West’s blood-splattered ally
Despite millions of dollars spent and support from the US, Riyadh is hardly getting things all its own way, writes Yassamine Mather.
It is surreal that almost a year after the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Adnan Khashoggi - not to mention a number of reports, including an extensive investigation by the UN, implying the direct involvement of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in the most gruesome aspects of the crime - we live in a world where it is acceptable to interview him on US networks. Mohammad bin Salman is allowed to tell the world about the threat that Iran poses and how Saudi Arabia will stop it.
When MBS was asked if he ordered the journalist’s murder, he replied, “Absolutely not”. However, he accepts responsibility, since it was committed by “individuals working for the Saudi government”. He added: “This was a mistake. And I must take all actions to avoid such a thing in the future.”1
Agnès Callamard, the UN rapporteur on Khashoggi’s murder, has serious doubts about the 11 arrested suspects. Her report, published in June, calls for the crown prince and other senior Saudi officials to be investigated. She dismisses Riyadh’s trial of 11 suspects, which is taking place in secret, and calls it a sham. Callamard’s findings are important because they detail the involvement of the Saudi authorities rather than ‘rogue’ elements. Her report informs us that the Saudi embassy in Washington told Khashoggi to travel to Turkey to get the papers he needed, and in the meantime a team of 15 security officials were put in place, half of them associated with the crown prince and his office (including a specialist in dissecting and a Khashoggi look-alike).
The UN rapporteur tells us: “This was the result of a planned and elaborate mission, involving extensive coordination and resources.” The key recommendations of the report include a call on UN members to
impose targeted sanctions against individuals allegedly involved in the killing of Mr Khashoggi. These should include the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, focusing on his personal assets abroad, until and unless evidence has been produced that he bears no responsibility for the execution.
Of course, anyone with an iota of intelligence knows that government employees, never mind security officials, do nothing without the approval of the crown prince. The idea that 15 such individuals travelled to Istanbul to commit a murder and managed to involve consulate staff without the approval of bin Salman is beyond belief.
There are also the audio tapes from the gruesome events of October 2 2018. Few have listened to them, but, according to British barrister Helena Kennedy:
The horror of listening to somebody’s voice, the fear in someone’s voice, and that you’re listening to something live. It makes a shiver go through your body ... you can hear them laughing. It’s a chilling business. They’re waiting there, knowing that this man is going to come in and he’s going to be murdered and cut up.
Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, writes: “Western intelligence agencies believe that at the very least it was highly likely MBS knew in advance about the operation to silence Khashoggi. According to reports, the CIA believes he actually ordered it.”2
If October 2018 was a ‘difficult’ time for Riyadh, the last couple of weeks have not been that great either. First there was the bombing of two major refineries, forcing the Saudis to import oil from neighbours, including Shia-dominated Iraq.
Then last weekend the lifelong bodyguard of Saudi Arabia’s king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, was apparently “shot dead by a friend following an argument”, according to Saudi police. However, according to The Times, he had been recently dismissed from the king’s service and there are rumours that he may have had crucial information about the Khashoggi execution. Then came news of a humiliating military defeat in Yemen in the last days of September. Houthi rebels showed clips of a major offensive, revealing a large number of Saudi prisoners.
All this at a time when it looks like the US administration is not only refusing to take any retaliation against Iran for the alleged drone/cruise attack on Saudi oil refineries, but is actually very keen to make a deal with the Islamic Republic.
According to French officials, as well as the New Yorker magazine, last week during the UN general assembly, president Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, came very close to signing a four-point deal to restart nuclear negotiations and that it was Iran who pulled out. This from the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz:
Everything appeared to have been arranged. A secure telephone line was installed in a special room at the Millennium Hilton Hotel in New York, where the Iranian president was staying. Trump was anxiously waiting at the White House for Rouhani to leave his hotel suite and walk a short distance to the phone, so that together they would make history. But it didn’t happen.3
However, the paper adds: “The failure of public meetings to take place is not an indication that the diplomatic process is dead.” Indeed by October 2 we knew more details about the deal proposed by French president, Emmanuel Macron. Rouhani told the media that the plan for talks was broadly acceptable, and added: “Iran will not pursue nuclear weapons and will help the security of the region and its waterways, while Washington will remove all sanctions.”4
Of course, for Iranians of all political persuasions Saudi Arabia is important and it is not just about the Sunni/Shia conflict. The Iranian government’s animosity towards Saudi Arabia is more related to the kingdom’s post-colonial role as the defender of US interests in the region than to its Sunni character. After all, Iran has good relations with Qatar, Oman and Pakistan, to name just a few Sunni-dominated countries.
The current rulers of Saudi Arabia have been in power for a century - last week the kingdom celebrated 100 years of independence. During World War I the British, keen to defeat Germany’s ally, the Ottoman empire, signed a treaty with tribal leader Ibn Saud in December 1915. He accepted protectorate status as part of a deal committing his tribe to make war against the Rashid dynasty, then prominent in the Arabian peninsula, which was allied with the Turks. However, Ibn Saud, who was receiving a subsidy of 5000 pounds a month from the British, did nothing until 1920, when he finally attacked the Rashidi dynasty, causing it to collapse.
Ibn Saud then had control of central Arabia, having doubled the territory under his rule, but it was not until 1932 that he managed to unify all the domains under his control into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Ibn Saud was an absolute monarch. All decisions were made by him or by those to whom he assigned tasks (little seems to have changed in the last few decades). In May 1933 Ibn Saud signed his first agreement with an American oil company and after World War II the kingdom established close ties with the United States, while maintaining its relationship with Britain.
Animosity between Iran’s Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia dates back to the Iran-Iraq war, when Riyadh pledged $25 billion of aid to the government of Saddam Hussein and urged the oil-producing emirates of the Persian Gulf to do likewise. However, relations between the two countries improved in 1988, when the then king, Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ordered a halt on all propaganda against Iran. In the early 1990s Iran’s condemnation of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait saw further improvement in bilateral relations.
In March 2007 Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Riyadh, where he was given an official welcome by king Abdullah - the two countries were referred to in the Saudi press as “brotherly nations”. However, since the beginning of the Arab spring - a series of uprisings at the beginning of the decade - Iran claims Saudis have been financing jihadi/Salafi groups committed to the overthrow of the Shia republic and the destruction of its regional allies. The civil war in Syria worsened the two countries’ relations, as they found themselves on opposite sides, and the current conflict in Yemen is now seen as part of the decade-long proxy war.
It is pretty clear that Iran is financing anti-Saudi groups, such as the Houthis, and not just in Yemen. My particular concern is about Saudi funding of Iranian opposition groups, news websites and other media outlets.
Most of the exiled opposition, including sections of the so-called Iranian ‘left’, plus ‘human rights’ and national minority rights activists, have asked Riyadh for financial support at one time or another. This includes Reza Pahlavi, the ex-shah’s son, as well as the Mojahedin-e Khalq group, Kurdish, Baluchi and Arab separatists, and women’s activists - all have begged for money.
Directly or indirectly the Saudi royals and their accolades finance various satellite TV stations, which broadcast 24/7 in Persian. This is in addition to the US- and Israeli-financed TV stations. Some of these stations combine trashy programmes with news and analysis, although the standard is so poor, it makes you want to cry or shout in anger. However, for people in Iran - who have a very limited choice, given the state’s control of media outlets - such stations have become part of daily life.
Yet if the Saudis hope that the viewers of such programmes - presented by some of the most ignorant journalists and presenters I have come across - will become sympathetic to Saudi-financed opposition groups, they are badly mistaken. For all the billions they have spent on these stations and the political groups associated with them, there is no sign that Iranian royalists and other groups financed by the kingdom are gaining any support amongst the younger generation, who form the majority of the population in Iran. In fact such groups seem to have no followers at all amongst this generation, many of whom are opposed to all factions of the Islamic Republic on political as well as social grounds.
In fact events outside Iran organised by such groups this autumn have proved that they do not have many supporters amongst exiles either, including Iranians working abroad. A gathering in a London hotel of a few dozen exiled elderly has-beens, listening to abysmal talks, is unlikely to pave the way for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
If I was a Saudi advisor, I would point to all sorts of better investments than all the anti-Iran TV stations. On the other hand, why should we worry about how the Saudis royals squander their wealth?