What’s going on in Saudi Arabia?

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Photo: AFP

There are many reasons why Saudi Arabia has been in the news of late.

Purging princes, a corruption probe and the decision to pull its citizens out of Lebanon.

The Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned last week saying he feared for his life, and the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah has accused Saudi Arabia of holding Mr al-Hariri against his will.

Analysts say the moves are helping Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman “centralise power” and are part of a plan to “assert a bold new Saudi authority” over the Middle East.

What’s the deal with Saudi Arabia and Lebanon?

Most simply, the travel ban and the mystery surrounding Lebanon’s prime minister are the latest plays in Saudi Arabia’s battle for dominance, particularly over its long-time rival Iran.

Lebanon’s ties to both nations run deep.

  • Lebanon’s most recent prime minister is a Sunni but he’s also a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen
  • Lebanon’s president is allied with Hezbollah, a Shiite movement that’s considered to be a proxy Iran presence
  • Of course, there is a long-running conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites (that explainer is for another day)
  • Until recently, the PM and president of Lebanon effectively represented a side of the conflict each to govern the country together.

So, Saudi Arabia and Iran are deeply invested in the political environment in Lebanon and both want dominance in the Middle East.

Saad al-Hariri.

Saad al-Hariri. Photo: AFP

Analysts say Hezbollah (read: Iran) has had a great deal of success in recent years and Saudi Arabia (read: the Crown Prince) is now trying to do something about that.

The business with the Lebanese PM and the travel ban are part of an “unprecedented” Saudi Arabian response to Iran.

Ben Rich is a lecturer at Curtin University with expertise in Middle East politics, particularly Saudi Arabia.

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“Since King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammad, they’ve taken a much more aggressive and proactive stance in dealing with what they see as this expansive Iranian threat,” he said.

“Historically, the Saudis don’t engage in conflict; it’s not their style. They’re likely to throw money at things.”

But now, the young Prince is trying to make his mark.

What is the Saudi plan?

The problem is, there isn’t exactly a long tradition of strong, strategic decisions being made out of the Saudi capital Riyadh.

So analysts like Rodger Shanahan from the Lowy Institute are left wondering if the move to have the Lebanese PM resign is actually part of a plan at all.

“It doesn’t make any sense [in terms of] what it’s supposed to achieve in Lebanon,” he said.

“It doesn’t seem to be part of measures targeting Hezbollah.

“You assume it’s part of something larger, but exactly what that is I don’t know and I’m not sure it’s been well thought through.”

Mr Rich agreed it was difficult to tell if there was “a specific something the crown is trying to pursue”, saying this appeared to just be part of a “wider effort to be more confrontational with Iran”.

It’s confrontational because having the Lebanese PM resign while in Saudi Arabia “sends a message to Iran and Hezbollah”.

Sidenote: Analysts say the Saudis didn’t think Mr al-Hariri was dealing with Hezbollah “harshly enough” and generally not being a strong enough Saudi representative.

He also hasn’t returned to Lebanon since resigning …

Has this got anything to do with the corruption probe?

Yes.

Of course, the situation with Lebanon is all playing out while the Crown Prince is running a major anti-corruption campaign back in Saudi Arabia, detaining hundreds of the kingdom’s elite.

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It’s considered another major shift in the way business and government is done in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Rich said traditionally “Saudis rule through consensus of the elite” but King Salman and his son have different ideas.

“This particular administration is not interested consensus rule, it’s much more interested in unilateral decision making,” he said.

Mr Shanahan said the latest moves by the kingdom were more power plays by the “young and energetic” Crown Prince.

“He’s trying to shake up the system but because he’s young he knows that if you’re going to solidify your position, you need to cow your potential rivals and appeal to your youth base,” he said.

Is the travel ban a big deal?

Not really.

Saudi Arabia has pulled its citizens (and investors) out of Lebanon before and the impact on Lebanon has mostly been a financial one.

Analysts say it could be part of a wider messaging campaign for the Saudis and Lebanon could be slapped with sanctions but it is unlikely to be a prelude to anything significant.

Mr Shanahan did say the fact Kuwait has issued a similar order to its citizens was strange.

Is this going to escalate?

Well, probably not but it is difficult for analysts to make a call on whether these moves by the Saudis will amount to anything major.

In terms of military action, Hezbollah is the dominant force in Lebanon with a presence “stronger than the Lebanese military”.

“I don’t think it’s a direct prelude … the Saudis aren’t really capable of militarily intervening in Lebanon,” Mr Rich said.

Our analysts agreed the Saudis’ actions were, in part, about image.

“They’re sending a message but we don’t know what the message is. And don’t assume it’s a rational message,” Mr Shanahan said.

– ABC