Late last week, in under 24 hours, the Saudi royal house set off a string of shocks within the kingdom and across the Middle East, making a set of moves that escalated the battle with Iran over regional hegemony.
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The complete Saudi plan, if it exists, has not been revealed yet. However, the series of developments has raised the level of nervousness in its neighbors’ capitals, provoking much guesswork regarding the Saudis’ next moves.
First came the announcement that Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri was resigning. At first it was explained as deriving from his concerns about an Iranian-inspired Hezbollah plot to assassinate him. As the days passed, the resignation seemed more like a Saudi dictate, stemming from Saudi Arabia’s displeasure at the way Hariri was compelled to cooperate with Hezbollah in Lebanon’s government.
A few hours after the initial announcement, the Saudis announced a wave of arrests of princes and wealthy businessmen, on suspicion of corruption. As the princes were being detained under five-star-hotel conditions at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, a strange aerial accident took place in the southern part of the kingdom. The next day it emerged that a prince had tried to escape Saudi Arabia by air, using a helicopter which was shot down by the Saudi air force. The nine passengers and crew on board were killed. In the meantime, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, fired a missile at Riyadh’s airport. American missiles successfully intercepted the missile. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia imposed a land and naval blockade on Yemen.
These weren’t the only developments related to Saudi Arabia this week. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted words of support for steps taken by King Salman and by the kingdom’s strongman, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner visited Saudi Arabia and Israel several days before the wave of purges took place. In Israel, the Foreign Ministry disseminated a position paper among foreign embassies following Hariri’s resignation, TV Channel 10 reported. This was totally congruent with the official Saudi version of events, which put the blame for the crisis in Lebanon squarely at Iran’s feet. Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, embarked on an urgent visit to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Brussels received a surprising request that a senior Saudi delegation come on a visit next week to discuss methods of combating terror. The Saudis were responding to an invitation which had been issued by the Europeans ten months earlier.
Is there one line connecting these dots, as well as one linking it to the crisis deliberately-generated by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt with regard to fractious Qatar last summer? Is there a link between these issues and the reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which began to be implemented in Gaza last week, led by Cairo? The conventional wisdom among intelligence officials and academic scholars is that these are steps designed to consolidate the influence of Mohammad bin Salman, ahead of the future transfer of power from his 82-year-old father into his hands.
It’s unclear if the Saudis will necessarily make do with these moves. The royal house is particularly close to the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries, along with Israel, which enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s election, this time last year. Over the past year there have been a growing number of reports around the world of increasing diplomatic coordination between Riyadh and Jerusalem, accompanied by cooperation in intelligence matters. Israel and the Saudis see Iran as a common enemy, and both are frustrated at the West’s incompetence in dealing with Iran’s growing influence in what is known as the “Shi’ite Crescent” in the region.
The string of events, starting with the Qatari crisis last summer, strengthens the assumption that this is part of a wider Saudi move, an ambitious attempt to reach a new regional order. On the diplomatic front this is linked to the internal Palestinian reconciliation, led by Cairo but which also requires financial backing by the Saudis and the Emirates. This won’t be all, apparently. The defense establishment and political circles in Israel are preparing for the likely possibility that the Trump administration will soon present Israel and the Palestinian Authority with a new document, in an attempt to jumpstart the stalled peace process. Such a move may be pursued in a coordinated way between the United States and the Saudis. Saudi ambitions may have other results as well. An article in Haaretz this week by former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro asked whether the Saudis were pushing Israel into a war with Hezbollah and Iran.
Shapiro, who was Barack Obama’s adviser on Middle East affairs during Obama’s run for the White House, raises the possibility that the fact that the Assad regime in Syria survived the civil war there is driving the Saudis to try and move the battlefield with Iran from Syria to Lebanon, trying to get Israel to do Saudi Arabia’s dirty work. This may lead to a chain reaction, which the Saudis hope for, believes Shapiro. Hariri’s resignation will force Hezbollah to contend with the implications of the political and economic crisis in Lebanon, The Shi’ite organization, in turn, may then escalate a military confrontation with Israel in order to unite the Lebanese public around itself. Shapiro warned Israel against being maneuvered by the Saudis into a premature military confrontation.
Shapiro is not the only one to raise the possibility of such a scenario. Dov Zakheim, who filled senior posts at the Pentagon during the Reagan administration, wrote an article this week in Foreign Policy in which he discussed the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Israel. He noted that Kushner’s visit to Riyadh was the third one since Trump entered the White House. Zakheim says that the combination of Trump, Netanyahu and Mohammad bin Salman leaves open any possibility. Zakheim argues that the three are planning something, and it looks like a plan to put pressure on Iran. Israel, as suggested last week, now has to conduct itself under extremely sensitive circumstances. The success of the Assad regime, the increased Russian presence in Syria and the growing influence of Iran have all created a new and unclear situation. Precisely for this reason, believes the General Staff, there is a need to define rules of the game that will maintain Israel’s freedom of military operation on the northern front. This is apparently the reason for the numerous reports of Israeli aerial attacks in Syria, targeting weapons depots and factories, as well as convoys smuggling ordinance to Hezbollah in Lebanon. These circumstances also dramatically increase the risks of an unplanned deterioration as a result of a local incident gone out of control. If Saudi Arabia is deliberately stoking the flames between the sides, this becomes a tangible danger.
Israel Defense Forces commanders insist that every operation is based on precise intelligence and much thought, before it is brought to political leaders for approval. And yet, it seems that this is a tense period even in comparison to events of recent years, with the frenzy that has gripped the region since the events that shook the Arab world seven years ago this December.