It has been a hectic past sixteen hours in Riyadh to say the least. The Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his immediate resignation, not from his own country’s capital, but from the Saudi capital. Hariri pointed to Iranian influence over Lebanon’s government as the reason for stepping down. The move puts Lebanon on the front burner of the Middle East, and increases the chances of a political crisis and potential conflict in the near future. Hariri’s departure should serve as a warning to the international community concerning Iran’s aggressive political and military moves across the region of late. Which brings us to the second major event of the day.
Shortly after Hariri’s announcement was made, Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a ballistic missile toward Riyadh. The missile was intercepted by a Saudi Patriot missile positioned battery east of King Khalid International Airport. Debris fell on the airport grounds and in the surrounding area causing no casualties or damage. The timing of the attack could be coincidental. A Saudi airstrike against targets in Yemen this past Wednesday killed 26 people at a hotel and neighboring market. The missile strike against Riyadh was likely Houthi retaliation for the airstrike.
While all of this was going on, the Saudi Royal Family appears to be on the verge of its own political crisis. At least a dozen Saudi princes, and four current ministers of the Saudi government have been arrested as part of a major anti-corruption sweep shortly after a committee to combat corruption was formed by a royal decree of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The decree appoints Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan as the head of the committee and grants him broad powers to fight corruption in the government. Along with the arrests of current government officials, a number of ex-ministers have also been taken into custody, and a number of current ministers were fired by the king.
It is clear that the forming of the committee and subsequent arrests are not underway purely to purge corrupt elements from the royal family and Saudi government. Prince Mohammed could be taking this opportunity to consolidate his position in the government, possibly in preparation for an abdication by King Salman in the near future. Which brings up a second, far more cynical possibility; that these arrests and firings are the beginning of an attempted coup. As more news comes out of Riyadh, it will become clear what direction this is going in. For my money, I believe this is a consolidation move by the Crown Prince and likely does signal that King Salman’s days in power are now limited.
Any way you slice it, this has been a stormy, unpredictable day in Riyadh, and the drama will no doubt continue in the coming days.