Saudi Arabia’s Power Play
The Middle East is still reeling from the abrupt consolidation of power in Riyadh and escalation of tensions between the kingdom and Iran last week. While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s strategy has not grown any clearer, the situation has gotten stranger. More than 500 people have been arrested now in a move that, though MBS has billed it as an anti-corruption crackdown, has all the hallmarks of an authoritarian purge. Eleven royals remain under arrest at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh; the Saudi government issued a statement denying reports that one prince, Abdulaziz bin Fahd, was killed in a shootout, but has provided no evidence to corroborate its claim.
Reuters reported last week that MBS ordered the arrests “when he realized more relatives opposed him becoming king than he had thought.” Those tensions have been simmering below the surface since MBS displaced Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince in June; at the time, Nayef was placed under house arrest and Saudi state television broadcast a ceremony in which members of the royal family pledged fealty to the young prince. Since then, MBS’ concerted effort to overhaul the country’s economy and conservative social policies almost overnight, all while pursuing a military intervention in Yemen and a diplomatic feud with Qatar, has rankled some royals. Now, those potential rivals are on the defensive. “The whole idea of the anti-corruption campaign was targeted towards the family. The rest is window dressing,” one insider told Reuters.
Now, those potential rivals are on the defensive.
MBS’ purge of potential rivals has coincided with a risky play to assert Saudi influence abroad through political proxies. His goal is to check Iranian influence from Lebanon to Yemen and realign Saudi Arabia to a more independent foreign policy. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are “not betting on Washington anymore and a single strategic ally,” Abdukhaleq Abdullah, chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, said at a security conference in Abu Dhabi on Monday. “From now on, there is a UAE and Saudi political, economic, and diplomatic force and the decision will be a Gulf decision as they will form developments in the region.”
The Lebanon Connection
The strangest piece of the Saudi puzzle is the role of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who announced his resignation in a speech broadcast from Riyadh on November 4. Hariri said his decision was in response to the threat of assassination, but many analysts—and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah—suggested that it was prompted by an order from his Saudi patrons instead. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he would not accept Hariri’s resignation until he returned to Lebanon to explain his decision in person, and soon rumors began circulating that Hariri was being detained in Saudi Arabia. The weird part is that there may be some truth to this. On Friday, David Ignatius reported that the situation was a “virtual kidnapping,” according to knowledgeable Lebanese sources. Hariri had been summoned to a meeting with MBS the previous Saturday morning; then, the next his advisors saw him was as he was resigning on television in an uncharacteristically hostile speech. In the days after, he was reportedly kept under close guard by the Saudi military, who screened his visitors. He even spent a couple night stint at the Ritz-Carlton luxury prison. Members of his own party issued a statement calling for his return to Beirut.
On Sunday, Hariri sat down with a Lebanese reporter for one-hour interview to dispel the rumors, but left viewers with as many questions as answers. Hariri seemed tired and emotional, at times glancing anxiously toward a figure off camera. He claimed he is “free within the kingdom” and can travel as he wishes, and that he’ll return to Beirut “soon.” He also pushed back against the suggestion of Saudi interference. “King Salman considers me like his son,” he said. “The Crown Prince has all the respect for me. The stability of Lebanon is an essential asset for King Salman and the Crown Prince.” He characterized his resignation as a “positive shock” to Lebanese politics.
Hariri sat down with a Lebanese reporter for one-hour interview to dispel the rumors, but left viewers with as many questions as answers.
It’s definitely a shock, but the implications do not seem positive. Hariri’s resignation raises tensions between the government’s sectarian factions and within Hariri’s Future Movement. According to Ignatius, Riyadh is looking to Saad Hariri’s brother, Bahaa, to succeed him as prime minister and the leading Sunni political figure in Lebanon. But Ashraf Rifi, a Hariri ally-turned-rival with a strong military background, could challenge the Hariri dynasty. He’s been setting himself up as a potential alternative since Saad Hariri’s political star seemed to be waning last year. “There is a risk ... that as Rifi increasingly competes for Saudi patronage to expand his base, his rhetoric will become ever more confrontational and sectarian, heightening Sunni-Shi‘a hostility,” Raphael Lefevre writes for the Carnegie Endowment’s Diwan blog. And then there’s the potential economic fallout: If Saudi Arabia escalates its pressure on Lebanon, it could try to isolate the country the way it has with Qatar. As Foreign Policy notes, Lebanon’s economy, already at risk of crashing, relies on Saudi funding via Hariri’s business interests. If Riyadh closes the spigot, Beirut could quickly become a basket case.
The Yemen Connection
Hariri is not the only foreign executive allegedly being held in the kingdom by Saudi authorities. President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who the Saudis are backing in their intervention in Yemen, is also being prevented from leaving the country; Yemeni officials told the Associated Press that he, his family, and his senior staff cannot travel to government-held territory in southern Yemen because it might stoke tension with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s primary partner in the intervention.
While MBS has been escalating a political confrontation in Beirut, the real battlefield for the Saudis is Yemen. Last week’s political intrigue coincided with a new missile attack launched by the Houthis, whom Saudi Arabia believes are Iranian proxies, that reached the Saudi capital. Portions of Hariri’s interview on Sunday could be interpreted as Riyadh bargaining with Tehran over Yemen. Hariri at one point offered to withdraw his resignation if Hezbollah would adopt a neutral stance in regional conflicts—and nowhere is Saudi Arabia more concerned about Iranian influence than on its southern border. As Riyadh ramps up its confrontation with Iran and its proxies, Yemen will bear the brunt of the conflict.
Portions of Hariri’s interview on Sunday could be interpreted as Riyadh bargaining with Tehran over Yemen.
In the past week, Saudi Arabia closed off all land, air, and sea access to Yemen, preventing the delivery of vital aid to mitigate the country’s war-induced famine and cholera outbreak. As the Guardian reports, international pressure managed to induce Riyadh to reopen ports in Mukallah and Aden, both held by the Saudi coalition, but humanitarian agencies have been denied access. Thousands of Yemenis protested the blockade on the streets of the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, on Monday. Saudi Arabia has suggested it could restore more access, but researchers noted that Houthi areas will remain closed off under the proposed changes, making them almost inaccessible. More than 70 percent of the Yemeni population is in need of some form of humanitarian aid.
As the war has dragged on, Iran’s involvement has deepened. The missile fired across the Saudi-Yemeni border last week was likely built with Iranian support, and the New York Times reports that Iran has been recruiting fighters from Afghanistan and sending them to Yemen. Saudi Arabia has also sent at least 1,000 Sunni Afghans recruited from refugee camps in Pakistan to fight on the pro-government side in Yemen, according to the Times. The flow of foreign fighters to the peninsula are a mirror image, though on a smaller scale, of the 1980s, when Saudi money bankrolled Yemeni networks of mujahideen traveling to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. The precedent of endless civil war hangs over the Yemeni conflict, especially given that factionalism runs deep within each side of the stalemated war. “What we’re seeing is not the building of real state institutions but the empowerment of groups with competing agendas who could fight in the future, benefiting no one,” one Yemeni activist told Reuters recently.
For obvious reasons, Saudi Arabia is not eager to have a proxy war in a failed state on its southern border. As the Middle East Institute’s Paul Salem writes, “It is not surprising that Saudi Arabia’s main and urgent concern about Hezbollah pivots on Yemen. They have long been somewhat resigned to Hezbollah’s armed presence in Lebanon, and they largely lost the battle to deny Iran and Hezbollah victory in Syria. But neither of those arenas impact the security of Saudi Arabia directly.... Saudi Arabia fears that Hezbollah and Iran could build missile systems that threaten the kingdom from Yemen as they have done against Israel from Lebanon.”
As Riyadh tightens its grip on Yemen, the United States, which has provided logistical and targeting support to the Saudi coalition, is losing patience with the way Riyadh has prosecuted the war. On Monday, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution making clear that the U.S. role in the Saudi intervention was not authorized by Congress. The resolution is nonbinding, but signals Congress’ growing frustration with Saudi Arabia’s aggressive policies that are out-of-step with Washington. Earlier this year, the Senate nearly voted to halt a $510-million arms deal with the Saudi Arabia over similar frustrations with the intervention in Yemen.
The Palestinian Connection
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Riyadh last week; he was allowed to leave, but with a warning. Saudi officials reportedly instructed Abbas to accept the Trump administration’s forthcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal or resign. They also expressed their concerns about Hamas’ close ties with Iran, including a trip by a senior Hamas figure to Tehran; now that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are working together under a unity agreement in Gaza, Saudi Arabia wants to see Iran’s influence decline on yet another political battlefield.
But it may take more than Saudi Arabia trying to strongarm Abbas into signing a deal.
The Trump administration’s plan is under development, but the New York Times reported last week that officials—including Jared Kushner, head negotiator Jason Greenblatt, Amb. David Friedman, and Dina Powell—have begun soliciting policy recommendations and planning a framework. A draft of the plan could be ready early next year. Experts who have worked on the peace process before are skeptical that the Trump administration will be able to offer anything innovative— “There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to Middle East peace,” Philip Gordon told the Times—and the Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu remain deeply suspicious of one another.
Saudi Arabia is clearly looking to coordinate with Israel to ratchet up pressure on Iran. As Dov Zakheim wrote last week, “there is little doubt that [MBS] has authorized ever closer relations with the Israelis, who view the Iranian threat exactly as he does.” Zakheim speculates that this could have been part of MBS and Kushner’s late-night conversations on Kushner’s trip to Riyadh in October.
But it may take more than Saudi Arabia trying to strongarm Abbas into signing a deal. As Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon wrote in their recent biography of the Palestinian president, he may not have the credibility to conclude an agreement at this point. And even if he could sign a deal, he’s a wily political survivor. If the Saudi strategy is just to browbeat him into accepting an agreement, he may look for other allies.