by Derek Davison
One of America’s favorite talking points on Iran is its “destabilizing” role in the Middle East. There’s no question that Iran does things that contribute to regional instability. In particular, it frequently supports armed non-state actors that serve as alternate sources of power inside their countries—Yemen’s rebels, militias in Syria and Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But Iran is not the only or even the biggest contributor to Middle Eastern instability. In this area its contribution is at least matched, if not exceeded, by rival Saudi Arabia. Or, to be more specific, by one particular rival in Riyadh: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). Since his father King Salman appointed him defense minister in January 2015, no single individual has done more to destabilize the Middle East or put more civilian lives in jeopardy than the future Saudi ruler. Saudi rhetoric about Iran’s “aggression” aside, it’s been Saudi aggression that has most afflicted the region on MbS’s watch.
When referring to Iran, the Saudis and their allies have for many years used the term “Arab affairs”—as in, “Iran must stop meddling in Arab affairs.” As a practical matter this is a strange distinction. Leaving North Africa aside, “Arab affairs” are “Middle Eastern affairs,” and Iran, as a large and powerful Middle Eastern nation, will for better or worse continue to play a role in them. But the term isn’t meant to be a reasonable standard for Iranian behavior. Instead, it’s meant to create a reality wherein Iranian meddling in regional affairs must be resisted but the Saudis are free to meddle to their hearts’ content. Worse, the Saudis usually justify their actions as necessary to defend themselves from a supposed Iranian threat.
And meddle the Saudis have—in Yemen, Syria, Qatar, and Lebanon. The result has been chaos throughout the Middle East.
Take Yemen, whose systematic destruction has been MbS’s longest-running project, beginning only a few months after his appointment as defense minister. By now the toll of the destruction is difficult to fully digest: thousands of Yemeni civilians killed and wounded, over 800,000 infected with cholera with the number of cases expected to hit one million by the end of the year, and millions at dire risk of starvation. Saudi brutality reached new heights when, in response to a November 4 attempted missile strike on Riyadh, they closed all ports of entry into Yemen to humanitarian aid. In response to international outrage, Riyadh later gave the appearance of relenting, but this was little more than a hoax, with the Saudis still blockading rebel-held territory and thus leaving the most at-risk Yemeni civilians with little access to desperately needed food, clean water, and medical supplies.
The Saudis ostensibly intervened in Yemen to counter Iranian support for the rebels, though they’ve exaggerated Tehran’s role in that regard, and restore the country’s internationally recognized government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. But recent media reports suggest that Hadi is now effectively under house arrest in Riyadh. The reason appears to be Hadi’s ongoing feud with Saudi coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has been supporting southern Yemen secessionist parties who are nominally aligned with Hadi, in that they also oppose the rebels, but who plan to declare southern Yemen’s independence and whose forces have frequently clashed with Hadi’s. In other words, not only has the Saudi intervention not ended Yemen’s current civil war, it’s created the conditions for a second one.
Perhaps unsatisfied with his adventures in Yemen, MbS has now decided—again on the premise that he has to defend Saudi Arabia from Iranian aggression—to try to wreck Lebanese politics. On November 4, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation, citing Iranian interference in Lebanese politics through its support for Hezbollah and an alleged threat against his life. He made his resignation not in Beirut, but in Riyadh, in a speech carried on Saudi TV that sounded to many listeners like the Saudis had written it for him.
Predictably, speculation has run rampant that Hariri had been forced to resign by the Saudis, who are the main patron of his Future Movement party and who could have threatened Hariri’s personal wealth, much of it invested in Saudi Arabia. On November 10, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius—certainly no purveyor of anti-Saudi polemic—reported that not only had the Saudis forced Hariri’s resignation, they’d actually detained the Lebanese head of government in the process amid MbS’s supposed anti-corruption purge. The Saudis and Hariri have denied such reports, and yet nothing that’s happened since his resignation has really demonstrated their inaccuracy. It’s been over two weeks, for example, and Hariri still has not returned to Lebanon to formally hand in his resignation, even though Lebanese President Michel Aoun has refused to accept that resignation until Hariri delivers it in person.
In contrast to their performance in Yemen, the Saudis do not appear to have caused Lebanon’s political system to collapse, though certainly not for lack of trying. Lebanese politics have been in a delicate rebuilding phase since last summer, when Hariri and Aoun reached a deal to end more than two years of political stalemate between the country’s pro-Iran and pro-Saudi factions. But instead of sending Lebanese politics back into crisis, Hariri’s resignation, and the perception that he was forced into it, has instead united most of the country against Saudi Arabia. Hariri’s return to Beirut, particularly inasmuch as he’ll come back not as a champion of resistance to Riyadh but rather as its mouthpiece, could shake up this emerging consensus, but for now at least it seems that MbS’s meddling in Lebanese affairs has backfired, to Iran’s benefit.
There are signs that all of this destabilization is starting to hurt MbS and the Saudis in Washington, but so far these have been very insignificant. The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly, 366-30, on November 13 in favor of a resolution sponsored by Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA) that acknowledges that America’s crucial role in supporting the Saudi campaign in Yemen has never been authorized. But congressional leadership watered down that resolution to the point where the vote, while symbolically meaningful, had no tangible impact on American policy. America’s support for the Yemen war effort continues unabated. Likewise, the Trump administration, in thrall to the Saudis to a degree unheard of in modern American history, has expressed vague support for Hariri but has said nothing about Riyadh’s decision to involve itself in internal Lebanese affairs. For the most part, Washington remains selectively blind to the Saudi role in destabilizing the Middle East.
Photo: King Salman (center) with Mohammad bin Salman (to his immediate left)