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mohamed bin salman
Mohamed bin Salman

There are essentially two centers of power in Saudi Arabia: the royal family and the Wahabi clergy. One validates the other. So far, social peace in Saudi Arabia was upheld by these two pillars of the Saudi social system. The wealth and  power exercised by the main exponents of the aforementioned categories and the control of the country’s security apparatus kept Saudi Arabia afloat.

Today this system is under attack by the son of king Salman, Mohamed. Members of the royal house, ministers and various high-ranking officers have been arrested – some have even been tortured - and their bank accounts have been frozen. All of this happened because Mohamed bin Salman is not just the designated crown prince, head of the royal court, minister of defense and of the council for economy and development, but also the head of the anti-corruption commission. He controls all of the country’s neuralgic centers and now needs to consolidate his power by eliminating his enemies or those that can hinder his plans.

The purge

The arrest of so many high-ranking figures within the royal house (several members of the Wahabi clergy had previously been locked up) is not aimed at eliminating corruption or crime, but rather at curbing opposition. And there is another element at play, one that’s more economic than political in nature: the ongoing negotiations with the arrested individuals – who are also very wealthy – aimed at bartering their freedom with a good part of their wealth (it is no coincidence that prince Al Waleed bin Talal, head of the Kingdom Holding investment fund, is among the detained). With less money in its pockets, the opposition would become less dangerous while the state’s coffers, depleted by the low price of oil, would profit from a substantial shove.

Mohamed bin Salman wishes to inherit his father’s crown (the old king is now 81 years old) with the country already firmly in his grip. His proclaimed fight against corruption is clearly geared at clearing his path from any opposition. The first to pay the cost of Mohamed’s purge was prince Muqrin bin Abdullaziz, the brother of king Salman and the original crown prince (though he’s recently been stripped of the title). Muqrin’s dangerousness was due to his having held the reins of the kingdom’s intelligence services for some time. He had the connections that could potentially thwart the plans of prince Mohamed. Mohammed bin Nayef, the prince’s oldest cousin, was also stripped of his crown prince title and of his office at the Ministry of Interior. Currently, Mohammed bin Nayef is held at home arrests and his bank accounts have also been frozen. But it’s not the end of it. Among the ‘purged’ subjects there appear the heads of various military structures: prince Miteb bin Abdullah (the son of the preceding king), who was booted from the National Guard’s command, and former Navy commander Abdullah al Sultan. Lastly, in order to gain a firm grip on the country’s economy, Mohamed bin Salman removed the Minister of Economy and Planning, Adel Faqih.

In the Saudi world, where there prevails a tribal culture, the violent booting from power coupled with the public use and abuse of arrests means that the victims will lose their face and be publicly humiliated. Generally, such an offense is liable to be vindicated with blood. But prince Mohamed feels strong and isn’t worried by such possible reprisals.

Notwithstanding, the disruptive impact of the crown prince’s initiatives are destabilizing the social fabric of Saudi Arabia and will cause unforeseeable future effects. Mohamed wants to command Saudi society and modernize it at the same time.

The purge against high-ranking members of the Wahabi clergy is also a part of this plan. As a matter of fact, the social underdevelopment of Saudi Arabia is mostly the product of Islamic radicalism as professed by the same Wahabi clergy. Modernization must therefore derive from a reduction of religious influence in the country’s politics.

In addition to this, Mohamed, in the guise of minister of economy, also wants to diversify the country’s economy, which is currently too dependent on oil money. Yet an open economy, tourism and the arrival of foreign investment and companies can only happen in a more advanced social context, where the introduction of new, foreign cultures and habits will not cause discomfort and unnecessary juxtapositions.
Less religious interference; development and modernization of society; opening up to the world. All of Mohamed bin Salman’s initiatives follow a specific logic but they are also happening suddenly, perhaps too suddenly for a world that’s deeply rooted in tradition and used to a very slow advancement in progress.

The recent decree that will allow women to drive automobiles in the future is also a part of the crown prince’s attempt to modernize the country.

abd rabbo mansour hadi
Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi

Foreign policy

Mohamed chose to take over the reins of foreign policy as well and, again, the impact of his decisions was shattering. The crown prince proceeded with a lot of guts, few qualms and a scarce consideration of the consequences that can derive from each initiative. Saudi Arabian policy under Mohamed bin Salman has proven to be much more aggressive than in the past.

The disastrous war in Yemen is a direct consequence of the crown prince’s new foreign policy. If the conflict was geared at opposing the Houthi minority in the country and its ties to Teheran, the result was diametrically opposite. The aggravating circumstance is that the “legitimate” president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who sought refuge in Saudi Arabia three years ago and whose ascent to power is supported by the Saudis, cannot return to his country because he is disliked by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s allies in Yemen.

The recent sanctions against Qatar, guilty of failing to align with Ryadh’s plans, was yet another reckless move. If the sanctions against Qatar were aimed at isolating Doha from other Sunni gulf countries due to their alleged collusion with terrorism (i.e. Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brothers), again the result was diametrically opposite: Qatar got even closer to Iran and now Turkey has its own military mission in the country (There is a proven connection between Erdogan’s AKP and the Brotherhood).

If, on the internal front, the aggressive policy of the crown prince could potentially succeed, the same approach to foreign policy has been a failure this far. In an unstable region like the Middle East, where friends, enemies, conveniences and contradictions intersect and sometimes cancel each other out, foreign policy is often based on subtle diplomatic work, rather than threats and ostracism.

In this regard, Mohamed bin Salman has yet to learn to be prudent. The greatest threat that looms over the Sunni gulf countries, of which Saudi Arabia is the most important and militarily equipped, is the expansionism of Shiism and of Iran. But this problem cannot be solved with an armed confrontation, seen that Iran is backed by Russia. Such a war would not be a regional clash anymore, but rather a direct clash against a superpower. All of these elements suggest that diplomacy should win over an armed intervention.

saad hariri
Saad Al Hariri

The Lebanon initiative

Mohamed bin Salman’s latest foreign feat, albeit one that’s marked with uncertainty on the operative front, is the crisis it purposely triggered in Lebanon, where prime minister Hariri, who has a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizenship and is backed by Ryadh, decided to resign from his post during a trip in the Saudi capital. Whether the resignation was voluntary or suggested by the crown prince, its objective was clearly to censure Hezbollah’s influence in Beirut’s decision-making (Hariri’s government includes representatives of the Hezbollah). Seen that the Hariri family has economic interests in Saudi Arabia, the task of persuading the young PM to resign was probably an easy endeavor.

Lashing at the Hezbollah means lashing at Iran and trying to oppose its plans to create a Shiite crescent that includes Iran, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Once again, it is unclear how Saudi Arabia would profit from destabilizing Lebanon, a country which is already historically unstable. The Hezbollah in Lebanon need to be contained by Israel for obvious geographical reasons. To say the truth, even the other Sunni countries were doubtful of Mohamed bin Salman’s initiative in Lebanon.

But if common strategic interests can bring Israel closer to Saudi Arabia (Israel confirmed secret meetings between the two countries, in which Mohammed bin Salman was probably present), the possibility of a war against the Hezbollah, and the triggering of a new civil war in Lebanon, are definitely not on Israel’s wish list.

A civil war in Lebanon would benefit the stronger military group in the country, the Hezbollah. Israel and Saudi Arabia have common objectives but choose to adopt different tactical solutions. Triggering a reaction that could put into motion the Shiite volunteer militias that move between Syria and Iraq, some 50,000 men under the command of the Iranian Pasdaran’s head general Qassem Suleiman, would be much too dangerous. Once again, Mohamed bin Salman seems to overlook the consequences of his actions.

The internal and external fronts

The crown prince’s internal fight against the opposition and the external one against his enemies casts serious doubts on the role that Mohamed bin Salman wants to play both in his country and internationally. Perhaps the crown prince’s haste was dictated by his father’s desire to abdicate quickly, which made him accelerate the steps needed to consolidate his power.

Internationally, his recurring belligerence has already caused damages in Yemen, Qatar and will probably do the same in Lebanon. The money splashed on rebel groups that fought against Assad didn’t produce results, neither on the military level, nor on the political one, because it prevented the Saudis from having any contractual power in the subsequent negotiations. In addition, his attempts to prevent Iran from controlling Baghdad was also a failure. Despite all of this, US president Donald Trump praised the crown prince’s initiatives, both internal and external, on several occasions.

Internally speaking, the crown prince’s actions are too recent to be evaluated properly; their consequences are as yet unfathomable. Again, Mohamed underestimates the fact that 20% of the Saudi population is Shiite and lives in and around the main oil producing regions of the country. These populations are very sensible to Tehran’s policy, especially since they are persecuted by the Sunni majority in their country.

While he is busy fighting Iran and Shiism in the Middle East, the Saudi crown prince could well end up having to soon fight his enemies in his own back yard.

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