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Smack in the Middle East

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on November 10, 2017

I’ll have the power: Conspiracy theories have flourished since King Salman dismissed blood brother Nayef’s son Mohammad to ensure his own son’s pre-eminence in the Saudi line of succession.   -  Reuters

A trifecta of events — a Prime Minister’s resignation, a missile fired and arrests of members of a royal family — bodes ill for the balance of power in the volatile region

It was the centenary of that spectacular act of effrontery, by which one country gift-wrapped another for the people of various others. But the UK, author of that act of gifting what was never its, was in no mood for contrition. Early November, British Prime Minister Theresa May marked the centenary of the Balfour declaration, playing host to Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite the pressure and a snub by opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, May refused an apology for the historical wrong that continues to take a toll. The UK was proud of its role in the creation of the Zionist state, she said, while it was also committed to justice for the Palestinians.

Netanyahu lauded May for the courage shown in staying on the right side of history. That flourish came from the unique conceit of Zionism, which sees the supplanting of the indigenous Palestinians by settlers as part of historic Jewish destiny. It was of course a decidedly British hand that authored that destiny, and an American hand that sustains it.

Israel’s continuing ability to tweak Western guilt and sympathy means that ironies of history could be overlooked: such as Lord Balfour’s anti-Semitism and his sponsorship in 1905 of a law to restrict the immigration of Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms. Balfour’s later embrace of the Zionist cause came not out of a newly-awoken spirit of benevolence but from something akin to embarrassment. As he put it in a contribution to a 1919 history of Zionism, it came from the need to “mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilisation by the presence in its midst of a Body (sic) which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb”.

Aside from all else, Israel requires another prop. The Arab state system, which came into existence soon after the Balfour declaration, has been instrumental in configuring the regional balance of power. It has been prone to violent disruption at periodic intervals, but balance or a continuing state of instability, is maintained to ensure Israel’s dominance.

Today, with that state system in crisis, Israel’s enforcement capacity in league with the US, may be wearing thin. The turmoil in Iraq and Syria, now inextricably conjoined, is part of the new normal. But a trifecta of events in and around the Saudi capital of Riyadh, has caused fresh eruptions of worry about a possible meltdown in one of the central pillars of order in the region.

First came the curiously staged resignation by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Following the assassination of his father in 2005, Hariri has taken up the representation of the Sunni faith in Lebanon’s confessional politics, and in that capacity inherited the patronage of the Saudi royal family. The forced tone of the resignation speech he made from Saudi territory, attacking Iran and the Shia Hezbollah party, which is his partner in government, seemed to suggest a hostage situation more than a patron-client relationship.

Lebanon’s Maronite Christian president, Michel Aoun, a fierce opponent of the Iran-Syria axis who has now made his peace, signalled that he would wait for Hariri’s return before acting. Still basking in the glow of the Balfour centenary in London, Netanyahu warned darkly that Iran’s provocations had for too long gone unanswered.

Further chaos was meanwhile underway in the Saudi capital. King Salman who has chopped and changed the order of precedence within the vast al-Saud family to bring his young and impetuous son Mohammad to the top of the line of succession, removed the son of his predecessor, Mutaib bin Abdullah, from his position as minister of the National Guard. Created in 1964 and headed since then by the Abdullah branch, the National Guard ensures the security of the royal family and Islam’s holiest shrines. Its existence on a higher pedestal than the Saudi army is a measure of the power dynamics within the ruling establishment and its multiple perceived threats.

A police dragnet soon swept up some of the wealthiest and influential members of the royal family, and their detention in the opulence of a super-luxury hotel in Riyadh on charges of corruption. The same day, Shia rebels in Yemen who have fought a brutal two-year long Saudi offensive to a stalemate, launched a missile that was intercepted within uncomfortable proximity of Riyadh.

Conspiracy theories have flourished since Salman dismissed blood brother Nayef’s son Mohammad to ensure his own son’s pre-eminence in the Saudi line of succession. Mohammad bin Nayef (or MBN) is reportedly under house arrest. These theories gained fresh life when Mansour bin Muqrin, son of MBN’s predecessor as crown prince, was killed in a helicopter crash near the Yemen border. And then there were rumours, unconfirmed at this time, that the son of former King Fahd, another of Salman’s blood brothers, had been killed resisting arrest in Riyadh.

The Saudi kingdom is intent on hauling itself into the ranks of modernity while solidifying its alliance with the US-Israel axis of power. But the agency of that transition — a large and unwieldy family beset with internal tensions — seems incapable of rising to the challenge, at just a time that the entire region is sinking into a phase of endemic conflict.

Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat

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Published on November 10, 2017
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