A series of truly dramatic events occurred in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the weekend before last. First, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, was reportedly summoned to Riyadh, and once he arrived he quickly resigned from his post. Just hours later, and possibly coincidentally, a missile launched by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen was fired at the Saudi capital, and was apparently destroyed. And during the same weekend, the young Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman (commonly referred to as MBS), arrested around 200 people and eleven senior government officials in a new push against corruption.
These moves appear to be a sign that bin Salman is looking to change how things are done in his kingdom, and to exert greater influence across the wider region. He was only elevated to the position of Crown Prince and heir apparent to his father’s throne in June, but he has quickly sought to stamp his authority.
He was already the progenitor of the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the Saudi economy and encourage private economic growth in a country still largely run by oil money, and which will see the initital public offering of Aramco scheduled for next year. Now he is seen to be pushing domestic reforms, including the ending of the ban on female drivers in September and has seemingly added a drive to reduce corruption. In an interview with the Guardian in October, he said that the ultra-conservative culture of his country for the last 30 years has “not been normal”. Change is clearly coming as MBS gathers power towards himself, and a lot of this change is to be welcomed.
The Middle East is an impenetrably complicated mix of ethnic, national and religious ties and conflicts that defies simple explanations. However, one of the key themes of recent years has been the pseudo Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia – Shia and Sunni. The evidence is gathering that bin Salman is concerned about the current state of affairs, and is keen for his nation to exert greater influence in the region.
Saad Hariri, as Prime Minister of Lebanon, had to work with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group, while he was in post. Anyone who hopes to have any form of control of the nation must do so, due to the sheer amount of territory the group de facto controls and administers. It remains to be seen what the true reasons Hariri had for resigning his post so unexpectedly. However, he made reference to the control Iran had in his country through Hezbollah, and that he feared for his life.
We should not kid ourselves about Iranian ambitions in the Middle East. There is a reason for Iranian involvement in Iraq, it’s firm backing of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and it’s funding of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran wants its sphere of influence to stretch from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea. However, Iran’s true danger is that it makes these moves through destabilisation, not just by funding terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, or backing Houthi rebels against the Yemeni government, but also by raising and maintaining huge Shia militias in Syria and Iran which are not going anywhere soon. The Middle East is a region that could hardly do with this wilful destabilisation caused by the Iranian march for influence.
It is in this context that Saudis are seen as such vital regional counterweights. And many have perceived them as withdrawing slightly in recent years just as Iran expands their ambitions. We should therefore cautiously welcome signs that bin Salman might be more proactively engaging his country with the region. However, this caution must be reciprocated in his actions too.
Many commentators have suggested that the Crown Prince’s actions in arresting those he deemed guilty of corruption as evidence of how determined and impatient he is to reform Saudi Arabia and bring his country further into the twenty-firsr century. However, impatience might not be rewarded in the wider regional politics. Any impatience that leads to rash action could be disastrous. The news that Saudi Arabia ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon on Thursday could be an economic protest against Hezbollah, or a worrying precursor to war.
Bin Salman has a difficult job to do, bringing economic and social modernisation at home, while challenging Iranian intentions in the broader region. We should remember that both goals are broadly in line with those of Britain and our allies. But while we should welcome progress on both of these aims, we should be urging calm thinking and cool heads. No one will win if the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia turns hot.