Until only a few months ago, Saudi Arabia’s conduct of its domestic and foreign policies was largely characterized by a good deal of caution, a lack of bombast, and a respect for established traditions. One area where the role of tradition, and respect for rank and precedence, was particularly important was the issue of succession in the royal family. Until recently, everyone inside and outside the kingdom was quite certain that once the reigning monarch died or was incapacitated, the next in line would follow and no one would challenge the established order of succession.
As long as the sons of Ibn Saud were alive, this method was quite efficient. However, there are no more sons left to take over: those still alive have been removed from the line of succession. The large number of second- and third-generation princes has made it impossible to carry on with the traditional line of succession. Trying to pick someone through some form of election from among a long list of princes is not practical.
Instead, King Salman abruptly decided the succession by bypassing the anointed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef and replacing him with the young Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). The new crown prince quickly set about consolidating his position. Part of this effort has included the recent crackdown on prominent princes and other influential individuals. No doubt Saudi Arabia—and indeed all Middle East states—needs to reform and also deal with rampant corruption. However, trying to turn a monarchical rule, which at least paid lip service to consultation within the royal family, into absolutist rule is not exactly reform. Nor will imprisoning wealthy princes and confiscating their resources end corruption.
He is spoiled and impatient, and he seems to believe that everything is there for the taking.
Moreover, one outcome of the concentration of power in MbS’s hands is that he will be responsible for whatever goes wrong in future. No one else will be left to blame for future failures. If people’s anger boils over—as it will inevitably since MbS will not likely succeed with his ambitious economic plans and foreign adventures—he will become the object of resentment. If MbS carries on with a belligerent foreign policy that embroils the kingdom in another regional war, this time with Iran, while the Yemen conflict is still going on, Saudi Arabia could suffer significant economic losses that would exacerbate its internal contradictions and cleavages.
Under such circumstances, the princes that MbS has scorned may try to challenge his position. And they may be assisted by one of the foreign governments that MbS has treated with such arrogance. Saudi Arabia is not popular with the Arab masses although it has managed to buy off some of them, such as al-Sisi’s Egypt.
So, why has MbS embarked on this rather risky venture? His character and upbringing clearly play a role. MbS, the favorite of his father, has not experienced adversity. He is spoiled and impatient, and he seems to believe that everything is there for the taking.
Meanwhile the disruption of the balance of power in the Arab world as a result of the destruction of Iraq and Syria and the taming of Egypt has left no other Arab state to stand up to Saudi Arabia. Thus, the young prince thinks that he can run roughshod over anything that stands in his way, whether it’s Qatar, Lebanon, or the Houthis.
The only country left standing, although weakened, is Iran. Hence, MbS reserves a special animosity towards Iran, and he wants done with it once and for all.
In short, if he wants to succeed, MbS needs a greater dose of realism and humility and less hubris.
In the midst of this highly sensitive transition period in Saudi Arabia’s history enters Jared Kushner, another young, brash, favored son. As the emissary of the Trump administration, Kushner has made MbS believe that if he cooperates with Israel to help solve the Palestinian problem then Saudi Arabia and Israel can achieve everything together, including getting rid of Iran once and for all. With Iran out of the way, Israel can combine its international influence and technological know-how with the immense wealth of the Saudis so that the two countries can establish a condominium over the Middle East.
Such dreams have a way of turning into nightmares. I recall the euphoria at a 1993 conference in Israel about the prospects of Arab-Israeli cooperation, including the establishment of a common market. The dream turned into a nightmare when Yitzak Rabin was assassinated, the Oslo process stalled, and wars broke out in the region.
But there are other reasons why MbS is naïve about the benefits of an alliance with Israel. After taking care of Iran, Israel will certainly not allow Saudi Arabia to become the de facto hegemon of the Middle East. According to the logic of balance of power, alliances made against a common enemy collapse once the enemy is eliminated. Saudi Arabia would not feel the same need for Israel once Iran is gone. It might even resume the Arab plan of liberating Palestine. Even worse, war might extend into Saudi territory itself, endangering and possibly even scuttling the current political order established on the basis of the supremacy of MbS.
Historically, no state in the region has managed to establish its hegemony over another. Many leaders, from Gamal Nasser to Saddam Hussein to Muammar Qaddafi—as well as Iran during the early years of the revolution—have gotten into deep trouble by attempting this hegemony. Even the great powers have not been able to pacify the region under their own exclusive auspices.
Regional stability can only be achieved through the recognition of everyone’s rights and security requirements as part of an agreement that satisfies these essential needs. This also includes the Palestinians. Any deal that they are forced to accept and that they do not consider fair, even if supported by Saudi Arabia, will not last long.
In short, if he wants to succeed, MbS needs a greater dose of realism and humility and less hubris. Otherwise, when it comes to his reform project, it will be a case of pride cometh before the fall.