The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, 32, with his sparkling black eyes, black beard, and black robe in the midst of his elders all draped in white, isn’t afraid to stand out. His message is clear: enemies will be crushed, whoever is opposed to King Salman’s heir will be put behind bars, those who are corrupt will be punished, and Sunni leadership will shine again. Saudi Arabia, which has not only been threatened by fall in world oil prices, but also by the crisis of the “Arab nation” as it has been called for decades, has vowed to take a new path.
This represents an internal earthquake accompanied by the general redefinition of the country’s interests of oil, cruel religious rules, and hence of its role the Middle East itself. The Crown Prince has arrested many senior Saudi figures, including eleven princes, four ministers and a dozen former ministers, several billionaires and oil industry executives. Among the latter is Alwaleed bin Talal, the King’s nephew, a billionaire and owner of a huge investment company.
The purge also includes the arrest of Prince Ibrahim al Assaf, a former finance minister and board member of the country’s giant oil company Saudi Aramco, and even many former allies of bin Salman.
The purge, shrouded by allegations of corruption and conspiracies, has – in reality – the character of a strategic repositioning. Saudi Arabia wasn’t part of President Obama’s administration Middle East strategy, and became eventually even an obstacle to it. In general, the “Arab nation” was replaced by two poles that seemed more promising to Obama: Iran with whom he forged the nuclear deal three years ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which seemed reliable, especially in Egypt under Morsi, but failed; and in Turkey, where Erdogan still governs today.
Saudi Arabia has carried on its shoulders the original sin of Wahhabism, has invested billions in extremist and anti-Western mosques, has fed the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks. However, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has pledged to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam:” As he initiated new reforms, including the symbolic move to allow women to obtain driving licenses, in the purge of September (there was one also in June) he arrested some thirty intellectuals and Wahhabi clerics, while simultaneously supporting more palatable religious figures.
Meanwhile, both in secret and open meetings with Israel and in contact with the new US administration, the Saudis have placed the absolute rejection of Iranian expansion, along with its proxy Hezbollah, throughout the Middle East from Iraq and Syria to its stranglehold over Lebanon, as its top priority. In Yemen, a Saudi-led military coalition has been fighting a war now in its third year against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Last Saturday, there was a spectacular turn of events: speaking from Riyadh, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, said he had taken refuge with the Saudis because of an Iranian assassination attempt against him and denounced the destabilization, terrorism, and hatred that Iran exports everywhere. Hariri’s father, Rafik, then prime minister, was assassinated in 2005. A few days ago, the Saudi minister of state for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan declared, “We will treat the government of Lebanon as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia due to the aggression of Hezbollah.”
In short, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is not only upending the longstanding power of the old Saudi guard by purging it, but he’s also entering the fray by positioning himself as leader of a Sunni Arab coalition against Iran while simultaneously disavowing Wahhabi Islam in order to forge a new alliance with the West, including Israel. Even at the price of giving a long due and long refused driving license to women.
Translation by Amy Rosenthal
his article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale (November 9, 2017)