Royal family politics could resolve Saudi spat with Canada

Royal family politics could resolve Saudi spat with Canada
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Quiet diplomacy appears to be the current remedy for a row that erupted between Saudi Arabia and Canada on Aug. 3 after Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted expressions of grave concern for social activists arrested in the kingdom, calling for their immediate release. But what should be the target of that quiet diplomacy? That is the challenge.

The quarrel — which led Riyadh to suspend diplomatic relations, expel the Canadian ambassador, stop Saudia direct flights, cancel the scholarships of nearly 15,000 Saudi students at Canadian universities and more — seems better suited to some imaginatively bizarre two-day war game hosted by an earnest think tank at the request of an intelligence service.

But it is for real.

The Canadian tweets apparently outraged Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the destined next king of Saudi Arabia, who turns 33 this month. One criticizes MbS, as he is known, at one’s peril, so I am grateful for the words of Ali Shihabi, among the pro-Saudi chorus in Washington D.C., who wrote in the New York Times: “To many observers, especially in the West, this incident is proof that the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, is not the reformer he claims to be, but rather an impulsive authoritarian. That’s understandable.”


Shihabi explains that the context to understand MbS’s reaction is the concern for his own and his country’s stature and prestige — what classical Muslim scholars call “hayba.” Perhaps that’s true.

My guess, however, is that Canada hit not just one raw nerve. First, MbS does not like criticism, even an indirect adverse comment. (Not wanting to appear to be responding to political pressure, he had women’s rights activist Samara Badawi arrested, so that people would not think her actions regarding allowing women to drive had forced what he regards as his signature progressive move so far: lifting the ban on female drivers.)

Second, Canada’s headline trade relationship for many years has been its supply of light armored vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). The armored but wheeled, rather than tracked, vehicles have made SANG into one of the most effective fighting forces in the kingdom. It has purchased around 2,500 vehicles.

SANG notionally is the force that protects the Royal family against a coup by the Saudi army. It was commanded for many years by the late King Abdullah, and then by his son, Miteb bin Abdullah. MbS loathes the sons of Abdullah, at least one of whom was held in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton and continues to be held in a desert prison for refusing to hand over a large check to the Saudi treasury to pay back much of the money he acquired when his father was in power.

So how does one break the logjam of MbS’s anger and antipathy? Bring on King Salman, MbS’s 82-year-old father who refuses to be sidelined despite his fragile health.

When it appeared that MbS got out ahead of himself during his visit to the United States this year, letting closed-door audiences know that he wanted not only peace with Israel but also a trade and technological partnership, King Salman hosted an Arab summit. President TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner on Hannity touts Trump: 'He was a disruptor' Ivanka Trump doubles down on vaccine push with post celebrating second shot Conservative Club for Growth PAC comes out against Stefanik to replace Cheney MORE’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel prompted the king to call his gathering the “Jerusalem summit.” Emphasizing the point, the king recently said Jerusalem will be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

My prediction is the action to watch is the reaction of the families of students whose education in Canada has been disrupted. Government scholarships these days concentrate on engineering and medical students; likely their families are a significant and articulate block of Saudi society who are dismayed by MbS’s abrupt decision-making.

MbS is the future of Saudi Arabia, but the sitting king remains the most significant personality. And the LAVs of SANG are an important part of the kingdom’s military. The Canadian drama soon could become interesting, in terms of Saudi internal politics.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.