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Contagion effect and the Saudi grand game in the Middle East

The willingness of Mohammed bin Salman to embark on a series of moves against Iranian power in the Middle East already shows evidence of severe miscalculation.

Press/ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, and his son Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud in Hafr Al Batin area, north of Saudi Arabia, on March 11, 2016. Balkis Press/ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Domestic politics in the Middle East especially in a country like Saudi Arabia never stays that way for long. Recent events in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, demonstrate the contagion effect not only on the politics in the Middle East but internationally too.

On November 3, regime forces of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman embarked on an arrest purge of some of the most powerful figures in the country. They called it an anti-corruption drive and in some international capitals such as Washington the ‘cover story’ was parroted.

Despite the cover story about a corruption drive it is clear that the moves reflect the ongoing power-grab by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince as he clears the way both internally and externally to accede power from his father and remove perceived opponents.  

The regional dimension of moves in Riyadh were apparent when the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri who had allegedly been called to visit the Saudi capital city then made a televised announcement of his resignation.

The Saudi regime also contended with a missile attack targeting Riyadh fired from neighbouring Yemen and responded by closing ports and borders on this broken state.

The current political landscape in Saudi Arabia is being shaped by an ambitious individual who has hitherto been hailed as a ‘reformer’ and ‘moderate’. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, commonly and also casually referred to as ‘MbS’ has been credited as the driving force behind Saudi Arabia’s plans to reform and diversify an economy that has been tanking and causing cause for concern as local unemployment rates rise. Promises to float an Aramco IPO under his vision were also welcomed in international trade and finance circles.

Moreover, when Saudi Arabia made a dramatic volte face and over-turned an archaic driving ban on women in the Kingdom, the ‘mark’ of Mohammed bin Salman the ‘moderate’ was divined in some press opinion. On the surface all well and good. However, a series of moves and political calculations in the last six months have given rise to speculation that the power grab extends in terms of ambition beyond the borders of this increasingly unstable Kingdom. 

The significance of this confluence of events lies in the contagion effect on the Middle East at a time of growing instability, tensions and conflict. There are fears that Mohammed bin Salman may be considering taking his country to the brink of war with Iran and seeking to recover some much-needed kudos in the wake of regional failures in, for example, Yemen and Syria.

Saudi Arabia has been seeking to recover some authority within the region ever since the Arab Uprisings of 2011. The masses forced Saudi-friendly autocrats such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power and newly mobilized citizens elected populist Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood to power.

With allies such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia has designed and pursued foreign policy approaches that have sought to intervene in regional hotspots to beat back the so-called Shi’a arc spreading from Tehran to the hillsides of South Lebanon and Israel’s border as well as claim the title of Sunni hegemon from groups like the populist Muslim Brotherhood.

Within this regional context, however, Saudi Arabia has had to contend with a record of failures rather than successes. 

Regional contagion

Under the already relatively short tenure of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi foreign policy strategies can be described as aggressive and confrontational. Nevertheless, rather than steering the country away from further fiasco in the region they are increasingly augmenting regional instability and inducing a greater likelihood of conflict and military intervention. 

Effectively, foreign policy strategy approaches under Mohammed bin Salman’s influence are contributing to rising national and regional security concerns with simultaneous fears as it relates to the security of energy supplies and the grip on power of its regional proxies.

This is apparent in the recent Saudi-led campaign against Qatar. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia spearheaded a campaign against Qatar interpreted as all but an attack on its sovereignty. Saudi Arabia and three other countries - UAE, Bahrain and Egypt - have imposed land, maritime and air blockades, cut diplomatic ties, and taken other measures.

They issued Qatar’s leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani with thirteen demands that amounted to a capitulation of any independence in domestic or foreign policy unless aligned to Saudi-inspired diktat. Qatar has not yielded to the Saudi-inspired plan.

The Gulf region has become further de-stabilized with ripple effects apparent in the international coalition against ISIS, Lebanon, Libya, the occupied Palestinian territories, Iraq, and beyond. The confidence that Mohammed bin Salman had in terms of imposing a new regional dispensation according to his agenda has dangerously faltered. 

Mohammed bin Salman’s strategic agenda raises significant concerns about the regional contagion effect of machinations in Saudi Arabia.

Yemen will continue to exhibit ungoverned spaces that Saudi Arabia can never hope to occupy if it continues its military campaign, detains its President, and imposes closures on its border that inhibit the supply lines of the most basic humanitarian relief to this collapsed state.

Qatar remains defiant and continues to enjoy powerful support within the US administration and in other foreign capitals.

Hezbollah’s response to Hariri-baiting them from Riyadh only demonstrates their more powerful strategic calculus and tenacious hold on power in Lebanon.

This is a hold that Mohammed bin Salman will not be able to defeat. This is the lesson Israel was taught when it went to war with Hezbollah in 2006.

The willingness of Mohammed bin Salman to embark on a series of moves against what might be considered natural ‘Sunni’ allies in the region as part of a broader conception of hostilities against Iranian power in the Middle East already shows evidence of severe miscalculation.

That Saudi Arabia would turn to its new allies, such as Israel, to shore up an emerging military union facing Tehran and its associates demonstrates how reckless the Crown Prince is being when it comes to the strategic functioning of the regional system and the role of the Kingdom, whose throne he aspires to sit on, in it. 

About the author

Beverley Milton-Edwards is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and Professor of Politics at Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her books include: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, A People's War, Conflicts in the Middle East since 1945, and Islamic Politics in Palestine. Milton-Edwards is known for having pioneered both scholarship and practice in the field of conflict management, including ceasefires. 


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