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Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ruled by the House of Saud. It has been rocked by a royal purge done at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. This involves a purge of royal family members, high ranking officials and businessmen over corruption allegations. This is seen as an attempt by Mohammad bin Salman to consolidate his and his father's hold over the Kingdom. What are the implications for India and the world? The author tries to explain in this piece.
As more details of the royal purge in Saudi Arabia, carried out by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman come out, the picture only gets muddier. The events in the Kingdom have implications not just for the future of Saudi Arabia, but also for the US, and India. What this means for Saudi Arabia For Saudi Arabia, the purge differs from the 1964 deposition of King Saud, which was done by family consensus among the different branches. In the present case, King Salman carried out a purge to prevent such a family consensus from emerging. This means that for the first time since the establishment of the Saudi state in 1932, the kingdom is no longer run by family consensus & tribal balance, but by one man alone. As problematic as the old system was, it did provide some checks and balances against despotism. The old balance of power meant that no single branch of the family could be in a position to forcefully impose their views or ways on other branches or the country. Essentially Saudi foreign policy was disjointed depending on who was in power and who out, with several prominent princes also being prominent patrons of terror. The only uniting factor was that domestic stability was all important, meaning domestic radicals should be sent abroad and not allowed to become a threat to the kingdom itself. Invariably this passive support to terror was passed off as resulting from the intricacies of having control spread over multiple power centres to world leaders, and at other times as a crucial intelligence imperative helping gather intelligence, to the intelligence community. This was in fact an accurate summation of what the problem was, both in terms of division of power and the need to cultivate some terrorists in order to gain intelligence on other terrorists. Consequently the centralisation of power as a result of this purge means that the cultivation of unsavoury characters for intelligence gathering will continue but will be centrally controlled under one united vision - with private patronage not allowed to get out of control anymore. As a result Saudi Arabia will no longer be able to dodge responsibility if one of its pet terrorists decides to go rogue. It also means Saudi policy will henceforth be much more decisive and hence risk prone, the partially successful blockade of Qatar and disastrous intervention in Yemen simply being a foretaste of what is to come. What this means for the region This consolidation carries a very clear threefold message to the region: Saudi geopolitical supremacy manifested in Implacable hostility to Iran and the Shia crescent, the threat of destabilisation to countries who do not choose Saudi Arabia over Iran, and the bribing of major powers to reduce resistance to Saudi goals in the region. For example in Lebanon the forced resignation of Saad Hariri is aimed at destroying the Christian-Sunni-Shia denominational power sharing, possibly re-igniting conflict there again.
This sharpens the Sunni -Shia polarisation in greater Syria, forcing Hezbollah to concentrate on Lebanon, greatly reducing support to the Assad government. Saudis have already neutralised Russian hostility by agreeing to purchase a large tranche of Russian weapons systems - arms that are totally incompatible with the current structure of Saudi force.Though Yemen is undeniably a disaster for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is a triumph for the King of Saudi Arabia. The Yemen intervention was in fact a carefully crafted internal consolidation mechanism, which forced the over-pampered, underutilised Saudi forces to finally be used in real combat. This would have two effects - expose incompetence in the command structure, necessitating replacement. This weakened any peripheral threat it may have posed to Prince Mohammad, but also made it much more combat-effective over a period of time and less political. In fact if we take Yemen as a template, we may just have direct Saudi intervention in the greater Syria region. What this means for the US Irrespective of whether the purge weakens or strengthens Prince Mohammad, the net winner has been President Trump. In one fell swoop, much of the funding for his liberal opponents within the US has been threatened, given the deep penetration of Saudi resources in the US media and social media. Should the kingdom decide for example to confiscate Prince Al Waleed Bin Talals shares in Twitter and Facebook, this would mean direct influence on their censorship policies and content, available for Trump to apply on demand and outside the ambit of US law. More importantly, the Saudis can no longer claim that Prince Talal is an independent centre of power not prone to their influence. Similarly the consolidation of the Sunni arc, will drastically increase Iran's threat perception, forcing it into ever more aggressive actions such as missile testing, which though not covered under the nuclear deal (such as missile testing), certainly give opponents of the deal much fodder. The argument here is why does Iran need missiles that are militarily useless without nuclear warheads? This strategy of permanent tension vis-a-vis Iran, may very well end up forcing Iran into a series of actions which may lead the west to conclude the nuclear deal is simply not worth it. This dovetails neatly into the Saudi quest for geopolitical prominence, Israel's quest to be free of what is possibly its most potent enemy to date, and Trump's assertions that the Iran deal is fundamentally bad. What this means for India Finally we come to the question of the implications for India. Indirectly our main problem - Pakistan will find that it can no longer afford to be neutral in the Saudi-Iranian great game. The problem for them is that this comes at a heavy price of internal destabilisation irrespective of the choice they make. India could also be the beneficiary of short term attempts by the Saudis to coerce/cajole Pakistanis into acquiescence. Directly on the other hand, the same pressure may be brought to bear on India itself. Cracking down on extremist Wahhabi interpretations of Islam taught in Saudi funded madrassas, could see a positive albeit non-tangible impact on domestic radicalisation over the medium to long term & the consequences for India's gulf diaspora remain highly unpredictable. Should Prince Mohammad's grand scheme fail, the collapse of the Saudi consensual system means that the only pressure valve for dissent now seems civil war, which would act as magnet for international jihad. This temporary jihad vacuum bodes a short term positive for India but a significant long term danger depending on who or what triumphs in that conflict. In the final analysis, this purge opens up several opportunities and dangers for India. For the Middle East, this heralds a period of renewed trouble. The only person emerging unscathed and with significant advantages seems to be President Trump.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets as @Iyervval