The Arabian Game of Thrones Heats Up
The reported torture, murder, and dismemberment of Washington-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate-general in Istanbul reminded the world that an intense power play is now taking place within the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula and between them.
In November 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) ordered the arrest and detention at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton Hotel of over 200 members of the Saudi royal family, including eleven rival princes, as well as government ministers and influential businessmen. That came after an October 2017 meeting in Riyadh between MbS and Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, conclave that lasted well into the early morning hours. At the meeting, Kushner is said to have turned over to MbS a list of the names of the Crown Prince’s opponents: leading figures of the Saudi royal house, government, and major businesses. The list may have also contained the name “Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi.”
The list of Saudi names was, reportedly, compiled by Kushner from top secret special code word documents he had specifically requested from the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency. The documents were specifically requested by Kushner, not because he was an expert in communications intercepts, but because he likely had a control officer who told him what files to obtain. The Kushner family have longstanding ties to the Israeli Likud Party, as well as the Mossad intelligence service. The Mossad enjoys a close working relationship with the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, which is now firmly committed to MbS after a previous purge of its upper ranks following MbS’s rise to the heir apparent position in the House of Saud.
Those on the list handed over to MbS by Kushner were all subjects of NSA and CIA communications intercepts of phone calls, video conferences, and emails. Kushner is said to have had a phone conversation with MbS a day before Khashoggi was murdered.
Reports from U.S. intelligence sources report that the NSA had intercepted high-level communications between the Saudi government in Riyadh and the Saudi consulate-general in Istanbul indicating that there was a plot afoot to either kidnap Khashoggi and fly him back to Riyadh or murder him on the spot. Kidnapping and detention is definitely part of MbS’s playbook as seen with his kidnapping and detention in Riyadh on November 3, 2017 of arriving Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. No sooner had Hariri’s plane touched down in Riyadh, was his cell phone confiscated by the Saudis and he was detained. Hariri was forced to resign in a forced statement read by him on a Saudi television network. MbS was hoping to replace Hariri with his older estranged brother, Bahaa Hariri, someone that MbS had in his pocket.
MbS had bragged to close advisers that he also had Jared Kushner “in his pocket.” Lebanese President Michel Aoun demanded Hariri’s immediate release by the Saudi regime and his return to Beirut. Just as Riyadh denied it had murdered Khashoggi, it refused to admit that it was holding Hariri against his will. MbS ordered Hariri flown to Abu Dhabi to meet with MbS’s on-and-off-again ally, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the heir apparent to the presidency of the United Arab Emirates. At the age of 57, MBZ is not as brash as the young and impetuous MbS. This has been witnessed by MBZ’s willingness to work with Jordanian King Abdullah II to seek an accommodation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. MbS is reportedly furious with MBZ and Abdullah, the latter a member of the Hashemite family, who were ejected from their rule over Mecca and Medina by the British and Sauds, following World War I. Ever since the Hashemites’ loss of the Hejaz region of Arabia to the radical Wahhabist Sauds, there has been bad blood between Riyadh and Amman.
MbS is also upset over MBZ’s support for rival claimants to power in South Yemen. MbS is supporting the rump Yemeni government, much of it in exile in Saudi Arabia, against the Iranian-supported Houthi government ruling from Sana’a in north Yemen in a bloody and genocidal war being orchestrated by Riyadh, with the support of the Trump adminstration and the Israeli regime.
The UAE has been supporting the Southern Transition Council (STC), which strives for South Yemen’s reversion to an independent state, a status it enjoyed before a forced merger with north Yemen in 1990. Caught in the middle are forces loyal to Sheikh Abdullah bin Issa al Aafrar, the Sultan of the Mahra State, which was disestablished when South Yemen achieved independence in 1967. The Mahra Sultan, who is living in the neighboring Sultanate of Oman, under Sultan Qabus bin Said’s protection, is also in the gun sights of MbS, who does not want any competition for Saudi control of all of Yemen.
Oman is reportedly backing the Al-Mahra and Socotra People’s General Council, which is composed of the Mahra Sultan and Mahri tribal elders. This rival governing authority wants to be free of any control by the Saudi, Emirati, Houthi, and the pro-Saudi Yemen government. Through the offices of Oman’s mission to the United Nations, the General Council has been in direct contact with the UN Security Council. The STC also includes members of the tribes and royal families of other former states of the British colonial era Federation of Arab Emirates of the South and Protectorate of South Arabia. These include the Kathiri State, Sultanate of Lahej, the Qu’aiti State of Hadhramaut, and the Emirates of Dhala and Beihan.
MbS is known to be angling to select the successor to Qabus, who has no children and has been a thorn in Riyadh’s side. Under Qabus, Oman has been friendly to Iran and the Assad government in Syria, as well as Qatar, where the 36-year old Emir, Tamim bin Hamad, has infuriated MbS by maintaining relations with Iran. In 2013, Tamim’s father, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, formally abdicated the throne in favor of his son. However, it is well known that Hamad still pulls the strings in Doha. In 1995, Hamad deposed his father, Khalifa BIN Hamad al Thani, who was undergoing medical treatment in Geneva. In 1972, Khalifa ousted his cousin, Ahmad, while he was on a hunting trip in Iran. Ahmad settled in Dubai, where he married the daughter of the Emir of Dubai. MbS and MBZ are anxious to prop up a rival to the current Qatari emir from the ranks of potential claimants to the throne in Doha, including two rival al-Thani clan members who the Saudis have claimed have rightful claims to the Qatari throne – Abdulla bin Ali Al Thani and Sultan bin Suhaim Al Thani.
MbS, along with all the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, have instituted a punishing economic and diplomatic embargo on Qatar. There is some speculation in the Middle East that MbS is quietly backing to succeed Qabus, Taimur bin Assad, the 37-year old son of Qabus’s cousin, Said Assad bin Tariq. As the deputy prime minister for international cooperation, Said Assad bin Tariq was designated as the official heir to the ailing Qabus.
In this Arabian “Game of Thrones,” MBZ may have his own favorites among other claimants to the sultan’s throne in Muscat. These include Said Assad bin Tariq’s half-brothers, Haitham bin Tariq, currently the culture minister, and Shihab bin Tariq, a former commander of the Omani navy. MBZ is reportedly running a network of spies within the Omani royal court to influence the succession to Qabus. There is another, non-Arabian prince, who could also have a great deal of influence in the Omani royal succession. He is the Prince of Wales, Charles, the future King of England, who has been a longtime friend and confidante of Sultan Qabus.
Oman and Qatar have their own agents of influence within the royal families of the seven emirates that make up the UAE. In July, Sheikh Rashid bin Hamad al-Sharqi, the second-in-line for the throne in Fujairah, the UAE emirate that borders Oman, turned up in Qatar to ask for asylum. He said that MBZ’s government was using extortion to eke out transfers of large sums of cash by Emirati royal families to unknown parties around the world, including those in Ukraine, India, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. The UAE, along with the Saudis, are major financial supporters of jihadist elements around the world. Sheikh Rashid has also provided Qatari intelligence with details of discontent among the emirates of the dictatorial policies of MBZ in Abu Dhabi. The other emirs are also critical of the UAE’s involvement in the genocidal civil war in Yemen, one in which troops from Fujairah, Umm al Quwain, Ajman, Sharjah, and Ras al Khaimah, are used for cannon fodder, while those from the wealthier Abu Dhabi and Dubai avoid frontline combat.
Recently, the Saudis have pressured their puppet king in Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, to fire his uncle, Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. Prince Khalifa is the world’s longest-serving prime minister. However, he has apparently irritated MbS with his work to protect the rights of foreign workers, including those from the Philippines and south Asia, in Bahrain and the wider Gulf region.
MbS and Kushner are known to view Iran as the chief threat to peace in the Middle East. MBZ shares in their view of Iran, something that is, apparently, not shared by the emirates of the northern Gulf region, including Fujairah. From their actions, MbS and MBZ are, along with their Israeli and American allies, the major threat to peace in the region. The assassination of a journalist resident in the United States in a third country, Turkey, and the kidnapping and house arrest of a sitting prime minister of another nation is unprecedented behavior in the Middle East. The Saudis are only matched by Israel in their total disregard for international norms of behavior in the Middle Eastern region as they and their cohorts engage in their bloody “Game of Thrones.”