Mohammad Bin Salman has been in control of Saudi Arabia since his father ascended to the throne in January 2015, starting with the military policy he guided through the Ministry of Defence. He is still controlling this ministry until today, and is likely to remain in control until he achieves his ambition to succeed his father to the throne.
From the beginning, the young Saudi prince revealed an adventurous tendency that is radically different from the cautious conservatism that characterised the Kingdom’s politics until his father’s reign. The most important field in which his adventurous side was manifested is the defence policy, naturally in the field of the conflict with Iran. Iran has been the Kingdom’s main obsession since the fall of the Shah, who was replaced by the Islamic Republic, which declared an ideological war on the “greatest demon”, the United States and the regional parties in its orbit. Saudi Arabia witnessed, with great concern, Iran’s ability to impose its influence in Iraq thanks to the American occupation in 2003, and then in Syria with the intensification of the civil war. Finally, Saudi Arabia – as Iran – imposed its influence in Yemen the year after the Houthis began their movement, in alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh.
As soon as Mohammed Bin Salman took up his defence post, when he was not yet 30 years old, he worked to establish a coalition for military intervention in Yemen. The coalition waged its first raids less than two months after the young prince received the defence portfolio. This quick move did not lack haste, which bordered on recklessness, which angered the Kingdom’s sponsors in Washington in the face of what they perceived to be a dangerous risk in the form of executing this operation without enough agreement and coordination with the US. It was even executed without adequate coordination between the various armed agencies within the Kingdom itself. Saudi Arabia and its allies’ war in Yemen turned from what they believed to be a quick and decisive war to a war that has been on-going for over two and a half years, causing a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, threatening severe consequences if it continues to worsen.
Instead of caution and slowing down after Mohammad Bin Salman’s miscalculations in his first foreign adventure, Riyadh further complicated matters a few months ago, with the encouragement of the new US President, Donald Trump, his former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and by Mohammed Bin Zayed, the UAE counterpart of King Salman Bin Abdulaziz’s ambitious son. In the first year of Salman’s reign, Saudi Arabia adopted a new policy of uniting the Sunni ranks against Iran, which included strengthening ties with Qatar and softening its position on the Muslim Brotherhood, in a manner aligning with Qatar’s inclusion in the coalition fighting in Yemen and supporting a Yemeni government with the Muslim Brotherhood as one of its components, in the form of the Islah Party. This policy was blessed by the Barack Obama administration. However, once Trump ended his visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s policy completely changed, and, along with the UAE, it waged a fierce campaign against Qatar, accompanied by a harsh position against the Muslim Brotherhood, matching that of the UAE and Al-Sisi’s Egypt.
After manoeuvres in Iraq, under American orders, in the form of attempting to seduce Haider Al-Abadi and play the Kurdish card; manoeuvres that are considered naïve, Saudi Arabia decided to end the cooperation established in Lebanon between its allies and Iran’s allies late last year, i.e. before the end of Obama’s term. The Lebanese estrangement took place in the worst form, in line with the unyielding recklessness that has become a common feature of Washington and Riyadh politics. It took the form of the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which appeared to be spontaneous, thus causing confusion among his supporters and the ridicule of everyone given the fact that it was announced in Riyadh, thus losing any status it had.
Lebanon’s chronic disaster is the fact that the decisions of war and peace, as well as the formation and dismantling of governing bodies are made in capitals other than its own. Certainly this last development in Lebanese politics is the last thing needed by a country that has already paid a heavy price, becoming the arena for various regional conflicts.
The entire Middle East is holding its breath in anticipation of what the next step for the Washington/Riyadh axis might be. This axis is headed by two political novices, one an old man and the other a young man, backed by an archaic Israeli leader, and is confronting a leadership in Tehran that is strategically brighter and more cunning than all three.
This article first appeared in Arabic on Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 8 November 2017
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.