MbS: Pride Cometh Before the Fall?

by Shireen Hunter

Until only a few months ago, Saudi Arabia’s conduct of its domestic and foreign policies was largely characterized by a good deal of caution, a lack of bombast, and a respect for established traditions. One area where the role of tradition, and respect for rank and precedence, was particularly important was the issue of succession in the royal family. Until recently, everyone inside and outside the kingdom was quite certain that once the reigning monarch died or was incapacitated, the next in line would follow and no one would challenge the established order of succession.

As long as the sons of Ibn Saud were alive, this method was quite efficient. However, there are no more sons left to take over: those still alive have been removed from the line of succession. The large number of second- and third-generation princes has made it impossible to carry on with the traditional line of succession. Trying to pick someone through some form of election from among a long list of princes is not practical.

Instead, King Salman abruptly decided the succession by bypassing the anointed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef and replacing him with the young Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). The new crown prince quickly set about consolidating his position. Part of this effort has included the recent crackdown on prominent princes and other influential individuals. No doubt Saudi Arabia—and indeed all Middle East states—needs to reform and also deal with rampant corruption. However, trying to turn a monarchical rule, which at least paid lip service to consultation within the royal family, into absolutist rule is not exactly reform. Nor will imprisoning wealthy princes and confiscating their resources end corruption.

Moreover, one outcome of the concentration of power in MbS’s hands is that he will be responsible for whatever goes wrong in future. No one else will be left to blame for future failures. If people’s anger boils over—as it will inevitably since MbS will not likely succeed with his ambitious economic plans and foreign adventures—he will become the object of resentment. If MbS carries on with a belligerent foreign policy that embroils the kingdom in another regional war, this time with Iran, while the Yemen conflict is still going on, Saudi Arabia could suffer significant economic losses that would exacerbate its internal contradictions and cleavages.

Under such circumstances, the princes that MbS has scorned may try to challenge his position. And they may be assisted by one of the foreign governments that MbS has treated with such arrogance. Saudi Arabia is not popular with the Arab masses although it has managed to buy off some of them, such as al-Sisi’s Egypt.

So, why has MbS embarked on this rather risky venture? His character and upbringing clearly play a role. MbS, the favorite of his father, has not experienced adversity. He is spoiled and impatient, and he seems to believe that everything is there for the taking.

Meanwhile the disruption of the balance of power in the Arab world as a result of the destruction of Iraq and Syria and the taming of Egypt has left no other Arab state to stand up to Saudi Arabia. Thus, the young prince thinks that he can run roughshod over anything that stands in his way, whether it’s Qatar, Lebanon, or the Houthis.

The only country left standing, although weakened, is Iran. Hence, MbS reserves a special animosity towards Iran, and he wants done with it once and for all.

In the midst of this highly sensitive transition period in Saudi Arabia’s history enters Jared Kushner, another young, brash, favored son. As the emissary of the Trump administration, Kushner has made MbS believe that if he cooperates with Israel to help solve the Palestinian problem then Saudi Arabia and Israel can achieve everything together, including getting rid of Iran once and for all. With Iran out of the way, Israel can combine its international influence and technological know-how with the immense wealth of the Saudis so that the two countries can establish a condominium over the Middle East.

Such dreams have a way of turning into nightmares. I recall the euphoria at a 1993 conference in Israel about the prospects of Arab-Israeli cooperation, including the establishment of a common market. The dream turned into a nightmare when Yitzak Rabin was assassinated, the Oslo process stalled, and wars broke out in the region.

But there are other reasons why MbS is naïve about the benefits of an alliance with Israel. After taking care of Iran, Israel will certainly not allow Saudi Arabia to become the de facto hegemon of the Middle East. According to the logic of balance of power, alliances made against a common enemy collapse once the enemy is eliminated. Saudi Arabia would not feel the same need for Israel once Iran is gone. It might even resume the Arab plan of liberating Palestine. Even worse, war might extend into Saudi territory itself, endangering and possibly even scuttling the current political order established on the basis of the supremacy of MbS.

Historically, no state in the region has managed to establish its hegemony over another. Many leaders, from Gamal Nasser to Saddam Hussein to Muammar Qaddafi—as well as Iran during the early years of the revolution—have gotten into deep trouble by attempting this hegemony. Even the great powers have not been able to pacify the region under their own exclusive auspices.

Regional stability can only be achieved through the recognition of everyone’s rights and security requirements as part of an agreement that satisfies these essential needs. This also includes the Palestinians. Any deal that they are forced to accept and that they do not consider fair, even if supported by Saudi Arabia, will not last long.

In short, if he wants to succeed, MbS needs a greater dose of realism and humility and less hubris. Otherwise, when it comes to his reform project, it will be a case of pride cometh before the fall.

Photo: Mohammed bin Salman (U.S. Department of State via Flickr).

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. ‘MbS reserves a special animosity towards Iran, and he wants done with it once and for all.
    Saudi Arabia and Israel can achieve everything together, including getting rid of Iran once and for all. With Iran out of the way… the two countries can establish a condominium over the Middle East.
    After taking care of Iran, Israel will certainly not allow Saudi Arabia to become the de facto hegemon of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia would not feel the same need for Israel once Iran is gone.

    Shireen Hunter continues to amaze. How can she write and what could she possibly mean with ‘done with [Iran] once and for all’ and ‘Iran is gone’? She ends with ‘Regional stability can only be achieved through the recognition of everyone’s rights and security requirements…’ Shireen, do you include Iran in ‘everyone’, or is it ‘gone’?

  2. What MBS is likely to do is say to President Trump: “Sheikh Donald. Hold my coat while I take care of Iran. Don’t worry. It will take about 30 days with all that equipment we bought from you guys.”

  3. Speaking of “regional stability” and “After taking care of Iran, Israel will certainly not allow Saudi Arabia to become the de facto hegemon of the Middle East.”

    Who cares about regional stability?! Most of the regional rulers are uneducated unpopular despots dependent on the US foreign policy planners & the CIA headed by an ex-flamboyant showman whose main goal has been to sell as many American made WMD as possible; the more they feel insecure and at each other’s throat the more the arms sale – to boost the sale the US President, as a cultural political representative of millions of Americans even admired the ‘beauty’ of his WMD!! What an unabashed angel of death! So much for the American concern for our regional stability, let alone the environmental disasters caused by the American WMD in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.

    As for Israel and the Saudis “taking care of Iran”, western analyst keep circulating the same immature assessment that Hitler had made before invading the Soviet, or the US had made before invading embarking on genocidal bombing of North Vietnam or Saddam and his backers (Arabs rulers and US) made before invading Iran, long before realizing their dream of quick victory would turn into a long and humiliating defeat! Hasty military/political assessments, without considering the fateful ‘cultural forces’ of the independent country, only fit academic conference papers seeking a short applause! Professor Hunter should recall that Saddam had the full regional support including the western support and billions of dollars aid from his fellow Arab rulers, while Iran virtually had none and was even ‘denied’ arms and was brought to a halt only by Saddam and America’s jointly barbaric use of ‘chemical’ weapon on the Iranian forces and the civilians.

    The Saudi’s hatred for the Iranians goes back to the 19th century. The Arabs being extremely emotional and prejudiced easily give vent to their highly charged tribal emotions before the media, but in practice they have never been high achievers; distrusting one another, overestimating their potentials and unpopular at home and trapped in their backward culture they seem to suffer from an innate sense of cultural inferiority. The Saudis and their allies recent failure, in spite of their vicious air attacks on poorly armed civilians in Yemen testify to their failure since in military history no war crimes has ever been regarded as an achievement. How can they challenge a vast country with patriotic people and amazing resources like Iran?

    As for the Israelis and their “taking care of Iran”, their army’s self-publicized ‘moral high ground’ and ‘invincibility’ have always been based on their savage air attacks on poorly armed Palestinians in refugee camps or in Gaza or Lebanon! Professor Hunter should recall Netanyahu’s desperate pleading in front of cameramen in April 2015 and again in August 2017: that “Iran ‘Must’ recognize Israel”! It speaks volumes of his immense fear and defeat! Without the US army Israel is nothing but a loud propagandist bully that can only frighten and entertain the Arabs and their media.

    Dear Professor Hunter, please visit our country and meet our people; I assure you, you’ll have a more realistic view of the reality on the ground. Iran is a giant of a country with millions of highly talented and devoted individuals who in spite of our differences, we alone shape our country’s future not the murderous American Imperialism – to us the cultural Imperialism and Americanization of the world are dead! We are Independent and free: free at last!

  4. Professor Shireen Hunter what’s with all these hypothetical assumptions?
    The last Despot Saddam Hossain with his million man army and all of his supporters like Saudi, Israel, UK, France, Germany and the US, helping him militarily, intelligently and financially couldn’t do a damn thing other than causing destruction of cities and million death! After eight years Saddam ran away with his head between his legs sucking up on his passifier! Now the drunken and corrupt MbS wants to repeat the same stupid thing that Saddam did in Iran! Well the Iranians are ready and tell MbS and Israel to go ahead and make their day! If these 2 drunken and corrupt states would like to see ever more regional instability, which is natural in that part of the world, then go ahead and help yourselves!

  5. Ms. Hunter your anti Iranian writings are not hidden to anyone but still one may ask how do you figure this statement of yours “The only country left standing, although weakened, is Iran.” How is it you think After US and her clients lose of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan JCPOA, etc. Iran is “weakened “ do you really need to insert Israeli, deep state cliche words about Iran to get published or this is your greenish hope resurfacing. Shame, factually as well as true analytically ever since the revolution, not only iran’ position in the region has not gotten any weaker but has gotten much stronger than ever before I. past few hundred years.

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