Saudi Arabia’s Mysterious Upheaval

Stung by an apparent defeat in Syria, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has arrested rivals within the kingdom’s elite and provoked a political crisis in Lebanon, reports Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Change is clearly afoot in Saudi Arabia — with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) engineering the dubious resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister and arresting some of the kingdom’s richest businessmen and rivals within the royal family on charges of corruption — but exactly what it foretells is hard to read.

The Saudis also are reeling from the apparent defeat of Saudi-backed Sunni jihadists in Syria, including Al Qaeda and Islamic State militants. So what are the consequences for Saudi Arabia and its regional allies?

On Nov. 20, after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri left Saudi Arabia and resurfaced in France, I spoke with Vijay Prashad, professor of International Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut. (Hariri has since returned to Lebanon where he remains prime minister at least for the time being.)

Prashad is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author of 20 books including The Death of a Nation and The Future of the Arab Revolution.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri meeting with Saudi King Salman, shown in a Twitter post from Nov. 6, 2017.

Dennis Bernstein: Where do you think the Prime Minister of Lebanon is now, and why is he there?

Vijay Prashad: Saad Hariri is currently in Paris.  Emmanuel Macron went to Saudi Arabia and essentially rescued Saad Hariri from house arrest there.  Hariri resigned on Saudi television.  He was probably instructed to resign in order to create a political crisis in Lebanon.  Hariri has indicated he may return to Beirut this week but there is no certainty that this is going to happen.

Dennis Bernstein: Do you think this is driven by the same forces behind the Crown Prince’s arrest of key businessmen and political figures?

Vijay Prashad: It is important to point out that the crisis in Lebanon is both internally and externally generated.  It is internally generated because Lebanon has a curious sectarian constitution where the various sects in the country–the Sunnis, the Shia, the Christians–have divided power.

One of the very important players in the divided government is Hezbollah.  Hezbollah is, of course, very close to the Iranian government and has been an adversary of Saad Hariri’s and his father’s Future Movement.

But the external pressure from Saudi Arabia is much more important.  Since the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, Saudi Arabia has seen Iran stretch its wings in the region.  It has tried various strategies to essentially put Iran back into its borders.  The war in Syria was one such episode, as is the fight in Yemen and the attempt to strangle Qatar.  Now, having failed in each of these attempts, Saudi Arabia is going after what is perhaps the most sensitive country in the region, which is Lebanon.

By forcing Mr. Hariri to resign and creating a political crisis inside Lebanon, the Saudis want to see a block form inside Lebanon that will try to push Hezbollah out of the political consensus.  This is not going to happen, but it is raising tension in the region.

Dennis Bernstein: This is not a moderation in Saudi policy, as it is being portrayed in the Western press.

Vijay Prashad: It is important to recognize that the descendants of the founder of Saudi Arabia have basically shared power over the past ninety years.  They have parceled out the institutions among the different lines and made sure that no single line dominated the entire kingdom.  They have all exploited the oil and have been provided with a nuclear umbrella by the United States.  That has been the basic order in Saudi Arabia.  Because they were very helpful to the Americans in the anti-Communist crusade, they were allowed to export their brand of Islam across the Islamic world.

So this was the basic order until Mohammed bin Salman , the current Crown Prince, decided to consolidate power.  He has arrested sections of his own family and tried to bring all power under this own control.  It is a centralization of power that is taking place.  His reason for doing this is actually very interesting.

For the past decade, Saudi Arabia has been running its oil wells at enormous capacity.  It has been flooding international oil markets with oil, keeping prices down.  Of course, this has not been good for Saudi Arabia, which has never diversified its economy.  It has been facing a serious balance of payments shortfall.

Mohammad bin Salman has pushed a so-called “reform” agenda to liberalize the Saudi economy.  He wants to have the Saudi oil company, Aramco, go on the public market.  He has taken a stand against corruption, which he claims has cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars.  He is going after the very rich in an attempt to recover some of these billions to help close the budget deficit inside Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, he has talked about the need to rein in extremism.  But while he is saying all these things, he is prosecuting a decidedly anti-Iranian agenda, which is of course red meat to the extremists.  It is not clear how he could, on the one hand, put the extremists in their place, while at the same time basically parroting the rhetoric of the extremists.

He might not only consolidate power from the rest of his family, he might consolidate power from some of the clerics and become the most extremist player in Saudi Arabia with his rhetoric against Iran.  It is not a very comforting sight.

If this Saudi monarchy precipitately collapses, there will be serious chaos in Saudi Arabia.  The entire institutional framework has been set up around the monarchy and there is no easily identifiable separate power base.

Dennis Bernstein: By the way, who is under arrest at the fancy hotel there in Riyadh?

President Trump shakes the hand of Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman on May 20, 2017. (Screenshot from

Vijay Prashad: One of the people under arrest was a former employer of mine.  He is the richest man in Saudi Arabia and part-owner of Twitter.  Another person under arrest is also one of the richest men in Saudi Arabia, who is heavily involved in Ethiopia.  He is brokering the vast buy-up of Ethiopian land and gold mines by Saudi Arabia.  These are the wealthiest people in the country.  There are also about 200 businessmen of various means who are being held on charges of corruption.

It is interesting because, on the one hand, this is going to earn the Crown Prince some goodwill among the population, who are fed up with the crony corruption of the royal family.   But this is not an entire shake-up of the system.  After all, the Crown Prince and his circle will continue to feed at the trough of the oil profits of the kingdom.

Dennis Bernstein: As you point out, the timing is interesting.

Vijay Prashad: I was a little surprised that the corporate media didn’t pick up on this.  About a week before the arrests were made, there was a major investors’ conference in Saudi Arabia.  The Crown Prince had asked a consultancy firm to write an important report titled “Saudi Vision 2020,” where he laid out the plans to diversify the Saudi economy away from reliance on oil to make Saudi Arabia a kind of “Singapore in the Sand.”  To use the country’s wealth to help it track into the future.

He has plans to build a vast new high-tech city in northern Saudi Arabia bordering Jordan and Egypt.  At this conference, many banks and hedge funds appeared to be very excited to get involved in this project.  Now, if you want to raise investor confidence, the last thing you should be doing is arresting some of the richest people in your country.

But I think this was a message the Crown Prince wanted to send to these investors, saying that he was not going to tolerate internal corruption.  This is a kind of neoliberal message to the banks, that you won’t have to worry about paying bribes, etc., this is going to be run in a modern way.

Dennis Bernstein: How do you see the US and Trump fitting into all of this?

Vijay Prashad: The US position is a little curious.  Some have taken Jared Kushner’s visit to Saudi Arabia as a green light given to conduct this kind of internal coup and perhaps also to push against Lebanon and Hezbollah.  I’m sure there is some truth to that but, as I’ve said, this is a long-term policy of the Crown Prince to centralize power and put pressure on Iran.

This policy predates the Trump administration.  Obama was quite happy with the idea of centralization of power in Saudi Arabia.  Only recently has Congress begun speaking out against the war in Yemen.  There is a long-term trend of the United States backing this Crown Prince, especially to push back against Iranian influence in the region.

Trump is far more aggressive in his anti-Iran position than Obama ever was and I think he has emboldened the Israelis.  When the Crown Prince called Saad Hariri to Saudi Arabia he also summoned Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority.  We don’t know what was said in that meeting but since then the Saudi and the Israelis have been leaking stories saying that the two of them are meeting.  At the same time, the United Arab Emirates has been making friendly gestures toward Israel.

Perhaps the Saudis are hallucinating that they will be able to use Israel and the Trump administration to do their dirty work vis-a-vis Iran.  Perhaps it will begin with a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.  But Hezbollah, which was able to withstand the Israeli attack in 2006, is now much more battle-hardened as a result of its participation in Syria.

It is not likely that Hezbollah is going to crumble under Israeli fire.  In fact, it might inflict considerable damage on Israel.  Sensible politics at this point would lead one to say that there needs to be a serious conversation between these countries about dialing down the tension, but no one is really calling for that.

Dennis Bernstein: The situation with the Lebanese Prime Minister could become fairly explosive, couldn’t it?

Vijay Prashad: Hezbollah is integrated fully into the Lebanese security apparatus.  It is inconceivable that the Future Movement would actually like to set aside Hezbollah.  And it is inconceivable that the Future Movement would welcome an Israeli attack on Hezbollah.

Lebanon is a very small country with 4 million to 5 million people.  In 2006, when Israel bombed what was considered to be Hezbollah areas in Beirut, that bombing affected the whole city.  I don’t think the Future Movement are stupid enough to welcome an Israeli assault on their own society.  They must realize that the entire Lebanese security structure is intertwined with Hezbollah’s battlefield experience and its ability to defend the south of Lebanon.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at

6 comments for “Saudi Arabia’s Mysterious Upheaval

  1. R Davis
    November 29, 2017 at 23:12

    General Wesley Clark: in a candid interview, told the world about the Pentagon plan – for the US to attack 7 countries in 5 years.
    The Pentagon plan is for the US to take out 7 countries in 5 years.
    And General Wesley Clark named the countries.
    & finishing off Iran.

    Yep … Lebanon is definitely on the list.
    Not the Saudi list but the US Pentagon list.
    Is it foolish to assume that the US is the actual aggressor here & that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is merely the organ grinders monkey in all this ?

  2. Anon
    November 29, 2017 at 20:10

    KSA is said to fear the return of their jihadists in Syria, raising the issue of where they can be sent. Doubtless elsewhere in Africa despite stories of their movement to SE Asia. They would only disrupt in W Iraq. If KSA sent them to Israeli borders in Sinai and Golan and southern Jordan, and trained them to attack Israel, they could unify the Sunnis & Shiites against the real troublemaker. Then let them fight door to door in Israel for their very own Islamic state. And continue to claim to be fighting terrorism to avoid reprisals.

  3. Abe
    November 29, 2017 at 02:12

    “The Sochi summit was choreographed to the millimeter. Previously, Putin held detailed phone calls with both Trump and Saudi King Salman (not MBS); the emir of Qatar; Egypt’s Sisi; and Israel’s Netanyahu. Parallel to a meeting of Syria-Russia military top brass, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dropped in; a non-surprise surprise Sochi visit to tell Putin in person that without Russia’s military campaign Syria would not have survived as a sovereign state.

    “The facts on the ground are stark; the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) – fully expanded, retrained, re-equipped and re-motivated – recaptured Aleppo, Palmyra, Deir Ezzor and almost the whole southeast; borders with both Iraq and Lebanon are open and secured; cease-fires are in effect in over 2,500 towns; Turkey desisted from years of weaponizing and supporting ‘moderate rebels’ and is now part of the solution; ISIS/Daesh is on the run, now no more than a minor rural/desert insurgency.

    “Daesh is almost dead – although there could always be a Return of the Walking Dead, with some obscure neo-al-Baghdadi posing as Caliph-in-exile. […]

    “The so-called High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – which is essentially the Syrian opposition factions regimented by the House of Saud – is in disarray. Its leader, Royad Hijab, was recently fired in murky circumstances. These factions met again in Riyadh, parallel to Sochi, with the Saudis basically reduced to screaming ‘Assad must go.’

    “MBS’s war on Yemen is a disaster – not to mention creating a horrendous humanitarian crisis. The blockade of Qatar degenerated into farce. The blatant interference in Lebanon via the Hariri-as- hostage saga also degenerated into farce. Saudi Arabia lost in both Iraq and Syria. MBS’s next foreign policy moves are wildly unpredictable.”

    Syria war, Sochi peace
    By Pepe Escobar

  4. Abe
    November 28, 2017 at 15:41

    “It is no surprise that Donald Trump is eager to cancel the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, one of the few Obama policies that increased the prospects for world peace. Trump is closely allied with the extreme right of the Republican Party, which opposed the deal from the start and which is eager to eliminate the Islamist government in Iran either through a direct U.S. invasion or by outsourcing the deed to Israel.

    “The surprise is that most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment wants to preserve the deal and lobbied hard, though unsuccessfully, to push Trump to recertify Iranian compliance. The future of the deal is now in the hands of Congress under the terms of the legislation that allowed Obama to suspend the sanctions. Sanctions will be reimposed only if majorities in the House and Senate vote to do so. We can expect intense lobbying from the military, from former diplomats, and behind the scenes from the State Department to prevent Congress from acting. Important U.S. business interests have also signaled their opposition to sanctions. This split among elites over Iran policy is longstanding, but since 2015 has matured into more institutionalized form.

    “The split reflects the contradictions that face the United States in its role as the declining hegemonic power in the world. […]

    “Opponents of the 2015 Iran deal seek, first and foremost, to prevent the economic and geopolitical ascent of Iran, which could threaten the position of existing powerholders in the region.

    “One major source of opposition is Israel and a portion of its backers in Washington, who worry that the nuclear deal is merely the first step in a broader rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. If the two countries draw closer, and work together to resolve conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, Israel would no longer be the United States’ only credible proxy in the Middle East. Under those conditions the U.S. could end its unquestioning support for Israel’s unending occupation and land expropriations in the West Bank, its territorial and economic conflicts with its near neighbors, and its competition with Iran as the hub of the Middle East regional economy.

    “The Gulf dictatorships, led by Saudi Arabia, are a second source of opposition. A sanctions-free Iran would be able to export more of its massive oil and gas reserves, undercutting Saudi Arabia’s dominant position in those markets. The expansion of Iranian exports would lead to lower oil and gas prices, costing Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies part of their incomes. The political implications are just as threatening. If the U.S.-Iran relationship were to improve, the U.S. would not necessarily take Saudi Arabia’s side in its brutal war against Yemeni civilians, or in disputes over Egypt, Bahrain, and other countries where the Saudis support repressive Sunni regimes. The Gulf regimes’ fears are echoed by their advocates in Washington, including U.S. policymakers who view the regimes as reliable protectors of the Middle East status quo, the U.S.-based think tanks funded by the Gulf states, and the U.S. defense companies that sell them billions of dollars in weapons.

    “As a result, a powerful segment of the U.S. foreign policy elite sees its interests best served by continued U.S. support for Israeli and Saudi belligerence and continued marginalization of Iran. That segment includes most of the Republican Party, which openly champions a militaristic unilateralism. […]

    “Which side will win – the broad circles of diplomats, military leaders, and business executives who stress the costs of cancelling the 2015 deal, or the narrower elite interests embodied by Bolton, who would jeopardize the long-term interests of their class for the sake of their own economic, political, and ideological agendas?

    “The multiple moving parts in this conflict, along with Trump’s erratic behavior, make the outcome difficult to predict.”

    Who Wants the Iran Deal Canceled?
    By Richard Lachmann, Michael Schwartz & Kevin Young

  5. will
    November 28, 2017 at 15:38

    I though Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had dementia?

    • TS
      November 29, 2017 at 13:10

      > I though Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had dementia?

      That is a different member of the House of Saud you are thinking of.

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