Saudi Prince Mohammad Misreads the Tea Leaves in Washington
Emboldened by perceived White House support, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman appears to have stepped up his risky, so far faltering effort to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East.
The kingdom, despite Prime Minister Saad Hariri complicating Saudi efforts to curb the political and military power of Hezbollah, the country’s Shiite militia, by putting on hold his decision to resign, is signaling that it is looking beyond Lebanon to fulfil Prince Mohammad’s vow in May that the fight between the two rivals would be fought inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.
Speaking earlier this month, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir warned that “any way you look at it, they (the Iranians) are the ones who are acting in an aggressive manner. We are reacting to that aggression and saying, ‘Enough is enough. We’re not going to let you do this anymore.'” Read more
In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s new minister of defense, Mohammad bin Salman, sent the kingdom’s armies to Yemen. In 2017, shortly before usurping the position of crown prince, Salman organized a blockade on little Qatar, which had dared defy the kingdom’s geopolitical priorities.
Both were bold moves fraught with risk. The Yemen war was meant to roll back Iranian influence on the southern border, deny ever-dangerous Al Qaeda a base and prove Saudi Arabia was a capable, independent military power that could fight without mighty America.
The blockade on Qatar was meant to secure the kingdon’s backyard. Regime-rattling Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood both enjoyed Qatari state support and, in uncertain times of economic restructuring and inevitable cultural change, having those two wildcards in the mix was not a game the Saudis wanted to play. Read more
By most metrics, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is running out of time. It’s finding it impossible to balance its budget after trying to wage a failed price war on shale oil. It is lurching toward a knowledge economy but hoping that knowledge does not bring a demand for political freedom along the way. Its economic model has hit a dead end. A housing crisis coupled with high, nearly permanent unemployment is dragging down the competitiveness of the kingdom.
Plus there’s the surging power of Iran, the madness of the Sunni supremacists in the Islamic State and Al Qaeda and the quite probable retrenchment of the Americans away from their old alliances in the Middle East.
To be a Saudi leader is to look into the future and despair.
Yet doomsday is not certain. In other places, great kings have overcome the burdens of geopolitics by force of will and shrewd wisdom. Peter the Great of Russia force-marched his empire into modernity, bestowing a powerful polity for his successors. Emperor Constantine cobbled together a Roman Empire from the fragments of a century of civil discord. Fredrick the Great managed to guide Prussia from a minor German state to the spine that would eventually unite the whole country after his death.
They all had one thing in common: decades of absolute power. Peter the Great ruled 39 years; Constantine, 31 years; Frederick the Great, 46 years. They had both time and energy to fix the many problems afflicting their domains.
Now the Saudis are gambling that Mohammad bin Salman, just 31 years old, can do the same for their kingdom. Read more
Mohammad bin Salman, 31, was appointed crown prince by his father King Salman on Wednesday, replacing his cousin who is 26 years his senior. This made the prince, who already oversaw defense and energy policy, the most powerful figure in the country by some stretch after the octogenarian monarch.
Already more than a few have mentioned Mohammad bin Salman’s hawkish anti-Iran policies and his bold economic vision. But there’s more to the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia than that. He may be dynamic, comparatively worldly and supposedly forward-thinking, but the odds are we just met the last king of Saudi Arabia. Read more
German intelligence this week warned that a generational transition in Saudi Arabia could lead to further instability in the Middle East.
In an unusually blunt assessment of the Western-allied kingdom’s policy, the Federal Intelligence Service warned in a memo that was distributed to German media that, “The cautious diplomatic stance of the older leading members of the royal family is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention.”
The Foreign Ministry quickly repudiated the spies’ warning, saying that the “statement reported by media is not the position of the federal government.”
When King Salman shook up Saudi Arabia’s leadership last week, the member of the royal family that seemed to benefit the most from the changes was his favorite son, Mohammad bin Salman. He was put second in line to the throne as deputy crown prince.
Before the weekend, Prince Mohammad was also named the chairman of a new council to oversee the state oil company, Saudi Aramco.
He was previously appointed defense minister by his father, who ascended the throne in January when his older brother, Abdullah, died.
In that capacity, he has led the kingdom’s military intervention in neighboring Yemen, where Houthi rebels are supported by the Sunni regime’s nemesis, Iran.
Although the campaign has so far failed to push back the Houthis, who control almost the entire west of the country, and Salman ordered the National Guard to join the operation in April, the relatively inexperienced Mohammad’s elevation to defense chief does not appear to have been called into question. Read more