Mohammad bin Salman is engaged in a risky bid to remake Saudi Arabia at the same time as rebalancing power regionally.
Just over two weeks since Saudi Arabia’s sweeping domestic purge, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s sudden resignation, and a sharp rise in Saudi-Iran tensions over Yemen, fears of a sudden violent backlash have abated. But the region remains on the precipice.
All eyes are on Saudi Arabia’s 32 year old Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who is poised to claim the throne. He has emerged as the central player in recent developments, demonstrating a willingness to raise the stakes domestically and in the stand-off with Iran. This is a risky approach: there are limits to what Saudi Arabia can do to roll back Iranian influence without placing the region at risk. If it backfires, it could make Salman look more feckless than fearless.
The latest rhetorical salvo in the counter-Iran campaign came in an emergency Arab League session last weekend. Mobilized by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the League condemned Iran and endorsed the right of Gulf states to defend their national security - though it is unclear what action this would entail in practice.
In Lebanon, Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation increasingly looks like a miscalculation. Saudi Arabia’s allies in Lebanon appear disinclined to take up Riyadh’s call to confront Iran and Hezbollah. On the contrary, Saudi attempts to play power politics in Lebanon succeeded mostly in souring attitudes toward Riyadh. The Lebanese political establishment, instinctively attuned to preventing renewed conflict, is angling to restore the fragile consensus reached when the new government was established late last year after two years of political stalemate.
Intercession by France and other states - with Egypt playing regional broker - may help create space for a compromise now that Hariri is back in Lebanon. Hariri earlier suggested he might reconsider his resignation if Hezbollah respected Lebanon’s policy of “disassociation” from regional conflicts, such as the war in Yemen - a softer line than his initial statements on Hezbollah’s hijacking of Lebanese politics.
If Hariri cannot find his way back to the premiership, Lebanon could face another period of prolonged political paralysis, though one in which the major factions sidestep all-out confrontation. For Saudi Arabia, the next step to heighten pressure on Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon is not obvious, except perhaps economic measures - such as imposing sanctions, withdrawing bank deposits, or ejecting Lebanese expatriate workers - that would punish even those allied with Saudi Arabia.
Yemen figures less prominently in the latest headlines, but is perhaps more worrying, certainly from a humanitarian viewpoint. The Saudi blockade of Yemen after the November 4 Houthi ballistic missile attack on Riyadh triggered hoarding and steep price increases, exacerbating what the UN already describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Though access was reopened a week later, areas under Houthi control remain cut off. This includes the Red Sea port of Hodeida, through which roughly 70% of humanitarian relief and food imports pass, and prevents delivery by air to northern Yemen.
The Houthis unsurprisingly deny an Iranian hand in the ballistic missile launch, which they claim was their response to deadly Saudi air attacks in the days prior. Continued tit-for-tat retaliation seems likely, with the attendant risk for miscalculation, especially if Riyadh sees Yemen as an arena for demonstrating resolve in a renewed push against Iran.
The Saudi tendency to view the Yemen conflict in counter-Iran terms heightens their determination to defeat and dislodge the Houthis, an objective that still looks distant two-and a-half years into their intervention. Mohammad bin Salman shows no sign of changing course, however, despite periodic murmurs to the contrary, criticism of the devastating toll on Yemen’s civilians, and the drain on Saudi coffers.
The juxtaposition of the two sides of contemporary Saudi Arabia – one, a country bogged down in a conflict along its southern border, the other promoting a $500 billion megacity to be built on the Red Sea coast - was striking in October, when international investors gathered in Riyadh. The contrast is even more startling now, after the spike in tensions over Lebanon and Yemen.
This would be unsettling enough without the added uncertainty arising from the arrest and apparent financial shakedown of senior officials, princes, and other key figures. Politicians, pundits, and investors alike are left wondering whether Salman has cleared the decks sufficiently to implement his vision for privatization and reform, or moved too far too fast to consolidate his authority and stifle dissent.
The Crown Prince now controls the core elements of Saudi decision-making and defence, upending the consensus-based arrangements that guided policy-making for two generations. He is riding a wave of support from young Saudis sympathetic to his bid to tackle corruption and reform a system perceived as sclerotic and tradition-bound. However he now has to deliver not only on the headline-grabbing promises—privatization, development, openings for women, and moderation of the state’s approach to Islam—but on the array of domestic regulatory, legal, and institutional reforms as well as belt-tightening measures that underpin them.
Can this young, soon-to-be ruler succeed in remaking Saudi Arabia even as he tries to rebalance power regionally? History is full of examples of leaders using dramatic foreign gambits to distract from domestic challenges. But this is different - Salman is radically shaking up Saudi policy both domestically and regionally, which is far more demanding. If he fails, the decision to fight on two fronts may come to be seen as his undoing.
European engagement with Saudi Arabia should quietly emphasize the risks of overstretch not only to regional stability but to the Crown Prince’s expansive economic plans. But Saudi Arabia’s testy response to German Foreign Minister Gabriel’s recent public caution against “adventurism” in Lebanon highlights their current sensitivity to any seeming rebuke.
French President Macron’s personal outreach to MbS, in a snap visit to Ryiadh, and his invitation to Hariri to stop in Paris before continuing onward appeared aimed at offering the Saudis a way to walk back on Lebanon indirectly. Let’s hope it works, resolving this manufactured political crisis and allowing international attention to focus instead on alleviating the catastrophe in Yemen.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.