The kingdom’s young Crown Prince has set off a whirlwind of change which could shake the Middle East, writes Harvey Morris
Allies of Saudi Arabia, a unique political entity that combines the characteristics of theocratic autocracy and family firm, have always been able to argue that at least it was stable.
In less than a century of its modern history, the kingdom avoided the wars, coups and revolutions that upturned much of the Middle East, and even managed to prevent the whirlwind of the Arab Spring reaching its shores.Small wonder, then, that a series of extraordinary and rapidly unfolding events prompted concern and confusion throughout the region and beyond.
In the space of hours in early November, a round-up ordered by the young Crown PrinceMohammed bin Salman, informally known as MBS, netted 11 royal princes, along with ministers and former ministers. They were confined to the temporary prison of Riyadh’s luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel,and their private jets were grounded.Hundreds more were detained, and thousands of bank accounts were frozen in what was billed as a crackdown on corruption.
The mass purge, which came without warning, coincided with the news that Saudi Arabia’s Iranian-backed rebel enemies in Yemen had targeted an airport in Riyadh with a ballistic missile.And, out of the blue, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi ally, turned up in the kingdom to announce his resignation on state TV, in a statement that everyone agreed had been written for him.
Practitioners of ‘Riyadhology’– a version of Kremlinology, although more opaque – struggled to make sense of it all. Were the events connected? Was Hariri, who later returned to Lebanon, a guest or a prisoner? Was the purge aimed at wiping out corruption or was it a move by the powerful prince to forestall a coup by his internal rivals?
Was young MBS, the de facto power in a kingdom officially ruled by his octogenarian father, King Salman, bravely attempting to drag his country into the 21st century, or was he a brash and inexperienced chancer, seeking to cement his own rule at the expense of regional stability?
For many outside Saudi Arabia, the 32-year-old Crown Prince’s pledge to reform the kingdom by stamping out corruption, addressing women’s rights and embracing a ‘moderate, balanced Islam’is seen as long overdue.More alarming, however, is his increasingly hostile stance towards the country’s regional rival, Iran, as their proxy war in Yemen descends into a quagmire.
Although the last thing the region needs at the moment is yet another proxy war, analysts are actively touting the prospect of a conflict in Lebanon that could again pit Israel against the powerful, Iranian-backed Hizbollah movement.Recent events appear to have accelerated a once unthinkable Saudi-Israeli rapprochement. It was highlighted by the unprecedented publication in a Saudi newspaper of an interview with Israel’s chief of staff,Gadi Eisenkot, in which he said the two countries agreed that Iran posed the ‘real and largest threat to the region’.
Hizbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, stirred the pot, claiming Saudi Arabia had called on Israel to attack Lebanon.However, despite the heightened rhetoric on all sides, Israel appears to be cautious about reigniting a conflict in Lebanon on Saudi Arabia’s behalf.
MBS’s meteoric rise as the unchallenged power behind the Saudi throne was confirmed when he was appointed Crown Prince after the removal from the post of his older cousin, Muhammad bin Nayef.As well as being heir to the throne, he is also defence minister – the world’s youngest –and first deputy prime minister, chairman of the state economic council, and chief supervisor of the state-run oil giant, Saudi Aramco.He strengthened his position in November by including in his round-up key figures in the National Guard, the only body considered capable of acting to restrain his considerable ambitions.
Before his elevation to the kingdom’s heirdom, MBS had already risen to prominence, or perhaps notoriety, as architect of the Yemen war against that country’s Shia-led Houthi rebels. The inconclusive conflict has failed to dislodge the rebels, claimed thousands of lives, and led to widespread famine and a cholera epidemic, both exacerbated by a Saudi blockade.His foreign policy elsewhere has proved equally unimpressive.
Despite costly Saudi support for anti-regime rebels in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has largely turned the tide against his enemies, thanks to the backing of Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbollah.Iran, meanwhile, has consolidated its position in Iraq, where it acts as godfather to powerful Shia militias.
Nearer to home, tiny Qatar has failed to knuckle under to a Saudi-led campaign to punish and ostracise it for its cosy relationship with Iran, and its alleged support for terrorist organisations.It was hardly surprising when Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, recently spoke of a new dark age in the Middle East, which he blamed on discord being spread by Saudi-led states as part of a dangerous power game.
By basing his rise to power on both domestic and foreign agendas, the Crown Prince may be guilty of overreach. Even those who welcome the prospect of domestic reform have been rattled by what is seen as his foreign policy adventurism.
MBS may believe he has a green light from his key US ally after President Donald Trump’s fulsome expressions of support during a visit to the kingdom in the summer. And as Trump posted on Twitter the day after the anti-corruption purge: ‘I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing …’
Few of Saudi Arabia’s international friends would deny the need for internal reform. Western governments have traditionally been prepared to indulge the eccentricities of the Saudi system, the princely graft and the limitations on human rights, as long as the kingdom exercised its function of stabilising world oil markets. As the world’s ‘swing’ producer, it could be counted on to switch production up or down as events and conditions demanded. Although Saudi officials insist they long ago abandoned such a role, oil production policy is still sometimes used to stabilise the market, as it was earlier this year, when the kingdom cut production to prop up world prices.
With a declared policy of fast-paced infrastructure development and internal reform, the Crown Prince can at least be credited with planning for a post-oil era. He has launched initiatives aimed at his own age cohort, the 70 per cent of Saudis who are under35, many of them highly educated but underemployed.He plans to create more than a million private sector jobs by the end of the decade and to transform the economy through his ambitious Vision 2030 development programme, ‘determined to reinforce and diversify the capabilities of our economy, turning our key strengths into enabling tools for a fully diversified future’, according to the prince’s own mission statement.
With oil prices slack and major consumers diversifying their energy sources, the kingdom is also embarking on a major programme of privatisation, headlined by an initial sale of shares in Saudi Aramco, which is predicted to bring in $145 billion in investment over three years.
On the social front, MBS wants to ease back on the puritanical trend that was reinforced in the kingdom in reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution. He has eased a long-standing driving ban for women, reduced the powers of the intrusive religious police and overseen a more liberal attitude towards films and concert performances.While they are geared towards the new generation, the reforms potentiallyrisk alienating the powerful Wahhabi clerical establishment, whose forerunners allied with the al-Sauds to establish the family’s rule. So far, however, there are few signs of an ultra-conservatist backlash that might challenge the Crown Prince. The senior clerical council even backed his decree allowing women to drive, after previously resisting it.
The changes have been broadly, if cautiously, welcomed both within and beyond the kingdom. Perhaps it needed a younger-generation new broom to sweep away the constricting legacy of the past.But it is a strategy that could be blown off course if a risky and belligerent policy leads Saudi Arabia into further conflict with Iran through proxy wars or even more direct confrontation.