Awkward spat with WWE epitomizes bin Salman as a leader

Posted originally to Express Tribune Blogs on 5 November 2019.

In recent news, the famous American World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is in a spat with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The latter has not paid the former their dues for two special events held in Saudi Arabia this year and reportedly owes WWE Chairman Vince McMahon between $300 and 500 million.

Additionally, WWE wrestlers missed a show scheduled immediately after the last Saudi event after MbS ‘retaliated’ to McMahon threatening to cut off the Crown Jewel live television feed by ordering the departee wrestlers taken off their flight out of the kingdom.

The bizarre yet amusing developments and their overall broader context shared certain parallel themes with the trajectory, impact and consequence of MbS’ leadership as Saudi Crown Prince thus far.

It is fairly obvious that luring the WWE to hold events in Saudi Arabia is part and parcel of MbS’ ‘Vision 2030’ socio-economic modernization plan for the kingdom. It is also evident that MbS’ notion of ‘modernizing’ involves rapid, forced national image make-over and faith that enough glamour will accrue to the kingdom’s poor image through such extravaganzas as enough to make the financial investment in them worth the cost.

Saudi Arabia is still early in the phases of shaking off the image ultra conservative Wahabi Sharia gave it over the years and MbS is clearly in a hurry. In spite of this, the wisdom of spending state funds on such extravaganzas represents a lack of lessons learnt from the disastrous Yemen War MbS lead Saudi Arabia into in March 2015, a bad-investment many times greater in size and losses than the gambit with the WWE.

The young leaders’ impulsive, reckless arrogance shone through in his decision to inconvenience the wrestlers as they prepared to depart the kingdom. It also factored into MbS’ November 2017 mass-arrest of several notable Saudi princes and billionaires and seizure of their financial assets amounting to, by some estimates, $800 billion.

Through the arrests, MbS aggravated intra-kingdom rifts which were already building up since he replaced Mohammed bin Nayef, grandson of the kingdom’s founder Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, in June 2017 as Crown Prince.

Bin Nayef, closely affiliated to the CIA, was temporarily imprisoned and forced to give up the mantle to MbS.

Earlier in June, the Gulf Arab states (GCC) with Egypt and Jordan had announced an embargo on Qatar, cutting off diplomatic ties and imposing a land and air blockade on it and demanding it scale back ties with Iran and Turkey and cease supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (including Hamas in Gaza). More comically, also demanded was Qatar shut down its internationally renowned al Jazeera news network.

It is widely known now that MbS lead the GCC into this move – which backfired by pushing Qatar toward Saudi rivals Turkey and Iran and not acquiescing to the outlandish demands – upon prodding by his personal ‘friend’ Jared Kushner. Part of the reason: Qatari hesitancy to accept Kushner’s request to invest $500 million to revive a floundering Kushner family real estate project which threatened them with massive financial losses.

Of special interest to Israel and thus the ardently Zionist Kushner family, Qatar had been warming up to its hated rival Iran for some time.

That Qatar and Saudi Arabia had an on-and-off rivalry for many years over issues such as Iran and opposing stances toward the Saudi-Israeli backed military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013 helped hasten the rupturing of the GCC.

However, given that the Qatari Emir had met King Salman mere weeks before the embargo in a cordial meeting, it is clear that the situation was not anywhere near burning point. The extra push required for the embargo came from Kushner’s financial interests, Israel’s geostrategic interests and MbS’ easy utility as an agent of chaos with his strings pulled from outside.

Son-in-law to President Donald Trump and architect-behind-the-scenes for the GCC-Israel new strategic alliance, Kushner in typical fashion left the State and Defense Departments in the dark to personally coordinate the Qatar embargo with MbS.

Kushner had also pushed MbS to carry out the November mass-arrests after secretly visiting Saudi Arabia in late October. MbS was more than eager to embrace the plot to consolidate Saudi power with himself, a motive driven by the same shortsightedness consistent with other major policy endeavours and thus easily exploited as a front by for a bigger-picture that was all Kushner – and thus Israel.

MbS was Israel’s man in Saudi Arabia, and voices within the kingdom who would likely oppose his future chaotic, region-destabilizing decisions out of a bare minimum of practical consideration had to be put away.

The mass arrest of veterans in the Saudi political military-intelligence power structures made the kingdom more brittle even than the usual level of delicateness associated with Gulf monarchies reliant on Western military support for their existence. In exchange, Saudi capacity to do what only Israel out of the immediate region’s states – and even, in truth, external powers – desired: set the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf regions alight with tension simmering between its constituent states.

Also arrested was the erstwhile Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, who was then forced to read out anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iranian speeches with the aim to destabilize Lebanon and make it easier for Israel to attack. Israel, surely enough, assisted MbS with the planning for this ultimately inconsequential venture.

An accurate profile for MbS as a leader can be assigned based on these examples even if one is to ignore his biggest blunder yet in the Yemen War (2015 onwards with very real Israeli involvement and vested geostrategic interests).

The recent somewhat comical spat with the WWE does, however, just as fine a job in epitomizing MbS’ traits as a leader. The authoritarian tendency to lash out at any who displease him sans any calculations regarding probable consequence, the aggressive push to turn Saudi Arabia into an open hub of hedonism and Western party-culture and the deployment of state resources toward ill-conceived and poorly thought out ventures: MbS even outside the realm of conventional foreign policy stays true to character as a leader.

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