Saudi Arabia’s Young Prince of Politics Goes to War in Yemen

Saudi Arabia traditionally opted for operating behind the scenes, now it has new leadership, and a new strategy.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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The site of an air strike at a residential area near Sanaa Airport March 26, 2015. Warplanes from Saudi Arabia and Arab allies struck Shi'ite rebels fighting to oust Yemen's president.
The site of an air strike at a residential area near Sanaa Airport March 26, 2015. Warplanes from Saudi Arabia and Arab allies struck Shi'ite rebels fighting to oust Yemen's president. Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Yemen first: Saudi Prince Mohammed, a 30-year-old seasoned diplomat without a bit of military experience, is behind Saudi Arabia’s war effort in Yemen. In one meeting with the prince, the leader of Sudan abandoned the Iranians.

“A 30-year-old is managing the war in Yemen,” boasted headlines in Arabic newspapers reporting on the Saudi offensive against the Houthis in Yemen. This 30-year-old is the Saudi defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the sixth son of the Saudi king and the one in charge of overseeing the offensive, despite having no military experience or training. His resumé features a law degree from a Saudi university.

Yet the prince holds the three most important portfolios in the kingdom. He’s the head of the economic council established by his father to deal with the problems with the country’s economy. He also heads the executive bureau of the royal palace, deciding among other things who gets to meet with King Salman, who is refused and how policy is translated into practice. And in addition, as mentioned, Prince Mohammed is the defense minister.

This week “reminiscences” were floated of how as a child of 10, the prince created a circle of friends who would dress in army uniforms and play war games in Saudi Arabia’s major shopping centers. Later he established several modest commercial enterprises, but the essence of his power is in politics.

The prince’s age is actually a matter of dispute. Wikipedia reports that he was born in 1980, but Internet reports have stated that he ordered the year of his birth to be changed to 1985, whereas he is really only 27. In any event, youthful Arab leadership no longer evokes wonder. Prince Sultan was just 31 when as defense minister he commanded the Saudi forces that participated in the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. Syrian President Bashar Assad was appointed president at age 35. Jordanian King Abdullah was crowned when he was 37, and Tamim bin Khalifa became the ruler of Qatar at 35. And Hassan Nasrallah was appointed leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon at age 32.

Amid his visits to review the Saudi combat troops, Prince Mohammed managed to smooth out difficulties with the Swedish government, whose foreign minister condemned Saudi Arabia for its draconian laws, its oppression of women and the 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes to which a Saudi civil rights activist was condemned for setting up a website supporting secularism. The Saudi royal court was furious about the criticism and recalled its ambassador from Stockholm. After Sweden apologized, it was Prince Mohammed who stitched the two countries’ relations back together.

He also met in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, last week with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, an ally of Iran, and after two hours of talks, the Sudanese leader changed his spots and announced that Sudan would be joining the military campaign against the Houthis, Iran’s allies in Yemen. He even expelled Iran’s representatives in Sudan. What the prince promised the Sudanese president exactly is not known, but he is clearly becoming a real leader of the kingdom.

The war in Yemen is the first in decades initiated by Saudi Arabia. In the Gulf War, it simply joined an international coalition, but this time it has taken the leadership role. The Saudis, along with the Egyptians, are also taking the initiative to establish an Arab intervention force in the Middle East, with the declared goal of fighting terrorism, but whose real target will be halting Iran’s influence in the region. Traditionally the Saudi kingdom preferred operating behind the scenes, preferring diplomacy or paying its rivals huge sums to settle conflicts, but now it is presenting a new strategy that is not unconnected to the character of its new leadership, which is not concealing its frustration over what it sees as the policy blunders of late Saudi King Abdullah.

The new king, Salman, and his son Mohammed have not lost time in addressing these “failings.” Not only has Sudan become its ally, but also Turkey, which King Abdullah viewed like a blight that had to be eliminated from the region due to its close ties with Iran and because of the harsh criticism that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leveled at Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, has now become an ally of sorts.

It’s still early to assess the course of the war in Yemen, but on this front, which until the past year did not engender international interest, it is now clear the extent to which Saudi Arabia can set the agenda in the Middle East as a whole. It is a major task for 80-year-old Saudi King Salman, who apparently is suffering from dementia. It’s also a tough task for his 30-year-old son, even if his half-brother was the first Arab astronaut.

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