[Rushtalk] The most dangerous man in the world?

Carl Spitzer lynux at keepandbeararms.com
Sun Jan 17 16:54:25 MST 2016

The most dangerous man in the world?

Saudi Arabia’s defence minister is aggressive and ambitious – and his
enemies within and without are in his sights
      * Bill Law
      * @billlaw49
      * Saturday 9 January 2016

Mohammed bin Salman attends a summit of Arab and Latin American leaders
in Riyadh AP 
When Mohammed bin Salman was just 12 he began sitting in on meetings led
by his father Salman, the then governor of Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh
Province. Some 17 years later, at 29 and already the world’s youngest
defence minister, he plunged his country into a brutal war in Yemen with
no end in sight. 

Now the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is jousting dangerously with its
regional foe Iran, led by a man seemingly in a big hurry to become the
Middle East’s most powerful leader.

Prince Mohammed was still in his early teens when he began trading in
shares and property. And when he ran into a scrape or two, his father
was able to take care of things. Unlike his older half-brothers, MbS, as
he is known, did not go abroad to university, choosing to remain in
Riyadh where he attended King Saud University, graduating in law.
Associates considered him an earnest young man who neither smoked nor
drank and had no interest in partying.

In 2011, his father became deputy Crown Prince and secured the prized
Ministry of Defence, with its vast budget and lucrative weapons
contracts. MbS, as a private adviser, ran the royal court with a
decisive hand after his father was named Crown Prince in 2012. 

Every step of the way, Prince Mohammed has been with his father , who
took his favoured son with him as he rose in the hierarchy of the House
of Saud. Within the Saudi religious and business elite it was well
understood that if you wanted to see the father you had to go through
the son.

Critics claim he has amassed a vast fortune, but it is power, not money,
that drives the prince. When Salman ascended the Saudi throne in January
2015, he was already ailing and relying heavily on his son. Aged 79, the
King is reported to be suffering from dementia and able to concentrate
for only a few hours in a day. As his father’s gatekeeper, MbS is the
real power in the kingdom.

That power was dramatically increased in the first few months of
Salman’s rule. Prince Mohammed was appointed Defence Minister; put in
charge of Aramco, the national energy company; made the head of a
powerful new body, the Council for Economic and Development Affairs with
oversight over every ministry; and put in charge of the kingdom’s public
investment fund. He was named deputy Crown Prince but ensured ascendancy
over his rival Mohammed bin Nayef, the Crown Prince and Interior
Minister, by absorbing the latter’s royal court into that of the King’s.

Impatient with bureaucracy, MbS has been quick to make his mark by
demanding that ministries define and deliver key performance indicators
on a monthly basis, unheard of in a sclerotic economic system defined by
patronage, crony capitalism and corruption. His sudden early morning
visits to ministries demanding to see the books is rapidly becoming the
stuff of legend, startling sleepy Riyadh into action and capturing the
admiration of young Saudis. “He is very popular with the youth. He works
hard, he has a plan for economic reform and he is open to them. He
understands them,” enthused one businessman.

That counts, because 70 per cent of the Saudi population is under 30 and
youth unemployment is running high, with some estimates putting it at
between 20 and 25 per cent.

But the same zeal with which he is pursuing economic reforms has also
led Saudi Arabia into a messy war in neighbouring Yemen. Last March, he
launched an aerial campaign against rebel Houthi forces that had run the
Saudi-installed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi out of the country.
Decades of Saudi caution were thrown to the wind as MbS presided over
Operation Decisive Storm. 

It must have seemed a very good idea at the time: the young, ambitious
son of an aged king leading a war against a rebellion in a troubled
southern neighbour. That the rebellion was supported by Iran made the
adventure even more attractive. The Saudi military was bristling with
new weapons – billions of dollars’ worth. MbS had a powerful older rival
in the Interior Minister and wanted to prove his mettle both to his
rival and his own supporters. The plan was to win a quick, decisive
victory to confirm his stature as a military leader, placing him in the
same league as his grandfather Ibn Saud, the great warrior king and
founder of modern Saudi Arabia.

MbS ignored the fact that the Houthis were a useful buffer against the
real threat to the House of Saud, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
(AQAP). He seemed, too, to have overlooked that the tenacious Houthis
had embarrassed the Saudis in a border war just a few years previously.
That was in 2009, when they seized the Saudi Red Sea port of Jizan and
left only after a substantial payment of some $70m (£48m). 

Thus far Operation Decisive Storm has proved anything but. The war has
dragged on for close to a year, causing infinite misery to the people of
Yemen. In intense aerial bombardments, much of the country’s
infrastructure has been destroyed while the Houthis remain defiantly in
control of the capital Sanaa and most of the north. In the south, AQAP
has had an open field. Undeterred, MbS has vowed to carry on, determined
to bomb the Houthis to the negotiating table.

“He is quite belligerent,” says Jason Tuvey, a Middle East economist at
Capital Economics. But Tuvey, like many other analysts, has been
impressed by Prince Mohammed’s grasp of the often maddeningly complex
problems that bedevil the kingdom’s economy. “On the economic front he
has done very well. He has shifted policy and he should be commended for
that,” Tuvey says.

Where the good in his impetuous nature may come undone is over the
growing struggle with Iran for regional hegemony. When MbS announced the
formation of a council of 34 Muslim nations in mid-December to combat
terrorism, he clearly had Iran in mind. The Iranians have strongly
backed the beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, both directly
and through Hezbollah, a militia trained and armed over the years by
Iran. The Saudis are determined to see Assad defeated before any Syrian
peace talks commence.

Now, with the Saudis executing the senior Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr
al-Nimr, a tit-for-tat battle is escalating. The Iranians allowed the
sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and the Saudis together with
other Gulf Co-operation council (GCC) states withdrew their ambassadors
in retaliation. The apparent bombing of the Iranian embassy in Sanaa has
further ratcheted up tensions.

In a widely circulated letter last summer, enemies within the ruling
family decried the arrogance of the young prince, even going so far as
to call for his ousting along with his father and Mohammed bin Nayef.
But those calls have led nowhere and MbS continues to ride a crest of
popular support in Saudi Arabia. The question remains, though, how far
his impetuous nature will take him in the conflict with Iran.

It is not outside the realm of possibility that this brilliant, brash
young man casting himself in his grandfather’s mould as a Sunni warrior
may be weighing up the options, may be thinking of a military strike
against Shia Iran – a frightening thought in a region already riven by
sectarian war.

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