From launching a war on Yemen to having Jamal Khashoggi murdered, As’ad AbuKhalil sizes up the magnitude of MbS’s miscalculations.
All is not well with the Saudi regime. Despite amassing more power than any previous Saudi ruler, with the possible exception of founding King `Abdul-`Aziz (known in the U.S. as Ibn Saud), Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, or MbS, has not been able to deliver on any of his political and economic promises.
MbS offered the Saudi people a bargain: that he would achieve military, political and economic successes while imposing brutal repression at home.
He also offered a modicum of social relaxation, probably at the behest of Western PR firms that have influence with Gulf regimes. But these social reforms have been neither consistent nor smooth. Women were permitted to drive but the feminist men and women who advocated rights for women were jailed and tortured. (The easing of social restrictions was presumably meant to be popular, but it’s hazardous to measure public opinion in Saudi Arabia: Western media’s “conversations-on-the-street” don’t really say much because this is a government that imposes long prison sentences for the wrong retweet.)
MbS began seizing power when his ailing father took over as king in 2015. He then became minister of defense. The post had long been held by his uncle, Prince Sultan, and it was widely expected that Sultan would be succeeded by his son, Khalid Bin Sultan (the figure-head deputy commander of the Desert Storm war). But MbS disregarded customary succession and the balance of power among the various royal factions, including his better-educated and more-experienced half-brothers.
In 2017, when he promoted himself to crown prince from deputy crown prince, he became the sole undisputed leader of Saudi Arabia. To consolidate his economic and military control, he weakened the National Guard, the vehicle for tribal alliances in the kingdom.
As soon as MbS became defense minister, he launched the war on Yemen. He calculated that the war would only last a few weeks and that the Huthis would quickly surrender. (The Obama administration presumably found this credible, since it lent support to the adventure, probably as a compensation for the U.S.-Iran agreement, which the Saudis vigorously opposed.)
Epic Huthi Resistance
But the war has dragged on and the Huthis have proven a formidable military force. Their resistance to the brutal military campaign by Gulf and Western countries is nothing short of epic. And, while the war was launched in the name of weakening Iranian hold in the region, it has actually cemented ties between the Huthis and the Iranian regime and its allies in the region.
This calculation backfired on other fronts as well. The assault on Yemen brought international media scrutiny to his atrocious war crimes there, while repressions inside the kingdom have been exposed in the wake of the horrific killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.
MbS assumed that his excellent relations with the Trump administration, and with the other Western governments, would be sufficient to shield his regime from criticism. But Turkey — which has its own feud with the Saudis, largely due to Ankara’s alliance with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, and its good relations with Iran — released embarrassing details about the complicity of the MbS government in the murder of Khashoggi in the consulate in Istanbul. Turkey left no doubt that MbS was the mastermind of the murder, and the CIA seems to agree, according to U.S. media.
Khashoggi’s slaying became a permanent stigma for MbS. With the exception of his brief appearance at the G-7 summit in France a few weeks ago, he has not visited the U.S. or the West since.
MbS’s miscalculations have extended to his entire confrontation with Iran in the region. Last year he kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri (who has been a loyal Saudi client) to punish him for not going far enough in confronting Hizbullah. After subjecting him to beatings and humiliation, he forced him to read on a Saudi TV station a resignation letter prepared for him. But as soon as Hariri was released due to Western pressures, he returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation.
Furthermore, MbS was hoping — along with MbZ of the United Arab Emirates [Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi] — that Donald Trump would be the U.S. president they had been waiting for: the one who would launch a devastating war on Iran to end Teheran’s influence in the Middle East once and for all.
In the first few years of the Trump administration Saudi regime media were full of scathing attacks on former President Barack Obama, going so far as to suggest that he was a secret Shiite Muslim who harbored religio-political sympathy for Iran. That same press was filled with glowing profiles of Trump and praise for his impending military campaign against Iran. (This was during Trump’s famous twitter threats against Iran and North Korea.) But Trump has proven more cautious about military adventures than either of his immediate predecessors. Once the Saudi regime media picked up on those signals, criticism of the Trump administration surfaced.
Change of Mind
MbS seems to have now changed his mind about the desirability of war with Iran. What Iran has done in recent months (assuming it was responsible for the various attacks on shipping in the Gulf and on the oil installations in Saudi Arabia), is to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia and the UAE not only the reach of its bombing capability, but its determination to extend the war to the Arab Gulf countries if Iran is attacked by Israel or the U.S. This can explain the recent Saudi and Emirati overtures to the Iranian regime. Both are suddenly expressing concern over the cost of war, if it were to erupt in their region.
MbS must not be a happy man. He wanted the war on Yemen to become his signature victory and cement his reputation domestically and regionally. But it has served the opposite purpose.
His 2017 blockade of Qatar has not gone well either. Qatar managed to survive economically and its impending regional isolation did not materialize either, as it worked to improve its relations with the unlikely odd mix of Turkey, Iran and the U.S.
Finally, MbS hoped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be able to elevate his stature in Washington. But the latter has proven unable or unwilling to intervene on Capitol Hill to lower the tone of criticism aimed at MbS. Furthermore, Netanyahu is today the least popular Israeli prime minster in Congress, perhaps since 1948, because he has associated his fortunes so closely with the Republican Party, and with a president detested by Democrats. Netanyahu has been dealing with his own personal scandal, and the recent election didn’t guarantee him his premiership. In other words, MbS can’t count on Netanyahu.
Bin Salman’s economic promises have also failed to bear fruit for the Saudi population. He may now be facing rising resentment within the royal family itself, although he’s so far managed to deal with that ruthlessly in the last two years.
MbS has limited choices. He can’t afford to antagonize Trump and nor can he influence Trump one way or another regarding U.S. policies toward Iran.
His best hope is that war does not take place, and that Khashoggi will be forgotten. That is very unlikely given the recent publicity surrounding the first anniversary of the killing. A man who made arrogance a key part of his personality, has been humiliated by Khashoggi, a former member of the Saudi royal entourage.
But then again, Western governments have short memories when it comes to war crimes, assassinations and human rights violations by despots who are loyal to Western agendas. Any rehabilitation that MbS can work out will require him to sacrifice much of his original agenda. It will mean curtailing his appetite for war in Yemen and elsewhere and to drop his plans to confront Iran on all fronts. The recent crippling of oil installations responsible for more than 50 percent of Saudi oil production had the effect of also crippling the foreign policy agenda of Mohammed bin Salman.
As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the “Historical Dictionary of Lebanon” (1998), “Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), and “The Battle for Saudi Arabia” (2004). He tweets as@asadabukhalil