And now for something a little different.
This image was released by the Saudi government at roughly the same time the kingdom’s war over Yemen began. It’s a fascinating image, timed with the shakeup in the succession and appointing of a number of new — and much younger — ministers.
This is, of course, Saudi King Salman bin Abd al Aziz Al Saud in the center, flanked by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abd al Aziz Al Saud to the left, and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bin Abd al Aziz Al Saud to the right. Together, the form the triumvirate ruling the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
No, actually, that’s not right. They form the trinity ruling the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
(An aside: I leave the “a” in “al Aziz” lower case because it reflects the use of the Arabic definite article ال, while the capital “A” in “Al Saud” reflects another word entirely, آل that of “family.”)
And they are a trinity. A holy threesome. The image is brilliantly constructed. King Salman is in motion, striding forward, confidently into the future, while the two crown princes are following thoughtfully, purposefully, with the deputy crown prince’s gaze fixed on his father the king.
(The Al Sauds have solved the succession crisis. And as should have been guessed some time ago but wasn’t, the prize of creating a lasting dynasty is very likely going to the last son of Abd al Aziz Ibn Saud to be king — both Muhammads are grandsons, the crown prince being the son of the late interior minister Prince Nayef — who never got the chance to be king — and the younger deputy crown prince, who is roughly Kim Jong Un’s age, is the son of King Salman.)
Behind the three men are the symbols of Saudi Arabia — the Ka’aba in Makka (signifying ancient Islamic legitimacy), the giant clock built overlooking the Ka’aba (symbolizing the monarchy’s current stewardship of the holy place of Makka and Madinah), the flag of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (containing both the shahada, the confession of faith, and the sword that is the symbol of Al Saud power), and an outline of the Arabian peninsula focusing specifically on the Gulf. The patch of land the Al Sauds rule, and provide security for.
But the most important part of this image are the wings. They are angelic wings, as much as Islamic motif as a Christian one:
All praise and thanks to God, the Originator of the heavens and the earth, Who made the angels messengers with wings, two or three or four. He increases in creation what He wills. Verily, God is is able to do all things. (Qur’an 35:1, modified Khan & al-Hilali)
They are white wings, symbolizing not the falcon or the eagle, but the dove. These are the protective and nurturing wings of peace, not the avenging and rapacious wings of war. (These are not the wings of the divine bombardiers of surah 105.) And while they emanate from behind the king (indeed, it looks like the king has wings), they encompass both crown princes. These wings encompass the entire nation, they are the protection of God, extended through an angelic host and through the three-in-one/one-in-three monarchy. I cannot help but think of this passage in Matthew when I see this image:
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Matthew 23:37-39 ESV)
Which is a bit ominous, given what happen to both Jesus and Jerusalem.
Or this bit from the Psalms:
8 Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
9 from the wicked who do me violence,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
(Psalms 17:8-9 ESV)
There are several psalm passages, but the point is clear. The wings of God provide protection for those who are enveloped by them. Which is what these wings are supposed to do. And not just to Saudis, but also to the smaller states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are mostly covered up, but the wings are just translucent enough so that you can see the outline of both countries.)
Protected from want, from deprivation, from insecurity, and mostly, from outside threats — in this case, that of the “apostate” Shia, who should stop being so uppity. Which, ostensibly, the war in Yemen is all about.
To an extent, the individuals in this picture matter less than the institution portrayed here. This is monarchy as both traditional and modern institution. King Salman matters (this sort of thing didn’t happen when his younger brother Muqrin was Crown Prince), and yet he doesn’t. We’re not quite at the point where the king of Saudi Arabia is as unimportant as the president of Switzerland (who?) or reduced to sash-wearing and bus-riding civil servants in the way the monarchs of Scandinavia are, but this is less a picture of three individual men than it is a representation of the Saudi monarchy itself.
This image is an icon.
Actually, the war in Yemen is mostly a matter of convenience. Yemen is poor and has a significant Shia minority, and cannot defend itself from the kind of air war the Saudis are busy waging. It’s easy to pick on the poor this way, which is why high tech nation-states tend to do just that, whether it’s the United States pulverizing Afghanistan and Iraq, or Israel bombarding Lebanon and Gaza.
Or Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen.
And yet, the poor always seem to come out on top. The stated Saudi war aim was the return of Yemen’s internally recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (really, he looks like a man who wants to sell me some real estate). But that desire has met the reality of war. Saudi jets can roam the skies at will, bomb anything they see, but they have not and can’t really force the Houthi rebels of northern Yemen to stop advancing, or give up territory, much less sue for peace or surrender. It would take a significant commitment of land forces to accomplish the stated goals, and the Saudi armed forces — the Royal Saudi Land Forces and the Saudi Arabian National Guard — are simply not up to what Yemen would do to them. The Israelis could maul Gaza and Lebanon at will, inflict horrific damage to cities, towns, and villages, and even damage their opponents Hezbollah and Hamas, but flinched when it came to wholescale invasion. The costs were simply too high.
That the Saudis have not cross the border in force despite reports of major Yemeni attacks says something. I’m not surprised to read that Saudi commandoes (and others) are on the ground in and around Aden. But anyone with any sense knows that Yemen is a place where armies are shredded (as Egypt was in the 1960s), and avoids doing much more than dropping bombs.
Which the Saudi air force can do as long as supplies continue to arrive from the United States. Which they will.
But they will need to find a way out, an end to the bombing which will increasingly become an embarrassment as it becomes clear that the targets have very little military value, and those hurt most are non-combatants trying their best to get out of the way of the war. It hard to claim you are protecting people you are busy brutalizing.
An end which saves face, and allows the trinity that rules to continue to claim the strong and mighty wings of God, as stretched out behind the three ruling Al Sauds, still protect the kingdom and its people. Even as the ability of that trinity to project power, and to do anything more than brutalize and terrorize people, is shown to be quite limited.