Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, or MBS as his branding efforts have dubbed him, made quite a splash in the American media recently, with a major interview in The Atlantic, and lengthy profiles in The New Yorker and the New York Times. The idea that the new de facto ruler of the kingdom is a Dynamic Young Reformer is catnip for these outlets. The stories drool over the possibility that he might end both the cultural domination of Wahabi theology and the 70 year Arab-Israeli Cold War.
I’m going to toot my own horn a little here. I saw this all coming last fall, when the Crown Prince announced plans for a Special Economic and Cultural Zone in northwestern SA, a place where the religious police would have little power and high-tech companies encouraged. The region in question is far from the population centers of the Arabian Peninsula—but right next to Eilat, the Israeli port on the Gulf of Aqaba.
Since that announcement, the SA and Israeli governments have been dancing a minuet. Though nothing is being rushed on either side, for right now the momentum looks to be going toward greater contact, and perhaps moves toward full relations. And then alliance?
The geopolitical advantages are obvious. Iran, SA and Israel’s mutual arch-enemy, has established a zone of influence across the Middle East, through Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Saudis appear to be attempting to establish a counterzone: the Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt and…Israel?
It’s a good strategy. The Saudi Zone would have its back to the sea, whereas the Iranian Zone has to watch out for the Turks and Russians. The U.S. would, in most ways, be pleased to see greater co-operation between two of its closest allies.
The trick is that Iran has deposited a rabid badger in the Saudi backyard, in the form of Yemen. If the Saudis wants to pursue a full-on press against the Iranian Zone, they’re going to have to pacify Yemen first, and there is no sign of that happening so far.
(It occurs to me that if the Saudis wanted to set a similar rabid badger in the Iranian Zone, they might make overtures to the Kurds—but that would decisively swing Turkey to the Iranian side.)
The big question is how likely all of this is to develop into open conventional line warfare. It’s is a dicey prospect for both sides, since the Persian Gulf—the principal economic engine for both zones—would become a battlefield. Even a short conflict would wreck years of carefully built-up infrastructure. Granted, the two Gulf Wars demonstrated how quickly oil & gas production can be re-established, but still, it’s a considerable risk.
And if open war broke out, what would be the greater effect in the Roomful of Dust? What would the Russians do? Would Pakistan take a side, and if so, what reaction would this get from India? Would China consider this a problem or an opportunity?
For now, it will be interesting to see how far MBS can push his new policies without risking popular backlash. The Crown Prince appears to be betting that the young adults of the Middle East are sick of hearing about the wonders of Sharia & the evils of the Zionist Entity. Can the Arab Street—that amorphous mass on which so much ink has been spilled these past 17 years—give up the old sureties for a high-tech future? We’ll see.
Addendum: If you compare the armed forces of Iran to those of the Saudis/Gulf States, Iran looks better. The Saudis have a lot of expensive equipment, but the Iranians have more, and the conventional wisdom is that Saudi troops aren’t very good.
So if the Saudis want to pose a credible military threat, they need some help. There are two obvious possibilities: Israel and the U.S.. The Israelis are at the wrong end of the Middle East for a land offensive into Iran, and if MBS were to invite an Israeli Expeditionary Force onto the sacred soil of the Two Shrines, he’d really be tap-dancing through a minefield. Could the Saudis actually swing American involvement? Even given Iranian unpopularity in the States, the cost in blood and treasure would make it a very tough sell.