“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”

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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.

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