If you haven’t been paying attention to the Middle East, or even if you have, the situation in Saudi Arabia over the past few weeks has been mind-boggling. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman engaged in a crackdown on corrupt activity within the kingdom, arresting dozens, if not hundreds, of senior government officials. In a break with recent precedent, he has even arrested members of the royal family. It is believed that those arrested are being held in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh.
Reports have been slow to trickle out of Saudi Arabia, but there are indications that some senior figures ensnared in the crackdown have been seriously beaten or tortured. Complicating matters was the surprise trip to Riyadh by Lebanon’s Prime Minister, from where he announced his resignation, claiming that Iran and Hezbollah were interfering with Lebanon’s affairs. Lebanon has subsequently claimed that Saudi Arabia is holding the Prime Minister hostage and refusing to allow him to return to his country.
The drama in Saudi Arabia takes place against the backdrop of a larger conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is affecting the entire Middle East. While much focus has been placed on individual crises in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, these localized conflicts are all part of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The conflict in Syria and the rise of ISIS was part of that conflict, with Saudi Arabia offering at least tacit, if not overt, support to anyone willing to overthrow Assad, while Iran sought to keep him in power. The war in Yemen also features Saudi-backed forces versus Iranian-backed forces, and the relatively stable political climate in Lebanon now is thrown into question too, with both Saudi Arabia and Iran vying for influence.
While US officials are concerned that the Crown Prince is behaving recklessly, his crackdown may be part of an attempt to bolster his support among Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis. The House of Saud’s growth has been intertwined with that of Wahhabism, but growing resentment of the lavish lifestyles of Saudi princes and princesses could threaten the ruling dynasty’s support from the Wahhabis who control the country’s educational, religious, and judicial institutions. Time will tell whether the Crown Prince’s actions will strengthen his family’s grip on power or whether it marks the beginnings of the House of Saud’s decline.