Middle East tips towards confrontation after a year of extraordinary upheaval
More conflict looks likely as a stable Iran faces a belligerent Saudi regime
Saudi crown prince: Mohammed bin Salman. Photograph: Bandar al-Jaloud/Saudi royal palace/AFP
In Saudi Arabia, where political change is incremental and social reform usually measured in decades if not centuries, it was a year of extraordinary upheaval. The upending of a system of rule that has prevailed since the modern dynasty was founded, in 1932, is already shaking up the politics of the Middle East.
It was the year of Mohammed bin Salman. The 32-year-old crown prince, son of the ailing King Salman, has risen from obscurity to amass huge power at the head of the sprawling royal family.
The ascent of the ambitious, hyperactive crown prince, widely known by his initials, MBS, is an abrupt break with convention. From the earliest days of the modern Saudi state, power was distributed in such a way as to promote stability by forging consensus and reducing rivalries.
A horizontal line of succession established by King Abdulaziz, the state’s founder, meant power passed from one of his sons to the next. But as the sons have aged – Salman is 81 and his youngest brother is in his 70s – the gerontocracy has grown increasingly remote from the needs of a young, modern state where more than half the population is under 30.
In November Saudi ministers and business leaders were rounded up in an unprecedented purge against some of the country’s most influential figures
To address this King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to try a dynastic transfer of power. Mohammed, his favoured son, was appointed defence minister in 2015, the year his father took the throne. Then a palace coup in June ousted his elder cousin Mohammed bin Nayef as interior minister and heir to the throne.
That was a mere prelude, however, to a wider consolidation of power by the crown prince. In November ministers and business leaders were rounded up and detained at a five-star Riyadh hotel. It was an unprecedented purge against some of the country’s most influential figures, among them the flamboyant billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an investor in high-profile western companies, and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, head of the elite Saudi Arabian National Guard.
With the latter’s removal MBS took control of the kingdom’s internal security and military institutions, which have traditionally been headed by separate powerful branches of the ruling family. A royal decree said the crackdown came in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to illicitly accrue money”.
Nothwithstanding the official account, the crackdown appeared to be a tactical move by the crown prince to strengthen his own position by weakening rival power blocs. King Salman remains nominally in charge, but in the past year MBS has become the de-facto decisionmaker for the kingdom’s military, foreign, economic and social policies.
His economic plan, Vision 2030, is a sweeping menu of subsidy cuts, tax rises, sales of state assets and measures to spur foreign tourism and investment – all aimed at weaning the country off oil and diversifying its economy. He plans to sell off a portion of the crown jewel, the state-owned oil company Aramco, and has spoken of a $500 billion economic zone to be staffed by robots.
An even greater shock to a conservative system has been MBS’s programme of social liberalisation. In September Riyadh announced that a ban on women driving would be lifted next year. Public cinemas are to be allowed for the first time in 35 years. MBS has been promoting public entertainment, and recently he remarked that the kingdom needed “a moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples”.
Those incipient moves towards greater permissiveness have not translated into any greater tolerance of dissent, however. If anything the space for free expression has contracted. Critical tweets about the crown prince can land their authors in prison. In September police arrested dozens of critics, including clerics and human-rights activists.
But it’s the crown prince’s confrontational – and so far strikingly unsuccessful – foreign policy that preoccupies world leaders and Saudi Arabia’s neighbours. MBS led Saudi forces into the catastrophic war in Yemen, where Riyadh is trying to crush Iran-aligned Houthi rebels who forced out the Yemeni government in 2015. Despite an intense Saudi bombing campaign and a blockade of the country, the conflict has turned into a grinding war of attrition, and millions of civilians are facing hunger and disease.
The crown prince was also behind an ill-conceived blockade of Qatar, ostensibly designed to force the emirate to drop its support for Islamist groups but widely seen as punishment for its relationship with Iran. Instead the diplomatic assault forced Qatar to turn to Iran for help, solidifying Tehran’s influence while alarming the rest of the Gulf.
Where once the United States might have sought to moderate Saudi adventurism, Donald Trump’s administration has instead emboldened the crown prince
Where once the United States might have sought to moderate such adventurism, Donald Trump’s administration has instead emboldened the crown prince. The US president, fixated on Iran, refused to condemn the move to isolate Qatar – site of a strategically important US military base – and only in recent weeks urged Riyadh to ease the blockade of Yemen in order as to allow humanitarian aid to reach trapped civilians.
On the same day Riyadh had taken issue with Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a decision that has made it almost inconceivable that Washington under Trump can cajole Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The year ends with a stable Iran, strengthened by its strategic successes in Syria and Iraq, facing a Saudi regime whose focus on regional stability has given way to an impulsive belligerence. Proxy wars rage in Syria and Yemen while a hawkish yet distracted United States, its diplomatic arm severely depleted, strides clumsily on volatile terrain. The year ends, in other words, with a greater risk of wider regional confrontation than when it began.