Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington is part of his search for American backing for his ambitious plans to turn his country into the regional hegemon. The prince wants to play the sort of role Nixon and Kissinger assigned to the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. While they thought of the shah only as “policeman of the Gulf,” the crown prince has his eye on the whole Middle East. One of the duties he is seeking is blocking Iran’s influence in the area.
Mohammed bin Salman is continuing the kingdom’s counter-revolution against the youthful protests and revolutions that broke out in 2011 and after. Those secular-minded youth leaders and the Muslim religious right had often allied to challenge corrupt dictatorships from Libya to Bahrain. Saudi Arabia’s elite saw in this outbreak of democracy a dire challenge to their autocratic rule. They only wanted political Islam if it was sycophantic toward the ruling houses; a populist movement like that of the Muslim Brotherhood threatened them existentially.
They swung into action, colluding with the Egyptian officer corps in the 2013 coup of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi against elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, in which any semblance of democracy in Egypt was brutally crushed. The secular youth leaders of 2011 were silenced or imprisoned, or worse. Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies are thought to have provided Egypt’s junta with billions of dollars in aid in return for turning back the tide of reform. Before Sisi’s coup in Egypt, Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to put down the Arab Spring protesters there, fearful that the majority of Bahrainis are Shiites and that an outbreak of democracy would weaken Sunni absolute monarchy.
In Yemen, the 2012 ouster of long-lived dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh opened the way for a takeover of Sana’a and the northwest of the country by the Zaydi Shiite “Helpers of God,” popularly known as Houthis. The secular Saleh then allied with the Houthis until they fell out in December and he was killed. Mohammed bin Salman told CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday, “The Iranian ideology penetrated some parts of Yemen. During that time, this militia was conducting military maneuvers right next to our borders and positioning missiles at our borders.” In fact, Zaydi Shiites do not have ayatollahs and do not believe in clerical rule, so they can hardly be exponents of “Iranian ideology.” The Houthis are a rural north-Yemen protest movement against economic neglect of them in Sana’a and against Saudi attempts to convert them to the harsh and intolerant Wahhabi ideology as practiced by Riyadh. They may have received minor amounts of Iranian assistance, but theirs is a local movement. They are allied with secular officers in what is left of the fragmented Yemeni military.