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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gives all the appearances of being in the eye of a perfect storm largely of his own making. In the first weekend of November he ordered the arrest of eleven princes, part of a dragnet which would net more than 200 principals in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for corruption, malpractice in office and general malfeasance which the accusers say has led to some $100 billions of public funds going astray.
Coincidence or not, at the same time the detentions were announced, the prime minister of Lebanon announced on television in Saudi Arabia that he was resigning immediately because of threats to this life from agents of Iran and their Lebanese client and ally Hezbollah. In the same time frame a long-range missile launched from Houthi rebels positions in Yemen was reported to have been intercepted and blown up by Patriot missiles as it homed on Riyadh airport.
Was the crown prince staging a coup or counter-coup? Was he concentrating power in the hands of his faction as part of a well thought out strategy, or was he pre-empting a counter strike by his enemies at court and in the extended family of Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, who united the tribes and founded the kingdom in 1932?
A self-proclaimed reformer and moderniser, the 32- year old prince appears to have been securing his position at home, tipping towards a gradual reform programme in politics and the economy, while redoubling the effort on a number of fronts to check the influence and activities of Iran and its allies across the region.
One of the most significant sackings was the removal of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah from command of the National Guard, a force of about 100,000 that holds the key to internal security in the kingdom – with just over a quarter, roughly 27,000 coming from tribal militias. Miteb bin Abdullah was previously crown prince, and had been expected by some to ascend the throne after his father King Abdullah.
Not only does the crown prince, known universally by the acronym MBS, have control over the national guard and armed services, but he now heads up the new committee of vigilance investigating the corruption allegations. Among those detained in the Ritz-Carlton hotel is the world’s richest man, Prince Alweed bin Talal. Altogether, according to the naturally cautious Economist magazine, some $800 billion of assets have been frozen in various accounts, pending the outcome of the investigations.
This is bad news for foreign investors, whom MBS wants to attract to Saudi Arabia as part of his drive to wean it from its oil dependency by the end of the 2030s.
He seems to be embarked on a three-pronged strategy to modernise the royal house, the government and society. He is taking on the conservative clergy, publicly rebuking the morality police and pushing for allowing women to be able to drive – the next move is likely to be allow women to attend public cinemas. In the royal family he seems to be trying to wrest control from the descendants of King Saud, who ruled from 1953 to 64, and his brother Faisal, who succeeded him until he was assassinated in 1975. They had a monopoly of defence, national security, intelligence and foreign affairs for nearly 40 years.
During his ascent to almost total power over the past two years, MBS seems almost deliberately to have taken the riskiest course – especially in foreign adventures and the confrontation with Iran. He promoted the war in Yemen against the Houthi Shia rebels as part of the proxy war against Iran, who with Hezbollah is held responsible for funding and arming the insurgents. Despite the massive discharge of ordnance, a great deal supplied by Britain, the Houthis are holding out. The result is humanitarian disaster, with seven million Yemenis facing starvation this winter according to the UN.
Following the launch of the alleged Hezbollah missile on Riyadh, MBS has ordered a total blockade of all roads, air and sea routes into Yemen, where some 600,000 are suffering in the worst cholera outbreak in living memory.
A touch of tragi-comedy in the theatrics of the perfect storm at the weekend of November 4th and 5th was the scripted resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri on Saudi television. In words quite evidently not written by his own hand, Hariri said he had to quit because of threats to his life, implying fear of Iranian assassins.
Hariri has dual Lebanese and Saudi nationality, and his family resides in the kingdom, so he is clearly under the thumb of the crown prince, who evidently considered him too lenient to his coalition partners in Lebanon from Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrullah, immediately responded to Hariri’s resignation by saying he was under now threat from Hezbollah, and he was a welcome partner in government.
The prince’s handling of his policy towards Iran seems to be the highest risk, even desperate, element in his current manoeuvrings. He seems to be driven by the change of the balance of fortunes in Syria with national forces and their Hezbollah allies announcing the expulsion of Islamic State forces from their last urban base at Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border at the beginning of this month.
In Syria, Hezbollah has proved the vital ally to President Assad’s forces. With Iranian backing, and Russian know-how, Hezbollah has transformed from a militia to a formed army, capable of deploying at divisional strength. Today Saudi Arabia and Israel are joined in the same narrative that Hezbollah is the vital link in a strategic chain of Iranian-backed, and led, militias and forces from Lebanon on the Mediterranean through Syria, Iraqi Shia forces to the Gulf, reaching round to Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula and the mouth of the Red Sea. Israel now briefs that from Iran and Syria, Hezbollah has acquired up to 150,000 rockets and missiles now based in southern Lebanon and aimed at the entire territory of Israel.
In his focus and fixation on Iran and Hezbollah, MBS has two personal allies, who seem almost like buddies given temperamental similarities – Donald J Trump, and Binyamin Netanyahu. Both seem keen to bash Iran and all its allies and proxies as surely as Cato was bent on the destruction of ancient Carthage. “Saudi Arabia is opening a new front against Iran, and wants Israel to do its dirty work,” remarked Ariel Harel caustically in Haaretz.
In the clouds of rhetoric emanating from the three leaders about Iran there is a worrying lack of substantial strategy. Under the crown prince, Saudi Arabia is at war in Yemen, blockading Qatar, backing unsavoury proxies in Syria and Iraq, and now pitching Lebanon to a civil war rerun, all in the name of confronting and defeating the Islamic Republic of Iran and its pals. It is too much endeavour in too many directions leading to a great deal of damage and human misery.
Neither Trump nor the crown prince seem to have a genuine strategy in this. They give little idea of that the end state of their policy and posturing, the risks and costs in collateral damage. In this they show every chance of being driven by events, rather than controlling them. This raises the real prospect of a regional confrontation involving a strange coalition led by the Saudi Arabia and the US and Israel on one side, against a coalition of Iran, Hezbollah and regional Shiite militias, Russia and Turkey on the other. And this confrontation could go hot at any moment.
Missing from the entire discourse about the new patterns of confrontation across the region these past days has been the single most destabilising element of all, especially for Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Iran: refugees. It is a subject that the new MBS agenda seems unwilling to address, or countenance at all.
Robert Fox is Defence Editor of the Evening Standard. @robfox45