Catalogue of political failures

The world of the Arab states is in dramatic decline. In this time of crisis, Saudi Arabia has stepped into a leadership role. According to Stefan Buchen, it is not up to the job

Essay by Stefan Buchen

It is impossible to conduct independent research in Saudi Arabia. Foreign journalists can only travel around the country in the company of government staff. All the same, it is easy to take stock of political developments over the past five years. All that has to be done is to measure the Saudi leadership's declared political goals and intentions in the region against the reality there. The gulf between the two is catastrophically wide.

In the Syrian civil war, the defining event of the present day in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia wanted to topple the Assad regime and replace it with a Sunni-dominated government. Despite the financial, political and military support the Saudis gave to relevant rebel groups, the plan failed. Indeed, this objective lies even further off than at any previous point in the Syrian war.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia's desperately poor southern neighbour, the Saudi air force seeks to bomb the Shia Houthi movement into submission and clear the way for a government allied to Riyadh and headed by the former Yemeni vice president Mansur Hadi. They have not yet succeeded.

At the start of December, it looked as though Saudi intervention had managed to pull off a coup. Yemen's former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had terminated his alliance with the Houthi rebels, and together with his tribal fighters joined forces with the Saudi-led coalition. It was a mere 24 hours before Saleh had paid for switching sides with his life. The Houthis, supported by Iran, demonstrated ruthless efficiency, exposing Saudi weakness in the process.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri of Lebanon annoucing the reversal of his resignation on 5 December (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
"A particularly embarrassing low point": at the start of his visit to Riyadh in early November, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri of Lebanon (pictured here) announced in an eight-minute long recorded message that he would step down. After two weeks in the kingdom, which prompted many in Lebanon to assume his resignation was made under duress and he was being detained by his Saudi hosts, he returned to Lebanon, suspended his resignation and continues to serve as Lebanon's prime minister

Fruitless initiative

During the summer, Saudi Arabia's ruling house took joint action against Qatar together with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. It also had the support of America. Under Saudi leadership, the coalition put in place a blockade against its smaller neighbour, demanding a halt to Qatar's increasingly close relationship with Iran and the closure of the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera. The initiative was fruitless. They failed to force Qatar to its knees. Al-Jazeera is still broadcasting.

Saudi regional politics reached a particularly embarrassing low point with the Hariri affair. In the eyes of the Saudis, the Lebanese premier, Saad al-Hariri, was too soft on Iran and the pro-Iranian militia Hezbollah, the most important political factor in Lebanon. The power of the kingdom was sufficient to force Hariri, its ally of many years, to announce he would step down. This he did on camera at the start of his visit to Riyadh in early November.

The video is just over eight minutes long. The sequence, which looks like an extract from a bad gangster movie, documents the decadence of political relations in the region in breath-taking fashion. The Saudi gangsters may have written the screenplay and directed the film, but that was it. They soon had to eat humble pie. Saad al-Hariri returned to Lebanon via Paris and suspended his resignation. He continues to serve as Lebanon's prime minister. Is it legitimate to count the fact that the Saudi government pumped billions of dollars into Egypt, (provisionally) saving the Egyptian state under Abdul Fattah el-Sisi from bankruptcy, as a glimmer of light? Does old-school chequebook diplomacy still work here? That is a matter for debate. What is undeniable, however, is the prominent sequence of regional political failures.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia visits Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi (photo: dpa)
"Is it legitimate to count the fact that the Saudi government pumped billions of dollars into Egypt, (provisionally) saving the Egyptian state under Abdul Fattah el-Sisi from bankruptcy as a glimmer of light? Does old-school chequebook diplomacy still work here? That is a matter for debate. What is undeniable, however, is the prominent sequence of regional political failures," writes Stefan Buchen. Pictured here: Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Abdul Fattah el-Sisi

Iranian superiority

There has been much talk in the media of the "rivalry between the regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran". Every foreign correspondent is writing about it. But there is often a degree of imprecision in these reports: "rivalry" gives the impression that the parties involved are equals, but that is not what the political reality looks like. On the military and diplomatic battlefields of the Middle East, Iran is clearly the superior force.

The Saudi leadership is looking for a way out in its alliance with the anti-Iranian Trump administration and closer ties with Israel. In their current desperate situation, the Saudis are blatantly practising something that was once unthinkable. It looks as if Riyadh is prepared to go along with anything in the hope that Israel and the USA will soon declare war on Iran and Hezbollah.

Haven't the Saudis spent many billions on weapons? Shouldn't they be more successful on their own? All legitimate questions. "It's just a giant, useless heap of metal," an Israeli government official once said in a private conversation on the question.

This cold analysis of Saudi weakness may be slightly at odds with the hopeful notes being struck by much of the media in relation to the new strong man in the kingdom, the heir to the throne Mohammed bin Salman. The media say that the 32-year-old is fighting corruption, allowing women to drive, and has drafted "Vision 2030", an economic and political plan designed to bring independence from oil income. The son of the elderly King Salman, the country's ruler, strikes a modernistic pose that is aiming for something along the lines of Atatürk, Muhammad Ali Pasha and Napoleon, but which threatens to end up being nothing short of ridiculous.

Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia at the launch of "Vision 2030" (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia at the launch of "Vision 2030", a maor plan to reduce Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil revenue and to bring economic and social change to the country

Flight of fancy

Mohammed bin Salman wants to spend 500 billion dollars building a new hyper-modern city in the desert. It is to be called "Neom". Joe Kaeser, the CEO of Siemens, travelled to Riyadh in November to offer his assistance. It must be said that the fact that the head of the long-standing Dax company gave more than 24 hours of his time to an infantile flight of fancy is a compelling reason to doubt his management qualities.

This doesn't mean that German companies aren't going to make money in Saudi Arabia in the future. But their earnings will come less from the knowledge-based progress of the commonwealth than from the kingdom's desperate attempt to stave off its downfall by selling border installations, small arms, patrol boats and surveillance technology. 

Foreign journalists are not permitted to conduct independent research in the country. But they can talk to knowledgeable people who have gathered plenty of experience there. A German professor of mathematics, for example, who advised the government in Riyadh for many years and had dealings with ministers, provincial governors and their staff, reaches the harsh conclusion that the Saudis are "incapable of coping with the challenges of life".

A few lines do not suffice to get to the bottom of what has happened here – even with research. More than 30 years ago, the novelist Abd al-Rahman Munif set down the view in his masterful cycle "Cities of Salt" that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had taken a detour on the road of civilisation. It was as if the meeting of the Texas oil barons with the Bedouins of the Najd had given rise to a kind of "Arab Trash". Munif's Saudi citizenship was withdrawn in response to this book.  

Until three generations ago, tenacity and the will to survive, a sense of reality and a clear sense of dignity were the hallmarks of the Bedouins of the Arabian peninsula, the ancestors of the people we now refer to as "Saudis". Abd al-Rahman Munif is not the only one to bear witness to this. Today, the country has become a kingdom that has raised procuration to the status of a principle for life. It seems to believe it can buy anything with money: progress, security, political influence, military victories. The vacuum created by this weakness will cause the world hold its breath.

Stefan Buchen

© 2017

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin