London, England – Saudi Arabia is a country in crisis, from the kingdom’s contribution to more bloodshed in Yemen to its growing rivalry with Iran, as it attempts to convince the rest of the world that liberalism is expanding at home, delegates at a conference in the UK capital have heard.
As the kingdom reels from a rapid succession of developments, politicians and academics gathered in London to speak on Saturday at the “Crisis in Saudi Arabia: War, Succession and the Future” summit, attended by around 200 people and organised by the non-profit press monitoring organisation Middle East Monitor.
Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic party who once mediated in the Bosnian conflict, warned that it was crucial for countries such as the UK and US not to take sides in a standoff unfolding between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“Now, we are in a really dangerous situation where if a war breaks out, you have the great powers supporting opposite sides,” he said, referring to Russian support of Iran and the West’s backing of Saudi-led initiatives, such as the coalition in Yemen.
“I have long been warning that if we didn’t help to build bridges and the West simply supported the Sunnis, in this case, Saudi Arabia, that it would be inevitable that Russia would support the Shia,” he said.
Ashdown also described the sale of British arms to Riyadh for use in the war in Yemen and the UK’s “tacit support” for the Saudis as “shameful”.
“It is shameful that Britain is supplying weapons and indeed tacit support to Saudi Arabia when it is clearly in breach of international law in its indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Yemen.”
Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, already heated over the Yemen war, have risen in recent weeks after the kingdom precipitated the sudden resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, focusing attention on the potential for the escalation of a wider conflict with Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah.
The audience heard keynote speakers and experts discuss growing fault-lines, contradictions and tensions in the kingdom.
Jack Straw, who has served as Britain’s foreign secretary as well as home secretary, said Saudi Arabia’s defence spending is the fourth highest in the world, outstripping that of its regional rival, Iran. However, he noted that the true scale of social inequality in the country was unknown because its “absolutist” rulers have prevented scrutiny.
“We have seen a very good example of that exercise of absolutist power with the detentions on November 4 of around 200 senior Saudis now incarcerated in the most luxurious prison in the world, the Ritz, and facing allegations of systematic corruption totalling $100bn, equivalent to the whole of Saudi Arabia’s national debt,” said Straw.
The ambitious 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman is also the country’s defence minister. He has introduced a series of social and economic reforms as he consolidates his power.
His latest move – the arrest in a corruption crackdown of more than 30 senior figures, including members of the extended royal family – has been interpreted by critics as a political purge to defuse public disquiet over corruption at the highest levels, but also to neutralise potential rivals.
But Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to assert the kingdom’s regional primacy through an assertive foreign policy have backfired in Yemen and Qatar, and are opening a new front in Saudi Arabia’s regional rivalry with Iran.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with the kingdom’s Gulf neighbours Bahrain and the UAE launched a blockade against Qatar in June, accusing Doha of supporting “terrorism” – a claim Qatar strongly denies.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, said the rise of Mohammed bin Salman represented a concentration of power in a country once distinguished by multiple “fiefdoms” in which power was shared between clans.
She dismissed the corruption crackdown spearheaded by the young Saudi as a public relations stunt.
“Of course, this is a great PR initiative because all of us love to see those corrupt people behind bars, but these anti-corruption purges take place in an opaque kingdom with no freedom of expression and with no independent judiciary,” she said.
“We know that dictators pick a few people, put them in jail, accuse them of corruption, and that’s a very effective, populist way of getting rid of your rivals.”
Madawi warned liberals outside Saudi Arabia not to be “taken in” by Mohammed bin Salman’s recent reforms concerning women, such as permitting them to drive.
“These are media and PR exercises that want us to believe that the regime has actually changed,” she said.
“Nothing has changed, all we have seen is a concentration of power in the hands of one man and a purge of the … regime to pave the way for the arrival of a new elite that will appropriate the resources and that is under no obligation to explain its budget or its corruption to anybody.”
Professor Ahmed al-Dubai, a Yemeni scholar, traced the historical role Saudi Arabia had played in his country, and interpreted the current conflict as an attempt to limit the progress of democratisation in the wider region since the uprisings of 2011.
Hugh Miles, a journalist who exposed the Saudi government’s secret programme to kidnap defectors and dissidents living in Europe, argued that the principal motive for the recent crackdown by Mohammed bin Salman, known colloquially as “MBS” was personal rivalry.
“The main reason for the purge is money: MBS needs to cover the deficit and he also wants to enrich himself,” said Miles.
“He was not happy with the slow pace of enrichment through normal means like defence contracts, so he decided to speed it up by seizing his cousins’ money.”
Journalist and analyst Bill Law agreed, suggesting that the recent crackdown represented a purge of commercial rivals. The conflict in Yemen was an effort by Mohammed bin Salman to burnish his reputation as a “warrior prince”, he said.
The Saudi-headed coalition, which supports Yemen’s internationally recognised government, has been at war with the Houthi rebels since March 2015.
The coalition has been repeatedly criticised for attacking civilians during the conflict.
More than 10,000 people have been killed and more than 40,000 injured since the outbreak of the conflict, according to the United Nations.
A cholera outbreak has also claimed the lives of more than 1,800 people since April, with 400,000 suspected cases across the country, according to the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross.