Understanding the current Middle East without delving into its history is a mission impossible, the forte of Western, particularly American media, which likes the idea of relating to the complexities of this troubled region, by using modern text-book discourse, something which sounds and looks so familiar to the average reader/viewer. Yet, running away from history can give us only superficial answers, and current events in Saudi Arabia provide us with another, highly dramatic opportunity to go beyond the sound bites and head lines . Yes, it is a power grab by the Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, whose rise to prominence was already analyzed in this blog. It is a power grab within a group whose most basic level of cohesion is not politics, ideology or class solidarity, but blood. This is tribalism, not the most popular word used by political scientists in the era of political correctness, and power grab in a society like that is not at all similar to that which exists in Western societies.
To understand this, we should turn our attention to one of the greatest historians/political sociologists of all times, Ibn Khaldun [1332-1406], and his theory about Asabiyya, or the clannish/tribal loyalty as the basis of a strong state and society, which relates to the various stages of Asabiyya and their connection with the fortunes of the civilization they operate in. The Saudi tribe started its rise to prominence already in the mid-18th Century, through its alliance with the Sunni Hanbali preacher, Muhammad Ibn Abd Al Wahab[1703-1787], but throughout their gradual rise to mastery of most of the Arab peninsula, they kept their internal tribal cohesion and the blood connection as the most significant feature of their solidarity. The modern Saudi state , almost without any exception, maintained its internal unity in times of crisis and the only exception, the assassination of King Faysal by a deranged member of the family in 1975 did not change this state of affairs. Due to the existence of different factions within the tribe, because of the fact, that fathers were married to more than one wife, hence princes being half cousins , there were power struggles, but always behind close doors. Secrecy was the name of the game, but it was there to serve the higher purpose of maintaining the tribal unity in place. What did we really know about the inner workings of the Saudi Kingdom? The great Bernard Lewis wrote once, that knowing about the strength of Islamic feelings in the Soviet Union was like knowing about the strength of Republican sentiments in Saudi Arabia. We know now about the former, but still not much about the latter. We do know however, that for the first time in the annals of the Saudi Kingdom, an internal, tribal conflict is in the open, and it is there, due to a decision by the actual [soon the nominal]King, Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. He wants all, not least his own citizens, to see so many of his half cousins humiliated on the floors of the Ritz- Carlton hotel. This is new, this is revolutionary, this is out of the best political text book in Islamic societies, that is of Ibn Khaldun, and this is dangerous. Add up to this, the chopper crash with Prince Mansur Bin Maqrun [a former Crown Prince himself] on board, not an accidental crash, and we see the possible, though not certain opening of a blood feud situation within the family. With that in mind, it is advisable for outside observers, including governments, to keep a very watchful eye on the events unfolding. The jury must be out, and we all are called for reserve. Family feuds within tribal dynasties in the Middle East are not rare, but not like that. The Assad clan had its moment of disunity, when the late Hafiz Assad exiled his brother and deputy, Rifat Assad in 1985, and in Jordan, when newly-crowned King Abdallah the Second, all but purged the supporters of his uncle Prince Hassan, who was deprived of the crown after King Hussein death in 1999. In both cases though, there was no blood, no such public humiliation as now in Saudi Arabia.
Muhammad Bin Salman , as it seems, and it is all a matter of impression, is engaged in a revolutionary move, including policy and maybe even doctrinal changes. It is a lot in a deeply-conservative Kingdom like Saudi Arabia is, but revolutions are what they are-huge changes, and they have to start somewhere, but then, it is also the case, that doing it too quickly and too different from tradition is simply too much. Saudi Arabia is too important for overall stability and future of the Middle East for the current mayhem to lead to a complete chaos. Hopefully, this is not going to be.