For decades, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been embroiled in an ongoing battle for hegemony within the Middle East. Now, tensions have once again escalated with the unexpected resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in an announcement made live from Riyadh on 4 November. Given the location of the televised address, many suspect that it was made under duress; this, however, has been denied by Hariri, who promised to return to Lebanon “very soon”.
Despite claiming his reasons as being fear of assassination, it is suspected that Hariri, a long-serving puppet of the Saudi regime, was reprimanded for holding talks with officials from both Iran and Hezbollah. The move is thus seen as an indication that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is opening a new front against Iran in Lebanon. It also acts as another signal that the Crown Prince is set along an aggressive path to further consolidate his power in the Kingdom.
On the same day as Hariri’s shock resignation, Saudi security forces arrested dozens of princes, senior officials and prominent businessmen, detaining them in what can only be imagined as the world,s most luxurious prison, the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the capital’s Diplomatic Quarter.
Among those ministers fired and detained are the Head of the National Guard, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the Economy Minister, Adel Faqih, and the Commander of the Navy, Abdullah al-Sultan. Though the regime has labelled the arrests part of an ongoing corruption probe, specific reasons for the arrests have not been given, thereby fuelling speculation about the Crown Prince’s motives.
Indeed, since 2015, when Salman became the Minister of Defence, he has continued to cultivate more and more power in the Kingdom. In June of this year, he was appointed the new Crown Prince, replacing 57-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef in a surprise reshuffle. In the same announcement, Salman, aged just 32, was also named Deputy Prime Minister, while also maintaining his title as Defence Minister. As such, Salman now has control of the nation’s defence, interior and the guards, placing him with an unprecedented level of power for a single royal.
Salman’s power grab comes in line with the Kingdom’s growing alliance with regional pariah, Israel. Though the two are not at natural odds with one another, they share a common enemy. And that enemy is giving them reason to forge a closer partnership. Both states fear Iran’s mounting influence in the region, particularly given Assad’s victory in Syria and the vacuum created by the demise of ISIS. Iran’s proxies, namely Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi insurgents in Yemen, are also on the rise, which again is a cause for alarm for both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Consequently, despite their alliance being steeped in controversy, the two nations are now working together closely, sharing intelligence and even holding clandestine top-level meetings. What’s more, according to the Spectator, leaked memos show that Israeli diplomats were instructed to back the Saudi version of Hariri’s resignation, and to also condemn Houthi rebels.
Many fear that this level of political cooperation with Israel could create a formidable backlash among Saudi’s general population. This in turn could see Salman press forward with further arrests, as he continues to clear his path to the Crown.
Military aggression, meanwhile, is escalating in the region. Again on November 4, Houthi insurgents fired a long-range Scud-type ballistic missile across the Saudi border directly into Riyadh. While Saudi forces managed to destroy it without any causalities, a repeat attack could well be in the pipeline as Houthi leader Mohammed Abdul Salam continues his military campaign against “any country that targets Yemen,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Saudi regime has taken the attack as a declaration of war by both Lebanon and Iran, blaming both nations for supplying missiles to Houthi rebels, while stating that its retaliation will ensue. Tensions between Israel and Hezbollah also continue to mount following recent military drills conducted by Israel, which have been seen as direct provocation. Both situations indicate that the Saudi-Israeli partnership is set to strengthen further.
As indicated by Salman’s plays over the past year – and in particular in the past fortnight – he is hell-bent on carving more power for himself and removing any obstacles that stand in his way. In the same vein, he continues to exert Saudi influence over the region and, again, is all-too-ready to remove opposition of any kind. To achieve the latter, his alliance with Israel is necessary, even if it comes with the risk of igniting insurrection within the Kingdom’s own borders. Saudi Arabia’s enemies however are unlikely to fade into the shadows, but instead will retaliate at every opportunity – consequently, a perilous tit-for-tat is now underway in the region.
Meanwhile, a new era is forming in Saudi Arabia, which could well see it ruled by a tyrant who sees power – of any kind – as king, an exceedingly dangerous scenario in a region that is already prone to violence and conflict.