Game of Thrones in the Middle East
We have recently been watching Saudi Arabia with the same level of interest we had during the 1973 oil shock and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. The normally reclusive and almost non-existent kingdom had suddenly made it to the headlines after what seemed to be a sinister retreat of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh on Nov. 4 under false pretenses and then his forced resignation from his job, with accusations against Iran and keeping him effectively under arrest in the country since then.
This is the latest episode in what has been a rather uncharacteristically impulsive “game of thrones” in Saudi Arabia since its current leader, the 80-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz, replaced his brother King Abdullah when he died on Jan. 23, 2015. Since then, he hastily implemented policies of domestic reforms, timidly favored women’s rights, heavily got involved in the Yemen war, imposed a blockade on Qatar and intensified the kingdom’s rivalry with Iran, not only stirring the kingdom but also heightening fears of further instability in the region.
Behind all these somewhat rushed decisions is the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose latest moves appear to be an aim at tightening his grip on power. On the same day Hariri resigned, Saudi security forces rounded up more than 200 prominent Saudi political and business figures, including 11 princes as well as ministers and wealthy tycoons, under the direction of a newly established anti-corruption committee on the same night. The fact that those arrested are being kept in Riyadh’s glamorous Ritz-Carlton Hotel instead of a prison sounds more like a surreal drama rather than a reality show.
The crown prince, widely known as MBS, has advanced in his career rather swiftly. He was appointed as defense minister soon after King Salman’s ascendance to the throne. A few months later, he became deputy crown prince, the head of the Economic and Development Affairs Council, and chairman of Saudi Aramco’s Supreme Council. And finally in June, he was elevated to the post of crown prince, becoming first in line to the throne and breaking the rules of succession in the kingdom.
He recently announced that he wanted to transform the kingdom into a modern state. His reform attempts so far in terms of diversifying the economy, the privatization of Saudi Aramco, and increasing the presence of women in the society have been received well abroad, though what their impact on the frustrated younger generation of Saudis without much access to accustomed wealth or reactionary religious groups would be is rather unknown.
It seemed that MBS’ recent maneuvers, mainly with aims to solidify his control, has the support of the White House and U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump’s tweets, like: “The Saudi royal family know exactly what they are doing” should be read as Trump’s intention to isolate Iran in the region and MBS’ willingness to co-opt to that idea.
Saudi Arabia has been struggling to preserve its dominant position in the Gulf and counter growing Iranian influence in the Middle East for a long time. The confrontation between them has been going on mostly through their proxies in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon. Thus, the latest Saudi accusations against Iran over its role in a missile strike on Riyadh on the night of Nov. 4 from Yemen as well as the resignation of Hariri raised the stakes a notch in the regional power game. With the U.S. encouragement lurking behind, regional pundits are now preparing to watch the imminent showdown between the rivals.
This is the game of thrones par excellence both in terms of Saudi domestic politics and the Middle East’s regional system. What happens to smaller players like Lebanon in this struggle does not seem to linger much in the minds of larger predators.