Under new leadership, Saudi Arabia renews its Cold War with Iran

Under new leadership, Saudi Arabia renews its Cold War with Iran

What, exactly, is happening in Saudi Arabia?

On November 4th, three big events took place in the Middle East that we’re still reckoning with, both here in the US and elsewhere globally:

  1. Hundreds of influential Saudis were arrested by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s new anticorruption agency, including 11 princes and more than two dozen ministers, some of whom were still in office.
  2. A ballistic missile, fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen, was intercepted near Riyadh, the capital.
  3. Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, announced his resignation while in Saudi Arabia.

Each of these events, on its own, would have been significant, but taken together, they represent the renewal, possibly, of a much larger regional crisis. Let’s take a brief look at each before moving on to the larger analysis.

The anticorruption arrests

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman appears to be consolidating his grasp on power by targeting individuals who might oppose his succession to the Saudi throne and his efforts at reforming Saudi Arabia. Among those arrested include Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men, Adel Fakieh, the Economy Minister, and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard and son of former Saudi King Abdullah. Prince Mutaib’s arrest appears to be aimed at stamping out potential threats by the National Guard to the Crown Prince’s power. Former King Abdullah had served as the Chief of the National Guard from 1963 to 2010, growing it into a force that rivals the Saudi Royal Army.

Just hours after the arrests, a helicopter crash killed Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, the deputy governor of Asir province. Beyond the curious timing, why does this matter? Well, Muqrin had been the crown prince until 2015, when King Salman switched him out for Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was later ousted for the current crown prince. At the time of his death, Muqrin had been on “a tour of local projects near Abha,” in the southwest, close to the Yemen border.

In the days since, wealthy Saudis have been moving cash overseas and liquidating assets out of fear of getting caught up in the corruption crackdown.

The failed missile attack on Riyadh

Per Saudi officials, the missile, brought down by a Patriot battery, was fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Yemen is more than 500 miles from Riyadh, which indicates this was a missile with significant range – not surprising, since the Houthis are supported by Iran, which is wrestling with Saudi Arabia, through proxies, for control of the Middle East. Each views itself “as the standard-bearer for its own predominant branch of Islam,” as Laura King and Nabih Bulos observe at the Los Angeles Times: Saudi Arabia represents the Sunnis; Iran represents the Shiites.

Also unsurprising, then, is Saudi Arabia’s accusation that Iran was indirectly responsible for the attack, claiming the intercepted missile was built in Iran and supplied to the Houthis, a charge Iran denied.

Retaliatory airstrikes were launched against Sanaa, Yemen's capital city, later that night, and in a much more brutal move, Saudi Arabia enacted a total air, land and sea blockade of Yemen. This blockade includes humanitarian aid, which had been feeding a quarter of the population – 7 million people – and helping treat the roughly 900,000 Yemenis with cholera. Mark Lowcock, the UN’s aid chief, pulled no punches when describing the blockade: he said that if Saudi Arabia did not allow aid to pass through, they would be responsible for “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades with millions of victims.” And, in a joint statement, executive directors for UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the World Food Program issued an urgent plea on Thursday “to permit entry of lifesaving supplies to Yemen in response to what is now the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” The numbers cited in the statement are stark:

  • More than 20 million Yemenis – including 11 million children – are in urgent need of humanitarian aid – a full three-quarters of the population;
  • 17 million people “do not know where their next meal is coming from”;
  • 14.8 million people don’t have access to basic healthcare;
  • 400,000 children are facing acute malnutrition;
  • 150,000 children could die from hunger in the next few months, if the blockade is not lifted.

And here’s a gruesome bonus statistic: Save the Children, another humanitarian organization urging Saudi Arabia to end the blockade, estimates that 130 children die every day “from extreme hunger and disease” in Yemen.

Although Saudi Arabia has reopened several ports controlled by the Yemeni government, the rebel-held port at Hodeidah, the entry point for 80% of humanitarian aid, remains closed.

Saad Hariri’s resignation

In his “vituperative” resignation speech in Riyadh, Hariri criticized both Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and Iranian proxy, whose political arm controls a large share of the national government. Both Iran and Hezbollah promptly accused Saudi Arabia of orchestrating Hariri’s resignation, which has increased the tensions within an already precariously-situated Lebanese government. A week after his resignation, Hariri reappeared to give a bizarre interview that fueled rumors that he is being held captive in Saudi Arabia and was coerced to resign, caught up, possibly, in the anticorruption purge – his family owned a lucrative Saudi construction business. The next day, the Saudi government claimed that Lebanon had declared war against Saudi Arabia “because of aggression by” Hezbollah, and days later urged all Saudi citizens to leave.  

Wikitribune, the brand new crowdsourced news site from Jimmy Wales, the creator of Wikipedia, has a great explainer on the Lebanon situation.

On Wednesday, as Lebanese president Michel Aoun was publicly accusing the Saudis of detaining Hariri against his will and demanding his return to Beirut, French president Emmanuel Macron invited Hariri to Paris. The invitation – which hasn’t yet been publicly accepted, despite French assurances that Hariri would “soon come” – appears to be an attempt at deescalating the situation.

The big picture

Under the new, aggressive leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is escalating a decades-long struggle with Iran for regional influence. It’s about religion, money, resources, and political leverage – that old story – but the way it’s playing out is complicated and involves proxies, most notably Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, much smaller countries with weak leadership. An imperfect but useful analog here may just be the Cold War, when the US and Soviet Union tussled for global hegemony through proxy conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and a host of other countries in the process of decolonization.

The Cold War is useful in another way, as well: without the existential threat presented by Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, the US and Soviet Union had no reason to trust each other or work together. The same holds true here: with ISIS no longer the bogeyman it once was, Saudi Arabia and Iran have no common enemy or objective. What we’re seeing is the un-pausing of previous conflicts.

Something else to consider: it’s likely internal politics that is driving these aggressive moves by Saudi Arabia. In other words: Mohammad bin Salman is performing for his people, a sizable majority of whom – at least 60 percent - are below the age of 25. The economy, dependent as it is on oil, is in decline: according to al Jazeera, a full 12.7 percent of Saudis are unemployed, and the national debt has increased 619 percent since 2014, according to Business Insider – that’s more than 84 billion dollars.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Saudi government is asking the people detained during the anticorruption purge “to hand over assets and cash in return for their freedom” – it’s a quick and relatively painless – not to mention popular with poor and unemployed Saudis – way of paying off the national debt and refilling the royal coffers for potential regional conflicts. Such conflicts would – as historically, they’ve always done – put people to work. And the weird pivoting toward Lebanon as Saudi’s newest proxy conflict may have less to do with Lebanon and more to do with the failures in Syria and Yemen: the latter is a humanitarian disaster in the making where Houthi rebels still control vital parts of the country, and the former has seen Saudi Arabia’s failure to oust Bashar al-Assad from power. Simply put, Saudi Arabia could be looking to Lebanon to save itself from further humiliation and regain prestige and power in the Middle East. Through its machinations with Hariri’s resignation, Saudi Arabia hopes to bring in a new Prime Minister more hostile to Hezbollah, with the ultimate goal of sparking an armed confrontation with them, either directly or through another invasion of Lebanon by Israel (The enemy of my enemy is my…), Hezbollah’s mortal enemy. Defeating Hezbollah and wounding Iran will further strengthen the Crown Prince’s hold on power and gain support from many of the more conservative elements of Saudi society.

Bonus Round:

Robert Mugabe is resisting calls to resign after Zimbabwe’s military took over the capital and put him on house arrest.

  • Mugabe has been in power since 1980, when the country overthrew its white minority leadership.
  • The military’s move appears to be in response to Mugabe’s expulsion of his vice president, which analysts believe was intended to clear the path for Mugabe’s wife, Grace, to succeed him.


The House passed its tax bill on Thursday despite 13 Republican defections, 227-205.

  • The onus is now on the Senate GOP, whose bill differs markedly from the House version.
  • Earlier this week, GOP leaders in the Senate seemed to make the path more difficult when they added a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.


Donald Trump Jr. admitted on Monday to corresponding directly with Wikileaks during the 2016 election.

  • He copped to it only after The Atlantic published a report detailing the correspondence.
  • Trump Jr.’s new confession came the same week that Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration’s embattled attorney general, testified to the House Judiciary Committee, claiming he hadn’t remembered meeting with George Papadopolous until he saw media reports about it.
  • In his testimony, Sessions also pulled back from a previous suggestion that he’d appoint a Special Counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton and the Uranium One deal.


Roy Moore, the GOP candidate to fill Sessions’s vacant Senate seat, found himself embroiled in controversy after five women came forward to claim he sexually harassed them – four were just teenagers when the alleged incidents took place.

  • Following the allegations, Republicans abandoned Moore’s candidacy en masse, but the Alabama Republican Party – the only real body with the power to remove Moore from the ballots – stood firm behind him.
  • In the aftermath, Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, opened up an 8-point lead, according to a Fox News poll released on Thursday.

header image: "foreign leader visits," the white house / flickr

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