What Just Happened in Saudi Arabia? The Weekend Purge Explained

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

By now, the news out of Saudi Arabia has had time to sink in. To review the bidding for those whose eyes are not often drawn to dateline Riyadh:

Over the weekend, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) launched a new anti-corruption commission, arrested 11 (and probably more) senior government officials and super-rich Saudis, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (think Twitter, Citi, Uber), and axed the head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, and others who may have represented a threat to the young would-be king's "reform" campaign and bid for absolute power.

To make sure private planes would not facilitate an escape, Riyadh's private airport was shut down. In the same time frame, MBS summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who arrived in Riyadh and promptly resigned his post as Prime Minister in Beirut. From Riyadh.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office at the White House May 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty

Oh, and there was a Yemeni rocket attack on Riyadh aimed for the international airport.

And a Saudi helicopter carrying Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, son of a former crown prince and deputy governor of Asir province, crashed near the Yemeni border, killing all on board.

A busy weekend indeed, and the Middle East and its watchers worldwide, always prone to wild gossip and conspiracy theories, gossiped wildly. Wait, I forgot to add: Jared Kushner was in Saudi Arabia last week and met with MBS. (Nudge nudge wink wink.)

So what does it all mean? The honest answer from anyone but MBS should be, er, not sure. But we can speculate. Let's dispense with the simple parts first.

  • The helicopter crash was probably a coincidence and bad luck for those on board.
  • The missile attack was also likely a coincidence of timing, though it should be seen as a sign that Iran, which arms the Houthi rebels now leading Yemen, is willing to expand the conflict and arm its proxies with increasingly potent weapons.

Now we get to the good part:

Why did Hariri resign?

  • Let's first answer the question, "Why was Hariri prime minister in the first place?" Lebanon went for two years without a government as Hezbollah refused to allow anyone not under their thumb to form a government.

Finally, Sunni political parties acquiesced in the appointment of the perennially-for-rent Michel Aoun for the reserved-for-Christians role of Lebanese president.

And suddenly, Saad Hariri, son of the late Rafiq, also PM and assassinated by Syria for working with Hezbollah, was up for PM. Why? Sifting fact and fiction, the most plausible answer is that Hariri-fils was running out of cash. His company employees hadn't been paid in almost a year.

His own personal employees same. Saudi Arabia, which had bankrolled him once, was out of the game, having officially given up on Lebanon as a loss leader.

So Hariri made peace with Hezbollah (i.e., with Iran) and was made PM. Being PM is key to having one's hands on lots of money, and perhaps, for Hariri, it was the only way to replenish his coffers. This, at least, is the prevailing theory.

  • But Hezbollah has the whip hand in Lebanon (and now in Syria, thanks to a supine White House and Russian-Iranian determination). So Hariri ended up doing a lot of business with Hezbollah.

That he didn't like it he made perfectly clear, but needs must. And Saudi, which early in 2016 seemed to simply think washing its hands of Lebanon was enough, appears to have changed its mind.

On this one, I agree with MBS. Lebanon is the key to the legitimization of Hezbollah. If you're going to take a pass, you are giving Iran carte blanche in the Levant.

  • Back to Hariri: He was in Saudi last week, returned to Beirut, and promptly received a delegation from Iran including Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to the Supreme Leader. "Terrorists and extremist and Takfiri movements are backed by the US, the Zionists and some regional countries that do not want stability, security, independence and unity among regional countries," Velayati helpfully explained.

MBS, not being a twit, read "some regional countries" as Saudi Arabia, and decided the time had come to end Hariri's charade. A plane was sent to Beirut to pick up Hariri, who was told to resign, and did.

Is this how it happened? Feels like it, but then again, I wasn't in the room. And neither MBS nor Hariri have called me to explain.

  • Now Lebanon has no prime minister, but at least the mask is off, and Hezbollah no longer owns a legitimate government for itself.

This is the even better part:

What is MBS up to? Three alternate theories and One Big Thing:

  • He is cracking down on genuine corruption in Saudi Arabia. OK, but for a guy who did this, getting religion on massive corruption and louche overspending feels a little, I dunno, fake.
  • He wants the money. MBS could rake in hundreds of millions by expropriating corrupt assets. The reforms MBS has in mind will be costly, and Saudi Arabia is not as rich as many believe. In addition, the message has been sent: Do business with ME and no one else. That means more money.
  • He is preparing to take over the crown when his father abdicates (and by abdicate, I mean the end to the quasi-"Weekend at Bernie's" setup now extant in Riyadh) and wants to lay the groundwork for massive reforms and Saudi modernization.

That MBS is a modernizer should not be disputed. But his efforts heretofore — ending subsidies, intervening in Yemen, getting into a major fight with his neighbor Qatar — don't suggest he is either terribly determined or a brilliant executor.

Still, MBS is very clearly focused on ensuring his pathway to the throne is unimpeded. And over the last two years, he has done one thing very effectively: remove rivals. Think of this as the Xi Jinping anti-corruption model.

  • The One Big Thing: Everything is about Iran and the coming battle. That means anyone who has other ideas about how Saudi Arabia should position itself in the region (e.g. former crown prince Mohammad bin Nayef), anyone who does not want Saudi Arabia to leap into the 21st century (clerics, conservatives, etc), and anyone who believes accommodations should be made with Iran is out the door.

The anti-corruption campaign, ensuing purges, forced Hariri resignation, et cetera all fit into that overarching narrative.

Finally, here's the problem:

MBS is 32. He has a lot of ideas, and while many of them are good, many of them are less good. He is also naïve, young, and being encouraged — make no mistake here — by the Trump administration.

Iran is a dangerous force in the region, and it is in our and our allies' interests to see that force rolled back.

But I'm not certain that placing Saudi Arabia at the tip of the spear is the right or the most likely to succeed strategy.

And failure will come at a very, very high price. Something to consider.

Danielle Pletka is Senior Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at AEI.