Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is certainly leaving his mark as chief policy architect in the desert kingdom.
In the process, however, he is raising concerns that Israel’s de facto ally in the battle to contain Iranian influence in the region is being steered by a reckless driver.
The 32-year-old prince, known as MBS, has set off waves throughout the region, from Lebanon, whose prime minister he appears to be holding against his will, to Yemen, where he started a war as defense minister in 2015 that has turned into a Saudi Vietnam, to Qatar, where he has spearheaded a boycott that failed to intimidate it into toeing the Saudi line.
In all these cases, MBS is taking an activist approach that is in sharp contrast to the behind the scenes, nonconfrontational style that had hitherto prevailed in Riyadh. Domestically he has also used shock tactics, with sweeping arrests 10 days ago of princes, cabinet ministers and businessmen in a consolidation of power touted as an anti-corruption drive.
It was only in June that MBS was named crown prince, setting the stage for him to inherit the throne from King Salman, 81. Since then he has projected an image of a modernizing reformer, making extremely ambitious economic plans and evoking praise in the West for vowing to return the kingdom to a “moderate Islam.”
But analysts say there is a common thread in MBS’s policies, which failed or which now threaten to backfire: rashness.
“They seem to not be considering their policies well and looking down the road a bit before they go out on a limb,” says Joshua Teitelbaum, a Saudi specialist at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies of Bar-Ilan University.
In the view of Bruce Maddy- Weitzman, a specialist on Arab politics at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, “you can call it inexperience or a strong headed youth at work. He’s identified multiple problems and Saudi Arabia is in a different environment and there is the idea that the strategy it used over the years is not working.
But this kind of rash reaction is leaving everyone shaking their heads. The question is where does he hit the wall.”
Those arrested included internationally prominent businessmen such as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, the son of the previous king and head of the National Guard.
“There’s certainly a lot of overreach going on,” Maddy- Weitzman says. “The crackdown on all other members of the elite and branches of the royal family could certainly blow up in his face. Does he really have the power to fundamentally change the way the Saudis have run their country for decades in one swoop? I doubt it. There has to be pushback.”
In Teitelbaum’s view, the arrests undermine Saudi Arabia’s ability to project an image of stability. “It looks like he hasn’t thought through how it looks in the Arab world and internally. It looks like he’s lashing out, that he hasn’t considered things and that makes people jumpy. Maybe he could have arrested a smaller number of people, had discussions with some of these people and come to an agreement with some.”
Regarding Lebanon, forcing Hariri to resign and the reports he is being held against his will point up a “very heavy-handed and clumsy” approach, Teitelbaum says.
“Usually countries are more circumspect about the way they intervene in another country. This has a way of uniting the Lebanese against the Saudis.
“Instead of the traditional way of mediating, pouring money and taking a soft power approach to things that was nearly always successful, they’ve moved to a different way of doing business which hasn’t worked out as well,” Teitelbaum says.
In Yemen, where MBS orchestrated the Saudi involvement right after he became defense minister, Riyadh faced a real problem with the rise of pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, Teitelbaum notes. “But was an all-out military confrontation with no exit strategy and maybe beyond the capability of Saudi and United Arab Emirates armed forces the answer? Yemen is a difficult nut to crack. Now there is no way for them to have a decisive victory.”
Policy toward Qatar was also ill conceived, with MBS setting conditions for lifting the embargo against Doha that were “absurd,” according to Maddy-Weitzman, such as closing its Al Jazeera satellite channel and cutting ties with Iran. In sharp contrast to the traditional way of solving things quietly through mediation, MBS opted for a public confrontation but was unable to isolate Qatar, resulting in an ongoing standoff.
Maddy-Weitzman says it is not clear where MBS is going with his Lebanon moves.
“The main thing Israel needs to be careful about is not to get dragged in to someone else’s agenda and not to be hostage to behavior that can lead to a new crisis,” he says.