“With oil prices low, the Saudis also lost their lever within the peninsula. Countries like Yemen, that had historically been overawed by the Saudis, destabilised. In Iraq, the Sunnis allied with the Saudis were on the defensive – and losing”
been overawed by the Saudis, destabilised. In Iraq, the Sunnis allied with the Saudis were on the defensive – and losing. Low oil prices demanded an alternative strategy. For the Saudis to survive, they would need to generate income from an additional source. Thus, King Salman handed the keys to the kingdom to his son, Mohammad bin Salman.
In one of his first moves undertaken while he was still deputy crown prince, he unveiled a staggeringly ambitious plan called Vision 2030 to transform Saudi Arabia from an oil-based economy to an advanced industrial power. For this to work, two things had to happen. First, the members of the royal family and others had to align their economic interests with the Saudi state. The crown prince had to squeeze out money from inside and outside Saudi Arabia. The plan to sell part of state-owned oil firm Saudi Aramco was such an attempt, and it also symbolised the fact that oil could no longer be king.
Second, the crown prince had to break the Wahhabi clerics’ hold of Saudi culture. Building an industrial culture were not compatible with Wahhabism. The Wahhabis were committed to fixed social and gender relationships. These were consistent with an economy built on oil sales, but industrialisation requires a dynamic culture with social relations constantly shifting.
The resistance to the new plan was intense, but quiet, as the culture required. Mohammad bin Salman obviously reached the conclusion that he had to confront this opposition openly lest it quietly undermine his plan. His first major open move was to allow women to drive. That represented a direct attack on the clerics and caused a great deal of upset. His second move was to go forward with the stalled Saudi Aramco initial public offering. He will select the
exchange where the shares will be traded in 2018.
The direct attack was undoubtedly met with threats of a coup. Whether one was actually planned didn’t matter. He had to assume these threats were credible since so many interests were under attack. So, he struck first, arresting princes and ex-ministers who constituted the Saudi elite. It was a dangerous gamble. A powerful opposition still exists, but he had no choice but to act. He could either strike as he did, or allow his enemies to choose the time and place of that attack.
Nothing is secure yet, but with this strike, there is a chance he might have bought time. Any Saudi who would take on princes and clerics is obviously desperate, but he may well break the hold of the financial and religious elite.
In the midst of this, an external enemy saw an opening. A day before the strike, a missile was fired at Riyadh from Yemen by the Houthis – a Shiite sect allied with Iran. Saudi officials say the missile was produced by Iran, although the Iranians deny this. It was a serious attempt to strike Riyadh, but the Saudis intercepted the missile.
The Trump administration has placed heavy emphasis on Iran’s missile programme. The Iranians have been doing well since the nuclear deal was signed in 2015. They have become the dominant political force in Iraq. Their support for the Bashar Assad regime in Syria may not have been enough to save him, but Iran was on what appears to be the winning side in the Syrian civil war. Hezbollah has been hurt by its participation in the war, but is reviving, carrying Iranian influence in Lebanon at a time when Lebanon is in crisis after the resignation of its prime minister.
The Saudis, on the other hand, aren’t doing as well. The Saudi-built anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen has failed to break the Houthi-led opposition. And Iran has openly entered into an alliance with Qatar against the wishes of the Saudis and their ally, the United Arab Emirates.
Iran seems to sense the possibility of achieving a dream: destabilising Saudi Arabia, ending its ability to support antiIranian forces, and breaking the power of the Sunni Wahhabis. Iran must look at the arrests in Saudi Arabia as a very bad move. And they may be.
Mohammad bin Salman has backed the fundamentalists and the financial elite against the wall. They are desperate, and now it is their turn to roll the dice. If they fall short, it could result in a civil war in Saudi Arabia. If Iran can hit Riyadh with missiles, the crown prince’s opponents could argue that the young prince is so busy with his plans that he isn’t paying attention to the real threat. For the Iranians, the best outcome is to have no one come out on top.
This would reconfigure the geopolitics of the Middle East, and since the U.S. is deeply involved there, it has decisions to make. The U.S. needs regional counters to the Iranians. The Saudis are the major force, but if they cannot play a role as regional leader, the U.S. will have to look for alternatives.
One option is to engage in another intervention in the Middle East, something that hasn’t worked out well for the U.S. in the past. The U.S. obviously backs Saudi modernisation because it would weaken the Wahhabis, but this is a long-term project.
Saturday night will stand as the beginning of a new Saudi Arabia or as the end of the experiment. Either way, the Saudis are weakening. That is good for Iran and bad for the United States. Encouraging the Saudis to make these changes might seem like a good idea, but it has every opportunity to leave the U.S. position in the region much worse.