A week in which there were two major stories, which were about a lot more than just the headlines.
The first was the fallout from last weekend’s dramatic events in Saudi Arabia: The Lebanese Prime Minister Rafif Hariri resigned – while in Riyahd. Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile at Riyadh International airport. Dozens of high ranking Princes, officials, and businessmen were arrested as part of an anti-corruption drive. Even the head of the National Guard Prince Miteb bin Abdullah was caught up in the sweep. What? asked the world, is going on in the House of Saud? What links all these events – and more? Answer – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The 32-year-old Crown Prince is moving quickly. He is concerned about the growing Iranian influence in the region, he knows he must change Saudi Arabia’s economy away from reliance on oil, and he knows there will be push back inside the Kingdom from more conservative forces.
So – Mr Hariri who holds Saudi citizenship, resigns from the Lebanese government, whilst in Saudi, and issues a strong condemnation of Iran, and its proxy army in Lebanon – Hezbollah. This weakens the Hezbollah dominated government – which the Saudis regards as hostile. Saudi Arabia joined Kuwait and Bahrain in telling its citizens to leave Lebanon immediately. Whilst conflict does not appear imminent, the stage is being set for a diplomatic war of words between Saudi Arabia and Iran which has the possibility to escalate.
As for the missile launch – which the Saudi’s say was supplied by Iran – Riyadh has said this could constitute ‘an act of war’. Thus, they continued to build the case that Iran is a destabilising malevolent presence in the Middle East, a view also held by the Trump Administration. The head of the US Air Forces Central Command in Qatar confirmed the Americans believe it was an Iranian missile. Lt Gen Harrigian said authorities were investigating how the missile was smuggled into Yemen.
This is all headline stuff – but I’d argue that the most significant move was the anti-corruption arrests. This was a ground-breaking power play by the man who will be the next ruler of the Kingdom. The Crown Prince knows there is a growing desire for change – more than 70% of Saudis are under 30. They are social media savvy… they want to be part of a connected world. That requires modernisation in both economic and social terms. So the arrests need to be seen in the light of the Crown Prince’s VISION 2030 plan. Out with the old – in with the new.
Speaking of out – the Syrian government this week said that ISIL had been chased out of its last urban stronghold in the country. The Syrian military says IS retreated from the town of Abu Kamal although some report suggested there was on-going resistance in the town on the Syrian/Iraq border. You might remember last week we said Iraqi forces were coming the other way and squeezing IS in the Euphrates Valley – that is still happening. It’s ‘Caliphate’ now consists pretty much of sand and the internet – but it is still a force to be reckoned with.
So, the other major event – President Trump’s trip around Asia. He travelled to several countries, but it was about one thing – the relationship, between the USA and China. Everywhere he went, Japan, South Korea etc, he had to reassure key American allies in the Pacific to stick with the USA, and be confident it will back them against an increasingly powerful China. Related to this was his speech to the South Korean National Assembly which was tricky. He sought to say he would deal with the threat of North Korea partially by leaning on China diplomatically. But he also said ‘all options were on the table’ and that could mean war which South Korea fears would devastate its capital city – Seoul. On to China, where he said nice things about President Xi and hinted there wouldn’t be a trade war. Publicly the Chinese politely applauded, privately they continued to prepare in case there is one.
In the UK Prime Minister Theresa May was again in the thick of it. Last week her Defence Secretary resigned, this week she lost her International Development minister. It’s starting to look careless. Priti Patel had gone to Israel, met government ministers, including Benyamin Netanyahu, but, said Downing Street, she hadn’t told anyone in the British government about it! Furthermore, she’d visited the Golan Heights which the UK does not recognise as Israeli territory. She resigned – but no-one has yet managed to to ask her this question ‘Did you know the UK government policy on the Golan? If not – why not? If so – why did you go there?’ Talk of the UK government collapsing over this is far-fetched, it retains the ability to win votes in Parliament and will stagger on for the foreseeable future – what most of us can agree on though is that – it’s a mess.
Finally, something lighter, very light in fact – the Louvre Abu Dhabi was was inaugurated. The latticed design of the dome of the building allows natural light to fill the spaces inside, whilst protecting from the sun’s heat. The 23 galleries house numerous European masterpieces on loan from the Paris Louvre, as well as work from the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. There’s also priceless artefacts from the Middle East including a 2,600-year-old Sphinx. This was in with the old, but it’s also new.