Saudi Arabia is beating the drums of war, again

Saudi Arabia is beating the drums of war, again
Comment: Mohammed bin Salman's impulsive and antagonistic measures will come at a price, risking his survival as future king or disastrous wars across the region, writes Tamara Kharroub.
5 min read
08 Nov, 2017
The power balance was previously maintained by dividing key ministries among Abdulaziz bin Saud's sons[Getty]
In June 2017, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz appointed his son Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) as crown prince, deposing Mohammad bin Nayef as crown prince and removing him from his position as minister of interior. 

This was the first overt move to sideline other branches of the Saudi royal family, and consolidate power of King Salman and the new young crown prince.

Starting even before his appointment as crown prince, bin Salman had implemented aggressive domestic measures and hawkish foreign policies, arresting activists and intellectuals, dismissing thousands of ultraconservative clerics, spearheading the war on Yemen, starting the GCC crisis and blockade of Qatar and stirring up confrontation with Iran.

Recently, this campaign has intensified, with the arrest of Saudi princes and ministers last weekend, further arrests on Monday, and reports of more than 1,200 bank accounts in Saudi Arabia being frozen

While parading a campaign for reform, economic diversification, and modern Islam in the kingdom, MbS has embarked on a new operation of mass arrests of his opponents and of influential Saudi figures.

Read more: Saudi Arabia purge: Who was arrested?

Under the banner of fighting corruption and championing reform, he continues a large-scale campaign to consolidate absolute power domestically, and assert greater influence regionally and internationally. But such impulsive antagonistic measures will come with a price; risking his survival as future king or waging disastrous wars across the region.

Fighting corruption or eliminating rivals?

The Saudi purge of 11 princes, four ministers, and other former ministers and business personalities (including members of other rival branches of the royal family such as minister of National Guard Prince Miteb bin Abdullah) was described by the Saudi attorney general as "Phase One", suggesting that more is yet to come.

Although the move is branded as a campaign against corruption, the intention of eliminating opposition rivals and consolidating the crown prince's powers is hard to miss.

Bin Salman's marginalisation of Wahhabi imams threatens the religious legitimacy of the royal family historically granted by the Wahhabi leaders and clerics

While fighting corruption is of course a positive step in theory, it is difficult to see how that can be achieved through extrajudicial arrests by a leader who was appointed by his father. The irony was not lost on many commentators and experts around the world.

While claiming to be leading a campaign for reform, the crown prince is shaking a sensitive balance in Saudi politics.

On one hand, the power balance in Saudi Arabia has been maintained by division of key ministries among the lineages of Abdulaziz bin Saud's sons. The Nayef branch of the royal family for example had controlled the Ministry of Interior, the Abdulla branch the National Guard and the Sultan branch the Ministry of Defence.

The shakeup by the crown prince has rocked the foundations of this balance, likely angering thousands in the House of Saud.

On the other hand, bin Salman's marginalisation of Wahhabi imams threatens the religious legitimacy of the royal family historically granted by the Wahhabi leaders and clerics. This might prove more significant a risk than bin Salman had anticipated, especially in a country with decades of strictly enforced Wahhabi traditions.

While the crown prince seems to have garnered support among the increasingly young urban Saudi population looking for change, as well as older generations who believe in strong leadership (i.e. belligerent policies), if he upsets enough people in the kingdom his authority may not survive after the Trump administration.

However, leaders often use wars to trigger national unity and garner internal support. In fact, involving Saudi Arabia in regional conflicts is one way for bin Salman to amass support and increase his popularity within the kingdom.

Preparing for war with Iran in Lebanon?

The arrests in Saudi Arabia were preceded by the resignation of Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri in Jeddah. Hariri implied that his resignation came as a result of Hizballah's dominance in Lebanese politics and threats to his life.

Many believe that Hariri's resignation came after pressure from Saudi Arabia, which holds enormous financial and political leverage over the Lebanese Sunni leader due to his businesses and investment in the country. They see Hariri's resignation as a move by Mohammad bin Salman to disengage his Sunni allies in Lebanon from cooperation with Hizballah, in preparation for isolating and confronting the Iranian-backed group.

Taken in the context of other regional events, including the Saudi purge and the Yemeni missile attack on a Saudi airport, this resignation could signal a dangerous turn in regional order.

If MbS upsets enough people in the kingdom his authority may not survive after the Trump administration

Considering the previously unannounced visit by President Trump's senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner to Saudi Arabia, it is likely the administration supported bin Salman in his increased assertiveness towards Iran. Now that Iran's influence continues to survive in Syria and Iraq and threats from Yemen materialise, the confrontation might be moving to Lebanon. 

In usual Saudi fashion, statements justifying war began to appear in the media. Saudi foreign minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir said that the Houthi missile fired from Yemen at Saudi Arabia was an Iranian missile launched by Hizballah, and is an "act of war" that Saudi Arabia will have to respond to.

While Saudi Arabia alone is unlikely to be ready to attack Hizballah in Lebanon, the summoning of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh and MbS' recent rapprochement with Israel might complete the pieces of the puzzle.

It is no secret that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ready for war with Hizballah and Iran, while conditions in the White House and Congress are ripe for supporting such efforts with the right amount of pressure from Saudi Arabia and - especially - Israeli allies.

MbS is playing a dangerous game; he wants to consolidate his powers and seize the opportunity presented by a Trump White House and a Republican Congress to fight Iran and start yet another war in the region.

It remains to be seen how far the US defence establishment would go to support Saudi and Israeli ambitions, especially after the Saudi-led humanitarian disaster and continuing quagmire in Yemen. 

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Senior Analyst and Assistant Executive Director at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.