Mohammad bin Salman’s rise to power, and his adventurist leadership is dangerously escalating the Saudi-Iran battle for hegemony in the Middle East.
On Saturday, 4 November 2017, three significant events happened in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. One was the attempted missile attack on King Khalid bin Abdulaziz Airport in Riyadh, launched from Yemen with the Houthis taking responsibility for the attack. The second was Saad al Hariri’s decision to resign as prime minister of Lebanon, which was announced from Riyadh rather than Beirut. Then the campaign of mass arrests in Saudi Arabia involving more than 50 high level personalities at the time, including princes and descendants from the royal Al Saud family, business men, ministers, former ministers, and other very powerful figures.
To understand these recent events, we should understand the context in the Gulf region since King Salam bin Abdulaziz came to power in 2015. King Salman’s ascendance to the throne has brought a third generation of princes to power who seemingly aim to transform Saudi society. In particular, we are talking about the competition between the two Mohammads: Prince Mohammad bin Nayef (MBN), the former Crown Prince, former Minister of Interior and former Head of the Political and Security Council; and Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), Crown Prince since last June, Minister of Defense, head of the Royal Court and Head of the Economy Council.
Both Mohammad’s, MBN and MBS respectively, were very powerful at the start of King Salman’s era. The king’s son, MBS, has benefited from his close relationship to his father to increase his chances of reaching the top of the hierarchy of power in Saudi Arabia. Saudi leaders have decided to revive the influence of Saudi Arabia in the Muslim and Arab world and are looking to play a more significant role on regional and international affairs.
A few months after King Salman came to power, Saudi Arabia launched the war in Yemen against the Houthis and the forces that support the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The war was declared from Washington by Adel al Jobair, the current Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, who at that time was the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the US. This was seen as a strong message from Riyadh, “we can make decisions and take actions”.
In December 2015, MBS announced the creation of a “Muslim Coalition” without Iran, based in Riyadh, to fight “terrorism”. This announcement reinforced the idea that the main enemy for Saudi Arabia—and their friends—is Iran.
In addition, Donald Trump’s arrival to power in the US empowered hard line factions within the Saudi state who consider Iran as a major threat to regional and global stability.
It has become increasingly clear that events in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon have become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran and its regional proxies on the other.
After manufacturing the crisis with Qatar; the arrest of scholars and intellectuals—some perceived as friendly towards Qatar—in Saudi Arabia; the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri from Riyadh; and the arrests of more than 200 high level figures, some of whom are part of the royal family – it seems that the next step by the Saudi Crown Prince will be the ascension to the throne. The arrest of Prince Muteeb bin Abdullah, the son of the late Saudi monarch King Abdullah ensures that MBS now controls the last remaining independent lever of power that threatened his coronation – the Saudi National Guard.
What is worrisome about this transition within the Saudi political structure, is that MBS, the future king of Saudi Arabia, has intrusive and adventurist policies that motivate him to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and it always seems that all options are on the table – including military escalation. This nearly happened during the Qatari crisis, but the Kuwaiti intervention to mediate stopped it. This was revealed by the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, in statements made during a press conference held in Washington DC with his US counterpart last September.
This state of affairs may result in the further political disintegration and insecurity of the region.