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The Saudi night of the long knives was followed by the sudden appearance of Saad Hariri in the Kingdom, announcing that he was resigning as prime minister of Lebanon. Then came the news that the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had been summoned to Riyadh. The 32-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is seeking to exert control both at home and abroad, in the process ratcheting up tension in an already volatile Middle East.
Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud wants to consolidate authority in Saudi Arabia in his hands and, at the same time, be the kingmaker in other lands. It is an extraordinarily high-risk strategy, and one even the seemingly uber-confident young Prince would not have embarked on without a powerful outside sponsor.
He appears to have found one. Donald Trump expressed support for the purge in a phone call to King Salman. The US President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, paid a secretive visit to Riyadh a few days ago. But this support is likely to have come at a price. Mr Trump has tweeted that he wants the $2 trillion float of Saudi oil giant Aramco to take place in New York. The President added he had raised the matter in the call to the Saudi king. The UK would be the loser in the byproduct of this. London was hoping to be the place for the flotation, bringing with it a massive post-Brexit boost. The journeys of supplication by Theresa May and other ministers to Riyadh to achieve this may have been in vain.
It remains to be seen whether Prince Mohammed’s meteoric rise continues or whether he crashes and burns. Members of the royal family have been instructed not to leave the country. Dozens have been arrested, with legal due process ignored. This includes the Kingdom’s richest businessmen, Prince Alawaleed bin Talal, whose investment portfolio includes hefty tranches of Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox stock.
The others detained include Prince Mutaib and Prince Turki, favourite sons of the late King Abdullah, respectively heads of the National Guard and the governor of Riyadh. The coup follows the Crown Prince’s drive against the religious hierarchy, prominent conservative imams and their fervent supporters.
So the Crown Prince appears to have taken a firm grip on the four pillars of the Kingdom: the ruling family, the business sheikhs, the security apparatus and the theocracy. His path to supreme power and, with it, the ability to bring about the reforms he wants, is seemingly assured.
Then we have the curious case of Mr Hariri. He made his resignation speech not in his home country, but in Riyadh, on Saudi TV. He accused Iran and its Hezbollah Shia militia allies of holding Lebanon hostage, and destabilizing the Arab region.
This is also the Saudi position. Riyadh never liked the fact that Hezbollah was a member of Lebanon’s ruling coalition. This dislike has grown as the militia sent thousands of fighters for combat alongside Tehran’s forces to prop up Bashar al-Assad. That Lebanese government will now collapse. Mr Hariri, say his critics, is now himself effectively a hostage in Saudi Arabia.
Mr Abbas, the Palestinian leader, was the next to be asked to go to Riyadh. The Saudis have been trying to wean Hamas away from their Iranian backers, but they still remain suspicious of the Islamist movement. Mr. Abbas, with Saudi encouragement, recently took on Hamas by imposing sanctions on Gaza. There has now been a highly publicized “reconciliation” between the two sides. But Prince Mohammed, who has already met a Hamas delegation recently, will want to ensure that the status quo is maintained to Saudi satisfaction.
Will this foreign policy foray work for Prince Mohammed? Adding to the drama in Saudi Arabia was a missile attack launched from Yemen into the Kingdom by the Houthis. Riyadh accused Iran, which backs the Houthis, of being responsible and called the attack “an act of war”.
The war in Yemen was the brainchild of the Crown Prince, a flexing of muscle after being appointed defence minister, to show toughness. It has been a disaster, with no sign of a victory, with hospitals and schools bombed and a cholera epidemic breaking out. Donald Trump sees this as an opportunity to sell more US arms to Saudis, but others in the Sunni military coalition, such as the UAE (United Arab Emirates), are fed up with the whole bloody enterprise and just want it to go away.
Similarly, a Saudi-led Sunni alliance started a blockade of Qatar in response to long held grievances, including Doha not being sufficiently aggressive towards Iran. Qatar, it was expected, would capitulate quickly to demands made by Riyadh. Not only has that not happened, but Qatar has moved closer to Iran and the Turks, who have troops based there – Recep Tayyip Erdogan challenging the Saudis for the leadership of Sunni states, with possible reinforcements.
Then there is the Trump factor. The Saudis started the Qatari confrontation with what they saw as the US President’s encouragement. Jared Kushner was playing a part in that as well. Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, was incensed that an “absolutely vacuous kid was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters”. He and Defence Secretary James Mattis swung their support behind Qatar, a valued ally and centre of US military operations in the Middle East, and balanced American policy on the issue.
It is not certain this time either that Prince Mohammed will continue to receive American support indefinitely, especially if it is tied to the Aramco flotation. Mr Trump himself had fears that this may not take place because of “litigation, risk and other risk, which is very sad”.
The risk is of Saudi assets in the US being seized as a result of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (Jasta) passed by Congress under which families of 9/11 victims can take legal action against the Saudi government and nationals. Mr Trump had himself supported the Jasta Bill and castigated Barack Obama for opposing it. But then Mr Trump is hardly new to flip-flopping.
It will be interesting to see what happens to Prince Mohammed’s drive if American backing dries up. That can come about for reasons others than Aramco. Messrs Tillerson, Mattis and national-security adviser HR McMaster may well have different views to Mr Trump and his son-in-law. The last backlash against liberalization led to a violent confrontation, a siege in Mecca in 1979 followed by a capitulation at the end by the Royal family to the clerics who got their hands on the levers of power. They went on to impose vicious Wahaabi rule at home and export terrorism abroad. What is unfolding in a Saudi sandstorm now will have repercussions well beyond its borders.
[Kim Sengupta is the Diplomatic Editor for The Independent.]