This past weekend was one absolutely stuffed to its breaking point with breaking news. It also tended to be the kind of news that no one ever really wants. I am going to give it all its treatment on here because it all worth talking about. So to begin this process of wading through the charnel of our current events, I was thinking we could discuss Saudi Arabia. If you haven’t been following along, whether out of a deep apathy or a deep ignorance, now would be an excellent time to start paying attention to the Middle East again. There were four events this weekend that could have all filled a single news cycle. Instead, they chose to share one.
The chaos all began on Saturday when the Prime Minister of Lebanon held a press conference during a state visit to Saudi Arabia. During this press conference, he announced his resignation citing fears that he was going to be assassinated by Iranian back Hezbollah agents seeking to seize control of the government of Lebanon. This particular story can fork in two different directions from here and it is as of yet still unclear which it was, and which it was not. Our two possibilities are this. First that he legitimately feared for his life and fled to a nation with which he has a close relationship in order to safely transition into functional exile. This should be considered plausible because his own father was assassinated by Hezbollah as prime minister just over ten years ago. The other possibility that should not be dismissed however is that Saudi Arabia may have enough leverage to have put him up to it. The thinking here goes as such, without him serving as Prime Minister their government has functionally dissolved. It is a parliamentary system and as such was able to function for several years with a president earlier this decade but it cannot operate properly without a prime minister in place. This would be seen as a check on both Hezbollah and by proxy on Iran.
Shortly after this press conference took place was the next ground shaking bit of news from the kingdom. Using a Patriot missile defense system purchased from the United States government the Saudis successfully brought down a missile that they claim was launched by Iran backed Houthi “rebels” in Yemen who they have been at war with for several years now. There is a problem, however, nobody except Saudi military officials saw it go down and the technology level required is beyond what those rebels were known to be capable of. This would seem to indicate either a worrying escalation in aid from the Iranians or a “false flag” so that Arabia can even more deeply insert itself in the ongoing civil war.
All of this, however, was not the most newsworthy event to happen in the Middle East on Saturday. While all these other things were swirling around the king announced a new “committee” to root out supposed corruption in the government. The committee is being led by the crown prince and noted reformer “MbS.” What makes things tricky here is the lack of any actual formal government structure in Saudi Arabia. This makes it difficult for outsiders without a specialty, like myself, to know just who is running what or how something is being administered. It is a testament however to the size and scope of their royal family, that they are able to directly administer such an Ad Hoc state the way that they are. Back to the point, MbS the crown prince immediately used the authority of this crown-created committee to arrest, detain, and seize the assets of several dozen rivals in the royal family and power structure. Royal flights from the airport have been banned, and so have departures by sea. According to current information, the prisoners are being held in a lavish royal hotel in Riyadh. In the wake of this, we have seen government power across almost all platforms consolidated in the crown prince’s hands.
This leads us to the last bit of news that broke out of Arabia over the weekend. Yesterday, after all of the arrests, missile attacks, and resignations a helicopter “crashed” conveniently leaving no survivors. In this helicopter was a regional governor and several other members of the extended royal family who had resisted or evaded the arrests. There are almost no details about what actually happened to the helicopter but as of right now it is being widely speculated that it was ordered shot down by the crown prince to finish consolidating his power base, as he already controlled all aspects of the military apparatus.
It is worth noting now at this point that this was not a coup attempt as far as anyone is able to tell. There were no attacks on the actual royal leadership unless you believe the downed missile was some sort of authentic assassination attempt. This is unlikely. If it was not a coup, then that leaves one other option. This was a purge. The scale seems to have been quite large considering the number and roles of people brought down in it. This is significant because it could be signaling that the king is preparing to abdicate for his son. As such his health situation is worth monitoring going forward.
Finally, what are the implications for United States citizens and foreign policy? American leadership has always been infatuated with the Saudi royals, but Donald Trump in particular. This is probably a result of his own authoritarian urgings. During this first year of his administration, he has taken steps not just to allow them to do as they please, all presidents have done that, but to actively encourage them to assert themselves in the region. This will not mean a scaling back of our operations overseas. At this point, it looks like nothing will lead to that, but being as optimistic as I can this could lead to less direct loss of American life as the Saudis begin to fight their own wars, relying on us more for our support structure than to actually do the fighting. Conversely speaking, hold on to your seats because this could be the beginning of the end of our road leading to war with Iran. The beef between the Saudis and the Iranians is deep and old, and the Saudis won’t reform or assert themselves fully without dispatching their greatest rival. We live in interesing times and they all of a sudden became much more interesting.