MBS makes his move
November 4th unleashed a whirlwind of events involving Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East. The storm broke when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as MBS, orchestrated the arrests of multiple princes, businessmen, construction magnates, and officials, in what the regime described as an anti-corruption purge. Those targeted included billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talla, political rival Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, and the owners of two of the Middle East’s largest satellite networks. Many of those arrested are now being held in the glitzy Ritz-Carlton (“Unprecedented shakeup”). Observers speculated: was this a coup, a counter-coup, or a purge (“The big purge”)? One thing is clear— the real locus of power now lies with the young and ambitious MBS.
For decades, power in Saudi Arabia was divided between the “Sudairi seven,” the sons of King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern Saudi Arabian state. Each of the king’s sons and their progeny carved out a power enclave in various branches of the state (“Unprecedented shakeup”). One of those sons is the now 81-year-old King Salman, the father of MBS. Acting in the name of his father, MBS has disrupted the delicate balance between the princes by amassing power in his own hands. He now controls the defense ministry, the interior ministry, and the National Guard, each of which was once controlled by a rival prince (“The big purge”).
In keeping with his alleged anti-corruption tactics, MBS has also pushed for a modernization of Saudi Arabian society and economy. For instance, just two weeks before the crackdown, he attended a huge investment conference in which he announced plans for a $500 billion economic zone called NEOM, to be located near the Red Sea and to be staffed with robots (Matthiesen). Likewise, MBS declared that by next year women in Saudi Arabia would be allowed to drive, ending a decades-long restriction (“Unprecedented shakeup”). Two outcomes of MBS’s supposed reforms are possible. Conceivably, he may scale back corruption in business and the government, ushering in a more modern and transparent period in Saudi Arabian society. Equally likely, however, is the possibility that MBS’s reforms are nothing more than a barely disguised grab for power. If the latter is true, Saudi Arabia may be headed down a difficult and dangerous path.
Besides domestic issues, MBS has much to deal with in the foreign policy arena. On the same day as the arrests, militant rebels in Yemen known as the “Houthis” fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia (“Unprecedented shakeup”). The missile was shot down, but the Saudi foreign minister decried the missile launch as “an act of war” (“The big purge”). Saudi Arabia has been involved in a two and a half year-long civil war in Yemen between the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government.
Many observers see the conflict in Yemen as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two heavy-weights in the Middle East. The tensions between these two countries stem from the early split in Islam that resulted in two different Muslims sects: the Shia and the Sunni. In 1979, a revolution in Iran brought a fundamentalist Shia regime to power, and since then, Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have been at odds (Poole). Both countries have formed alliances and have become involved in regional conflicts in order to support their proxies. In particular, Saudi Arabia accuses Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of arming the Shia-led Houthi rebels (“The big purge”). The missile launch has no doubt exacerbated tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has yet to be seen whether the two countries will uphold some form of peaceful coexistence or descend into regional warfare.
Prime minister gets prime time
Despite these two alarming developments, however, the day was still not over. November 4th also witnessed the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister, in what was clearly another ripple in the uneasy relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri appeared on television in Saudi Arabia to announce his resignation. In his speech, he said he feared an assassination attempt and also condemned the actions of Iran and Hezbollah, a militant ally of Iran in Lebanon (“The other palace coup”). Given the circumstances, the resignation seemed to be orchestrated by Saudi Arabia. Hariri has long been an ally of Saudi Arabia, but evidently, the Saudis no longer believed he could effectively contain Iranian influence in Lebanon (Saab). With Hariri out of the way, the Saudis hoped to expose Hezbollah’s undue influence on the Lebanese government, thereby galvanizing the opposition (“Middle East’s punchbag”).
After a two-week stay in Saudi Arabia, Hariri traveled to Paris and then returned on Nov. 21 to Lebanon. The next day, in what The Associated Press described as a “surprising reversal,” he announced he would postpone his resignation in order to have more time for “consultations” (Deeb). This presented a severe blow to Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical ambitions, although the Saudis will continue to lobby to reduce Hezbollah’s influence in Yemen and in Syria. Ultimately, each of these developments—the anti-corruption purge by MBS, the missile launch from Yemen, and the crisis involving the Lebanese prime minister—resulted in a most tumultuous day in this perennially unstable region.
- Featured image: http://dailyarabnews.net/mohammed-bin-salman-named-crown-prince/.
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Matthiesen, Toby. “A Purge in Riyadh.” Foreign Affairs, 8 Nov. 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/saudi-arabia/2017-11-08/purge-riyadh. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.
Poole, Tom. “Iran and Saudi Arabia’s great rivalry explained.” BBC News, 4 Jan. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35221569. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.
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