Saudi Arabia’s King-In-Waiting Flexes His Muscles

Last Saturday, three events in Saudi Arabia caught the attention of the world.

The first was the remarkable news that the kingdom had intercepted and neutralised a missile over Riyadh. This was quickly determined to have been launched from Yemen, which was swiftly blockaded, with its sea, land and air ports abruptly closed.

Despite the shock of the event itself, the Yemen war spilling over into the country’s northern neighbour was hardly unexpected.

What came next was more surprising by an order of magnitude.

First, the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, announced his resignation while visiting Saudi Arabia. As justification for this abrupt action, Hariri denounced growing Iranian influence over Lebanon and suggested that he faced the prospect of assassination, the fate that befell his father, Rafiq al-Hariri, in 2005.

And second, as if to top all the rest off, the Saudi state announced that it had arrested dozens of individuals, many of them politically powerful and internationally prominent, in an attempt to crack down on corruption.

Both of the latter events are closely tied to the kingdom’s powerful crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. The young prince, only 32, is seen to be rapidly amassing political power, possibly establishing himself in advance of the abdication of his father, King Salman.

Bin Salman’s influence can already be felt in a recent shift in social policy within Saudi Arabia.

He wishes to portray himself as a moderniser, a dynamic young leader in tune with changing times. To that end he is associated with the Saudi state’s decision in September to allow women to drive, overturning a longstanding, and internationally reviled, prohibition.

But the influence of bin Salman is not limited to social policy at home. He has been defence minister since 2015, and in that capacity has been intimately involved in the progress of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, against Houthi rebels supported and armed by Iran.

That campaign has not gone well. There have been some successes, both against Houthis and against insurgent forces such as al-Qaeda. But the Saudi aerial effort has been marred by rank incompetence, which is not alleviated – and may indeed by exacerbated – by the cutting-edge hardware its forces use, and which has given rise to accusations of malice and savagery.

In the meantime, the humanitarian situation in Yemen has deteriorated markedly. As the Saudi defence minister, bin Salman must bear some responsibility not only for the war’s human cost, but also for its tactical failures.

The Yemen campaign is not the only war which the Saudis have either been involved in or threatened during bin Salman’s tenure as minister of defence. In February 2016 Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, an adviser to bin Salman, declared that his country had made a ‘final’ and ‘irreversible’ decision to intervene against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

This intervention never took place. But the threat of Saudi action, possibly to counter and parallel what has been extensive Iranian intervention in Syria, was taken very seriously indeed.

At one level, bin Salman’s threat was taken to mean that he was willing to be aggressive in defence of Saudi allies and interests, and in order to frustrate its international adversaries. But there was also the fact that the threat remained a threat, while the IS problem remained significant, and endemic Iranian influence in Syria persists.

This was taken by some to suggest that bin Salman may be a callow and untrained actor in the region’s foreign policy. The repeated errors of the Yemen campaign will not offset these fears.

Now that bin Salman has been elevated to the rank of crown prince and heir apparent, his purview has broadened; his office allows bin Salman to take on matters of social reform. And he is minded to adopt the image of a reformer, as well as a man in a hurry.

Some have suggested – and not without reason – that his modernising is undertaken less as an end in itself than to allow bin Salman to adopt the image of the young moderniser.

This weekend’s apparent purge, which was possibly cooked up with Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s dauphin, during the latter’s visit to the kingdom, is more in the image of Xi Jinping than Emmanuel Macron, as David Ignatius argues.

But despite all this, we must be careful.

Saudi Arabia is still a conservative country with a long-established, consolidated political culture.

One should therefore refrain from knocking some of bin Salman’s social reforms. Liberalising the restrictions placed on women may be a modernising fig-leaf, but it will unquestionably improve the lives of many.

Practical improvements in the material conditions of millions of women matter. They matter even if the man associated with the reforms is imperfect or his message is not apolitical.

But bin Salman’s reforms do not mean the world should be unguarded when contemplating the crown prince. He has shown himself ambitious and ruthless. And in world affairs, dynamism in others is not always looked upon favourably.

Bin Salman should not be contemplated without care.

Politically, he is still untested. His foreign policy has been less than a great success. He could increase tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran to dangerous levels.

Despite the image bin Salman wishes to cultivate of a reformer, much more needs to be done in Saudi Arabia before such an image is merited. His personal ambition and clear status as a king-in-waiting may make him complacent or incautious.

This might be true to a potentially worrying degree. Despite Kushner’s apparent approval of the crown prince, other heads in other national capitals rest uneasy.

All this means that bin Salman could bring chaos to the kingdom. Or he might manage something truly extraordinary. This is both the challenge and the fear bin Salman brings. He hopes that Saudi Arabia may be able to grab the world’s attention. The events this weekend have certainly demonstrated, in a sense, that it’s possible.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.

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