The Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and the Malaysian Sultanate of Johor are all staking their respective claims to authority that have far-reaching consequences beyond their own potentates. The princelings of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi are heirs apparent. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is the designated heir to the aged and, reputedly, dementia-hobbled King Salman. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan (MbZ) will eventually replace his ailing father, the Emir of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates, Khalid bin Zayed al Nahyan. Emir Khalid suffered a stroke in 2014 and his son, MbZ has been the de facto ruler of the UAE, in his father’s stead.
Both MbS and MbZ are flexing their political muscles, both domestically and internationally, as they seek to position themselves politically against internal rivals for power and international adversaries, including Iran, the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Qatar, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. MbS and MbZ can get away with outrageous moves and statements at home and abroad because they are effectively in charge of non-democratic countries. Those powers are not conferred upon the Crown Prince (“Tunku Mahkota’) of Johor, a member-state of the Federation of Malaysia, which is ostensibly a constitutional monarchy and democracy.
The Crown Prince, who has the unusually long name of Tunku Ismail Idris Abdul Majid Abu Bakar Iskandar ibni Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, recently enraged many Malaysians when he broke from precedent and criticized the opposition party and its leader, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Ismail called Mohamad a “forked-tongue individual,” in a clear endorsement by the Johor sultan’s family of the incumbent government of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his UMNO (United Malays National Organization) party. With elections looming and Mahathir receiving a well-spring of support as the leader of the opposition to Razak’s rule, the Crown Prince’s delving into politics was unprecedented in recent years.
During his over two decades as prime minister, Mahathir moved to curb the powers of the royal families of Malaysia, including the Johor sultanate. The Crown Prince is piqued that, while in power, Mahathir attempted to eliminate the Johor Military Force (JMF), which has been in existence since 1886 and is the only state-level military force in Malaysia. The royal families of Malaysia, while not quite as internationally notorious as those of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, are, nevertheless, prone to scandal. In 2008 and 2009, Tunku Ismail was involved in two physical assaults of Tunku Nadzimuddin, a member of the royal household of the state of Negeri Sembilan. The second assault reportedly involved Tunku Ismail pointing a pistol at the head of the Negeri Sembilan royal. It was not Tunku Ismail’s only brush with scandal.
But it is Tunku Ismail’s Facebook posting in which he clearly played political favorites, supporting Najib over Mahathir, that has the voters of Johor and Malaysia fuming. Tunku Ismail also indicated that Malaysia’s neighbors also favor the incumbent prime minister over his predecessor and one-time mentor. Tunku Ismail wrote, “Our neighboring countries and I believe that if a ship has been sailing fine for many years but has an issue due to its skipper, do not fix it with a new engine.”
Some Malaysians responded to Tunku Ismail’s posting to tell him to stay out of politics. That earned them a full-blown investigation by the Johor police for “insulting” a member of the royal family. The concept of “lèse-majesté,” which stipulates that insulting a member of royalty constitutes a legal offense, may have gone out of favor in most of the world, but it survives in Asian monarchies like Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, and Japan.
While insulting or criticizing a member of royalty might earn an offender, at a minimum, a fine in a country like Malaysia, or at the maximum, a prison sentence in a kingdom like Thailand, in Saudi Arabia, it can result in much worse. During his whirlwind visit to the United States, it was reported that MbS told several close colleagues, including Abu Dhabi’s MbZ, that he had Donald Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner “in his pocket.” During meetings held between MbS and Kushner in Riyadh in October 2017, Kushner provided intelligence from the President’s Daily Brief to MbS. This included US National Security Agency (NSA) signals intelligence on communications between members of the Saudi royal family and other prominent Saudis opposed to MbS’s rapid rise to power.
Not only did MbS use this information to draw up a “hit list” of Saudi princes, government officials, and businessmen who were arrested and detained in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, but on November 6, 2017, Trump tweeted out his support for the arrest of the prominent Saudis, some of whom were reported tortured by Saudi security agents loyal to MbS, “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing . . . Some of those they are harshly treating have been “milking” their country for years!” Not only were some of the detained Saudis tortured but there were credible reports that MbS had some rival princes within the House of Saud executed. Major General Ali Al Qahtani of the Saudi royal guard force was reportedly tortured to death by the use of electric shocks and beatings.
Some Trump administration officials, including National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton, and White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert were reportedly livid over Kushner’s violations of national security. However, Trump had all of these naysayers fired.
During MbS’s visit to Los Angeles, where he rubbed shoulders with Hollywood’s “gliteratti,” including strongly pro-Israel Jewish movie moguls, the Crown Prince told the producers, directors, and actors exactly what they wanted to hear, including the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, made Adolf Hitler look good because Hitler only tried to conquer Europe but Khamenei was “trying to conquer the world." MbS’s concept of history is laughable as it is deficient. The future Saudi King seemingly forgot that Hitler’s troops drove deep into North Africa and were at the verge of crossing the Urals into Asia. Only someone engaged in hyperbolic propaganda would suggest that Iran has global conquest designs. The same cannot be said of the Saudis, who have bankrolled madrassas and mosques on every continent, except for Antarctica, that push radical Wahhabist Islamic religious doctrine.
MbS also said Palestinians and Israelis have the right to have their own land, the first time a Saudi leader ever acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. However, MbS was not so committed to the Palestinian cause as he kibitzed with Hollywood’s Zionist movers and shakers. For MbS, his primary targets are Iran, the Houthis in Yemen, Qatar, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Assad government in Syria. MbS is willing to work with anyone, particularly the Israelis, to vanquish these five perceived “threats” to the Saudi regime. On June 6, 2017, Trump aided and abetted MbS by sending out tweets baselessly accusing Qatar of “funding terrorism.”
But MbS’s closest ally in his subterfuge, along with the Israelis, is MbZ. The Abu Dhabi Crown Prince has his own high-level contacts in Washington, especially with the pro-Israeli and neo-conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a favorite pro-war think tank of Trump’s third National Security Adviser, John Bolton.
MbZ is now at the center of attention of US federal investigators looking closely at a series of meetings held in Seychelles in 2017 between MbZ; Blackwater mercenary firm founder Erik Prince, who now uses Abu Dhabi as a base of operations for his new mercenary firms – after having sold Blackwater – and who served as a Trump presidential campaign surrogate; members of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency; nationals from Singapore, Russia, Dubai, and Egypt; and George Nader, a cagey Lebanese-American who advised MbZ in strategy against Qatar and who has an arrest rap sheet for pedophilic activities in the United States and Czechia. Former Seychelles President James Michel is a close friend of MbZ.
King Farouk of Egypt famously said to King Zog of Albania that, eventually, there would be left in the world only five Kings – the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds. King Farouk would have most certainly added the Crown Princes or “Jacks” of Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and Johor to his list of endangered royal species.