Written by Khurram Shahzad Siddiqui.
A headstrong 32 years old Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman known colloquially as MBS caught the attention of international media in April 2015 when King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud made him the defence minister and Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) as a crown prince, making him first in line to the throne of Saudi Arabia. The first step MBS took as a defence minister was to make a pan-GCC coalition with other Arab states and launch air strikes on Yemen in March 2015 after Saudi backed President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was forced into exile by the Houthi rebel movement. This was the first move by MBS to show his authority to the other powerful princes of the House of Saud, like Prince Muqrin, Director General of Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah (Saudi Intelligence Agency) and Mohammad bin Nayef (MBN) crown prince, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Interior of Saudi Arabia and chairman of the Council for Political and Security Affairs. By this move MBS flexed his muscles to the Arab World in order to make Saudi Arabia a key regional player and conveying a direct message to Iran of his power.
As expected by many western observers the chances of the elevation of MBS to be heir to throne were all bright but it happened sooner than predicted. On Tuesday June 20, 2017 Mohammad bin Nayef (MBN), a powerful figure in Saudi Arabia’s security apparatus for the past two decades and the next in line to the throne, was forced to quit as crown prince in favour of MBS on the pretext of an addiction to painkilling drugs that was allegedly clouding MBN’s judgment. The new powerful crown prince MBS appeared on the national and international media news channels after this sudden grab of power.
As his sudden rise in the line of the throne, MBS is ambitiously moving, at times without taking into account the risk calculus, to make the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a regional power player in the Arab World, reducing the regional influence of Iran and grabbing a major chunk of power in the kingdom. Simultaneously carrying out Anti-Shia (Anti Iran) drive and economic blockade/political isolation of Qatar on external front and consolidation of absolute power in the kingdom, which has a long legacy of carefully calibrated power-sharing within the royal family, can prove to be a very risky affair if it backfires. The Arrest of dozens of powerful princes and billionaire businessmen as a result of anti-corruption spree earlier in November this year and detaining them at Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh is something unprecedented in the kingdom’s monarchical history. A day earlier to the scene of Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, the Resignation of Saad Al Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon from Riyadh on 4th November, after being summoned by the Kingdom, was yet another shocking news for many around the Arab world. It is believed that he was forced by the kingdom authorities to resign and criticize Hezbollah (a Shi’a Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon and supported by Iran); as Mr Hariri had business interests with Saudi Royals so he succumbed to the pressure. Big moves like these have big consequences especially if they backfire.
What is the outcome of all these moves; escalating the war in Yemen, triggering the siege of Qatar and Lebanon and turning Ritz-Carlton into prison? Were these favourable to Saudi Arabia in achieving the desired results? The answer is very tricky and ambiguous but some of the effects of these ambitious bold moves of MBS are quickly casting their marks of disorder across the Arab World.
The war in Yemen is not at all going as planned. In nearly three years of war the aerial bombardment has brought the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in the Arab World’s poorest country, claimed more than 8,600 lives and injured nearly 50,000 since the Saudi-led campaign began. The Yemen intervention, which is associated with MBS, who planned it as a defence minister, seems to have become a politically damaging and militarily unproductive quagmire. There are reports that MBS is finding a way out of this unproductive Yemen war.
The coalition military campaign has failed to eradicate or push back the Houthi rebels and has endangered Riyadh itself; on 4th November 2017 there was a missile attack on Riyadh airport fired from Yemen which the Saudi authorities claimed that they intercepted it successfully. The Saudi Foreign Minister called it an act of war by Iran. This war has not helped the Kingdom’s image. An outpour of criticism by international media, human rights groups and aid organization have highlighted the atrocities of the campaign yet to achieve its objective; that is pushing back of the Houthi rebels .
Interference in Lebanon by the kingdom also seems to be backlashing. After Saad Al Hariri’s live resignation from Riyadh, the president of Lebanon Michel Aoun, Hassan Nasrallah (head of Hezbollah; coalition partner to Saad Al Hariri) and opposition leaders refused to accept it by blaming MBS of overreaching and forcing Mr Hariri to resign. The move even unified Lebanon’s political parties, Hezbollah and public in their desire for the safe return of Mr Hariri. Interestingly Saad Al Hariri’s rescinded his resignation on Tuesday 5th December and reached Lebanon after a month long crisis triggered by his resignation. This move of MBS could not bring him any substantial gains in terms of reducing the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics thereby reducing Shia (Iran) influence by polarising the Lebanese Government and public after Mr Hariri’s resignation. It seems both Yemen and Lebanon were miscalculations for MBS unsuccessfully trying to curtail Iranian influence in the region.
Like Yemen and Lebanon, economic blockade and political isolation of Qatar earlier this year was yet another miscalculated move by MBS. On 5th June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of destabilising the region with its support for Islamist groups. It was a move stirred by MBS. They halted all land, air and sea traffic with Qatar. Even after more than seven months of this Saudi led boycott of Qatar the so-called isolation of Doha has not achieved the desired results. The demands like permanent shutting down of premier Arab News Channel Al Jazeera was simply rejected by the Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar. In a TV interview right after the boycott, the Qatari Emir said that Qatari people were underestimated and maintained that sovereignty is a red line for Qataris. Qatar has survived the Saudi led Arab boycott and relied heavily on Iran and Turkey for its trade, air traffic and consumer goods thus further pushing it away from Saudi Arabia. The boycott campaign against Qatar did not gain public approval in the region and internationally. Qatar has not succumbed to any Saudi Pressure rather this boycott has given an opportunity to Iran to foster further the existing ties with Qatar. In future Iran may sign some defence agreements with Qatar as it is always the strategy of Iranian Government to expand defence cooperation with the littoral states of the Persian Gulf; existing political scene of the region is a very ripe situation for any such kind of defence cooperation.
On internal front MBS coup or purge or shock and awe action, whatever it can be called, has set an example which may be used against him in future. The fate of the detainees of Ritz-Carlton is not yet clear; whether they will be forced into exile? stripped of their wealth or what? It is a very risky power play which he made. MBS has consolidated all the executive powers under him; like Defence Ministry, Interior Ministry and National Guards. Thus left no one to challenge him. In fact, MBS has dismantled decades old balanced power sharing system amongst the princes of the House of Saud. By consolidating all the executive powers, MBS has taken that balance out of the Saudi Royal family. The results of this unprecedented authoritative power grab are yet to come but for sure it has shaken the confidence of foreign investors who were planning to invest in MBS economic vision 2030.
MBN has attempted to change Saudi Arabia’s role in the region from the petro-dollar economy into a political and military power of the Arab World. After witnessing the Iran’s great regional influence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon MBS desires to rise as the strongman on the horizon of Mediterranean to the Gulf. MBS should learn lessons from the political history of the region as well, while perusing his over ambitious designs. The strongmen before him like Saddam Hussain, Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak are prime examples that how uncalculated regional intervention, suppression of masses, consolidation of power and mega economic projects lead to disaster and tyranny instead of peace, prosperity and freedom. It is high time for MBS and his aides to revisit the internal and external policies of the kingdom otherwise all these moves will backfire significantly, to say the least.
Khurram Shahzad Siddiqui is a doctoral researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, where he is affiliated with the The Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism (CST) and The Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies (IAPS). His research interests include Insurgency, Terrorism, Counter Insurgency Warfare, Contemporary Warfare, Global Security, Pakistan-China Security Collaborations and Baluchistan. He can be reached at Khurram.Siddiqui@nottingham.ac.uk and he regularly tweets @KSSiddiqui_17. Image credit: CC by The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.