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The disastrous rise of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reacts upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France in this June 24, 2015 file photo. Saudi Arabia plans to set up a $2 trillion megafund for post-oil era, Bloomberg reported on April 1, 2016, citing Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Files TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSD4HQ

King Salman of Saudi Arabia has now appointed his 31 year old son Prince Mohammed bin Salman his Crown Prince, ousting his nephew, former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had previously supervised Saudi Arabia’s security forces, and who is credited by some people with defeating the challenge within Saudi Arabia that extreme Wahhabi terrorists connected to Al-Qaeda posed to the ruling family.

King Salman is 81 and said to be in poor health.  If so, and if all goes to plan, that could mean that Prince Mohammed bin Salman might be King of Saudi Arabia very soon, possibly within months.

That is an alarming prospect.  I have already explained of how Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic programme has lost all touch with reality, and of how his foreign policy is amateurish and reckless, involving Saudi Arabia in a disastrous war in Yemen and a pointless and unnecessary conflict with Qatar in which it is losing the support of the US.

I have also explained how Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s pathological hostility to Iran, against whom he has openly spoken of launching a pre-emptive war, is increasing the risk of an all-out war between the two most powerful Muslim states in the Middle East.

Already there seem to be insufficient restraints on Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  His father King Salman obviously dotes on him, and he appears to be surrounded by a claque of young Princes who think of him as their champion and who are encouraging him in all the reckless things he is doing.  If or when he becomes King such restraints as there still are on him will weaken further, and the present disastrous trajectory on which he is leading Saudi Arabia will accelerate.

At this point I should say that the latest incidents involving Iran – the terrorist attack launched by ISIS on 7th June 2017 against the Iranian Parliament building and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum, the Iranian ballistic missile strikes on ISIS in Syria, and the very strange episode of the arrest by Saudi Arabia of three Iranians in a boat whom Saudi Arabia accuses of being Revolutionary Guards intent on sabotaging Saudi oil facilities – have all the appearance of being caused by the rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran connected to the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

To be clear, there is no doubt the 7th June 2017 terrorist attack in Tehran was the work of ISIS (both ISIS and the Iranians say as much, and the details of the incident put the question beyond doubt), and ISIS obviously has its own reasons for wanting to launch such a terrorist attack in Tehran independently of Saudi Arabia’s wishes.

However coming at a time of rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it could be that the Tehran attack – though obviously carefully planned over a long period of time – was intended to stoke up tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran further, with Iranian and Shia opinion – and indeed opinion across the whole Middle East – blaming the rise of Jihadi terrorism and ultimately of ISIS on Saudi Arabia.

As it happens there have already been allegations of Saudi involvement in the attack from senior Iranian officials.  For example Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has said

We have precise intelligence showing that unfortunately, Saudi Arabia in addition to supporting the terrorists, has demanded them to conduct operations in Iran

Whilst Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has also elliptically pointed a finger at Saudi Arabia, saying that the Tehran attack bore the hallmarks of an “international destructive plan”.

In light of this Iran’s ballistic missile strikes on ISIS positions in Syria on Sunday look as if they were intended more as a demonstration to Saudi Arabia of Iran’s ability to strike at Saudi installations – including Saudi oil installations – than as a strike at ISIS.

Unlike Russia Iran is unlikely to have sufficient real time intelligence of the situation in eastern Syria to target fast moving ISIS targets effectively with ballistic missiles.  As an attack on ISIS the Iranian ballistic missile strikes are therefore unlikely to have done ISIS much damage.  However as a demonstration to Saudi Arabia of Iran’s capabilities, and of Iran’s ability to strike at Saudi installations, the missile strikes convey a powerful message, though not one that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seems in any mood to heed.

As for the strange episode of the alleged sabotage attack by Iranian Revolutionary Guards on Saudi oil installations, it is possible that this was a genuine attempt at sabotage intended to send a warning simultaneously with the ballistic missile attacks.  However it is difficult to believe that three boat loads of explosives could have done much damage to one of the world’s biggest oil industries and one whose installations are moreover tightly guarded.  The Iranians allege that the three individuals the Saudis have arrested are fishermen, and it is not inconceivable that they are right.

If so then the announcement of the arrests could be another case of Prince Mohammed bin Salman inventing one of his imaginary victories by having Saudi Arabia misrepresent on Sunday – the day of the Iranian ballistic missile strikes – the arrest on Friday of three Iranian fishermen whose boat strayed accidentally into Saudi waters as Saudi Arabia’s successful defeat of a sinister Iranian attempt to sabotage its oil industry.

Regardless of what exactly happened, all the indications are that with Prince Mohammed bin Salman becoming more and more powerful the situation in the Gulf is becoming increasingly dangerous and unstable, with the threat of all-out war between Saudi Arabia and Iran increasing by the day.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would be beyond foolish to start such a war.  One of the most interesting moments of the Putin Interviews came when Oliver Stone pointed out to Putin that Saudi Arabia actually outspends Russia on defence.  Russia is however a nuclear superpower with large and exceptionally effective armed forces second in power only to those of the US and comparable (though differently configured) to those of China.   By contrast Saudi Arabia’s bloated military cannot even defeat the lightly armed Houthi militia in Yemen.

Whilst Iran’s armed forces are not comparable to Russia’s, everything that is known about them suggests that by Middle East standards they are both well-disciplined and highly effective.

In the case of an all-out war between Saudi Arabia and Iran Saudi Arabia would lose.  The risk is that the colossal disruption to the oil market such a war would cause would draw in outside powers – first and foremost the US – and that Prince Mohammed bin Salman might in the meantime try to compensate for the weakness of Saudi Arabia’s conventional forces by acquiring nuclear weapons.

Regardless of his exact plans, the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – inexperienced and reckless as he has repeatedly shown himself to be – is possibly the single most dangerous and destabilising development in the current already fraught international situation, with ramifications which go far beyond the confines of the Gulf and the Middle East.

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