Paul Pillar

Saudi Arabia, Wellspring of Regional Instability

No more successful has been the attempt to bring Qatar to heel. All that this effort has accomplished so far is an increase in tensions and animosity in the Persian Gulf region.

Now, also coincident with the purge, is a new Saudi move to politically destabilize Lebanon.  The announcement by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri that he is resigning was patently managed by the Saudi regime.  Saudi Arabia is where the Hariri family made its fortune, where Saad Hariri still holds citizenship, and where the resignation announcement was made.  The apparent Saudi intention is to stir the Lebanese pot in a way that somehow would be disadvantageous to Hezbollah, which is a partner in the governing Lebanese coalition.  But all the move has done so far is to make Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah look honest and perceptive in noting the Saudi role in the move, and to make him look reasonable in being the one who wants stability in coalition politics in Lebanon rather than seeking crisis and confrontation.

A major theme in MBS’s regional maneuvers is hostility toward Hezbollah’s ally Iran.  An irony in this mess, given how “Iran’s destabilizing behavior” is a favorite theme of the forces hostile to Iran, is that the destabilization and the seeking of crisis and confrontation and even war are coming predominantly from MBS’s Saudi Arabia, with an assist from the Netanyahu government in Israel

The contrived nature of the Saudi maneuver in Lebanon is illustrated by a statement from the Saudi minister for Gulf affairs.  Using a chain of reasoning that with Hariri gone, there is “no more distinction between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government,” the minister proclaimed that Saudi Arabia will treat the Lebanese as “a government declaring war”.  This is in response to a political crisis that Saudi Arabia intentionally initiated.  There is no indication that Iran lifted a finger to bring about any of it.

The Trump administration is worse than oblivious to all this; it is stoking it.  While the president tweets about which stock exchange should be used for an initial public offering of shares in Aramco, at least as important a figure is another princeling.  That would be the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who reportedly has hit it off well with his fellow thirty-something MBS and visited the Saudi crown prince just days before the purge.  This relationship is part of a mutual admiration society that also includes the United Arab Emirates’ de facto leader and Abu Dhabi crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, and the Emirati ambassador in Washington.  With everyone swaying to the same tune of seeking confrontation with Iran, it is hard to gauge exactly how much each party is influencing the others.  But if the current U.S. policies toward the Persian Gulf players continue, then the United States will be complicit in the increased regional instability that the young autocrat in Riyadh is bringing about.

Image: Saudi Arabia's fans hold up flags during their Gulf Cup tournament soccer match against Iraq in Isa Town, January 6, 2013. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed