade and investment between the two countries being frozen as well.

While Riyadh and Ottawa trade jibes, the US has also got involved asking more details about the detained activists from the Saudi government.

The Saudi move is the latest manifestation of how Riyadh knows no rulebook – diplomatic or otherwise – when it comes to its hankering after, and expressing, power.

Ellen R Wald’s Saudi, Inc: The Arabian Kingdom’s Pursuit of Profit and Power, published earlier this year, provides insight into the mindset that governs the Saudi power corridors.

Wald narrates the history of the oil giant Aramco, and through that expresses the evolution of the kingdom to a ruthless behemoth that stands on the clout of petrodollars. Mirroring Aramco, al-Saud family has only ever had one ambition: accumulating profit and through it all forms of strength.

A major influence on developing this ethos was Sheikh Abdullah bin Sulaiman Al-Hamdan, the first finance minister of Saudi Arabia, who helped King Abdul Aziz negotiating business with the US

A major influence on developing this ethos was Sheikh Abdullah bin Sulaiman Al-Hamdan, the first finance minister of Saudi Arabia, who helped King Abdul Aziz negotiating business with the US in the first two decades of the kingdom.

“To the American oilmen and diplomats who worked closely with him, Sheikh Abdullah seemed to have a razor-sharp focus on the here and now. The Americans incorrectly believed his sole concern was cash flow and not strategic vision. Even after King Abdul Aziz died and his son dismissed Sulaiman from his position as finance minister, the astute negotiating tactics and attention to detail that Sulaiman brought to the finance ministry remained the foundation of the fledgling Saudi state.”

From Abdul Aziz’s gambit to reconquer his ancestral home Riyadh in 1902, to the present day kingdom under Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, Saudi, Inc covers a century’s worth of stranglehold that a family has had on its territory, and how it has eyed similar influence around the world – not through physical expansion, but through one-point agenda of making the Arabian peninsula the economic hub of the world.

The use of Wahabissm and Shariah at home, and its spread around the world, has never been the goal – only a means to achieve one – argues the book. In fact, at a time when MBS’ so called ‘liberal’ policies have been getting raving reviews from various quarters, Ellen Wald believes the Saudi kingdom was pretty close to heading in a similar direction, only to take a 180 degree flip in 1979.

The Iranian Revolution, and Juhayman al-Otaybi’s seizure of the Grand Mosque that year, pushed Saudi Arabia towards an ideological purge, argues Wald.

“Though Khaled had been meeting with the ulama every week, he still missed the religious groundswell that had resulted in Juhayman’s radical movement. The ulama told Khaled that the cause of this violent episode lay in the proliferation of exactly the “un-Islamic practices” Juhayman had campaigned against before he became obsessed with notions of the Mahdi and a doomsday scenario. Crown Prince Fahd had been in the midst of pursuing a series of liberal reforms, but following the seizure, King Khaled became resolute with a new response. Al Saud would move toward religion.”

An offshoot of this was the rise in Islamist terrorist around the world, which the Saudis continue to parry away from its parry centre, as it continues to give the world jihadist conglomerates like al Qaeda and more recently ISIS. The kingdom has ensured that fundamentalist Islam continues to dominate at home, while its radical manifestations are spread overseas.

Even so, the book has a tinge of apologia vis-à-vis Saudi role in the ubiquity of Islamist terrorism, claiming that the kingdom was only ever interested in the spread of a non-radical brand of Wahabbism.

“It is critical, however, to distinguish between a fundamentalist view of religion and a radical one. Fundamentalist views support strict interpretations and traditional forms of practice, whereas radicalism supports upheaval, revolt, and political change. As the powerful ruling family of a preeminent Middle Eastern country, al Saud has resisted change”

The author overlooks the simple fact that Saudi interests lay in slightly differing views of the same brand of Islam being preached domestically and overseas, considering the differing interests in the same.

But even Ellen R Wald couldn’t skip the mention of 9/11 and the Saudi involvement in the most epoch-defining Islamist terror attack, even if words like ‘inadvertent’ are thrown about. In underlining the ideology that bred Osama bin Laden, the book also discusses the for al Qaeda chief’s family business in Saudi Arabia, which worked in tandem with al Saud family’s.

“The Binladin Group, started by Mohammad Binladin, the father of al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, grew rapidly through its royal contracts and had become the third largest employer in Saudi Arabia by the late 1950s. In fact, al Saud was so pleased with Mohammad Binladin’s work that he became known as “the King’s builder.” Mohammad Binladin’s construction company went on to receive lucrative contracts to expand and maintain the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and Mohammad was later appointed director of government construction by Abdul Aziz’s son, Saud. The two families were so close that the Binladin children, including Osama, grew up alongside the children and grandchildren of Abdul Aziz.”

The book doesn’t focus on Bin Laden, or the Binladin Group for that matter, but it briefly juxtaposes – perhapsinadvertently – the businesses of the two families to delineate the similarities.

And, of course, this provides valuable insight in the context of the Saudi-Canada standoff, especially in the aftermath of the Saudi state media’s now deleted tweet from Monday, where a graphic depicted an Air Canada airliner heading into the Toronto skyline.