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Saudi Arabia's gangster 'Game of Thrones' reflects crisis for imperialism in Middle East

By Dave Schneider |
November 16, 2017
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U.S. and Saudi forces purposely target civilians in Yemen.
U.S. and Saudi forces purposely target civilians in Yemen.

On Nov. 5, 2017, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri appeared in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and abruptly announced his resignation. In his resignation speech, Hariri denounced the Islamic Republic of Iran for supposedly interfering in Lebanese politics through Hezbollah, which makes up part of Hariri’s own coalition government.

The unexpected announcement, made from Saudi state-run television, raised suspicions across the Middle East. Many speculated that Riyadh forced Hariri’s resignation in a clumsy effort to ratchet up aggression towards Iran. Hezbollah and other national democratic forces in Lebanon vocally deny any attempt to drive Hariri from power and claim that the former prime minister, a close associate of the Saudi royal family, was coerced into making the announcement.

The same day as Hariri’s abrupt resignation, Saudi Arabia also announced they had intercepted a Burqan 2H ballistic missile fired by Yemen’s defense forces on King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. Saudi authorities claimed the missile was provided to Houthi rebel forces in Yemen by Iran, supposedly proof of the Islamic Republic interfering in the region.

As Saudi Arabia attempts to destabilize Lebanon and continues its three-year carnage in Yemen, the risk of regional war grows. Beneath these sparks of political and military crisis, however, exists an even greater crisis for imperialism in the Middle East. The United States’ efforts to dominate the region, especially with the use of Israel and Saudi Arabia as attack dogs, are crumbling as resistance grows. The heightened risk of war reflects the desperate attempts by the U.S. and its allies to crush that camp of resistance, particularly Iran.

Hezbollah is the target of Saudi interference in Lebanon

Saudi authorities are almost certainly holding Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri prisoner and pressured him into resigning, according to Sayid Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.

“We deem the resignation of Hariri illegal and invalid,” said Nasrallah on Nov. 10. “All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Saudi Arabia called the prime minister on an urgent matter without his aide or advisers, and was forced to tender his resignation, and to read the resignation statement written by them.”

Hariri holds dual Lebanese-Saudi citizenship, prompting some observers to speculate that Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman placed the billionaire prime minister under house arrest alongside the other Saudi officials caught up in a recent crackdown.

In the immediate aftermath, Saudi Arabia has attempted to inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon by calling for Sunnis to take to the streets against the predominantly Shi'a Hezbollah. But despite these calls for disunity, the response across the country to Hariri's resignation was near unanimous in denouncing Saudi interference. All major political players have called on Saudi Arabia to allow Hariri to return to Lebanon and resolve this crisis.

Hezbollah called for calm and stability while the nation sorted through this bizarre incident. “Lebanon had enjoyed unprecedented stability over the past year," said Nasrallah. “We declare that the prime minister of Lebanon has not resigned. Saad Hariri is our political opponent, but he is also our prime minister."

Beyond Hezbollah, Lebanese president Michel Auon appealed for calm. Even members of Hariri’s own party, the Future Movement, expressed concern at Saudi interference in Lebanese affairs.

The target of Saudi Arabia’s interference is Hezbollah. While officially Shi’a Muslim in its religious orientation, Hezbollah is a progressive non-sectarian national liberation movement. Its leader, Sayid Hassan Nasrallah, preaches liberation theology and anti-imperialism. The organization has a mass base among poor and working class communities in Lebanon, and its armed wing has supported the Palestinian liberation movement and Syria’s national democratic government. In 2006, Hezbollah defeated a brutal 32-day-long invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), marking a new chapter in its resistance to foreign domination.

While Saudi Arabia has long interfered in Lebanese political affairs, the Arab uprisings that began in 2011 forced the bulk of their attention elsewhere - Syria, Bahrain and now Yemen. In that period, Hezbollah made marked gains both in its electoral strategy, its social influence, and its military capacity, culminating in their presence in the ruling parliamentary coalition government that Habibi headed. With Lebanese elections on the horizon, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S. fear that Hezbollah's victorious return from Syria may translate into serious gains in parliament

“It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Nasrallah stated.

Saudi Arabia descends into further crisis

Saudi Arabia’s erratic and violent actions reflect a growing crisis for the gulf monarchy, both internal and external. For over half a century, the Saudi monarchy functioned as a vital part of U.S. dominance in the Middle East. In exchange for its enormous oil reserves and support for the U.S. dollar as the world reserve currency, the U.S. provided the Saudis with both military protection and cheap weapons of war to defend its power.

But deep social and economic contradictions exist behind the wealthy façade of Saudi power. Dependent on migrant labor from neighboring countries, like Yemen, and the exploitation of petroleum, Saudi Arabia saw its status sharply decline with the global drop in oil prices. Attempts to drive competitors, like U.S. shale oil producers, out of the market by ramping up its own production backfired, further driving down prices – and with it, Saudi revenues.

Forced to run huge budget deficits, the Saudis have become desperate to shore up their financial situation. On the economic front, they announced plans to sell shares in its state-owned oil industry, ARAMCO. Even more drastic, Saudi leaders agreed to offer oil futures contracts denominated in Chinese Renminbi, backed by gold, in September 2017.

Saudi Arabia’s deep economic crisis has triggered an acute political crisis as well. Earlier this year, Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman relaxed restrictions on women driving cars – one of the more bizarre and widely criticized aspects of the country’s theocratic oppression of women. Far from the image of a ‘reformer’ promoted by the U.S. corporate media, Salman’s move was a cynical attempt to make Saudi Arabia appear ‘more modern’ and drive up foreign tourism. It accompanies announcements to build extravagant beach resort hotels and attract foreign capital from corporations like Virgin Airlines.

Unfortunately for Salman, this concession to the Saudi women’s movement angered the hardline conservative religious elements in the House of Saud, sharpening a power struggle within the ruling family. Salman has responded by savagely cracking down on dissent, beheading Shi’a religious clerics, and even jailing other members of the royal family in the name of “fighting corruption.” In reality, Salman, who is just as corrupt as the royals he throws in prison, cares only about consolidating his power in a time of crisis.

Saudi Arabia’s gangster ‘Game of Thrones’

Salman's purge shows the gangster nature of the Saudi monarchy. Between suspicious plane crashes, the extrajudicial executions of political rivals, and the bizarre jailing of opponents in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, it plays like a scene from the movies Goodfellas or Scarface. By some estimates, Salman's so-called anti-corruption dragnet have arrested nearly 500 members of the Saudi monarchy and expropriated their wealth. But there's something bigger at work.

Corrupt wheeling and dealing between Saudi royals and international oil tycoons is a key component of the gulf monarchy's wealth. Salman now labels these backroom deals, struck with U.S. and European oil corporations by members of the Saudi government, as "corrupt" and illegal, even though the Saudi monarchy has known and encouraged these practices for decades.

Salman instead hopes to consolidate his power before the death of his father, King Salman, and stabilize Saudi Arabia's massive budget deficits by liquidating competitive elements of the royal family. The younger Salman, a junior member of the royal family, faces external instability and internal crisis, which raises concerns for his power after his father eventually abdicates the throne. Prince Salman himself jumped another Saudi prince, long thought of as the next in line after King Salman, much to the frustration of other elements in the royal family.

Prince Salman's crackdown is a move of desperation from a young, brash monarch who sees the writing on the wall. It's a response to severe crisis, not corruption.

The massive wave of arrests came on the heels of a visit by Jared Kushner, chief advisor to Trump, to Saudi Arabia. During the visit, Kushner praised the Saudis for purchasing U.S. arms and "modernizing" the country - sentiments later echoed on Twitter by Trump, who also praised Salman's crackdown on rival elites.

It isn't hard to see why Trump would support - and many believe greenlighted - Prince Salman's purge. Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the most prominent royal arrested in Salman's crackdown is estimated to be the 45th wealthiest men in the world, with large shares in Fox/Viacom and Twitter. But unlike Prince Salman, who has intimately tied his rule to the Trump presidency, al-Waleed voiced criticisms of Trump during the 2016 U.S. election, at one point even calling for the billionaire mogul to drop out of the race. From the White House’s perspective, Prince Salman is weeding out potential obstacles for U.S. domination.

The Saudi killing fields in Yemen

Equally troubling for Prince Salman is the disastrous Saudi-led war on Yemen. While the Saudi state claims they intercepted the ballistic missile fired on Nov. 5, both the Houthi-led resistance in Yemen and many international observers report that the strike was successful. But far from unprovoked aggression by the Houthis, the missile was fired in response to the Saudi coalition bombing of a market in northern Yemen three days earlier, which killed 26 people, mainly civilians. This act of Yemeni resistance highlights the failure of the Saudi war effort. Prince Salman, the primary architect of the Saudi war on Yemen, now faces the reality that the Houthi movement has withstood even the most brutal carnage inflicted on it.

In response, the Saudi-led coalition waging war on Yemen announced a comprehensive total blockade of the nation, closing land, air and sea ports to aid workers and journalists. Aid agencies connected with the UN and other providers were not notified prior to the implementation of the blockade. Effectively this move cuts Yemen off from the outside world while Saudi warplanes and mercenary death squads strangle the Yemeni people.

The consequences of this latest blockade will devastate Yemen further. Every ten minutes, a child in Yemen dies from conditions stemming from the savage, Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war on the country, according to UNICEF.

United Nations officials say that Yemen will face the world's largest famine in decades, larger than the monstrous famines in South Sudan and Somalia earlier this year, if the Saudi-led coalition doesn't lift its blockade. Out of Yemen's population of 28 million people, about 20 million "do not know where they're going to get their next meal," said one UN official.

Famine isn't the only heinous result of the Saudi blockade. Since the war began nearly three years ago, Yemen has suffered the largest outbreak of cholera, a deadly disease nearly eliminated by modern medicine, in over a century. Yemen's cholera epidemic, which has stricken more than 900,000 people, is the result of the nation's devastated water and health care infrastructure, which Saudi-coalition warplanes have deliberately targeted. By blocking access to clean water and medical supplies, the Saudis have guaranteed the epidemic will spread and kill more people.

The Saudi-led war on Yemen could not continue without the support of the U.S. Every step of the way, the U.S. and the U.K. have backed the Saudi-led slaughter by refueling warplanes, selling death machines and providing diplomatic cover. The U.S. and the U.K. are the two largest sellers of arms to Saudi Arabia. British arms sales to Saudi Arabia have increased 500% since the war began three years ago, according to a report by the Independent newspaper in the U.K.

Even Sweden, a country that many people in the U.S. don't associate with imperialist war, has stepped up its arms sales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - one of the partners in the Saudi-led coalition attacking Yemen.

For the entirety of the three-year assault on Yemen, the Saudis and the U.S. have claimed the Houthi rebels are proxy forces for the Islamic Republic of Iran. In reality, the Houthi insurgency began in 2004 among the rural populations living in northern Yemen, who make up about a third of the entire country. Influenced by the liberation theology of Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, the Houthis formed with the goal of driving out U.S. imperialism, Saudi domination and their puppet rulers.

Today, the Houthis lead a united front against the Gulf monarchy coalition that seeks to dominate Yemen by force. Deposed Yemeni ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, once an ally of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, has joined the united front along with elements in the nation’s south. Together they comprise a united front resisting the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen.

Israel and Saudi Arabia: Partners in crime

Despite the blank check of support offered by the Trump administration, Israel has seen its position in the Middle East decline sharply. Like Saudi Arabia, the Israeli government backed the seven-year war in Syria in hopes of toppling President Bashar al-Assad, a key regional partner of Iran and a supporter of the Palestinian liberation struggle. It covertly assisted fighters from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and bombed the Syrian Arab Army several times to no avail.

Worse than Assad remaining in power, though, is the strengthening of Hezbollah in Lebanon. As the Syrian civil war winds down, Hezbollah returns from the battlefield victorious, better armed and with greater influence in regional politics. As a key ally to both Palestinians and Iran, Hezbollah poses an existential threat to Israeli power. They defeated the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006 and have only grown stronger since that time with battle-tested experience fighting the Islamic State death squads in Syria. Publicly released threat assessments by the Israeli Defense Forces in 2016 identified Hezbollah as the main external threat to Israeli security.

Wikileaks cables have revealed growing ties between the Israeli government and Prince Salman, who see a common foe in Iran and the entire camp of resistance. Saudi Arabia, for its part, never supported Arab resistance forces like Hezbollah, who they blamed entirely for the 2006 Israeli invasion, but their collaboration with Israel has deepened. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for instance, released a statement after Hariri’s resignation hysterically denouncing Iran and Hezbollah.

In Washington, Israeli lobbyists have begun working closely with lobbyists from the Gulf monarchies in Washington, particularly from the UAE. After securing greater arms sales to their countries in the latest U.S. military budget, these lobbyists have a singular goal in mind: Build consensus for war with Iran.

Imperialism and the camp of resistance

On Nov. 10, the Syrian government declared final victory over the Islamic State. While pockets of conflict will likely continue, this effectively means the end of the nearly seven-year war in Syria.

The Islamic State (IS), born out of the disastrous U.S. occupation of Iraq, functioned as a proxy army for the U.S. in Syria. While President Obama and later Trump formally declared war on IS, the U.S. contained the bulk of its offensive against the right-wing Salafist militia to Iraq in hopes of pushing the group away from Iraqi oil derricks and into Syria. Often U.S. warplanes bombed Syrian Arab Army forces that were actively fighting IS on the ground. All doubts over the real target of U.S. bombing missions in Syria ended on April 6, 2017, when President Trump fired 59 tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian government air base.

At the center of these victories are the anti-imperialist forces in the Middle East, which comprise a camp of resistance. Anchored by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the camp of resistance includes the Syrian Arab Republic, Hezbollah and the patriotic forces of Lebanon, the Palestinian liberation organizations, the Houthi insurgency in Yemen and other allied national democratic movements in the Middle East.

The goal of the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel is to destroy the camp of resistance in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, in alliance with the Israelis, has taken stock of the major battlefields in the Middle East. The influence of the camp of resistance is expanding. Almost seven years of trying to topple the Assad government in Syria has failed, and the attempts to stop the Houthi movement in Yemen have proven disastrous for the Gulf monarchies. Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon and beyond has grown. And worst of all for the U.S., Iran's influence has grown.

With Trump’s move to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal last month, the risk of region-wide war in the Middle East rises each day. Imperialism is a brutal, vicious system that guarantees high oil profits for the 1% while brining death and destruction on the rest of the world. All people opposed to that system should resist the threats of war and work to bring an end to the slaughter in nations like Yemen.

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