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Rex Tillerson & Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud

Saudi Arabia’s Risky Plan Comes Undone

Mohammad bin Salman’s plan to bring the Middle East under Saudi control is slowly unraveling. 

I ended my last piece on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) master plan for the Middle East with the question, “What could possibly go wrong?” The answer is, everything.

There are four objectives in the master plan devised by MBS, UAE Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed (MBZ), Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner. These are to contain Iran, to quash the Muslim Brotherhood, to consolidate MBS’ control in Saudi Arabia, and to force a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. All four are interlinked.

The first few steps have already been taken — the Qatar embargo, the subsequent capitulation of Hamas, a purge and shakedown of the Saudi aristocracy, and the decertification of the Iran nuclear deal. The next step was to destabilize Lebanon to provide a pretext for Israel to attack Hezbollah — a necessary move before any further action against Iran. This is why MBS forced Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign and denounce both Iran and his Hezbollah partner in the power-sharing government.

This is the point the master plan is beginning to unravel. Hariri, now safely returned to Beirut, has rescinded his resignation. Hezbollah, as well as the Sunni and Christian communities in Lebanon, have refused to be manipulated by MBS and the Israelis. They may have religious differences, but they are Lebanese first and resent any outside interference, particularly from high-handed despots. None of this plan is the result of consultation with the populations of Saudi Arabia or the other quartet countries, or the Palestinians or the US — where even the State Department has only the haziest idea of what is going on.

By contrast, the tiny population of Qatar has woken up and discovered that it too wants a say in its future. MBS has brought into existence the new phenomenon of Qatari nationalism, and it is opposed to outside interference. Qatar is showing much more resilience than anyone expected and has found many new friends in the process.

The idea of neutralizing the internal opposition to MBS and at the same time funding the Saudi budget deficit with ransoms for those held hostage in the Ritz Carlton is also disintegrating. Capital flight and reinsurance is now top of the list of priorities for the wealthy Saudi elite. Everyone who can is making sure their wealth is placed beyond MBS’ reach and instructing their lawyers to ensure their resident permits in Monaco, the Bahamas or other convenient locations are fully up to date. Little appetite remains to bring new finance into the kingdom to fund any of MBS’ grand schemes. For the same reason, the Aramco IPO will now be pushed even further back, if not canceled in favor of a private placing with the Chinese.

MBS is soon going to discover that he has few resources to spend on providing jobs for the unemployed millions of young people — and few allies to help him do it. He claims he has the support of the Saudi youth for his program, but there is no evidence that he has actually consulted them.

Prince Mohammed’s war in Yemen is similarly going badly. It is costing the Saudis an estimated $700 million a month. The resultant humanitarian disaster — hundreds of thousands are dying of disease and starvation — has finally begun to demand the attention of the international community and even the US Congress, which is currently authorizing the supply of weapons and US military support to Saudi Arabia, including air-to-air refueling for Saudi bombers, intelligence support and training. MBS has no exit strategy from this disaster. Although President Trump still loves the Saud family, broader US attitudes to Saudi Arabia are in decline and will sour even further as the victims families’ 9/11 class action suit against the Saudi government in New York works its way through the courts.

Finally, we should consider the Palestinians — a mere pawn in MBS’ game. The crown prince has already stated publicly that he believes the Palestinians should accept the plan currently on offer. He may have seen the plan, but apart from MBZ, Jared Kushner and Benjamin Netanyahu, no one else has. The price Netanyahu has demanded for his alliance with the quartet is that that the Palestinians must take his offer of a Vichy France-like entity with limited powers based in a series of enclaves inside a greater Israel. When they hear about it, the Palestinian people will comprehensively reject it as a betrayal of everything they have fought for. Many other Arab streets will also rise up in protest.

The stakes are high for Mohammed bin Salman. As his plan unravels, we should expect a great deal of turbulence in Saudi Arabia.

*[Updated: November 27, 2017, at 20:45 GMT.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: The White House