The brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2 and the spectacular mismanagement of the crisis that ensued show how reckless and ill-advised the kingdom’s foreign policy has become under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
This is the latest in a series of foreign policy blunders Saudi Arabia has suffered under the watch of the 33-year-old crown prince. Other prominent examples include the failed blockade of Qatar, the house arrest of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the diplomatic row with Canada over human rights issues and the disastrous war in Yemen.
One could argue that Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, has had to pursue a more assertive foreign policy because of the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East, which threatens the security and stability of Saudi Arabia. Yet, there is a clear distinction to be made between “assertive” and “reckless”. With his grave foreign policy miscalculations, MBS has not only moved away from the House of Saud’s traditional tactical diplomacy, but has also effectively pushed his country towards the precipice of political instability.
In the first decades of the Cold War, a revolutionary wave swept through the Middle East. In 1952, King Farouk of Egypt, the last monarch of Mohammad Ali’s dynasty which had ruled Egypt since 1805, was overthrown. In 1958, the Hashemite family was brought down by leftist and nationalist forces in Iraq. In 1962, army officers removed Zaydi Imam Mohammad al-Badr, plunging Yemen into a seven-year civil war which ended with the establishment of the republic. And in 1979, the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was toppled and replaced by an Islamic republic led by Shia clerics.
Amid this upheaval, the Saudi monarchy managed to survive, mainly because of its calculative approach to foreign affairs, employing a quiet but remarkably effective diplomacy in dealing with external threats and challenges.
MBS did not stop with the invasion of Yemen. His arrogance and belief that money can buy everything, and his utter ignorance of regional and international realities got Saudi Arabia into deep trouble with each of his aggressive foreign policy decisions.
Instead of trying to build a unified front against the Saudi archenemy, Iran, and direct Saudi resources to that end, MBS found himself fighting on almost every possible front. Right now, he is in conflict with Turkey and its Sunni allies, including Qatar; and with Iran, and its Shia allies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
Not only has MBS created more enemies than he can handle, but he has also chosen the wrong allies. He has embarked on a dangerous path of normalisation with Israel, believing that it would pay back in the long run. But with this decision, he risks losing the hearts and minds of the Arab people to Turkey and Iran, both of which have positioned themselves as champions of the Palestinian cause.
More importantly, he risks losing support in his own country and contributing to the rise of more radical forces, as some Saudis come to see their country fighting the wrong “enemies” and allying with the wrong “friends”.
If Mohammed bin Salman continues down this path, he is likely to bring about not only his own political demise, but that of the House of Saud as well.