Saudi Arabia’s dramatic moves to counter Iran in the region appear to have backfired, significantly ratcheting up regional tensions and setting off a spiral of reactions and anger that seem to have caught the kingdom off guard.
Now it’s trying to walk back its escalations in Lebanon and Yemen.
On Monday, the kingdom announced that the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen would begin reopening airports and seaports in the Arab world’s poorest country, days after closing them over a rebel ballistic missile attack on Riyadh.
The move came just hours after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who shocked the nation by announcing his resignation from the Saudi capital on Nov. 4, gave an interview in which he backed off his strident condemnation of the Lebanese militant Hezbollah, saying he would return to the country within days to seek a settlement with the Shiite militants, his rivals in his coalition government.
The two developments suggest that Saudi Arabia’s bullish young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, may be trying to pedal back from the abyss of a severe regional escalation.
“This represents de-escalation by the Saudis,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The general trend is that the Saudis are going to back off and this is largely because of the unexpected extent of international pressure, and not least of all U.S. pressure.”
Mohammed bin Salman, widely known by his initials, MBS, has garnered a reputation for being decisive, as well as impulsive.
At just 32 years old and with little experience in government, he has risen to power in just three years to oversee all major aspects of politics, security and the economy in Saudi Arabia. As defense minister, he is in charge of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
He also appears to have the support of President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner, who visited the Saudi capital earlier this month.
Saudi partners in the Gulf and the Trump administration rushed to defend the kingdom publicly after a rebel Houthi missile was fired at the Saudi capital, Riyadh, from Yemen last week. A top U.S. military official also backed Saudi claims that the missile was manufactured by Iran.
However, Saudi Arabia’s move to tighten an already devastating blockade on Yemen in response to the missile was roundly criticized by aid groups, humanitarian workers and the United Nations, which warned that the blockade could bring millions of people closer to “starvation and death.”
Saudi Arabia’s decision to ease the blockade after just a week suggests it bowed to the international criticism, and did not want the bad publicity of even more images of emaciated Yemeni children and elderly people circulating online and in the media.
Public pressure, however, has not always worked to bring about a change in Saudi policy. The kingdom’s abrupt decision, in coordination with the United Arab Emirates, to cut ties with Qatar five months ago was widely criticized as an overreach. Still, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not backed down from their list of demands, and if anything, appear to have dug in their heels further. The kingdom accuses Qatar of backing extremists in large part due to its ties with Iran and its support of Islamist groups, an allegation that Qatar strongly denies.
While Saudi Arabia appears to have the full backing of Trump, the recent purge of top princes, officials, businessmen and military officers has raised concerns the crown prince has overextended himself. The kingdom says it has detained 201 people in the sweeping anti-corruption probe, which MBS is overseeing. The arrests raise the potential for internal strife and discord within the royal family, whose unity has been the bedrock of the kingdom for decades.
The crown prince shows no sign of backing down from the purge either. The government has promised to expand its probe, and has reportedly frozen some 1,200 bank accounts.
It is too early to say how Saudi Arabia will handle the crisis in Lebanon triggered by Hariri’s resignation, and whether he will indeed try to reach a new settlement with Hezbollah as he announced in the interview Sunday night.
But his abrupt resignation, clearly engineered by the kingdom, may have been an uncalculated step too far.
The 47-year-old Saudi-aligned Hariri was summoned from Beirut to Riyadh on Nov. 3 and resigned the next day in a televised speech in which he unexpectedly tore into Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, announcing in uncharacteristically strong language that Iran’s arms in the region would be “cut off.” The resignation shattered a year-old coalition government that included Hezbollah members that had kept the calm and was just starting to make strides toward injecting some cash and confidence in the country’s economy.
A political crisis has gripped Lebanon since, but instead of splitting the Lebanese, the manner of Hariri’s resignation has provoked outrage among most. Convinced that he was forced to quit and was being held against his will, the Lebanese found rare unity around their demand that Hariri be allowed to return home.
The shock resignation, seen as a rash Saudi decision to drag Lebanon back to the forefront of the Saudi-Iranian battle for regional supremacy, jolted the Middle East and also took world capitals by surprise.
Already facing widespread international criticism over its crippling blockade of Yemen and skepticism over the unprecedented wave of arrests inside Saudi Arabia, the kingdom suddenly seemed like a rogue nation acting on impulse and taking the region to the brink of explosion.
If he was emboldened by the support from Trump and Kushner, the crown prince appears to have overreached.
While it took a few days, the U.S. response has been embarrassing for the kingdom.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. opposes action that would threaten the stability of Lebanon and warned other countries against using Lebanon “as a venue for proxy conflicts” — a statement that seemed to be directed equally at Saudi Arabia and Iran.
More surprisingly, the White House issued a strongly worded statement calling on all states and parties to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty and constitutional processes, describing Hariri as a “trusted partner of the United States in strengthening Lebanese institutions, fighting terrorism and protecting refugees.”
“I think the Saudis fundamentally misjudged this… and should have known better,” said Sayigh, the Carnegie analyst.
“They’ve been relying too heavily … on Trump’s people and misjudged that the U.S. administration is not just Trump,” he said.
Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.