On Sunday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri insisted that he was not being held captive in Saudi Arabia during a television interview that, according to the Associated Press, “was filled with bizarre moments” and which led some allies to believe that he was performing under duress. Eight days earlier, Hariri, whose family owns a massive Saudi construction company, had turned up in Riyadh to announce that he was resigning. He blamed Iran’s growing influence in the region and said that he feared that an assassination plot was underway—a claim the Lebanese military denied later in the week. The move sent Lebanon’s fragile government into a major political crisis.
Hariri hadn’t been heard from for over a week prior to Sunday’s interview, and members of his party suspected that he’d been placed under house arrest.
But Hariri’s sudden resignation was only one element of the intrigue that shook the Saudi Kingdom on November 4. That same day, Muhammed bin Salman, the brash young crown prince who had made headlines in the West by spontaneously buying a $550 million yacht from a Russian vodka tycoon while pushing a painful “austerity program” back at home, consolidated his control over the Saudi armed forces and rounded up almost a dozen members of the Saudi royal family—along with other senior officials—on the pretense of fighting corruption. They included Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a powerful rival whom bin Salman had skipped over to become heir to the throne when the former’s father, King Abdullah, died in 2015, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire investor who owns or has owned significant positions in companies like 21st Century Fox, Citigroup, Apple, and Twitter.
Widely known as “MBS,” bin Salman had become a darling of DC’s foreign-policy community, who saw him as a reformer, and had reportedly formed a personal friendship with Jared Kushner, who visited him recently during Kushner’s third trip to Riyadh since the election.
That same day, the Saudis said they’d intercepted a missile fired at Riyadh’s airport by Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has waged a brutal proxy war with the Iranian-backed forces. MBS immediately characterized the missile strike and the “assassination plot” against Hariri as acts of war on the part of Iran. Last Thursday, the Saudi government ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon immediately.
Meanwhile, almost a dozen Saudi princes remain detained in a gilded prison at the Ritz Carlton Riyadh.
I asked Madawi Al-Rasheed, a visiting scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Middle East Centre, for her take on these events that have shaken the Saudi Kingdom andwhat MBS’s endgame was. Could MBS hold such powerful figures indefinitely? What happens next?
Nobody knows. According to the Saudi press, there will be fair trials. But [the princes] may be sidelined, or basically disappear into oblivion. Like Muhammed bin Nayef, who was expelled from his office in July. Since then, we haven’t heard anything about him. He has not spoken to the media. He hasn’t appeared anywhere. Which means that he’s under house arrest somewhere in the kingdom, or on an island in the Red Sea.