Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) of Saudi Arabia is the undoubted Middle East man of the year, but his great impact stems more from his failures than his successes. He is accused of being Machiavellian in clearing his way to the throne by the elimination of opponents inside and outside the royal family. But, when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s position in the world, his miscalculations remind one less of the cunning manoeuvres of Machiavelli and more of the pratfalls of Inspector Clouseau.
Again and again, the impulsive and mercurial young prince has embarked on ventures abroad that achieve the exact opposite of what he intended. When his father became king in early 2015, he gave support to a rebel offensive in Syria that achieved some success but provoked full-scale Russian military intervention, which in turn led to the victory of President Bashar al-Assad. At about the same time, MbS launched Saudi armed intervention, mostly through airstrikes, in the civil war in Yemen. The action was code-named Operation Decisive Storm, but two and a half years later the war is still going on, has killed 10,000 people and brought at least seven million Yemenis close to starvation.
The Crown Prince is focusing Saudi foreign policy on aggressive opposition to Iran and its regional allies, but the effect of his policies has been to increase Iranian influence. The feud with Qatar, in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE play the leading role, led to a blockade being imposed five months ago which is still going on. The offence of the Qataris was to have given support to al-Qaeda type movements – an accusation that was true enough but could be levelled equally at Saudi Arabia – and to having links with Iran. The net result of the anti-Qatari campaign has been to drive the small but fabulously wealthy state further into the Iranian embrace.
Saudi relations with other countries used to be cautious, conservative and aimed at preserving the status quo. But today its behaviour is zany, unpredictable and often counterproductive: witness the bizarre episode in November when the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, not allowed to depart and forced to resign his position. The objective of this ill-considered action on the part of Saudi Arabia was apparently to weaken Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon, but has in practice empowered both of them.
What all these Saudi actions have in common is that they are based on a naïve presumption that “a best-case scenario” will inevitably be achieved. There is no “Plan B” and not much of a “Plan A”: Saudi Arabia is simply plugging into conflicts and confrontations it has no idea how to bring to an end.
MbS and his advisers may imagine that it does not matter what Yemenis, Qataris or Lebanese think because President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and chief Middle East adviser, are firmly in their corner. “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” tweeted Trump in early November after the round up and confinement of some 200 members of the Saudi elite. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!” Earlier he had tweeted support for the attempt to isolate Qatar as a supporter of “terrorism”.
But Saudi Arabia is learning that support from the White House these days brings fewer advantages than in the past. The attention span of Donald Trump is notoriously short, and his preoccupation is with domestic US politics: his approval does not necessarily mean the approval of other parts of the US government. The State Department and the Pentagon may disapprove of the latest Trump tweet and seek to ignore or circumvent it. Despite his positive tweet, the US did not back the Saudi confrontation with Qatar or the attempt to get Mr Hariri to resign as prime minister of Lebanon.
For its part, the White House is finding out the limitations of Saudi power. MbS was not able to get the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to agree to a US-sponsored peace plan that would have given Israel very much and the Palestinians very little. The idea of a Saudi-Israeli covert alliance against Iran may sound attractive to some Washington think tanks, but does not make much sense on the ground. The assumption that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the promise to move the US embassy there, would have no long-term effects on attitudes in the Middle East is beginning to look shaky.
It is Saudi Arabia – and not its rivals – that is becoming isolated. The political balance of power in the region changed to its disadvantage over the last two years. Some of this predates the elevation of MbS: by 2015 it was becoming clear that a combination of Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey was failing to carry out regime change in Damascus. This powerful grouping has fragmented, with Turkey and Qatar moving closer to the Russian-backed Iranian-led axis, which is the dominant power in the northern tier of the Middle East between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean.
If the US and Saudi Arabia wanted to do anything about this new alignment, they have left it too late. Other states in the Middle East are coming to recognise that there are winners and losers, and have no wish to be on the losing side. When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called a meeting this week in Istanbul of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, to which 57 Muslim states belong, to reject and condemn the US decision on Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia only sent a junior representative to this normally moribund organisation. But other state leaders like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, King Abdullah of Jordan and the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar, among many others, were present. They recognised East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital and demanded the US reverse its decision.
MbS is in the tradition of leaders all over the world who show Machiavellian skills in securing power within their own countries. But their success domestically gives them an exaggerated sense of their own capacity in dealing with foreign affairs, and this can have calamitous consequences. Saddam Hussein was very acute in seizing power in Iraq but ruined his country by starting two wars he could not win.
Mistakes made by powerful leaders are often explained by their own egomania and ignorance, supplemented by flattering but misleading advice from their senior lieutenants. The first steps in foreign intervention are often alluring because a leader can present himself as a national standard bearer, justifying his monopoly of power at home. Such a patriotic posture is a shortcut to popularity, but there is always a political bill to pay if confrontations and wars end in frustration and defeat. MbS has unwisely decided that Saudi Arabia should play a more active and aggressive role at the very moment that its real political and economic strength is ebbing. He is overplaying his hand and making too many enemies.