For its entire modern existence — nearly 90 years — the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has wielded outsize influence over the rest of the world because of the wealth afforded by its bottomless oil reserves and its special status as the home of Islam’s holiest sites. The House of Saud, its absolute rulers, has defined itself by a rigid alliance with Islamic fundamentalists and a reactionary aversion to any change in the status quo.
That’s why the country’s recent swirl of activity has confounded observers. The kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, has agitated for a regional war, locked up rival princes, and tossed aside political conventions. At the same time, he swept up the line of succession with dizzying speed, consolidating power in a narrow circle.
But it would be a mistake to believe that Mohammed bin Salman is a reformer, as many US government officials and professional analysts apparently do. There’s only one thing he’s proven interested in reforming, and that’s his family’s undiluted and absolute grip on power — which is no small thing. The young prince might succeed in his effort to refashion the Saudi monarchy. But his wider plans for his country, the Middle East, and Islam have very little chance of success because of Saudi Arabia’s structural limitations and because the supposed reformer himself is an authoritarian — an unaccountable hereditary monarch whose own legitimacy could not survive serious modernization.
Despite its frozen-in-amber culture, Saudi Arabia has pivotally shaped its closest ally, the United States. Its colossal sovereign wealth finances US debt; it can regulate world oil markets to suit Washington’s interests, as it did during the invasion of Iraq; and its ultra-radical state-sponsored brand of Islam has been a central driving force in the rise of violent extremism for nearly 40 years (critics of the kingdom habitually point out that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia). For as different as the two nations are, their fates and fortunes are often intertwined.
Which is why Washington is paying close attention to the regional blowback provoked by Saudi Arabia’s departure from its old gradualist approach. The kingdom broke with its historic, if mostly rhetorical, commitment to a Palestinian state when it voiced only pro forma objections to President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Palestinian leaders increasingly see Saudi Arabia as an ally of Israel.
In early December, Saudi Arabia tried to salvage its disastrous war in Yemen with a surprise rapprochement with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president and ally, who had been fighting against Riyadh for the last three years. The new alignment lasted all of two days, until Saleh was murdered. Saleh and the Saudis had once again underestimated the power of their Iranian-backed rivals, the Houthis.
And in one of its most brazen recent failures, Mohammed bin Salman tried unsuccessfully in November to unseat Lebanon’s prime minister (a Saudi loyalist) and replace him with a more slavish apparatchik. That sowed fears of a new regional war, involving Iran, Israel, Hezbollah, and Saudi Arabia. The gambit quickly sputtered into failure.
Jerusalem is primarily a Trump move, and the war in Yemen involves security concerns that stretch to the early days of the Saudi monarchy. But the Lebanon crisis involves well-known regional politics and represents a completely voluntary own-goal. How mighty Saudi Arabia’s effort to bully little Lebanon fizzled says a lot about what the Saudis seem to be after — and why they’re unlikely to get it.
Mohammed bin Salman’s emerging leadership is already turning into a study in the limits of assertiveness on the global stage. Saudi Arabia has gained a brash leader intent on throwing his country’s weight around, but he’s unwittingly made it clear that money only goes so far — and that the Saudi political system may be fundamentally unreformable.
Saudi Arabia’s leaders are unfathomably rich and, contrary to some simplistic depictions, do follow a grand strategy in matters of religion, regional politics, oil markets, and finance. They’re not rubes, and possess serious capacity to affect the world. Among other achievements, the Saudis have forged an enduring alliance with the United States, and have managed their public relations better than most autocratic states.
The American narrative about Saudi Arabia has always skirted wide of reality. Ever since FDR, the United States has relied on the kingdom — initially for its oil, later for its willingness to manage global oil supply in line with American policy objectives. As a result, there has been a steady appetite for stories about Saudi reform, which ring hollow over time. Abdullah Al-Arian, a Georgetown historian, compiled 70 years of clips from The New York Times that “describe Saudi royals in the language of reform,” starting with a 1953 article that describes King Saud as “more progressive and international-minded than his autocratic father,” and ending with a Thomas Friedman column from November entitled “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at last.” Western narratives focus on reform, real or imagined, as the United States pursues cooperation on energy and security — and as a result, Al-Arian said, the United States often misses troubling realities, like the repression of Saudi citizens, or the plummeting of America’s reputation in the region. “It would seem to result in poor policy choices,” he said.
On the other hand, the Saudis have been neither sophisticated nor realistic about setting goals, suffering from the misplaced conviction that their wealth and custodianship of the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, the most holy site in Islam, could translate into control of the wider Islamic world.
Mohammed bin Salman rose to power when his father took over as king nearly three years ago. He took over key positions, including the defense ministry, and pushed for a war in Yemen over the objections of older royals. This year, the previous crown prince was unceremoniously deposed and replaced with bin Salman. No one in Saudi Arabia pretends that the father is making the decisions; the younger bin Salman is openly in charge. (Foreigners often refer to the regent by his initials, MbS.)
After decades of snoozing through regional affairs, Saudi Arabia has been playing catchup. When uprisings against Arab despots broke out in 2010 and 2011, Saudi Arabia’s monarchs understood any popular, mass politics (whether secular or Islamist) posed a threat to their anachronistic form of rule by divine right. They rallied with uncharacteristic vigor against the political energy that the uprisings unleashed. They dispatched troops to Bahrain to crush a political rebellion by the Shia majority. They spent billions backing a secular military coup in Egypt, while simultaneously pouring weapons and money into jihadist rebels in Syria. They’ve backed one warlord in Libya’s civil war. They’ve cracked down hard on the Muslim Brotherhood region-wide, and have tried to assert control over Palestinian factions.
The Saudis embarked on this mad rush only after they realized just how deeply their regional influence had eroded. Iraq, once a reliable linchpin of the Sunni Arab regional bloc, is now governed mostly by its Shia majority, and enjoys friendly relations with Iran. Lebanon has slipped out of Saudi’s orbit and closer to Iran, despite billions of dollars invested over the course of half a century to cultivate loyalty. Once-reliable allies have spurned the Saudi agenda even while accepting money, or have switched sides entirely.
It’s not clear, still, whether the Saudis understand their own unpopularity.
As the monarchy dreams of pushing back Iran and asserting itself as a new regional hegemon, it should study the lessons of its sharpest recent failures: Yemen, Lebanon, and their own royal purge marketed as a corruption crackdown. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to transform into a republic anytime soon. With its massive oil reserves and complete dependence on foreign non-citizen labor to make its economy function from top to bottom, it’s unlikely to create a modern economy despite the crisp assertions authored by the foreign management consultants who wrote Vision 2030, Mohammed bin Salman’s blueprint for the future.
of course, saudi’s epic, bungled attempt to change Lebanon’s political order made compelling drama: the sovereign head of a state summoned to Saudi, forced to resign, then detained against his will. During the same weekend, Mohammed bin Salman arrested all the rich or powerful royals not completely loyal to him. Some were held in a luxury hotel, and few reportedly died in suspicious circumstances. He summoned the Palestinian leader and apparently tried to give him marching orders as well. He ordered an emergency summit of the Arab League. He issued a script for Egypt, which despite its reliance on Saudi money still wields significant political influence in the Arab world.
Here was a turbo-charged leader making the case for the great-man theory of history, reordering an entire region by force of will — in dramatic fashion and in the public eye. It was riveting drama because the stakes were high.
Very quickly, the monarch found himself hitting the structural limits on Saudi power. Egypt’s dictator pushed for the immediate release of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Instead of taking the bait, Hezbollah dismissed Hariri’s coerced resignation. There wouldn’t be saber rattling and threats of war, Hezbollah said; it would keep calm and wait to talk to Hariri in person when he was free to come home.
Saudi expected Lebanon’s Sunni community to rally for confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah, even if Lebanon burned in the process. But with their leader kidnapped, Lebanese unsurprisingly turned against the responsible party — Saudi Arabia. “The Lebanese are not a herd of sheep or a plot of land whose ownership can be transferred from one person to another,” declared Lebanon’s interior minister, Nohad Machnouk. “Lebanon’s democratic system is based on elections, not on a simple pledge of allegiance.”
The Saudi king had put the Middle East on notice that he expected his beneficiaries, especially Sunni Arab leaders, to do his bidding. To his surprise, they refused. The president of France, according to diplomatic sources, flew to Riyadh to explain to the young prince that Saudi Arabia wasn’t the only powerful nation with equities in Lebanon — and that even imperial meddling has rules and limits. Mohammed bin Salman was apparently baffled that he couldn’t simply fire the prime minister of another sovereign nation.
Egypt might have prepared Mohammed bin Salman for the complexities of dealing with weak but sovereign states. It was Saudi intervention that helped Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seize power in Egypt, and Saudi money that ensured his survival. Sisi was willing to make the controversial decision to sign over the strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. But on many other key issues he has defied Saudi orders. He refused to send Egyptian troops to Yemen, broke ranks by maintaining relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and came down on Lebanon’s side during the Hariri crisis. He openly opposes provoking a regional war with Iran. His attitude toward Saudi was clear in leaked tapes where he told his chief of staff that he could do whatever he wanted while still hitting up Saudi for more cash: “They have money like rice, man!”
In the latest crisis, a further humiliation came from Israel. Saudi’s supporters spread rumors through diplomatic and media channels that a new war was imminent, between Israel and Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s leader had already announced his disinterest in a conflict at the present time. Israel followed suit, in an unprecedented interview by the Israeli military’s chief of staff with the Saudi news site Elaph. In the interview, Gadi Eisenkot praised the Saudi leadership’s anti-Iran stance, and offered deeper intelligence cooperation — a marked change from the days when Saudi Arabia backed the Palestinian side. More importantly, though, Eisenkot emphasized the line already propagated in the Israeli press, that Israel wouldn’t start a war on Saudi’s behalf. “We have no intention of attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon and bring about a war,” he said.
Stuck in the middle of the rough and tumble of Middle East politics, Mohammed bin Salman was receiving a real-time education in realpolitik. The situation on the home front wasn’t unfolding according to plan either.
Rival royals were rounded up in a lightning overnight purge. Many of the detained billionaires are, by all accounts, genuinely corrupt; the problem is that the sweep was undertaken arbitrarily. Saudi’s modernization plans depend on foreign investment and a credible approximation of rule of law. Bin Salman primarily cares about his power base, but his future depends on economic viability. He might only care rhetorically about his proposals to change his country’s culture and religious practice, but he definitely wants to preserve his kingdom’s wealth. The Saudi economy needs to diversify — but foreign governments and global capital will be wary of deal-making with a capricious, unaccountable, and flamboyant head of state who can’t even be counted upon to be consistent in the corruption he’ll tolerate.
Many of the detained royals are now negotiating for their freedom. The anti-corruption crackdown turns out to be a shakedown in country where corruption is everything. Mohammed bin Salman, the prince with the half-billion dollar yacht claims to be cleaning house by confiscating the assets of his cousins. They might well deserve it, but nothing in this process makes clear why. Nor does it provide any comfort to those who worry that this endemic graft indirectly threatens world finance and oil markets, in which the Saudi royal family plays an outsize role.
One reason why the Saudis get the benefit of the doubt is good press, for which they pay top dollar. After he was first appointed deputy crown prince in April 2015, bin Salman met with foreign politicians and granted long interviews with journalists. By the time he engineered a quasi-coup against rival branches of the royal family, bin Salman had cornered the narrative. He was portrayed as a young energetic reformer. Rumors quickly made it into the mainstream media that his unceremoniously deposed uncle was addicted to opiates. Meanwhile, bin Salman suffered little critical press about the disastrous war he started in Yemen, or about his superyachts, or his $450 million purchase of a Leonardo da Vinci painting this month in the middle of his austerity program.
Rhetoric eventually has to square with reality. Bin Salman will have to learn to navigate a world in which he is an important, but not omnipotent player. Saudi wealth and oil will almost always assure it a hearing, and its historical alliance with the United States endows it with extra clout. But its reach is limited. Few states admire Saudi Arabia’s opaque and personalized form of authoritarianism. The most important countries in the region tend to be republics, even those ruled by military despots or theocrats. For all its wealth, Saudi Arabia has underperformed. Its military can’t project power outside its borders, and the money it spends abroad on proxy-building tends to bring little return and less loyalty.
Meanwhile, its biggest regional rival, Iran, has managed to consolidate influence across the region. Saudi Arabia is a middle-rank power with few levers at its disposal. Its most successful leaders have tried to maneuver within the zone of the possible, understanding where Saudi Arabia could use moral, religious or sectarian suasion to its advantage, and where it could get away with some coercion. Mohammed bin Salman has grossly overestimated his reach. For nearly three years, his military campaign in Yemen has achieved none of its strategic goals, while inflicting shocking levels of human misery. Instead of revising his ambitions, he’s aimed still higher. His present season of overreach and humiliation suggest, once again, that it’s time for the young king-in-waiting to align his goals with reality. As long as he doesn’t, an unsettled region — and, ultimately, the rest of the world — can expect to continue paying the price.
Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.