Saudi move aims to reshape the Arab region

Saudi move aims to reshape the Arab region

Call it a coincidence or not, all of the following took place on the same day, Nov. 4.

- A major purge operation, in the form of an anti-corruption probe, targeted a number of influential figures - including top security officials and Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the richest people in the world. The move pushes these figures out of the political scene in Riyadh, making the future political moves of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman easier.

- A ballistic missile was fired targeting the Saudi capital Riyadh but it was neutralized before reaching its target (probably by a Patriot missile). Houthi’s fighting in Yemen with assistance from Iran claimed responsibility for the missile.

- Saad Hariri resigned from his post as prime minister of Lebanon in a press conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh, saying he did not want his end to “be like his father’s.” Rafik Hariri was killed in 2005 in a bomb attack, in which the pro-Iranian Hezbollah was the prime suspect.

- Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu described the resignation of Hariri as a “wake-up call to the international community to take action against Iranian aggression, which is turning Syria into a second Lebanon.” Netanyahu had recently asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to urge pro-Iran forces in the Syrian war not to get any closer to Israel’s borders, which could trigger a counter-action.

- Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qasemi said “Hariri’s claims” against Iran are “false and unfounded accusations by the Zionist regime, the Saudis and the Americans.” Hussein Sheikh al-Islam, adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded to Hariri’s speech as a move “made with planning” by U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman. 

It must be noted that a day before his resignation, Hariri had met with Khamanei’s special envoy (and former foreign minister) Ali Ekber Velayeti in Beirut. Velayeti also met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah when he was in Beirut on the same day. It seems that Hariri left Lebanon for Saudi Arabia after this meeting and announced his resignation there.

Ankara is following all these developments closely. İbrahim Kalın, the spokesman of President Tayyip Erdoğan, assessed developments in Saudi Arabia in an interview on private broadcaster NTV on Nov. 5. “How will their mentality change?” Kalın said. “They are trying to take some steps regarding this. There are certain political rearrangements regarding the new king and others. We hope there will be a process contributing to the internal peace of Saudi Arabia.”

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, said the situation marked a new escalation of tension in the region, stressing that Turkey “should not take sides” and should instead try to work toward preventing new clashes in the Middle East. “Turkey should follow a careful and peaceful line,” Kılıçdaroğlu said. “Turkey played a peaceful and credible line in the past during the Iran-Iraq War [in the 1980s]. We could also once again earn the trust of regional countries with such a policy.”

There are three interrelated dimensions that are particularly important to consider:

1- The Arab Spring and the 2012 election of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammad Morsi in Egypt alarmed Saudi Arabia and a number of Arab countries. Following a palace coup in Qatar, Morsi was toppled by the Saudi-backed Abdel Fettah Sisi in 2013. 

The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt contributed to the collapse of the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the rise of terrorist groups like the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That led to a polarization between U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Russia’s deeper intervention into Syria in 2015, and eventually the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the Muslim Brotherhood in 2017. With support from Turkey, the Qatari leadership has so far resisted; but it has toned down and cut direct support to the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood-backed Hamas in Gaza has agreed on a deal with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah with the mediation of Egypt.

2- When King Abdullah died in January 2015, 80-year-old King Salman took his place. His first move to shake the system was to give voting rights to women in the local elections in Dec. 12, 2015. That was followed by a shift from the Arabic Lunar Calendar, which is used by the Muslim world in religious affairs, to the Gregorian calendar in state affairs in October 2016, citing economic reasons. 

The following year King Salman removed his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and appointed his son Mohammed bin Salman in his place. That was on June 21, 2017, at the heart of the Qatar crisis. On Sept. 26, 2017, Saudi Arabia announced that a ban on women driving would be gradually lifted, then on Oct. 24 Crown Prince bin Salman announced that the Kingdom must shift to “moderate Islam.” That could mean an end to the spread of oil money-sponsored Wahhabi Islam, which has so far helped the emergence of a number of international terrorist organizations - from Taliban to al-Qaeda to ISIL.

3- As it bids to restructure and shift strategy domestically in preparation for a post-oil world, the new Saudi leadership is likely to use Sunni-Shiite antagonism with Iran in foreign policy. The spread of Iran’s influence, thanks to the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, is likely to also give functional leverage to the new crown prince, whose influence in Saudi Arabia is rising with the latest purge in the security bureaucracy and the detention of many princes who could create obstacles to his plans. The purge is seemingly supported by the U.S. and sympathized by Israel.

The detentions in Saudi Arabia over the weekend could trigger a chain reaction in the Middle East. It is far from easy to predict where that will end.

Murat Yetkin, hdn, opinion