Zugzwang - An undesirable Chess Move
Why MBS must now make a Zugzwang move; which will disadvantage him no matter which way he goes
London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 19 Nov 2017 - Ghassan Matar
Call it shock and awe. Call it a purge. Call it a clean sweep. However it’s characterized, the mass arrest of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent royals, administrators, cabinet secretaries and businessmen last weekend has completely upended the structure of the Saudi monarchy.
It is the latest instalment in an astonishingly rapid series of upheavals whereby all power is being concentrated in the hands of elderly King Salman and his 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MbS.
The inexperienced and erratic prince is attempting to replicate the late King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, who founded the modern Saudi state in 1932 by positioning himself as a new Abdel Aziz who will create a new Saudi Arabia for a new era and a new economy. He is also heeding the dictum of Niccolò Machiavelli that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved.
What MbS is attempting is a political high wire act, without a net, of the tallest order. He is promoting the very top, meaning himself and his father, of Saudi society, along with its bottom and centre, and sweeping aside much of the existing upper echelons not under his direct control. It’s bold and ambitious; it’s also an extremely risky and high-stakes gamble.
More strikingly, his bold moves come at a time when the juvenile prince is failing everywhere including his pointless and murderous war against Yemen which is killing civilians and achieving nothing, his blockade and demonization of Qatar which has all but wrecked the GCC, his intervention in Syria which has totally destroyed another Arab country and caused hundreds of thousands of civilian death, his intervention in Bahrain which has rendered the small country lifeless, his interference in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, his oil strategy which has backfired without harming the Russian or Iranian economies while having limited effect against US Shale as well as the rest of his foreign policy throughout the Middle East.
This entire theatre of blunders and unnecessary interventions are all being played out in the grand chess strategy of containing or weakening Iran and coming at a time of weak oil prices, depression era world economic conditions, low foreign currency reserves and above all, a weakened United States coupled with a fast disappearing Petrodollar standard, from which the Kingdom derives the majority of its clout and wealth.
His gambit began when he carried out a soft coup against Mohammed Bin Nayef, who was an ally to both the CIA and MI6; and who was nominated as Crown Prince by MbS’s father, King Salman; which itself was a break in succession norms.
On the night of the 20th of June 2017, the then Crown Prince Nayef (57 years old) was summoned to the Safa Palace and was pressured to give up both his roles as Crown Prince and Interior Minister by the Allegiance Council, established by the late King Abdallah to prevent the very same power struggle that unfolded.
The late King had meticulously setup the Allegiance Council (Biyaa Council) to ensure that future successions were based only on merit). The late King knew very well that future generations were far more numerous than the original sons of Abdel Aziz and an alternative succession strategy was needed to select the new Monarchs. The very destruction or bypassing of the Allegiance council was by itself a huge blunder for MbS especially since he asked the council to endorse his power grab.
Of the 34 members of the council, there were only three dissenters, namely Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the brother of King Salman and a former interior minister, Abdulaziz bin Abdallah, a representative of the family of late king Abdallah, and Prince Mohammad bin Saad, a former deputy governor of Riyadh.
After having humiliated Nayef, the then heir apparent, who was not only more senior in rank, but 20 years older, MbS violated another well-established set of rules; namely the Tribal rule of respecting your elders.
Although this may seem lame in comparison with his other actions; the breaking of tribal tradition in a society like Saudi Arabia will have cost MBS respect and credibility amongst all older members of society royal or not.
The latest appear to be the consolidation of political power. To all appearances, last weekend’s events appear to has secured this objective, the elimination of viable, independent power centres in the country.
However, it’s possible the crown prince and his father have overreached and that there will be a backlash because they have jettisoned decades of carefully calibrated power-sharing within the royal family and other elements of the power structure.
More specifically, MBS may had made a huge blunder by arresting Prince Miteb and removing him as the head of the National Guard, an institution setup and always controlled by the clan of the late King Abdullah. Prince Miteb was one of the few remaining senior princes to have survived a series of cabinet reshuffles that promoted allies of the crown prince.
This single reckless action which included the humiliation of Prince Miteb his brother and Khaled Al-Tuejri through accusations of corruption, thereby diminishing their status to criminals, is likely to create deep fissures within the royal family and result in the very outcome the move was intended to prevent, a coup by the National Guard. These fissures are also likely to play into the hands of foreign powers, unhappy about MBS’s actions; but more poignantly, can be dangerously exploited by the both Iran and Qatar, both facing Saudi aggression and hostilities.
MBS most likely feared that the National Guard, a well-armed and trained military force outside his command, and extremely loyal to both the Abdallah and Tueijri clan was conspiring to create a counter-coup and oust MBS in favour of the previous order including restoring Nayef as the heir apparent.
The majority of those arrested could also be classified as Nayef supporters, hence their inclusion in the corruption dragnet. The arrest and humiliation of Prince Al-Waleed seems to be multi-dimensional. Al-Waleed’s father Talal dissented and opposed the breaking of the line of succession, MBS wanted control of Al-Waleed’s Rotana Network, Al-Waleed company Kingdom Holdings enjoyed a high profile at home and abroad which irritated the young Crown Prince who craves attention, and Al-Waleed’s money; which MBS badly needs for his reform plans.
Another possible angle is the appeasement of Trump; a foe of Al-Waleed.
Al-Waleed’s arrest as well as the other two heads of Saudi owned TV networks outside government control Walid Al Brahim (MBC) and Saleh Kamel (ART) seems aimed at bringing the giants of Saudi and Arab media under unified government control. This is likely to curtail the diversity of opinion and coverage and control MBS’s message, as he conducts his dramatic restructuring of the Saudi state and economy.
It is clear that MBS is unable to handle any criticism of his policies and actions and feels that he has does not have the moral or intellectual credibility of the masses. MBS will most likely pursue a campaign which will include total censorship of social media, blacklisting of any organization or media outlet that he deems hostile to his actions and increased pressure on foreign governments to reign in criticism by dissidents which are likely to suddenly swell in numbers.
So what now.
It is clear to everyone that MBS’s moves, strategic or not, cannot be reversed. He has divided the House of Saud at its weakest point in its history and set in motions forces beyond his control. The anti-corruption campaign is being targeted at individuals opposed to his actions and on those closely aligned to Nayef. They are also being carried out with little or no due process to determine who is guilty of what. Many ordinary Saudis are cheering for now. But the arrests look like Xi Jinping’s purges in China, not the rule of law. As he meets resistance and his base narrows, the crown prince may rely increasingly on the security apparatus to silence critics. That would only repeat the mistakes of republican Arab strongmen: socially quite liberal, but repressive and ultimately a failure.
By inadvertently linking last week’s purge with his own NEOM grand vision project for the Kingdom, a plan to sink 500 billion dollars (money the Kingdom does not even have) into another desert city, he has probably all but scared away any hope of foreign investors. Furthermore, the ramifications of his reckless moves, are likely to keep him tied up securing his authority as opposed to planning a massive undertaking to reconfigure a country of 32 million people, 15% of them Shiites.
Iran and Qatar will move quickly to take advantage of family divisions to further destabilize the Kingdom. For nearly a century, few people could get inside the House of Saud; who jealously guarded their unity, their policy and their foreign strategy. The deep fissures caused by MBS are likely to be seen as a gift from heaven to Saudi’s foes.
A cascade of corruption allegations is likely to stream out against MBS’s own supporters and cabinet members. This will destabilize his government and prevent MBS from achieving any of his objectives.
MBS will try to divert attention of the Saudis from the internal strife by intensifying the campaign and rhetoric against Iran. The next logical objective is likely to be played out in the Lebanon. Although there is little to no chance of Saudi Arabia engaging Hezbollah in any direct military confrontation; they wouldn't stand a chance, or convincing Israel to do its bidding; there are other ways that MBS can try to achieve his goals which remain the same; weakening Iran by destroying Hezbollah.
There are several possible scenarios, all bad for Lebanon; the first is stirring up the Special Tribunal on the Assassination of Hariri to indict Nasrallah and Bashar Al Assad effectively forcing Hezbollah to take over total control of the political system in Lebanon. This is in the offing and could explain Hariri’s strange and humiliating resignation of Saudi Television.
This strategy would effectively pit the entire international community against Hezbollah. Sanctions and banking restrictions would follow leading to the desired goal of stirring up the Lebanese population against Hezbollah, potentially igniting a civil war in Lebanon.
Another scenario is for MBS to expel Lebanese Nationals working in the Gulf or preventing them from sending their money back home (approx. $8b in annual remittances); either way, Lebanon’s last remaining source of income will dry up and the effects will be felt across the swathes of the Lebanese society. This would also stir the Lebanese against Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia could also pull out its $1 billion of reserves from the Lebanese central bank which was deposited in 2008 to support the government of Fouad Seniora. This by itself would have no effect other than weakening Saudi’s influence and clout in Lebanon; however, if combined with economic warfare, could result in the downgrading of Lebanon’s credit rating, weakening the Lebanese Lira and draining the $40 billion in foreign currency reserves held at Banque du Liban.
Another plausible scenario is to re-ignite the Syrian war just as it is winding down by supporting a new wave of anti-Assad extremists, this time better armed, more numerous and with a clear objective thereby forcing Hezbollah into an ever escalating and bloodier war in the hope of wearing it out.
One thing for sure is that MBS is not considering or even contemplating a pragmatic strategy based on rule of law and dialogue. He is hell bent on doubling down on the same failed strategy. If MBS fails to achieve his objectives, Saudi Arabia will collapse and fragment into several states and a civil war will ensue. In the scramble for its riches, Iran will extend its influence in the region, the jihadi threat will exponentially rise and the West will be forced into another regional war it can ill afford.
While it is too late to reverse the upheaval MBS has unleased, President Trump and other Western leaders are wrong to cheer the purge on. The West should instead counsel the prince to immediately end the war with Yemen, keep Lebanon out of his sights, avoid escalation with Iran and free political life at home.