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We simply can’t ignore the Israel factor in Saudi Arabian politics

November 21, 2017 at 9:45 am

King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

The shock “resignation” of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri earlier this month was part of larger domestic political machinations within Saudi Arabia. With the Saudi-Israeli alliance now in overdrive, though, there is little doubt that Israel’s quest for regional dominance also played a part.

Hariri appeared on Saudi TV offering his resignation as Prime Minister, claiming that there had been a threat to his life and sharply rebuking Hezbollah and its backer Iran. The Lebanese political-military movement’s resistance led directly to the end of Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon in 2000.

However, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun has said that the resignation cannot be accepted since it was not offered in the country, but was instead issued from a foreign city. What is more, it seems to have been made under duress.

Reports in Lebanon claim that Hariri – who in the TV footage reads his resignation statement off a piece of paper – was forced to quit by the Saudi regime. It is said that, having been summoned to Riyadh, he and his bodyguards’ mobile phones were all confiscated, and they were put under house arrest. He was then made to read the statement on TV.

Read: The myth of an Israel-Saudi alliance

Government authorities in Lebanon and parties across the political and sectarian spectrum have all stated that Hariri was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will, and that his resignation is thus, in the circumstances, null and void. Hariri’s own Future Movement has called for him to return to Lebanon.

Saad Hariri holds dual Lebanese and Saudi citizenship; he has long had extensive ties to influential and wealthy figures in the Kingdom, including princes and business leaders. His temporary house arrest in Riyadh was part of a wider consolidation of power by the ruling faction of the Saudi monarchy, King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

Earlier this month, on Bin Salman’s orders, 11 princes and around 200 businessmen were arrested. The heir to the throne has touted this as part of a crackdown on corruption in the Kingdom, of which there is plenty. Given the complete unaccountability under which the reigning faction governs, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is more about cementing the succession of Mohammad Bin Salman.

Having previously offered to buy some of the assets of the men under house arrest in the Ritz Carlton Hotel, and having been turned down, it is said that the Crown Prince is now resorting to what could be termed, somewhat euphemistically, “aggressive negotiations”. The businesses that Bin Salman is reportedly after include the lucrative MBC network, whose satellite channel MBC1 alone has over 130 million viewers in the Arab world. Its output includes the popular reality show “Arab Idol”.

Read: Rapprochement with Israel carries a heavy price tag for Riyadh

Hariri’s connections extend across the Saudi elite, and he is not thought to be particularly loyal to the Salman faction, which may explain why they seem to be trying to neutralise him politically. At the time of writing, Hariri has left Riyadh for France, and is now reported to be heading to Cairo, but his promised return to Lebanon – as demanded by Lebanon itself – has yet to transpire. Even if he does return, members of his family are reported to be in Riyadh, so Mohammad Bin Salman will still have a lot of leverage over him.

A powerful, Iran-backed, independent military resistance organisation is something that the Saudis do not want to tolerate, hence the sectarian accusations contained within Hariri’s forced resignation statement. This is even more relevant given that the Saudi regime now considers itself to be an ally of Hezbollah’s number one enemy, Israel.

Saudi attracts US attention by singing Israel's tunes - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Saudi attracts US attention by singing Israel’s tunes – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

King Salman and his son’s alignment with US President Donald Trump earlier this year in hindsight now seems a foreshadowing of this current upheaval. One of the princes said to be under house arrest is the mega-rich Al-Waleed Bin Talal. He has competing business interests with Trump and the US President attacked him on Twitter during the election campaign last year, calling him a “dopey prince”. The results of the Trump-Salman alliance seem to include the Saudi blockade of Qatar and the current circling of the wagons within the kingdom.

Moreover, there is another result; the deepening of the Saudi-Israel alliance. Since the popular Arab uprisings of 2011, the Saudis have been ever more open about getting into bed with the Israelis, despite having no formal diplomatic relationship. The cooperation between the oppressive apartheid regime in occupied Palestine and the oppressive theocratic dictatorship which dominates the Arabian Peninsula is now out in the open.

Timeline: Crisis in Saudi

Israeli media reported back in September rumours that Mohammad Bin Salman himself had visited Israel, supposedly to “discuss regional peace initiatives”, although the Kingdom later formally denied this. Nevertheless, it seems to tally with the current ramping-up of the Saudi rhetoric against Hezbollah.

More recently, Israel’s military chief, Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, had an on-the-record interview with the Saudi website Elaph in which he said that the Israelis “are willing to share [intelligence] information” with Saudi Arabia on Iran. This is highly likely to be a signal that cooperation between the two regimes’ spy agencies is already ongoing.

Like most of the Western media, it is beyond a joke that media outlets in Israel now refer to Saudi Arabia as a “moderate” regime. Indeed, that is the term used by Eisenkot in his interview with Elaph.

Interestingly, he also said that Israel and the Saudi regime have “shared interests”. The Israeli General has a point there; oppression, religious extremism and war crimes are very much characteristic of both states. We simply cannot ignore the Israel factor in Saudi politics any longer.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.