Soft coup in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia might be a hard country to deal with under Mohammad bin Salman

Soft coup in Saudi Arabia


The kingdom of Saudi Arabia once again finds itself in the limelight for several reasons. Over the past couple of years, austerity measures invoked by former deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman shocked both the global media and millions of domestic and foreign workers within Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, the Roya (vision) 2030 exposed the structural weaknesses of Saudi’s oil-reliant economy and depicted a clear attempt by the Kingdom to explore different avenues of improving its economy such as reducing domestic subsidies and laying off thousands of workers - many of them from Pakistan.

On the external strategic front, Mohammad, who is also the country’s defense minister, invoked a hawkish foreign policy towards Yemen and the kingdom’s strategic rival, Iran. Thus, two years ago when the Obama Administration and its European allies were busy finalizing the nuclear agreement with Iran - a country that defied the US and its interests in the region - the house of Saud as well as the state of Israel seemed perturbed owing to what they perceived as the strategic ramifications of the newly emerging US-Iran ties.

It seems plausible that the Saudi austerity plan was planned for a scenario where the US would no longer buy Saudi petroleum products since it now had an alternative market in Iran. It is also true that following the discovery of shale oil in the US, America has significantly reduced its dependence on the Middle East to meet its energy needs.

Regardless, Obama’s policies on Iran sent shockwaves throughout Saudi Arabia, Israel and a host of other Arab nations. Although the US signed a defence agreement worth US$50 billion with Israel-alleviating some of the Jewish state’s concerns-the Arab nations stood almost neglected.

The election of Donald Trump in last year’s American elections, however, not only pleased millions of Republicans, but also turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Saudi Arabia. Trump’s critics accuse him of acting like a king in his position as president, and indeed even before he assumed office, Trump was sending strategic signals to countries such as Russia and Iran through unorthodox means such as his Twitter account. In light of this, the Saudi regime seems to have adopted multiple channels of communication to establish a rapport with Trump.

Trump’s friendly attitude towards Saudi Arabia meant the two countries were busy signing a US$110 billion arms deal the day Iran reelected moderate Hasan Rouhani as President.

This arms deal, which is spread over several years, has once again shifted the balance of power in favor of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Although the Iran and P5+1 nuclear deal looks fine on paper, it has lost its practical value.

Saudi’s reinvigorated relationship with the US has allowed the Kingdom to deal firmly with external and internal challenges. Internally, King Salman and his son, Mohammad, have established overwhelming control over the house to the extent that the progeny of Salman’s brothers such as Talal is literally sidelined. As if this was not enough, on June 21, King Salman staged a soft coup and in an unprecedented move, appointed his son Mohammad, as the crown prince.

The selection of hawkish Salman means Saudi Arabia will further harden its line towards Iran, and we might see an escalation in fighting in Yemen

The young Mohammad bin Salman has the confidence and overwhelming support of his father and also holds a tight grip on the media and different state departments. This will allow him to firmly clamp down on any dissent towards his appointment.

The selection of hawkish Salman means Saudi Arabia will further harden its line towards Iran, and we might see an escalation in the fighting in Yemen, where Saudi believes Iran is fighting a proxy war.

Similarly, the Saudi state is likely to adopt an increasingly belligerent approach towards anti-state elements such as the Islamic State (IS) which is also viewed as America’s worst enemy by the Trump Administration.

Considering Pakistan is part of the Saudi-led Sunni anti-terrorism alliance, Saudi Arabia under Mohammad bin Salman might be a hard country to deal with in the future. Given Pakistan’s reluctance to completely commit to Saudi’s military ventures, Ibne Salman might adopt an arrogant approach and exhort Pakistan to do more.  We can also expect Trump to adopt a similarly tough attitude towards Pakistan since some media reports suggest Trump is fast looking for a military solution to the Afghanistan conundrum.

To add fuel to the fire, as per Trump’s tweet, his North Korea diplomacy via China has failed. Will the US attack North Korea? Will it attack Afghanistan? Would Pakistan find itself in the line of fire? The coming months will be interesting and, to some extent, scary.


The writer is Head, Department of Social Sciences, Iqra University, Islamabad. He is DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright Fellow. He tweets @ejazbhatty



Published in Daily Times, June 23rd, 2017.