Analysis |

The Saudi King Has a Problem: The Crown Prince

In Yemen and in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia's all out war against Iranian influence has come to precious little. Will the crown prince be able to make a difference?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
King Salman, left, speaks with his son, now Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
King Salman, left, speaks with his son, now Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Don’t envy Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is due to be appointed king soon. This week his policy suffered two painful blows – and apparently not the last ones. Two days ago the Houthi rebels in Yemen killed former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, two days after he declared his intention of “opening a new leaf with the Arab coalition” established by King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman about two years ago. While this killing was shaking up the Saudi palace, on Monday Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri declared the cancellation of his resignation, which had been obtained through massive Saudi pressure.

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Saudi Arabia is waging an all-out war against Iranian influence in both of these countries, and in both it seems to be sliding down a slippery slope. Until recently Saudi Arabia was nurturing the elected Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who lives in Saudi Arabia and is unable (and unwilling) to return home. He is being replaced by commanders of Saudi military forces who are fighting aerial battles against concentrations of rebels, whose effectiveness is limited in the urban and hilly areas.

After investing billions of dollars in the war, Mohammed bin Salman, who initiated it, concluded that the high cost doesn’t guarantee victory and that depending on Hadi was pointless. The prince is said to want to cut his military losses and withdraw from Yemen in exchange for some diplomatic arrangement.

It was Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the acting ruler of the United Arab Emirates, who proposed a joint action plan with Saudi Arabia that would enable both to continue controlling the moves in Yemen. He is said to have suggested to Mohammed bin Salman to carry out an "internal revolution," which would cause the ousted Saleh to change course and join the Arab coalition instead of fighting alongside the Houthi rebels.

Salah, who wanted to regain his position and who during his term waged harsh battles against the Houthi, gave four conditions: removing his name from the list of international sanctions; the promise of a political position in the new Yemen; that he and his family would remain safe; and financial demands.

Apparently Saudi Arabia and the UAE agreed to the conditions, which included a rejection of Hadi, the legitimate president, and Salah declared his “revolution.”

Had he not been murdered by his Houthi rivals, Saudi Arabia and the UAE might have had their “own” Yemeni president with an army loyal to him, who could confront the Houthis, but the plan failed. The Houthis, who were aware of the plan, tried until the last moment to convince him to remain a partner, but after his revolutionary speech he was removed.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE now have no worthy presidential candidate. The options now are not good. Continuing the war to spite Iran is too expensive, both economically and diplomatically. But negotiations with the Houthis means giving in and leaving Yemen, which would remain under Houthi rule – that is, Iranian influence.

Saudi Arabia has failed with its attempt at regime change in Yemen, and it realizes that it cannot dictate moves that will stop Iran and Hezbollah even in Lebanon, where it has direct and important direct influence. The crown prince had assumed that Hariri’s resignation would paralyze the government and cause political chaos. But as in Yemen, the Saudis didn’t have an endgame plan. Did they think that the Lebanese public would call for a surrender to Saudi demands, which centered on Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria, Iraq and Yemen? Did they believe that Iran would order Hezbollah to leave Syria?

Hariri’s announcement indicates that Saudi Arabia hasn’t achieved anything. The agreement by all the government members to support a policy of nonintervention in the affairs of other countries doesn’t prevent Hezbollah from continuing to operate in all those countries – the declaration refers to the government, not the organization. In other words, the only political change in Lebanon is Iran’s delight and a slap in the face to Saudi Arabia.

The next minefield for the Saudi crown prince is the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Nothing remains of his proposal for a territorially non-contiguous Palestinian state with Abu Dis as its capital – and whose leadership would be unable to demand the right of return for refugees. Now Saudi Arabia has aligned itself with all the Arab and Islamic countries against Trump’s intention to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, where the U.S. Embassy should be built.

It looks as though Mohammed bin Salman has a long way to go before he can dictate Saudi policy to the Middle East.

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