Desert Chieftains, Modern World

King Salman

by Richard Sindelar

As the Riyadh Comedy Club’s hit show, “How Am I Gonna Explain It Today” keeps ‘em rolling in the aisles, media pundits, analysts, and a wide range of governments are sorting through the dislocations, damage, and even opportunities affecting all manner of Middle East interests, from oil and investment to Iran and Turkey’s historical Ottoman relationship to the region.

For full context, here’s a full laundry list of stupefyingly odd and befuddling actions by the Saudi government, packed into a couple years since 2015. The list is lengthy and involves so many diverse actions that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman cannot dodge responsibility for them unless he were to claim to have spent the last months in a sound-proof isolation chamber.

  • Thirteen million new victims of starvation in Yemen, a virtual genocide by hunger.
  • Indiscriminate aerial bombardments that either disregard the presence of civilians, women, and children or follow Bashir al-Assad’s thuggish technique of breaking the will of opposition fighters through family destruction.
  • A nonsensical embargo on Qatar, a Gulf Cooperation Council ally, over tribal and family disputes dating back a century or more.
  • An equally nonsensical detention and forced “resignation” of a serving Lebanese prime minister, because he apparently sinned in the Saudi view of things by trying to work with Hezbollah, a Lebanese party holding a valid place in parliament.
  • The singling out of Canada, of all countries, for a clash over human rights.
  • Death penalty cases and executions of Islamic clerics preaching regime moderation and reform.
  • The prosecutorial demand for the death penalty for several women for the heinous offense of driving (under trumped up “treason” charges for talking with the foreign press).
  • The arrest and detention of perceived intra-clan opponents in the unique “Ritz-Carlton Prison,” under the usual go-to charge of “corruption,” tailored to attach only to those officials and businessmen who might oppose the authoritarian leader (see, e.g., Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping)
  • And, the pièce de résistance, the assassination of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi on Saudi diplomatic premises in Istanbul, a regime crime termed just plain “stupid” by The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman.

But this run of amazingly counterproductive policies and actions raises two much more profound questions that go to the heart of al-Saud rule, questions that will not easily fade and will inevitably grow in prominence in the days and months ahead:

  1. What is wrong with the Saud ruling clan, and its historically conservative, restrained internal tribal governance system?
  2. Is the al-Saud rule of the Arabian Peninsula legitimate at all, and if not, what is to be done?

Derailment of Governance

Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman—the true authority under the titular rule of the apparently dementia-affected King Salman—the internal governance of the ruling Saudi clan has gone horribly off the tracks, not unlike the Hollywood version of battered Ottoman military trains blown up and derailed in the epic Lawrence of Arabia.

On this tribal level, the Saudis have never been monolithic, to be sure, and brotherly struggles have been and are more common than Western outsiders appreciate. But those contretemps have always played out behind opaque palace curtains, after which the ruling Saudi clan present a united front to the world and erstwhile opponents, domestic and foreign.

Now, the infighting and Mohammad bin Salman’s authoritarian power plays are grist for international news, punditry, and social media, and Saudi clan politics has become a front-page Hollywood reality show. The gossamer façade of a sober, circumspect Saudi clan, presented to the world for decades, seems to have reverted to warring, desert tribesmen, born of the eastern Nejd desert where for centuries intra- and inter-tribal conflicts were a blood sport.

On the higher plane of nation-state Saudi Arabia, Saudi rule over the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula is and historically always has been fundamentally illegitimate, which is being brought into public discussion by current Saudi beyond-the-pale behavior.

Roots of al-Saud Rule

During 1200 years of history, from Prophet Mohammad’s first caliphate through the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties and the Ottoman Empire, the Arabian Peninsula has been in one way or another under the direct or indirect rule of Mohammad’s own tribe, the Hashemites. That changed after World War I.

The recent al-Saud rule is a residue of the Great Power division of the spoils of World War I and the vanquishing of the Ottoman Empire. The French-British Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the subsequent Mudros and Sevres treaties, were all drawn with the sole goal of power-sharing among Western powers, with little regard for traditional vilayet patterns of tribal and ethnic governance in the former Ottoman regions.

The western Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula has always been a distinct area, divided from the vast desert expanses of the Nejd region on the eastern side by a geological escarpment, of which the Hejaz and Asir Mountains are the most prominent part. When the British acquiesced to, or even encouraged, the al-Saud clan’s aggression in the Hejaz, they empowered the unseating of longstanding Hashemite rule. With the Hashemites driven north into Jordan, the British essentially unleashed the combined forces of warlike Nejd tribal politics and ascetic Wahhabism, a harsh brand of religion based more in convoluted desert animism and traditions than anything really Koranic.

Having seized this peninsular base, the al-Saud-Wahhabi alliance then used petrodollar influence to spread its cancerous version of Islam through Saudi-funded madrasas throughout the Middle East and even Europe, inspiring jihadist Islam and its terrorist bent. Moreover, possessing Mecca and Medina injects the al-Saud-Wahhabi version of Islam with steroids, providing a platform for claims that, as the Protector of the Holy Places, their version of Islam represents true Islam.

Outside the peninsula, many Islamic leaders and scholars decry the Saudi regime’s massive commercialized development projects in the sanctuary cities of Mecca and Medina, which have destroyed heritage buildings, shrines, and locations going back to the Prophet Mohammad himself, all in the name of Wahhabi interpretations of Islam. In 2014, the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation in England charged the Saudis with “cultural vandalism,” estimating that they’d destroyed over 90% of the historical and religious sites in Mecca.

Changing a Regime

As much as regime change is a dark phrase in a world of sovereign nations, shouldn’t some form of regime change be sought to end the virulent infection that is Saudi petrodollar-funded Wahhabi Islam, correct the Western-imposed errors of history, and place crucial oil reserves back in the hands of less immoderate Muslims such as the Hashemites?

This is not a situation where cooler heads should prevail, but rather a unique opportunity to right the wrongs of history, a small first step toward curing the illogical, 100-year-old European-inspired set of Middle Eastern nation-states. The process might be messy, and the heavy lifting to remove the al-Sauds might prove to be beyond the strength of any coalition of nations.

But U.S. and European policymakers ignore this history at their peril. The belligerent assertion by the Saudi Foreign Ministry that “the Kingdom … affirms that if it is [targeted by] any action, it will respond with greater action” puts into play possible vengeful massive disruptions of the world’s energy markets, if the Saudis choose to use the leverage of their oil resources. Do the United States and Europe wish again to be held hostage by a dysfunctional desert clan, as happened in 1973?

Alternatively, as has happened numerous times in relatively recent Middle East history, an apparently stable regime can descend into a debilitating civil conflagration at lightning speeds. An internecine civil war among al-Saud clan factions could quickly challenge oil and regional stability and pitch the global economy into a prolonged oil crisis driven by suddenly unavailable Saudi oil supplies.

Better to open serious multinational consultations on what might be done—however complex such an action might be—to excise the cancerous potion of desert tribal governance and ascetic, harsh jihadist Islam, and consider international movement toward returning the Hejaz and the Arabian Peninsula to the direct Hashemite descendants of Mohammad.

At the outset, diplomacy paired with some form of Trumpian deal where the Saudis are permitted to have a share of future oil revenue flows to fund the clan might persuade the al-Sauds to retire into some form of exile. But if tougher methods might eventually be necessary, the Potemkin Saudi military—great weaponry, but ineffectual manpower—will not be much of an adversary.

Turkey could play a central role. Under the neo-Ottoman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has expanded ties to Kuwait recently, based troops in Iraq, and deployed forces to defend Qatar’s border from Saudi aggression. It was, after all, Ottoman armies under the command of Egyptian governor Muhammad Ali who last expelled the al-Sauds from Mecca and Medina on behalf of Sunni Islam, concluding the last, brief Saud attempt at peninsular hegemony in the early nineteenth century.

In the end, a resolution of the clan’s internal governance matters, with the removal of Mohammad bin Salman as crown prince, might provide a convenient excuse for the West to sidestep the debate over the deeper question of peninsular legitimacy. But now that Mohammad bin Salman’s recent thuggery has unleashed the demons of change, the clan’s rule over the peninsula will remain an open debate for quite awhile.

Richard Sindelar, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as assistant professor of international studies at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, and international security, among others. The author wishes to thank his former student, Tyler Ledger, for his research on the historical legitimacy of the al-Saud clan upon which this article is in part based.

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  1. Once again we witness the distorting of history and suggestion of Wild West American policies that will only bring more suffering rather than solving anything. For an American to state that rule of the House of Saud is illegitimate when you Americans did the same in the drive westwards because it was your-so-called ‘Manifest Destiny’ is utter irony. Have you forgotten Andrew Jackson and the ‘Trail of Tears’? How did America attain the states of California and Texas? You sure did not pay the Mexican Empire like you did the Russians and the French

    As for the Saudis, you have made many errors in stating their recent history. The British did not hand over the country to the Saudis in accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreement. You can google Sykes-Picot map and very clearly see that the areas that constitute Saudi Arabia are not included in the infamous Zone A and Zone B. And British support to the King Abdul Aziz or Ibn Saud was minimal in comparison to what they sent to the Sharif of Makkah, who’s son Faisal worked with T.E Lawrence. For some reason people mistake this Faisal, who would be installed King of Iraq later on by the British, with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Now let’s go back further in time. After the Ottomans ended the First Saudi State, a surviving member started the Second Saudi State which was notably less expansionist than the former. The grandsons of this founding member fought amongst themselves for the emirate, and then got evicted out of their new capital Riyadh by the Emirate of Jabal Shammar. The father of King Abdul Aziz, Abdul Rahman, took his family and fled to seek refuge with the Beduoins living in the Rub al Khali before moving onto Kuwait. It was here that King Abdul Aziz had his first interaction with the British, and it was from here where he launched his legendary raid on Riyadh with his family, friends, and other tribesman to retake it in 1902, supported by the Emir of Kuwait. Thus was laid the foundation of the Third Saudi State. King Abdul Aziz was a Wahhabi no doubt but he was moderate. Of course moderate as a desert warrior could be, but had he been as much a fanatical Wahhabi like the Ikhwan he created, Saudi Arabia would not be having the Shia problem it has now. King Abdul Aziz did not allow the Ikhwan to slaughter the Shias when he seized Al Hasa from the Ottomans. Yes the Shias would later on be kept under wraps by the descendants of Abdullah bin Jiluwi and later governors of Eastern Province, but they nonetheless still live today. After King Abdul Aziz took Riyadh, many British travellers, for example Gertrude Bell, visited Riyadh. One of them was a captain by the name of William Shakespeare would would inform the Indian Foreign Office about King Abdul Aziz and his ability to rule. This Shakespeare would die in one of the battles fought between the Saudis and the Jabal Shammaris.

    After the Battle of Gallipoli when the British were looking for alternatives for knocking the Ottomans out, the Indian Foreign Office was in favour of arming and funding King Abdul Aziz to start an Arab Revolt. However the Foreign Office of Britain would choose the Sharif of Makkah, who had himself wrote a letter to the Consul Office in Egypt stating his desire to help the British fight the Ottomans in exchange for being made the King of Arabs and have the lands from the Indian Ocean to Mediterranean under his control, the infamous Hussain-McMahon correspondence. Of course the British would have other ideas such as Sykes-Picot and Balfour declaration, but they funded and armed Sharif Hussein who launched an Arab Revolt. The British did indeed arm and fund King Abdul Aziz, but the support was minuscule compared to what they gave Sharif Hussein. The money was paid to keep King Abdul Aziz from warring against Sharif Hussein as they both had a feud. King Abdul Aziz would spend the days of World War I arming and readying his forces for battle against the Jabal Shammar. After the end of World War I, the British betrayed Sharif Hussein as is known. To placate him, the British set up the Kingdom of Jordan and Iraq and made Sharif Husseins sons Abdullah and Faisal kings under British protection. This was before the Saudis invaded Hijaz. Another point you missed is that after Mustafa Kemal ended the Ottoman caliphate Sharif Hussein declared himself Caliph to the general outcry of Muslims worldwide. Following this declaration would King Abdul Aziz march onto the Hijaz. After Taif and Makkah were taken, Sharif Hussein would abdicate and be taken to Cyprus where he would die cursing the British. His son Ali would continue the futile fight against King Abdul Aziz, but would flee to Jordan. It was here that the ruling merchant families of Jeddah and nearby tribesmen would deflect to King Abdul Aziz. The merchant families were led by Haji Abdullah Alireza, the House of Alireza who are still an influential family in Saudi Arabia who were then and are still maybe Shia.

    The British only raised issue that King Abdul Aziz would not raid land that was under the sovereignty of Kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq, which the Ikhwan would do anyway in direct opposition to King Abdul Aziz as the relationship between him and the Ikhwan had long been tenuous. This would later lead to the Battle of Sabilla where he would defeat the Ikhwan. Now some Western writers ascert that the Ikhwan was then reformed into the Saudi National Guard, which is false. Some of the rank and file of the Ikhwan who had relented to King Abdul Aziz against Ikhwan leaders like Sultan al-Otabi formed the Mujahidun Brigade, which was vastly different from what the National Guard is. This brigade would be reformed into the National Guard and would consist of tribes mainly from the north which is why King Abdullah was named its commander since his mother was a member of the Jabal Shammar.

    What the British did do was to limit the extent of the Saudi advance. They had signed a treaty in 1914 with King Abdul Aziz, and would do so again so that their protectorates of Qatar, Trucial Coast (modern day UAE and Oman) and the proctectorate of Aden would not be raided. They also gave some lands of the emirate of Kuwait to compensate for the land they had requested that would connect the kingdom of Jordan with Iraq. The delineation isn’t fully done as they are issues relating to borders still between Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, for example borders between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and the old Buraimi dispute between Saudi Arabia and British-supported UAE. Of course the disputes are about oil as well. The British were not interested in the Arabian Peninsula as it had no value compared to Iraq and the rest as oil had not yet been discovered in Saudi Arabia. Also the British thought it would be ill-judged to control the Hijaz due to the presence of Makkah and Madinah. Interest would be formed only after oil was found in Bahrain, also a British protectorate, but after some surveys oil had not been found. That is until the Americans did in 1938.

    This brings to an end to the history lesson. I tried to keep it brief as much as I could.

  2. Now I will deal with your article. It seems like Americans can’t just get enough out of regime change. You also seem to not have any idea about Saudi Arabia which is astounding as you are an ex-diplomat. You seem rather grieved that the Saudis led OPEC to raise prices in 1973. You should thank the Saudis for they did not increase the price as much as other nations wanted to. In fact Saudi Arabia resisted calls from other Arab regimes to use oil as a weapon. Even during the blockade did the Saudis secretly supply oil to the US military. Saudi Arabia has long kept oil and politics separate. But that seems to have escaped your knowledge. For a dysfunctional family, you don’t seem to know about how the family came together to oust King Saud for King Faisal. A bloodless removal which is quite rare in the Middle East. The same King Faisal who would in 1973 call for the blockade. It is only now that Muhmamad Bin Salman has shaken the family system.

    Another point is that you Americans are also responsible for the spread of Wahhabism. You have long used religion to fight communism and socialism. Back in the 1958 Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles tried to set up King Saud as an Islamic Pope to counter the rising tides of Arab Nationalism led by Gamal Abdul Nasser. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, you Americans told the Saudis to match you dollar-for-dollar in combating them by arming Islamic fundamentalist and conservative tribesman, people you were arming way before the Soviet invasion. The Saudis were only to keen to follow and spread Wahhabism around because of two other events that also occurred in 1979: the takeover of Masjid al Haram by Islamic fundamentalists, and the Iranian Revolution. The irony for the revolution is you Americans allowed it. Released documents where you redacted information was enough to show that Khomeini was in contact with the Carter administration and he duped you Americans because the protest led against the Shah was by the communists. Khomeini came and hijacked the revolution. Once again the Iranian people were the victims of your regime change policy just as they had been in 1953 and even before that by the British.

    Your article also reeks of a lot of ignorance or American ‘exceptionalism’ in the way you stated that House of Saud would willingly relinquish control thanks to some deal. Stating that the endeavour will be very arduous is just the tip of the iceberg. You clearly do not know Saudi politics and society like many others of your ilk. Saudi Arabia has long been a secretive country hence information about it in the West is much based on hearsay. While you are correct about the military, the true fighting force of the Saudis is the National Guard. Saudi ruling elite has long distrusted the military for the military had many officials who wished to usurp power for themselves or were influenced by Arab nationalism. An example can be that during the Egyptian incursion in North Yemen, the Saudis were arming the Imamate fighters against the Egyptian-backed Republic government. The Saudis sent 3 planes filled with armaments to supply the fighters, but the pilots instead flew to Cairo and deflected. The creation of Saudi National Guard was because of the distrust of the military in the 50’s. You only need to see how many coups took place by the military in surrounding Arab lands for the Saudis to be wary. Back to the article, you still somehow after stating how difficult it would be bring change present a somewhat rosy picture of how you can easily give the oil resources away etc. Iraq went well didn’t it. You are already fighting war in Afghanistan whose cost is already astronomical. Think of the cost it would be to America. But then again has the costs ever be borned by you elites of American society that you would care?

  3. Professor Sindelar thanks for your insight on this topic! Very interesting read and perspective

  4. As it can be seen, Mr Sindelar has pinched a wrong nerve due to perhaps his incomplete awareness of the ME region. But still thanks to him for invoking or initiating a conversation rightly or wrongly. Problems can not be resolved by misrepresentation!

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