- Toby Jonesassociate professor of history and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University.
- Afrah NasserYemeni journalist and founder and editor-in-chief of the Sana’a Review.
Saudi authorities arrested scores of prominent officials over the weekend, including 10 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers, in a massive shakeup by King Salman aimed at consolidating power for his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the main architect of the kingdom’s war in Yemen. Among those arrested was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest people, with an estimated net worth of at least $17 billion. Talal has investments in many well-known U.S. companies, like Apple, Twitter, Citigroup—and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, News Corp. The arrests, on unspecified “corruption” charges, came just hours after the crown prince convened a new anti-corruption committee with wide-ranging powers to detain and arrest anyone accused and to search their homes and seize their assets. Meanwhile, the White House said President Trump called King Salman to offer thanks for the kingdom’s purchases of billions of dollars in U.S. weaponry, while praising what it called the kingdom’s “modernization drive.” We speak with Toby Jones, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, and with Afrah Nasser, Yemeni journalist and founder and editor-in-chief of the Sana’a Review.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to the blockade happening this past weekend. And right about the same time—well, last week, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who’s now with him in China, went to Saudi Arabia. Then, soon afterwards, Saudi authorities arrested scores of prominent officials over the weekend, including 10 princes, four ministers, dozens of former ministers, in a massive shakeup by King Salman aimed at consolidating power for his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the main architect of the kingdom’s war in Yemen. Among those arrested, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest people, with an estimated net worth of something like $17 billion. Talal has investments in many well-known U.S. companies, like Apple, Twitter, Citigroup and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, News Corp.
The arrests, on unspecified “corruption” charges—they said it was about corruption—coming just hours after the crown prince convened a new anti-corruption committee with wide-ranging powers to detain and arrest anyone accused and to search their homes and seize their assets—the arrests came as the White House said President Trump called King Salman to offer thanks for the kingdom’s purchases of billions of dollars in U.S. weaponry, while praising what it called the kingdom’s “modernization drive.” After these arrests and the consolidation of the prince’s power, Trump tweeted his support for the Saudi arrests, writing, “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing. Some of those they are harshly treating have been 'milking' their country for years!” Trump tweeted.
So, I want to turn to Toby Jones, who is associate professor of history and director of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. He is joining now Afrah Nasser in this conversation. Toby, what’s happening in Saudi Arabia? And how does this purge and consolidation of the prince’s power, who runs the war in Saudi Arabia, relate to this intensification of the war and blockade in Yemen?
TOBY JONES: Well, let’s start with a basic argument that I’ve made and others have made over the last couple of years, and that it’s clear from Afrah’s commentary, as well as Saudi Arabia’s extensive intervention in Syria, its attempt to destabilize Lebanese politics more recently, its occupation of Bahrain, as well as this mobilization to consolidate bin Salman’s power at home, which has not just started recently but is really part of a two-year project, that Saudi Arabia is the most dangerous actor in the Middle East.
It’s also clear that from the very—from the steps that have been taken over the weekend, that bin Salman is attempting to legitimize himself as the next in line to throne. He’s a very young junior member of the royal family. His father will likely abdicate power. He’s certainly carving out an imperial presence for bin Salman within the Saudi system. But that he’s weak. He’s vulnerable. He sees the senior princes as either economic rivals or as potential political problems. He’s very cleverly used the language of modernization, anti-corruption, reform and even feminism to situate himself as a kind of progressive thinker. These are all masks to mystify his efforts to consolidate power and to purge potential rivals.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about feminism, yes, right before this, they said women in Saudi Arabia will now be able to drive.
TOBY JONES: He also announced the end, or at least the lifting, of certain restrictions on guardianship around women. I mean, if we think about the way Americans and others in the West consume news out of Saudi Arabia, in particular, one of the third rails of Western politics when it comes to—and this includes liberals and others alike—is that we really make sense of Saudi politics through the lens of gender and gender politics. And the oppression of women, their apartheid status in Saudi Arabia, really rises to the top of how we think about, at least critically about, Saudi politics.
So, when bin Salman lifted restrictions on women, when he finally said that women would be allowed to drive either later this year or early next year, it was celebrated in the West. And I think bin Salman was very calculating in both when he made that decision and why he made it. And it was an effort to create space for him to behave in a more authoritarian manner in other sectors.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Toby Jones, you just said that Saudi Arabia is “the most dangerous actor in the Middle East.” Of course, that’s not the position that the Trump administration takes. When Saudi Arabia recently released documentation showing that a missile launched into the country in July by Yemen’s Houthi rebels was an Iranian Qiam, on Tuesday U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley issued the following statement: quote, “By providing these types of weapons to the Houthi militias in Yemen, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is violating two UN resolutions simultaneously. We encourage the release of any information that will help to hold Iran accountable for its support of violence and terrorism in the region and the world. The United States is committed to containing Iran’s destabilizing actions and will not turn a blind eye to these serious violations of international law by the Iranian regime.” So, Toby Jones, can you respond to that and the relative role that Iran plays in the region versus Saudi Arabia?
TOBY JONES: Let me start with the second question, Nermeen. I mean, I think that there was very little evidence before 2015, 2016, that Iran had much of the way of influence in Yemen. It’s part of the narrative, here and elsewhere, that the Houthis, those sort of mounting the most resistance to the Saudis in the southern Arabia, are Iranian-backed. There’s very flimsy evidence for that. Now, more recently, Iranian weapons have made their way into Yemen and into the war there, but it’s unlikely that the Houthis are taking marching orders from Tehran. This is a talking point from Saudi Arabia to legitimize their terrible war there.
On the question of Saudi Arabia invoking the language of terrorism to frame Iran’s meddling and the danger that Iran poses in the region, I mean, that’s pretty rich coming from Saudi Arabia, which did everything it could to sustain Syria’s civil war, including the backing of al-Qaeda-backed and -linked militants there against—in their campaign against Assad. It’s also pretty rich that the Saudis would wage a war against Yemen for over two years and then express both shock and outrage and invoke international law when they’re, you know, sort of realizing that the Yemenis are fighting back. It’s a pretty—you know, irony is perhaps not the right way to make sense of Saudi politics, but they’re certainly ambitious and bold in trying to redirect what the underlying forces are, which they’re most directly responsible for.
AMY GOODMAN: Afrah Nasser, we’re talking about your country. You went into exile in Sweden, facing death threats. You’re about to win a major award from the Committee to Protect Journalists for your bravery in reporting in Yemen. Your mom and a number of members of your family are still there. What is your reaction to the consolidation of power of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who is in charge of the bombing campaign in Yemen, and particularly being here in the United States right now, which is providing so many of the weapons, and President Trump, of course, making—his first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia?
AFRAH NASSER: Yeah, yeah. For a lot of Yemenis, they understand that the policies by the Crown Prince Salman had disastrous impact in their country. Even, you know, Yemenis also understand that this leadership, the Saudi leadership, thinks it’s losing face, because it’s been three years without any military gains or political gains. And such moves—Yemenis understand that such moves like, you know, the women drive allowance and also like the economic aspiration with building like a mega-city, and also, you know, there was a national Saudi robot that was reported on one week ago, some time ago—Yemenis understand that such PR moves from Saudi Arabia and the crown prince policies are only just to hide the failure unfolding in the Yemen war so far. And this should also like make the world really understand that no such PR moves from the Saudi leadership should ever, ever get our focus away from the tragedy and Saudi sharing responsibility on the tragedy unfolding in Yemen. So, Yemenis really understand that they are in a—like facing the disastrous foreign policy from Saudi Arabia, that they have never, never seen before from their neighboring country.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Toby Jones, very quickly, before we conclude—we have 20 seconds. Is there now a risk of a direct confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
TOBY JONES: They failed, as Afrah said, largely in their Yemen war. They’ll neither mount a military campaign in Lebanon, although they may try to destabilize it internally, nor seek to confront Iran directly, though they sure would like others to do it for them, including the U.S..
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Toby Jones, we want to thank you for being with us, director of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University, joining us from Rutgers. And Afrah Nasser, independent exiled Yemeni journalist, founder and editor-in-chief of the Sana’a Review, congratulations on receiving your award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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