November 8, 2017, Foreign Affairs
A Purge in Riyadh: What Mohammed bin Salman’s Crackdown Means for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East
The night of November 4 will long be remembered in Saudi Arabia as a turning point. Three events took place in Riyadh: the arrest of several dozen Saudi princes, officials, and business leaders; the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri; and the shooting down of a ballistic missile, launched from Yemen, aimed at the city’s King Khalid International Airport. What linked all of these developments was the figure of young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In a bid to centralize authority and smooth the path for his eventual accession to the throne, MbS, as he is known, has sought to overhaul the personnel and organizational structure of his country’s domestic politics and enact a newly assertive foreign policy.
The list of those arrested was long, and shocked Saudis and seasoned observers, for it included people who had previously seemed untouchable—in particular, senior royals. The arrests were ostensibly carried out at the request of a new anticorruption agency, which MbS heads. There is little doubt that a culture of self-enrichment and collusion prevailed at the top echelons of government and business in the country, and kickbacks were the norm when it came to large government contracts. But this night of the long knives also removed a number of MbS’ competitors.
Politically, the most significant of those replaced was Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Not only had Miteb been a rival of MbS’ in the succession, he was also the last fairly senior prince with an institutional fiefdom—and an armed one at that—left after MbS became minister of defense in 2015, concentrating many other portfolios, including the economy, in his office.
Saudi Arabia’s national guard is the praetorian, tribally based protector of the royal family. For decades, it had been headed by former King Abdullah and then by Miteb, one of his sons. The guard’s loyalty to the Abdullah branch of the ruling family had been built up over decades. Still, MbS could remove Miteb with apparent ease, and with the exception of a helicopter crash that was deemed an accident in which a senior prince was killed and rumors of a firefight that killed another prince, there was surprisingly little unrest. (Miteb’s ouster was thus reminiscent of events this June, when the long-standing minister of interior and former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, abdicated in favor of MbS.) In order to defend against coups, Saudi Arabia’s armed forces had been set up as three separate institutions: the regular army, the national guard, and the security forces of the Ministry of Interior, each headed by different branches of the House of Saud. This strategy has prevented the emergence of a strong military leader along the lines of a Nasser or Qaddafi who could overthrow the ruling family, as happened in many other Middle Eastern countries. But now these institutional divisions are gone, and MbS seems to directly or indirectly control every branch of the armed forces.
A NEW AXIS
Another major focus of the arrests were owners of the media companies, such as MBC and Rotana, which together control most of the kingdom’s Arabic-language television and much of its print media. Senior businessmen, such as Alwaleed bin Talal, and construction magnates, such as Bakr bin Laden, were also targeted. The arrests came in the wake of a crackdown on Islamic leaders over the summer and just two weeks after a huge investment conference—held, incidentally, in the same hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, where security forces later held some of the leading princes. Again, MbS took center stage, announcing at the conference a plan to create a new city, Neom, on the Red Sea, near Saudi Arabia’s borders with Egypt and Jordan and not far from Israel.
In Saudi Arabia as elsewhere, domestic and foreign politics are intertwined, and the government often invokes foreign threats to justify tough measures at home. Since emerging onto the political scene in early 2015, MbS has sought to reposition Saudi Arabia as a leader of the Arab world and in particular of Sunnis. He and his entourage have pushed for an even harder line against Iran, which they portray as being behind many of the region’s problems, and as defense minister MbS has played a leading role in the Saudi war in Yemen—a radical departure from decades of Riyadh’s checkbook diplomacy toward its southern neighbor. The war, ostensibly started to prevent Iran from gaining influence in Yemen, is now in its third year, and there is still no military solution in sight.
The missile fired at Riyadh was a way for the Houthis to show that they are still a force to be reckoned with. (But we should remember that the Yemeni army of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is currently allied with the Houthis but was previously a Saudi ally, also owned a stack of missiles.) The coalition that is fighting the Houthi-Saleh alliance, however, quickly announced that Iran was behind the ballistic missile launch, which Riyadh considered a possible “act of war” that it had the right to respond to under Article 51 of the UN Charter. MbS sounded the same note, calling the missile launch “direct military aggression.” The coalition swiftly put Yemen under a total air, land, and sea blockade.
Although the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has existed for decades and has seen many ups and downs, the current situation is particularly dangerous for a number of reasons. Chief among them is the concentration of power in one man in Saudi Arabia, who is determined to use the narrative of an Iranian threat to shore up Saudi nationalism. Unlike under the previous U.S. administration, moreover, the United States under President Donald Trump appears eager to back MbS unconditionally. This special relationship has certainly given MbS the impression that he can act with impunity. (The United States and United Kingdom are instrumental in the Yemen war, despite its devastating humanitarian consequences, and when a heavy-handed crackdown on a handful of Shiite militants in the Saudi Eastern Province in the summer of 2017 left a whole town destroyed, there was not a word of disapproval from Washington.)
Meanwhile, the Iranians are extending their power in the Levant, where after the near-total defeat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIS), they have established a land corridor linking Iran with Syria and Lebanon. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly jumped on the Saudi bandwagon, using Hariri’s resignation to highlight the dangers Iran posed to the region and talking up the threat of Hezbollah. The Israeli Foreign Ministry ordered its embassies abroad to follow the Saudi line on the Hariri resignation and talk up the threat of Hezbollah and Iran. Indeed, Hezbollah and other Iran-supported groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad would be major obstacles to the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that Trump is trying to put together through his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Israel has also said that it will not allow the end of the Syrian conflict to result in a strong Iranian presence on its border with Syria.
It is in this context that Hariri’s resignation should be understood. On November 3, Hariri met in Lebanon with an Iranian delegation led by Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. A day later, Hariri, who has Saudi citizenship and had extensive business interests in the kingdom, appeared in Riyadh and announced his resignation in an address televised by the Saudi Al Arabiya news channel. Saying that he had fled Lebanon because of a plan to assassinate him, Hariri blamed his resignation on Iran’s mischievous role in the region and its alliance with Hezbollah. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah responded with a speech the next day, putting the blame for the situation squarely on the Saudis and denying that Hezbollah had sought to remove Hariri, whom he urged to come back to Lebanon. Hariri’s resignation aimed to weaken Hezbollah by denying it legitimacy, but it may also hurt Hariri himself, whose leadership of the Lebanese Sunni community has long been contested, including by Sunni Islamists. A Saudi minister said that Saudi Arabia would from now on deal with the Lebanese government as an adversary because of Hezbollah’s presence in it—an official line that will involve isolating Lebanon diplomatically and punishing it economically.
In the new Middle East, regional power blocs are emerging across older fault lines. As MbS has consolidated his power in the kingdom, a new axis is emerging—one running from Washington to Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi and intent on countering Iran and its allies. If things continue as they have, Lebanon may turn out to be only one among many casualties of this conflict.