the Heck is Going on in Saudi Arabia
By Leon Wolf
November 7, 2017
You may have heard that Saudi Arabia has in the midst of upheaval that
threatens to destabilize the Middle East. Making sense of what is happening
right now can be a challenge, even for seasoned foreign policy observers. What
is the cause of all this unrest? What is likely to happen when all the dust
settles? What will the upheaval mean for the United States’ interests?
Here’s a basic primer for what’s going on across the world.
the 30-second version of what started all this?
Most observers agree that the impetus for the unrest has been a series of
dramatic moves made by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is attempting to
consolidate power in anticipation of assuming the Saudi throne. Salman is young
(32) and ambitious, and has been threatening for months to clean out
“corruption” in the Saudi government and reduce Iran’s influence in the
Middle East. He also has promised to reduce Saudi Arabia’s economic dependence
The first domino to fall was the surprise Saturday announcement that Lebanese
Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was stepping down from his post. Since then, the
country has been in near-total chaos.
what does the Lebanese Prime Minister’s resignation have to do with Saudi
Hariri, whose family has extensive business ties in Saudi Arabia, has long
been a close ally of Saudi Arabia, and the most influential Sunni politician in
Lebanon. He has been presiding over a unity government in Lebanon that includes
Hezbollah, the militant Iranian-backed Shi’ite group. Saudi Arabia and Iran
have been engaged in a lengthy war-by-proxy for control of Lebanon, and Hariri
has long been (probably fairly) accused of being Saudi Arabia’s agent in the
At the risk of overstating the obvious, Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-dominated
country, and Iran is a Shia-dominated country. Sunni Muslims vastly outnumber
Shia Muslims worldwide, and Iran is widely seen as the boogeyman by much of the
Sunni world. As much as Iran’s nuclear ambitions may threaten the United
States and/or Israel, for Iranian purposes the main benefit to becoming a
nuclear power is to level the playing field with the Sunni Muslim world.
Hariri’s resignation cemented the appearance that he was a puppet of the
Saudi government when he made his dramatic announcement from Riyadh. He
dramatically claimed in his resignation announcement that he
was the target of numerous assassination plots and that Iran’s
influence in Lebanon was about to be cut off.
Lebanese media have alleged that Hariri
is currently under house arrest in Riyadh; however, Hariri and his
aides have denied that claim. President Michael Aoun, the Hezbollah
representative in the Lebanese unity government, has declared that he will not
accept Hariri’s resignation until he returns to Lebanon and delivers it there.
Needless to say, Lebanon’s political situation is not exactly stable as a
Hariri sought to dispel the notion that he was acting under duress by posting
a picture on Twitter of himself meeting with the new Saudi ambassador
to Lebanon on Sunday.
what happened next?
Late Saturday evening, Saudi Arabia announced that they had intercepted
and destroyed an inbound cruise missile that was headed for Riyadh. A
group of Yemeni rebels known as the Houthis,
who have been fighting against Saudi influence in Yemen for years, promptly
claimed responsibility for launching the missile. The missile was shot down over
an uninhabited area north of Riyadh by the Saudi military, which performed an
analysis of the fragments and purportedly
discovered proof that the missile had been made in Iran and smuggled
by the Iranians into Yemen with the knowledge that the Houthi would use it
against Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Press Agency announced on Monday that the Saudi government
considered this to be an “act of war” by Iran and threatened retaliation.
For good measure, the Saudi government also announced on Monday that Lebanon
had declared war on Saudi Arabia due to “acts of aggression” by
does all of this have to do with Mohammed bin Salman?
In addition to being the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman is also the Saudi
defense minister, and the hard-line anti-Iran stance is largely
seen by Middle East observers as his brain child. Salman has been
harshly critical of Iranian influence in the region, and his allies in the Saudi
government have been steadily
escalating anti-Iranian rhetoric in recent months.
this about a bunch of Saudis being holed up in the Ritz Carlton?
In one of the more bizarre developments in this story, the Riyadh Ritz
Carlton appears to have been turned into a five-star jail of sorts for the
Mohammed bin Salman’s political rivals (or, depending on your view of his
motivations, of corrupt government officials). Saudi officials this week have
rounded up dozens of allegedly corrupt government officials and have sequestered
them in the 492-room Riyadh Ritz Carlton, which the government
has apparently commandeered for the purpose of turning into the
world’s most posh prison.
The people who have been arrested are very senior in the Saudi government,
and many of them are some of the richest men in the world. As a former U.S.
official described it to the New
Yorker, “It’s the equivalent of waking up to find Warren Buffett
and the heads of ABC, CBS and NBC have been arrested… It has all the
appearances of a coup d’état. Saudi Arabia is rapidly becoming another
country. The kingdom has never been this unstable.” It is difficult to
overstate the shockwaves the purges have sent throughout the country and the
entire Middle East.
Ritz Carlton officials have announced that the hotel will accept no new
reservations until Dec. 1. All the paying guests of the hotel were apparently
unceremoniously kicked out on Saturday night when Saudi
officials told them to assemble in the lobby with their luggage,
whereupon they were transported to other Riyadh hotels. It appears that not all
of the government officials swept up in the “anti-corruption purge” are
being housed in the Ritz Carlton, but the most prominent Saudi citizens caught
up in the net are being held there without access to the outside world.
According to the Guardian,
a Saudi official explained that it was not considered safe to put many of the
people involved into a prison, and using the Ritz Carlton was the “most
dignified solution” available.
At least two
Saudi princes have been killed during the crackdown: one in a
helicopter crash, and one in a firefight as authorities attempted to arrest him.
does it all mean? Is there hope for real reform in the Middle East?
The cynical view of Mohammed bin Salman’s actions is that he is merely
consolidating his political power, removing rivals to the throne, and using the
Iranian boogeyman to give himself popular political cover at home. However, even
many skeptical foreign policy observers have expressed optimism that Mohammed
bin Salman’s reform movement may be for real, and that if he
succeeds, he might become known as the reformer who dragged the entire Middle
East into the modern political world. It’s too early yet to tell where
Mohammed bin Salman’s true intentions lie.
there be an actual war between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
The more immediate and pressing question is whether Mohammed bin Salman’s
actions will provoke an actual shooting war with Iran, either directly or by
proxy. Most observers agree that direct military conflict between the two
countries is still as yet unlikely — saber rattling being a time-honored
tradition in the Middle East — but the chances are probably higher than they
have been in recent memory. It does seem likely that the long running
hostilities-by-proxy feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran will immediately
escalate, and there’s no telling where or if they will end. As with Mohammed
bin Salman’s dedication to real reform, it is still too early to tell.
does the Trump administration say about all of this?
Trump has been largely supportive of Mohammed bin Salman and his efforts.
Trump tweeted his support of the anti-corruption arrests on Monday morning.