After the ruthless Erdogan’s purge in Turkey, authoritarian rise of President Xi, unflinching consolidation of power by the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is all set to change the dynamic of power play in Asia. Massive purge has been integral to events in Turkey and China, where Xi through the anti-corruption drive targeted nearly 1.5 million officials and political opponents. Unfoldment of similar pattern of events in Saudi Arabia unleashed by crown prince portended advent of a new change in the middle east region. Eventually, the three events on Nov 4th is all set to usher Saudi into a new realm under the reigns of MbS.
On Nov 4th the anti-corruption task force headed by MbS arrested 11 princes which included sons of late King Abdullah, 30 former and current ministers and three heads of Saudi TV stations. All their assets were attached, and wealth was frozen. Several other members of the Royal family are held in Ritz Carlton hotel.
On the same day, Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh citing an assassination bid by Hezbollah. Hariri, who is half Lebanese, raised in Saudi with business interests in the kingdom, has been a puppet of the Royal Sauds. On Nov 3rd, Hariri met Iranian delegation led by Al Akbar Velayati, advisor to Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei but the next day he traveled to Saudi and declared his reluctance to continue as Prime Minister. His resignation which wasn’t preceded by any radical events raised curious doubts about the major power play politics unleased by Saudi Arabia. Hariri, who took over the charge as Prime Minister last year headed a government which included Hezbollah, political-military outfit propped by Iran. A deal was struck for equitable distribution of power in Lebanon. Accordingly, Michel Aoun, strong ally of Hezbollah, became the President while Hariri backed by Riyadh, represented the Sunni interests. Days into power, Hariri called for disarmament of Hezbollah, but the President defended that it was necessary for security interests of Lebanon. Hariri slowly lost control over budgetary issues and was forced to accede to Hezbollah’s insistence of sending an ambassador to Syria. Saudi began to feel the crumbling influence of Hariri. A stable government legitimized Hezbollah in Lebanon. By ordering Hariri to step down, Saudi will create chaos in Lebanon as Hezbollah will find it difficult to form coalition government. Hezbollah’s maneuver will be restricted, and Iran would be held responsible for the unrest. Saudi earlier legitimized its control over Lebanon through Hariri’s father Rafik who was assassinated in 2005 by Hezbollah. Lebanon always served as a barometer for the balance of powers operating the middle east region. Presently Iran, preoccupied by battles in Syria and Yemen crisis, has failed to focus on the balance of powers in Lebanon. MbS has rightly picked up the occasion to assert Saudi’s influence in the region.
Worsening this crisis, a ballistic missile launched from Yemen was intercepted at the King Khaled airport, Riyadh. Though there were no reports of any causalities, this incident has opened yet another new front for the Saudi to intensify its narrative against Iran. Saudi unequivocally blamed Houthi rebels, who belong to Zyadi sect as Shia Muslims and firmly believed that Iran offered military support. Reiterating that debris of the missile confirmed Iran’s role, Saudi lost no time in upping the ante. Riyadh remarked this as “blatant act of military aggression by the Iranian regime” and that they reserved “right to respond”. After the missile launch Saudi tightened blockade exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Together, these events changed the fragile balance of power in the Middle East.
MbS entered political arena in 2009 and steadily rose to power. With the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, his father Mohammed Salman became the King and MbS was appointed the Minister for Defense and head of newly established Council for Economic and Development Affairs. Yemen crisis began to escalate, and Iran backed Houthi rebels established control over the Northern Yemen. Consequently, Saudi-backed President Abderabbo Mansour Hadi exiled to Riyadh. In March 2015, MbS mobilized the coalition of GCC partners and launched aerial strikes against Sanaa, becoming the architect of Yemen war. By April 2015, as per royal decree, Muhammed bin Nayef became crown prince and MbS the deputy crown prince. He even took charge of the Saudi Aramco, the Saudi Arabian Oil and Natural Gas company. In Dec 2015, MbS stitched an Islamic Military Alliance, a coalition of 34-Islamic (Sunni) nations, hailed as Islamic NATO, to fight terrorism. This counter terrorism alliance, which elicited skepticism of the global community soon found a commander in Pakistan’s Raheel Sharif. Ambitious MbS wary of the fluctuating oil prices and Kingdom’ reliance on the oil revenues, in April 2016 enunciated a vision 2030 plan, with an aim of diversifying the economy. To steadily build, non-oil revenues, MbS cut back on subsidies, introduced new taxes and austerity measures to slash down expenses. He planned to create $2 trillion Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund by selling 5% shares of Aramco. But the move was delayed. He introduced series of economic reforms termed as the National Transformation Program and mooted the idea of “green cards” for non-Saudi residents. Exuding keen interest in extricating social fabric of the Kingdom from the clutches of religious restrictions, in September, MbS removed ban on female drivers and permitted entry of women into stadiums and theatres. This progressive move, which was in tune with aspirations of young Saudis received appreciations from the West. Last month, calling for a moderate Islam, MbS announced plans of constructing a new city NEOM along the Red Sea coast connecting Jordan and Egypt. To prepare Saudi for the post oil-era, MbS enunciated the new project worth $500 billion funded by Saudi Sovereign Fund and international investors will focus on biotechnology, manufacturing, entertainment and will be solely powered by Solar and Wind energy.
Unlike the earlier generation of Saudi Royals, MbS lived through the most traumatic events in the Gulf ranging from the Kuwait Invasion in 1991 is conversant of nitty-gritties of monarchy. MbS armed with twin goals of overhauling the Kingdom’s economy and bolstering Saudi Arabia’s position as a regional power against Iran, embarked on an ambitious plan of consolidating power. To realize his objectives, MbS cemented relations with the American establishment by establishing close personal relationship with President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner who oversees the Middle East affairs. A week after President Trump’s visit to Riyadh, MbS carried out a diplomatic campaign to isolate Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and for its close ties with Iran. With the support of other Gulf countries, MbS successfully reduced the influence of economically robust Qatar which pursued an independent foreign policy. This event which divided the Gulf region has substantially increased the leverage of Washington. Iran’s success in Syria and Iraq, growing influence in Beirut and unremitting Houthi attacks worsened Saudi’s fears of burgeoning Shiite dominance in the region. Instinctively, MbS favored closer ties with Israel which considers Iran its mortal enemy. Even the new American administration through Kushner facilitated ties between Arabs and Israelis. MbS objective of scuttling Iran’s influence found consonance with the Trump’s belligerence towards Iran. America’s tacit approval to MbS larger plans had indeed emboldened him.
In the meanwhile, MbS surgically eliminated obstacles for his political ascent. In June, he replaced Mohammed bin Nayef, his elder cousin who was removed from the position of Crown Prince on charges of morphine and cocaine addiction. Now under the anti-corruption campaign, he ousted another rival to his succession, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Miteb who belongs to King Abdullah clan wielded considerable power. Another Saudi Prince, Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, son of Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, former intelligence director and one-time crown prince is killed in a helicopter clash. Similarly, another senior prince was reportedly killed in a firefighting. Till now despite several disagreements various tribes of the House of Saud, put up a show of unity to project strength. Now with the arrest of various princes, MbS made several enemies. To prevent emergence of strong military leadership, in Saudi armed forces are categorized into three different institutions- the regular army, the national guard, security forces of Ministry of Interior. Each of this is headed by different branch of House of Saud. Now, with these divisions gone, MbS seems to be directly or indirectly controlling the armed forces. In his ongoing purge, MbS targeted media heads and business leaders like Alwaleed bin Talal and Bakr bin Laden who are accused of embezzlements and operating though a nexus with bureaucrats. MbS thus successfully eliminated any competing military, political, economic and media-related power. Besides, MbS, ever since, his political positioning in 2015, began to portray Iran as an aggressor and the reason for the conflict in the region. His massive purge which is believed to be carried with the support of his father King Salman will now lead to an unnerving scenario of great power consolidation in the hands of a single individual. Considering the radical decisions made by MbS, West’s indifference to his repressive authoritarianism might be dangerous. Till 2015, Saudi never put boots on ground to battle its rival, but MbS changed the traditional “checkbook diplomacy” of the Kingdom and mobilized a coalition to take on the Houthi-Saleh duo controlling Sanaa.
While the battle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran existed for several decades, concentration of power in a single person steered by anti-Iran narrative may spell disaster for the entire region. Already middle east is mired by several fault lines and any trigger can simply blow the lid off the residual peace in the region. After the resignation of Hariri, Saudi accused Lebanon of declaring war against it and ordered its citizen to leave the country. Israel toed similar line citing security issues and proclaiming that growing foot print of Iran (with the near complete defeat of IS, Iran is planning to establish a land corridor connecting Iran to Lebanon passing through Syria) and its allied forces might pose danger to the region. Israel indicated previously that Hezbollah in Lebanon are close to producing guided-precision missiles. In the meanwhile, MbS purge created domestic chaos, though there is no report of an organized resistance, oil prices have spiked. Interestingly, Trump’s endorsement of MbS actions, have certainly strengthened Saudi Arabia’s heft in the region. Meanwhile fears of Lebanon being pushed into chaos caused French President Macron rush to Riyadh. Lebanon has been testing ground for Saudi-Iran co-existence and unusual aggression of Saudi Arabia may push the region into a battle ground for Sunni versus Shia conflict.