If you are like me, and happened to be in another world this past weekend (in my case Disney World), you may be wondering: What the hell just happened in Saudi Arabia?
News of a massive internal purge of the royal family and government ministries broke early Sunday morning, orchestrated by the newly-enshrined Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman, the monarchical ruler of the large Middle Eastern nation. Bin Salman, whom I will henceforth refer to as MBS in this article, used his power over an anti-corruption body to arrest a large number of his chief rivals in the Kingdom both in politics and in business, including some of the most powerful and wealthy members of Saudi society. Among those held in detention are Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the internationally-known billionaire owner of Kingdom Holding Group, which is heavily invested in American companies including Citigroup, 21st Century Fox, Apple, and Twitter; Bakr bin Laden, the construction scion who runs the Saudi bin Laden group and half-brother of the now-deceased terrorist Osama bin Laden; Waleed al-Ibrahim, the chairman of the Middle East Broadcasting Center, one of the area’s top media businesses; and over a dozen other princes, regional governors, and prominent government ministers. As of Sunday evening, the detainees had not all been revealed publicly, and they were (and still are) all being held in rather stately captivity in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton while they undergo “detailed interrogations.”
Later Sunday night, news of the death of Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, an important provincial governor, was released. He and several others were aboard a helicopter on an inspection tour of several coastal projects when the aircraft crashed in a mountainous land reserve near the Yemen border, killing those onboard. Currently, the cause of the crash is still unknown, or at least is not being released publicly, but given the timing of the crash and the relative import of the vehicle’s primary occupant, the death looks somewhat suspicious. It could be related to the purge undertaken by MBS, or it could be related to the war currently underway in Yemen, where the Saudis and Iranians are engaged in a brutal proxy struggle which has engulfed the nation at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Only a day earlier than those significant developments came the shock resignation of the Prime Minister of nearby Lebanon, Saad al-Hariri, in a broadcasted message from the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Hariri said he was resigning due to fears of assassination (his father, former PM Rafik al-Hariri, was killed by an assassin’s bomb in 2005), and directly implicated Iran in sowing tensions in Lebanese politics. Hariri’s message coming from Riyadh was no coincidence; he and his family have close ties to the Saudis and represent the Sunni faction in Lebanon’s coalition government. Tensions within Lebanon have been high throughout neighboring Syria’s civil war, and Shia-backed Hezbollah has gained in power in recent years, partially due to Iranian support and Hezbollah success in Syria. Hariri’s resignation will throw Lebanon’s carefully constructed political coalition of Shia and Sunni into chaos and could push Hezbollah closer to conflict with Israel or Sunni groups in the greater region, weakening the country. Many think this resignation was a move planned and driven by MBS and the Saudi government, possibly to destabilize Lebanon and foist blame on Iran, Saudi Arabia’s mortal enemy. Evidence for this theory comes from the fact that Hariri’s resignation message was broadcast from Riyadh, as well as his recent meetings with both Saudi and Iranian officials. Well-informed Arab observers noted that the message was not in “[Hariri’s] own language,” and that he was summoned from Beirut by the Saudis and summarily “sacked.” This resignation and the way it went down will only serve to inflame tensions between the Saudis and Iranians, which are already high given the war in Yemen, Syrian civil war, and blockade of Qatar.
If all this weren’t enough for one weekend in Riyadh, what was quite possibly the most important development was saved for last, at least when it comes to rhetorical flourishes. Late Saturday night, just a few hours after Mr. Hariri’s surprise resignation and only several hours before news started to break about MBS’s anti-corruption purge, a long-range ballistic missile fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen was shot down by an American-made Patriot missile battery as it approached Riyadh. This is one of the first times that the war in Yemen has made a clear and present impact on the Saudi capital, and it was met with an incredibly rapid and overwhelming response: the Saudis shut down all of Yemen’s land, air, and maritime borders, accused Iran of supplying and helping fire the missile, and stated that Iran’s alleged transfer of and assistance in firing said ballistic missile amounted to “an act of war.” By the end of the day on Monday, Saudi officials expanded their ‘act of war’ talk to include Lebanon, as they also accused Hezbollah of assisting Iran in assembling and firing the missile from Yemen in concert with the Houthis. As these things go, this rhetoric has crossed from being mere ‘fighting words’ to taking on the character of something far more dangerous and escalatory.
What does this all mean in the end? As of this writing, on Tuesday November 7, 2017, there is no outright state of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran or Lebanon, but the war of words has continued to intensify, with statements from both the Saudis and Iranians increasing tensions on the Arabian Peninsula. Today over 500 people in total have been arrested in the anti-corruption purge led by MBS and his allies, including at least 11 princes. Lebanon’s government is in a state of total flux, with the previous coalition in near collapse and Hezbollah leaders seriously alleging that the Saudis may have kidnapped now-former PM Hariri against his will. Where is the US in this mess? Right now, we are still supporting MBS and his drive to modernize Saudi Arabia with his Vision 2030 plan to diversify the nation away from being a solely oil-driven economy to a more technology and service-oriented one. We are also supporting his moves to allow more autonomy to women, but are also supporting his disastrous war in Yemen that has killed hundreds of thousands directly or indirectly through disease and famine. We may like the image of a modernizer who can turn a longtime petrostate into a diversified economy, but based on the moves MBS made this past weekend, we may be looking more at a ruthless leader who believes in absolute monarchy, is pushing for a broad military conflict with Iran, and who ‘just can’t wait to be King’.