Since assuming the Saudi throne at the end of January last year, King Salman has endorsed injudicious, even reckless, policies that could have disastrous consequences for his country and the Middle East.
The latest intemperate Saudi action was the execution on Saturday of 43 Sunnis accused of "terrorism", and four Shias, among them popular cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, sentenced for sedition.
The mass execution of Sunnis has elicited threats of retribution from Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap), while the killing of the cleric has ruptured relations with Iran and prompted Sunni states to line up behind Saudi Arabia.
This has sharpened the existing rift between the Sunni and Shia camps at a time when the US and Europe are seeking to reduce tensions and reach accommodations on steps to end the five-year war in Syria.
Changes in personnel
Saudi Arabia’s adventurism is a result at least in part of changes in personnel wielding power. Salman has concentrated authority in his branch of the ruling family by appointing his nephew Prince Mohamed bin Naif (56) – known as “MBN” – as crown prince, interior minister and head of the Council of Political and Security Affairs.
Salman’s favourite son, Mohamed bin Salman, aged 28-30 and known as “MBS” – has been made deputy crown prince, defence minister and head of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.
MBS, who has limited education and little experience in governance, is in charge of foreign affairs and restructuring the oil sector, the kingdom’s chief source of revenue.
While MBN, the former anti-terrorism czar, has cracked down hard on Isis and Aqap, and may well have pressed on the executions, MBS has been given great latitude in setting policies at a time of great turbulence in the region and on the international oil market.
Prices hit an 11-year low at the end of last month, reducing the kingdom’s revenues from exports. While administrative cost-cutting has been proposed, Salman has spent lavishly on personal travel, offered public servants and the military two-month bonuses to mark his accession and subsequently given three-month salary bonuses to the security forces.
Following Riyadh’s breaking off of relations with Tehran on Monday, oil prices jittered due to hostile rhetoric from both capitals following Sunday’s attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the withdrawal of Saudi diplomats from Tehran and the closure of Iran’s mission in Riyadh.
The cut in relations is the first since 1988, after which relations were restored in 1991 in an attempt to ease tensions.
Early last March, Saudi Arabia and its allies boosted aid to fundamentalists battling the Syrian government headed by president Bashar al-Assad, reversing gains made by his troops and weakening his overstretched armed forces.
Iran responded by increasing military involvement on the ground, while Russia provided air cover for the Syrian army, enabling it to recoup losses and advance on several fronts.
Cold war tensions
On the one hand, Russia’s entry has revived cold war tensions between the western-Saudi alliance and Russia-Iran-Syria, but on the other, it has driven the two sides to try to end the Syrian conflict.
However, the rupture in relations between Riyadh and Tehran could torpedo peace talks set for January 25th.
Although the Saudis have in the past – and now in Syria – operated mainly behind the scenes using money and political influence to advance policy goals, at the end of March, Riyadh launched an air war against Yemeni Shia Houthis, allegedly supported by Iran, who had taken control of the north, the centre and south of the country and exiled the Saudi-backed government.
The expectation was that the Houthis would quickly collapse. Stalemate has resulted, and Yemen, the poorest country in the region, has been devastated and Yemenis reduced to starvation due to a Saudi blockade.
Isis and Aqap have exploited the conflict to establish roots in the interior.
This conflict, waged on the initiative of MBS, elicited wide international condemnation of Saudi Arabia. No reader of history, MBS clearly does not know that no invader of Yemen has ever triumphed.