Last Saturday three seismic events took place in the Saudi capital Riyadh that have the potential to drastically influence the future trajectory of the region.
The first was the dramatic and unexpected announcement by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri that he was resigning. Hariri, who also had Saudi citizenship, made the announcement in the Saudi capital Riyadh, having been summoned there the day before by his Saudi allies.
It would seem that the Saudis were not happy with the meeting he held the day before in Beiruit with Ali Akbar Velayati, the Senior Advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Velayati had publicly praised the success of Lebanon’s coalition government, which Saudi Arabia feels is too heavily controlled by Hezbollah. Some analysts have suggested that Saudi Arabia felt Hariri was not exerting enough control over Hezbollah in the governing coalition, and insisted that he resign. His Saudi citizenship was also revoked.
The effect of the resignation has the potential to collapse the governing coalition, sparking a new round of political instability in Lebanon. The religiously divided country has an uneasy power sharing balance between the Shias represented by Hezbollah, the Maronite Christians represented by the country’s President Michel Aoun, and the Sunnis represented by Hariri.
The demise of the coalition government may have been an attempt by Saudi Arabia to weaken Hezbollah, and by extension, the influence of their allies Iran. As he resigned, Hariri came out with statements about “Iran spreading disorder and destruction,” and Hezbollah building a state within a state.
It is interesting that prior to these developments, the Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan was in Beirut last week calling for the toppling of Hezbollah, and promising “astonishing developments in the coming days.”
The shock announcement was followed by the second seismic event of that Saturday, which was the launching of a long range missile by Houthi militias in Yemen at Saudi Arabia – being intercepted close the Riyadh’s international airport. The significance of such a missile launch cannot be overstated as it suggests that the Houthis have the Saudi capital within their reach, and the attack could be interpreted as a warning shot in retaliation for what Iran perceives as Saudi meddling in Lebanon’s internal politics.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (otherwise known as MBS) reacted angrily to the provocation calling it an act of military aggression and war against his country, saying that Iran supplies the Houthis with missiles. The US has subsequently called for UN action against Iran over the missile fired at Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia reacted by tightening its blockade of Yemen by closing all ports and grounding humanitarian flights, exacerbating the world’s most dire humanitarian emergency. Doctors Without Borders have already raised the alarm that the closure of Yemeni border crossings and ports, which prevents humanitarian aid from getting in, is putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. The photos of Yemenis suffering from starvation and extreme malnourishment have already started making headlines.
The third seismic event of that Saturday which commenced close to midnight was the sudden and unexpected mass arrests of Saudi princes and businessmen. In total it is reported that at least 11 Saudi princes were arrested on charges of corruption, as well as four ministers and dozens of ex-ministers.
Since the House of Saud took control of the kingdom in 1932, the family has always ruled by consensus, making this the first time in the nation’s history that senior members of the royal family have been arrested, and princes are not allowed to leave the kingdom without permission.
On that same Saturday Saudi King Salman appointed his son MBS as the head of a new anti-corruption commission, authorising the arrests of a number of Saudi Arabia’s most influential and richest men. In total it is believed 500 individuals have been arrested, and many of them are being held at Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton, among other luxury hotels.
One of the greatest shocks was the arrest of one of Saudi Arabia’s most famous Princes Alwaleed bin Talal, an international investor and one of world’s richest people. He has investments in Twitter, Citigroup, and Lyft, and his Saudi company Kingdom Holdings is worth US$8.8 billion.
The irony of the arrest is that he is known to have made a number of statements supporting MBS, as well as having made critical comments about the pervasive corruption in the Kingdom. According to Wikileaks, in 1996 bin Talal had told the US Ambassador how princes control billions in off-budget projects.
Perhaps most importantly, bin Talal is the head of Rotana Media, and the heads of two other media empires - the Middle East Broadcasting Centre and ART have also been arrested. This gives the Saudi regime effective control of Saudi media that broadcast outside the kingdom.
Regional experts suggest that there have been three major royal groups that have been aligned against the Crown Prince – the families of former Kings Abdullah and Fahd, as well as the family of former Crown Prince Nayef, who was recently removed as next in line to the throne. The theory has been touted that MBS wanted to prevent the sons of Prince Nayef and Abdullah becoming King, and their arrest was a way of neutralising them.
On Saturday Prince Mutaib Abdullah, son of the former King Abdullah, who was Head of the National Guard was arrested. He has a notable political power base, as does his brother Prince Turki bin Abdullah who is the former Governor of Riyadh, who was also arrested.
Then there has been the disappearance of Abdulaziz bin Fahd, the son of former king Fahd. Some reports say he was killed while trying to escape arrest, others suggest he was renditioned to Abu Dhabi.
On the same Saturday there was also the death in suspicious circumstances of Mansour bin Muqrin, the son of a former crown prince. He perished in a helicopter crash close to the Yemeni border. Some sources claim that Muqrin had sent a letter to 1 000 princes urging them not to support MBS’s accession to the throne.
The concern of the palace may be that the families of Nayef, Abdullah and Muqrin may join forces. It is promised that more arrests are yet to come.
The broader Saudi population has welcomed the anti-corruption drive, no matter how selective. But underlying discontent in the society is also a reality, particularly among the Sunnis in the West, the Shias in the East, and now segments of the army which are unhappy at the arrest of their commanders.
At the end of the day, last Saturday’s Saudi maelstrom has set the region on a potentially dangerous course.
On the one hand there is the reality that the Houthis have proven their ability and willingness to strike at the heart of the Saudi Kingdom.
On the other hand, there is now an all powerful Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia seen to be stoking instability in Lebanon, while prosecuting a devastating war in Yemen, and possibly calling for war with Iran. The probability of an impending war in the region just got higher.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.