The world is still coming to terms with Saturday’s events in Riyadh and what the political, economic, and social ramifications will be for the Middle East, and the rest of the world. The Saudi Arabian political purge has so far had a greater impact than the failed Houthi missile strike on Riyadh or the Lebanese PM’s resignation. Today oil prices hit a fresh two year high, the upward surge stemming from uncertainty about what is happening in Riyadh. There are questions, and concerns about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed’s intentions following a weekend that saw him consolidate and expand his control over the Saudi government. With the approval and support of his father King Salman, the Crown Prince’s newly unveiled anti-corruption committee swooped down on Riyadh, arresting, and detaining scores of princes, ministers, and high ranking government officials. The men being held now represent a cross section of Saudi Arabia’s elite including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the world’s richest Arab, who was one of those arrested on corruption charges.
MbS, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan is known, has pushed to initiate political and social reforms throughout the kingdom. Those moves were resisted by many in the Saudi Royal Family and government. These anti-corruption arrests come as part of an ambitious powerplay by MbS to remove the men most stubbornly resisting reform. In the process, MbS is paving the way for the time when he will succeed his father on the throne. Events this weekend have led many to wonder if King Salman intends to abdicate in the near future. He has virtually handed executive power to MbS already and given his blessing for his son to launch a complete rebuilding of the governance system in Saudi Arabia.
The failed Houthi missile attack on Riyadh has not been lost in the shuffle. The Saudis have placed blame for the attack squarely on Iran’s shoulders. The Saudis denounced the attack and labeled it a potential ‘act of war,’ pointing to Tehran’s oversight and control of the Houthis. Even though Iran denies it, the Houthi rebels are an Iranian proxy. The possibility that they launched the missile on their own, not on orders from Tehran, is minimal. The Saudis see the Iranian fingerprints on the attack clearly.
In Yemen, the war between the Saudi-led coalition, and Iranian supported Houthi rebels continues on with no end in sight. The conflict has been an occasional flashpoint, most notably when Houthi anti-ship missile strikes were launched against United States warships operating off the Yemeni coast last year. For the most part, the conflict ebbs and flows at regular intervals, serving a purpose as an arena in the great game being played out by Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance. How Saturday’s events will affect the Saudi-Iran competition, Yemen, the Qatari crisis, and other geopolitical endeavors of the kingdom remain to be seen. The region, and the world will not have to wait very long to find out though.
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.
Saudi Arabia expected a swift capitulation after it imposed sanctions, and a quasi-blockade on Qatar last month. The action came about in large part because of Qatar’s independent foreign policy, as well as its penchant for pursing endeavors that were in direct conflict with those of the other Gulf States. Crises among the nations of the Arabian Peninsula are nothing new. The majority have been short-lived, and generally wind up resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved.
This crisis is different in many aspects. Saudi Arabia, and its anti-Qatar partners went straight for the jugular. Riyadh’s demands amounted to a virtual surrender Qatar’s sovereignty. There were no indications that this action was in the works or on the horizon. It came as a bolt out of the blue, likely just how Riyadh intended for it to be. The Qataris did not capitulate. They brushed off the shock of the blockade, made the necessary adjustments, and soldiered on with a business-as-usual attitude. Efforts were made to resolve the crisis diplomatically. However, Qatar was not prepared to accede to any of the demands of the Saudis and their partners. The subsequent list of demands, and accompanying ultimatum that the Saudis handed down is dead in the water. Doha didn’t bite.
Now, as we move into late July, the Saudis are realizing they’ve placed themselves in a box. One which they cannot extricate themselves from without suffering a severe loss of face. The US is not going to be able to rescue them. Washington is frustrated with the lack of flexibility shown by the Saudis. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been pushing hard for a diplomatic resolution, essentially forcing the Saudis to negotiate on items they had previously considered non-negotiable.
The longer the crisis drags on, the worse the consequences will become for Saudi Arabia. It is losing face as a regional leader. Their move against Qatar has served to destabilize the Gulf region instead of bringing it in line with Riyadh’s wishes. Iran is gaining an advantage as the crisis brings the already chummy Tehran-Doha relationship even closer. Through its efforts to assist Qatar, Iran has helped derail a major power move by Riyadh. Finally, the Saudis have learned the hard way that President Trump’s enthusiasm for them will not translate to Washington blindly supporting actions or policies that benefit Saudi Arabia but simultaneously damage other US allies, as well as interests in the region.
Saudi King Salman decided that it was time for change in Riyadh. As the kingdom contends with low oil prices, Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, and conflicts across the Middle East, Salman has made a change in the royal line of succession. Saudi Arabia now has a new crown prince. Gone is Mohammed bin Nayef who served in the post since April of 2015. His replacement will be Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 31 year old son of the current king.
Nayef has been stripped of his responsibilities by royal decree. The former crown prince often marched to the beat of his own drummer, so to speak. He frequently spoke to the media, something which is in stark contrast to the traditions of the Saudi royal family. This behavior rankled some senior members of the royal family, as did his perceived feet dragging during the first months of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Rumors swirled around Riyadh for quite some time that his days were numbered and replacement imminent.
That day has come. Although young, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has developed a reputation as hard working. Following his father taking the reins of power, the younger Salman emerged from obscurity. He was handed large responsibilities and afforded vast power in what now appears to have been a grooming period for this specific moment. He served as the minister of defense, playing a major role in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen operations. It is hoped by many in the corridors of power in Riyadh that his ascension will strike a positive chord with the kingdom’s younger population. He does have his critics though, who see the new crown prince as inexperienced and power hungry. With the close scrutiny that comes with his new role, the real Mohammed bin Salman will be uncovered rather quickly.
Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an attempted transformation. The kingdom is seeking to shed the cumbersome dynamics that have accompanied its domestic and foreign policy decision making for decades. King Salman wants to create a more dynamic and assertive kingdom. The Yemen intervention, and more recently the orchestrated blockade of Qatar are prime examples. Ironically, it has been a new administration in the US which has provided the impetus for the kingdom’s recent behavior changes. The policies and goals of the Obama administration and Saudi Arabia clashed far more often than they aligned. This brought about friction and a lack of understanding at a time when a more cohesive US-Saudi relationship was needed. Now, King Salman understands that President Trump now provides the kingdom with the solid ally it has desperately sought from the US since 2008, and the motivation to remodel its foreign policy machinations in order to function more closely with the United States.
It is evident that the Saudi Arabian-led isolation of Qatar has been a long time in the making. Qatar’s funding of select extremist groups over the years was hardly a secret in the Arab world. The Saudis resented Qatar for the hypocrisy and discord of its policies: Contributing to the fight against ISIS on one hand, yet providing financial support to extremist groups such as the one operating in eastern Saudi Arabia on the other. The linchpin of a diplomatic effort against Qatar has always been the United States. Washington’s reaction to a quarrel amongst some of its closest allies had to be factored into any action taken on the part of Riyadh.
During the years of the Obama presidency, the Saudis pointed the finger at Qatar’s complicity again and again. King Abdullah, and then his successor King Salman made informal, but impassioned requests for America’s blessing, or at the very least its tacit approval for a move against Qatar. For eight years the Obama administration rejected the requests. The issues of US allies in the region were unceremoniously placed on the back burner as Washington sought a nuclear deal with Iran at all costs.
The new administration in Washington has not been unreceptive to Saudi concerns about Qatar. When President Trump made his first overseas visit last month, his first stop was Riyadh. He gave a speech to the leaders of over 50 Muslim nations, imploring them to do more in the fight against terrorism. The Saudis, and other leaders in the region assured Trump that they would adopt a hard line on funding extremism. On the surface, the speech and subsequent assurances appeared no more candid than others made in the past. Beneath the diplospeak, however, an iron determination to punish Qatar was taking shape in Riyadh, Dubai, Cairo, and Manama. Trump had given the Saudis, Egyptians and their GCC partners the tacit approval they’d long sought from Washington, and the Saudis have wasted little time in implementing draconian measures on Qatar.
Thus far, Qatar is seeking to remedy the situation through dialogue and diplomacy. A number of leaders around the world are seeking resolution along the same avenue, including Turkish President Erdogan. In the Persian Gulf region, though, leaders expect more from Qatar. “We need a guaranteed roadmap to rebuild confidence after our covenants were broken,” UAE state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said on Twitter. He accused Doha of turning to “money and media and partisanship and extremism” in a series of tweets early Tuesday morning. Qatar has denied the allegations.
For now, the attention is focused on Qatar and its response to its isolation. An eye needs to be kept on Iran as well, however. Tehran is already trying to involve itself in the matter by offering assistance to Qatar. If the Iranians sense an opportunity to swing the regional balance of power in its favor it will not hesitate to act.