Muhammad bin Sulman’s Platform in the Economist Describes Alternative Reality

Today the Economist published an interview with Muhammad bin Sulman, Saudi’s deputy Crown Prince. Although a lot of the interview focused on the Saudi economy, or the future, there was some discussion on the recent escalations of regional tension. I just wish to provide a few notes of incredulity on the following sections of the interview.

The Economist: Let’s focus first on the recent executions. Why did they take place now, so many years after the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia? And why did you include a prominent shia cleric?
Muhammad bin Salman: First of all, these were sentenced in a court of law with charges related to terrorism and they went through three layers of judicial proceedings. They had the right to hire an attorney and they had attorneys present throughout each layer of the proceedings. The court doors were also open for any media people and journalists, and all the proceedings and the judicial texts were made public. And the court did not, at all, make any distinction between whether or not a person is Shi’ite or Sunni. They are reviewing a crime, and a procedure, and a trial, and a sentence, and carrying out the sentence.

Firstly, Muhammad bin Sulman does not answer the question. He does not mention why all executions took place at once, a move that one should studiously avoid if you don’t want people to call executions ‘mass killings’. He does not even mention the ‘backlog’ in executions that has been referred to before (On a related note, if anything should not be referred to as a backlog, it’s killing human beings). He also mentions that the the doors were open for the media people and journalists. I am not sure who he is referring to, but I doubt it is Saudi’s famed independent and liberal media (Hint: they don’t exist). The ‘three layers of judicial proceedings’ is about as meaningful as the seven circles of hell in a country with an incredibly draconian legal system. Amnesty International added that the “appalling” trial was “deeply flawed”, calling for the sentence to be quashed.  There is absolutely no way that the decision to execute Al-Nimr did not reach the upper echelons of Saudi government.

But these executions have provoked violent reactions in Iran. Your embassy was attacked, you’ve broken off diplomatic relations, as have Bahrain and Sudan. What will be the consequence of this escalation of regional tensions?
We view them as a strange thing, that there are demonstrations against Saudi Arabia in Iran. What is the relationship between a Saudi citizen who committed a crime in Saudi Arabia, and a decision made by a Saudi court. What has this to do with Iran? If this proves anything it proves that Iran is keen on extending its influence over the countries of the region

Muhammad bin  Sulman feigns ignorance at the Iranian reaction; ‘We view them as a strange thing’. No, you do not. No astute political leader will be surprised at the Iranian reaction, or the reaction of Shia across the world. It is absurd to think that killing a reputable and venerated religious figure for spurious reasons is not going to create a reaction. If Muhammad bin Sulman is genuinely surprised, then Saudi is clearly in the hands of people with no political radar. Indeed, Muhammad bin Sulman attempts to turn the Iranian reaction as evidence of Iran extending its influence in the region. If you discriminate against the Shia like Saudi and Bahrain do, there is little surprise that Shia everywhere will feel be particularly aggrieved by killing one of their co-religionists.

As for the sentence, ‘What is the relationship between a Saudi citizen who committed a crime in Saudi Arabia, and a decision made by a Saudi court’ – this is blatantly facetious. I wonder if Muhammad bin Sulman will say this to the EU and the US, who are pressuring for a reprieve in the case of Ali Al-Nimr. Indeed, Saudi’s legal system, and its courts, are the understandable object of scrutiny by Human Rights NGOs. Although bin Sulman’s shows feigned disbelief at the very premise of international diplomacy, Saudi have historically intervened in Bahrain to encourage death sentences. Also, how can Saudi show such awareness of militias threatening their borders but be oblivious to the impact of killing Al-Nimr?

Did you not unfairly escalate tensions by breaking off diplomatic relations?
On the contrary, we fear that they will be further escalated. Imagine if any Saudi diplomat, or one of their families or children are attacked in Iran. Iran’s position then will be much more difficult. So we prevented Iran from having to undergo such an embarrassment. The Saudi mission was set ablaze and the Iranian government is watching. If a child, or a diplomat, or their families are attacked, what could happen? Then we will have the real conflict and the real escalation.

Amazingly, Muhammad bin Sulman claims to be doing Iran a favour here. By cutting of diplomatic relations they are avoiding ‘the real conflict and the real escalation’. Apparently, uptil now, the escalation has not been real. Because when  Saudi do stuff, it’s kosher. As for Bahrain and Sudan cutting off their relations, I presume Saudi will condemn their behaviour as no Saudi diplomat or their family was in immediate danger. In this case, it’s Bahrain, Sudan, and the UAE (kind of) who are to blame. Bloody satellite states – alway escalating.

Do you consider Iran to be your biggest enemy?
We hope not.

A simple yes or no would have been clearer…

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5 comments

  1. 12MP

    In his discussion about the economy and whether he worries about unemployment, he says that he has 10 million jobs available, because this is the number of jobs held in SA by foreigners. Implication is that he can kick them all out if he needs to find jobs for Saudis. He then goes on to discuss privatising ARAMCO and how private sector shareholders would bring management discipline to the company. Thing is, no international investor will go near an ARAMCO IPO if he knows that once in private hands, all of its hardworking Indian and European employees will be licked out and replaced by a bunch of lazy Saudis who will demand prayer breaks 5 times a day and, on the rare occasion that they do actually show up for work, will spend their day playing petty power games and blaming each other for their own incompetence. Been there, done that.

      • 12MP

        You’ve lived in that part of the world long enough to know that there is NO work culture. When was the last time you bought anything in the UK (apart from dates) that was made in the GCC? Work is something that they hire expats to do. It is undignified for a Saudi to be seen working. Unfirtunately Saudi (and to a lesser extent Kuwait and UAE) need to go backwards before they can go forwards. They have accumulated the material trappings of a civilised industrious culture without actually ever having been one.

      • marcowenjones

        I do not like to make generalisations but I am aware about the labour heirarchies in the region. Inevitably this results from policy, as the same thing is not seen in states such as Syria or Egypt.

  2. 12MP

    I don’t like mass generalisations either, but here are some mass generalisations from two noted experts on Saudi Arabia. Karen Elliot House writes on business in Saudi Arabia:

    “a bewildering combination of a feudal fealty system and a more modern political patronage one. At every level in every sphere of activity, Saudis manoeuvre through life manipulating individual privileges, favours, obligations, and connections. By the same token, the government bureaucracy is a maze of overlapping or conflicting power centre under the patronage of various royal princes with their own priorities and agendas to pursue and dependents to satisfy”

    She writes that businessmen “have to complete innumerable applications and documents at multiple layers of multiple ministries, which invariably requires seeking favours from various patronage networks and accumulating obligations along the way, most probably including having to hire less-than-competent dependents of his patrons. Then, for any business of any size, government contracts, not private competition, are the financial lifeblood. So this means more patrons, more favours, and more obligations. Not surprisingly, Saudi businesses that can compete outside the protected Saudi market are few”

    On the Saudi legal system Frank Vogel in his review of the Saudi legal system talks about the “unpredictability of decisions; obscure if not occult doctrine; dissonance between many Saudi commercial norms and those prevailing nearly everywhere else … huge costs on the Saudi economy. That the king and government have not been inclined, or able, to impose a solution to this widely known difficulty is an apt measure of the cultural and political influence of fiqh and ulama and of the centrality of the shari’a ideal for Saudi life public and private”

    So it is culture, not policy, that is to blame for the almost total failure of Saudi Arabia to expand its economy competitively beyond oil and related industries. You ask why the same is not the case in Egypt of Syria. Egypt (like Iran) is a relatively diversified and reasonably successful economy where people actually DO and MAKE things, rather than sit around on their backsides and employ expats to do the work. There may be corruption and bureaucratic inertia, but there isn’t the stifling system of political patronage and general uselessness that pervades Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s economy includes light and heavy manufacturing, minerals, energy, energy related, services, etc.; they even make cars there! If you want to understand the abject unattractiveness of Saudi Arabia to car manufacturers, do some research on “Project Fern”, the proposed Land Rover factory in Saudi Arabia that was cancelled because the Al Sauds wanted control and to base the factory far from the port and the cheap aluminium (which was the commercial rationale for the factory) and to charge outrageous rents, licence fees and taxes. After Range Rover pulled out, the Saudis had the temerity to tell Range Rover to come back “with a better offer”. Range Rover just told them to get lost. I don’t know much about Syria, but Iran, like Egypt, has a civilised, educated, hard-working, innovative, outward-looking and generally welcoming middle class of businesspeople and academics, and it is going to wipe the floor with Saudi Arabia. I have been entertained in the most civilised fashion in Iranian households and even treated to the finest vintages of premier grand cru French wines!

    We are getting off subject here, but my point is that Saudi Arabia is never going to be a serious economic player until it goes back to the beginning, gets to grips with how a modern economy works, and starts again. The Al Sauds, for all their faults, have been keeping Islamic fundamentalism at bay, and this is why we have to tolerate the grisly sight of Queen Elizabeth II cosying up to them (and the Al Khalifas and Al Thanis and Al Nahyans and Al Maktoums) because the alternative is, in a word, ISIS. So, even though the outlook for the Al Sauds is grim, we in the west have to keep them there or risk the alternative. We performed the same calculus in the 1970s in Central America when we had to choose between corrupt military dictators and hot-headed communist idealists. We chose the former. Communism is dead, and they moved on. Islamism will also die a death, but it’s only just stared and has a century to run. In the meantime, the likes of Muhammad bin Salman will do their best but probably cock things up anyway.

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