Last week witnessed dramatic change in the political climate of the Saudi Arabia. Journalists, politicians, and the constant rumblings of Twitter have labelled heir apparent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s attempts to consolidate power by purging major rivals a Middle Eastern form of the Night of the Long Knives.
The Crown Prince is a relative moderniser who seems determined to liberalise the infamously puritanical state at home but has instigated an aggressive foreign policy. Saudi Arabia’s influence extends far beyond its borders and this attempt to consolidate power will have global ramifications.
The anti-corruption purge has witnessed the detainment of 11 Saudi princes, four ministers, and tens of former ministers. This includes billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen, as well as Prince Alwaleed, a nephew of the king.
In total, more than 200 people have been arrested and up to 1700 bank accounts have been frozen. The Crown Prince’s actions go against the Establishment of Saudi society. The ultra-conservative bedrock which the country once stood upon may crumble.
Saudi Arabia was as cautious in foreign policy as it has been sluggish with social change. Long has the US hoped for a more proactive ally to help hold back the regional ambitions of Iran. In the new Crown Prince, however, they seem to have gotten more than they bargained for.
Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power within the kingdom has been dominated by the proxy war taking place in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been criticised for alleged war crimes in the conflict. The Saudi forces have caused outrage by establishing a blockade which the UN claims may lead to famine and the starvation of up to seven million Yemenis. Britain too has been criticised for its role in supplying weapons to the Saudi regime which the Crown Prince has deployed in its war in Yemen.
Lebanon too has long been a battleground for regional powers. To the surprise of many, the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned shortly after arriving in the kingdom. Rather than being greeted with the usual pomp, Saad al-Hariri’s plane touched down on 3 November to the sight of Saudi policemen.
Sources close to al-Hariri have informed the press that his phone was confiscated, and he was placed under house arrest. Although Saudi Arabia has denied that he has been held against his will, the international community believe that al-Hariri is the latest victim of Salman’s solidification of power.
Within a day al-Hariri appeared on a Saudi-owned TV channel resigning from his post, shocking the world. His resignation speech voiced fears of a potential assassination and accused Iran and the Hezbollah party of causing grief throughout his nation.
Statements such as the claim that the Arab world would “cut off the hands that wickedly extend it” are out of character for al-Hariri. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, claims that his prime minister is being held against his will. Lebanese sources stated that Saudi Arabia hopes to replace him with his older brother.
A middle eastern cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia has left Lebanon as the fighting ground with the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group and the Saudi-backed Future Movement in coalition government.
Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah have a long history of conflict. Hezbollah are equipped with a heavily armed fighting force, as well as a role in government. Ten years ago conflict led to severe Sunni-Shia clashes and a Hezbollah takeover of Beirut. With a strong Saudi influence returning, clashes may be seen again in Lebanon.
al-Hariri’s resignation appears a week after Saudi Arabia ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon because of rising tensions. With a power vacuum in place in both nations, it seems that Mohammed bin Salman will now look to enjoy uncontested rule over his own country and act as a political puppet master in the Middle East in order to gain dominance in the region. The bold Crown Prince is certainly making a mark.