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.
Mohammed bin Salman’s insistence on dominating Yemen with his proxies led him to launch a fruitless war in the spring of 2015 that has lasted three years, taken thousands of lives, wounded thousands more (half the casualties are thought to be civilians, including children), provoked a massive cholera outbreak, and left millions on the verge of starvation.
His Yemen war, which aims at overthrowing a local guerrilla movement using massive air power, has provoked opposition in Congress, given that Riyadh has roped the Pentagon into supplying logistical and strategic support, including advice on targeting. Since many Saudi targets in Yemen are estimated to have a civilian character (including hospitals, schools, ports, and key bridges), the fact that the Saudis get US advice on targeting is once again creating an image of US generals as monsters among the people of the Middle East. Senators Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy introduced a joint resolution demanding that the US military end its involvement with the flailing Saudi war effort, which may be voted on while the crown prince is in Washington. The congressional effort is fueled in part by fears that an erratic President Trump, if not constrained by the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, could well drag America into further military adventures.
Mohammed bin Salman’s goal of blocking Iran is incoherent, and while it will tempt Trump and Washington and please belligerent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it offers US policy in the Middle East no actual gains. Iran’s alliance with the Shiite parties that govern Iraq is unlikely to be disrupted by Saudi Arabia, and it is hard to see how further turmoil in that country could benefit anyone. Iraq, with Iranian and American help (and virtually no help from Saudi Arabia), recently defeated the so-called Islamic State group (ISIL or ISIS), which emulated extreme elements of Saudi-style Wahhabism. Iraqi petroleum exports are rising, and it needs extensive trade with Iran to rebuild.
In Syria, Iran is allied with Russia, and on the campaign trail Trump repeatedly expressed the view that the United States should hand Syria to Russia and let President Vladimir Putin handle it. It seems unlikely that Saudi Arabia, whose proxy extremist militia in Syria, the Army of Islam, has been largely defeated in East Ghouta and elsewhere, can hope to gain Washington’s backing for starting the Syrian War back up in hopes of dislodging Iran. Ironically, for purely geopolitical reasons, Iran in Syria is in the position of backing a secular Arab nationalist party, the Baath, and of allying with the Russian nationalist autocracy of Putin, with its Eastern Orthodox constituency.
Lebanon’s current cabinet is tilted toward Hezbollah, the Shiite militia-party that is allied with Iran. Lebanon will hold elections in May, which might reshuffle the political deck there. Mohammed bin Salman attempted to intervene directly in Beirut’s politics last fall, kidnapping Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri and forcing him to read a resignation letter, on the grounds that he was cooperating too successfully with Hezbollah in the government. French intervention helped free Hariri, whose forced resignation was never accepted. The main result of that episode has been to stiffen Lebanese resistance to Saudi meddling.
Accusations of Iranian influence were also launched by Saudi Arabia to justify its failed attempt to crush the government of the small Gulf country of Qatar in June of last year. Mohammed bin Salman’s government said it implemented a food-and-air blockade on Qatar because it is close to Iran, is allowing a free press in the form of Al Jazeera, and is promoting freedom of political expression for the Muslim Brotherhood. Piling on the false accusations, the Saudis managed to accuse Doha of supporting both Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni extremists. In fact, Qatar has been an important anti-terrorism ally for the United States, having granted the Pentagon the al-Udeid air base, where 10,000 personnel have been stationed and from which most US air strikes on terrorist bases in Iraq and Afghanistan have been launched (Qatar is now expanding the base, including housing for US military dependents). The odd accusation of supporting Hezbollah appears to derive from the Qatari role in providing rebuilding and humanitarian aid to Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli military campaign against Hezbollah. In fact, Qatar and Hezbollah have had substantial conflict over Syria. What accounts for this farrago of falsehoods from Saudi Arabia? It may well by that the Saudi crown prince, who forced prominent princes and businessmen to hand over some $100 billion in assets this winter, just wanted to get hold of Qatar’s roughly $300 billion sovereign investment fund.
Mohammed bin Salman’s erratic and so-far disastrous foreign policy in the Middle East does not speak well for him as a policeman of the region. Despite his friendship with Jared Kushner, his de facto alliance with Israel against Palestinian interests, his oil wealth, and his anti-Iran fulminations, his country does not actually have the geopolitical weight to shape the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has on the order of 20 million citizens, being a little more populous than the Netherlands, and its nominal gross domestic product is a little smaller than that country’s. The crown prince’s quagmire in Yemen is a glaring portent of where he will take Washington if the United States gets more involved with him. Washington keeps looking for a gendarme in the Middle East, but past candidates for the role, like the shah of Iran, discovered that they could not even keep stability in their own country. The same question mark hovers uneasily over the head of the brash young crown prince of Saudi Arabia.