One of the least talked about but most important stories of the year is unfolding right now in the Middle East. An emboldened and seemingly power-drunk Saudi Arabia is haphazardly throwing its weight around, both at home and in Lebanon and Yemen, ratcheting up tensions with Iran and seemingly doing so with the blessing of the Trump administration.
Earlier this month, one of the country's crown princes — Mohammed bin Salman, known by the cool kids in D.C. as MBS — arrested a slew of family, political, and military rivals and had them imprisoned in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. Their fate remains unknown, but the sweep has been so comprehensive that they are quartering new detainees in the nearby Courtyard By Marriott too — pity the more recently arrested. MBS is pulling a classic, new-in-town hereditary dictator move, trying to convince his Beltway patrons that he's just a young reformer trying to drag his country kicking and screaming into modernity. But that's not what's actually happening.
The reshuffling in Riyadh is just one sign among many that the Kingdom sees no meaningful constraints on its behavior. Saudi military forces sealed off neighboring Yemen as they prepare to extinguish the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, likely with a level of depravity that requires absolute secrecy of the sort that allowed the Sri Lankan government to liquidate the Tamil Tigers in 2009. And then there is the sudden and mysterious resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri from Saudi Arabia, where he is either intentionally biding his time until Hezbollah is crushed, or is under house arrest by the new majesties and potentates in Riyadh. Hariri's bizarre interview on Sunday only created more intrigue. "I have complete freedom, but I want to look after my family as well," a nervous-looking Hariri said.
What does that even mean?
Is Hariri's bizarre resignation a ploy to get Hezbollah — an Iran-backed Shiite militia that nevertheless is part of the government in Lebanon — to withdraw its forces in Syria backing the Assad regime? Is he acting on his own or was this orchestrated by MBS? Who or what is going to eliminate the influence of Hezbollah there? Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah have so much invested in the Syrian regime at this point that it seems unlikely they would collectively crack for the sake of the hapless Hariri, whose father the Syrians didn't think twice about executing in 2005. The rush of developments one after another — the MBS purge, the escalation in Yemen, and the squeezing of Hariri — are unlikely to be coincidental. Nor is the fact that Jared Kushner visited Saudi Arabia in October and reportedly met late into the night with MBS.
Indeed, President Trump reacted with unrestrained glee to the soft Saudi putsch. The president tweeted that "they know exactly what they are doing," (shades of Marco Rubio) and accused "those they are harshly treating" of "milking" the government. There is nothing the president loves more than supposed evildoers being treated roughly by men who hold unaccountable power.
But make no mistake: With the Trump administration meekly capitulating to the Astana peace process pushed by Russia and Iran in Syria — which will almost certainly leave Assad in place — and with Iran-backed Iraqi forces aggressively re-establishing control over parts of Iraq lost to ISIS and the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north, the Saudis may be orchestrating a panicked gambit to roll back Iranian influence and to prevent the so-called "land bridge" from Tehran that Gulf apologists have been hyperventilating about. One typically spooked Western official told The Daily Beast that "it's the perfection of the Persian divide and rule mastery."
Those dastardly Persians! How dare they build these "land bridges," more commonly known as "roads."
But when the Saudis get jumpy, their handmaidens in Washington do too. The story of how the Saudis came to believe that they could orchestrate these machinations across the region without any consequence at all isn't terribly complex. Leaders in Riyadh absolutely despised President Obama, and believed his attempt to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis was some kind of world-historical betrayal of America's completely needless alliance with the Saudis. They desperately wanted the United States to finish off Assad in Syria the same way that they had eliminated Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. With both Russia and Iran now propping Assad up and ISIS nearly vanquished, there is almost no way to imagine a Syria delivered into the hands of Gulf-funded Sunni extremists, which had long been the deeply destabilizing dream in Doha, Dubai, and Riyadh.
The Shia political awakening ushered in by the Iraq War threatens to disrupt the status quo and destabilize U.S.-backed Arab oil tyrannies across the region. Saudi Arabia presides brutally over millions of Shiites in its oil-rich east, and any increase in Iranian power is regarded in Riyadh as an existential threat. And the Saudi satellite of Bahrain is a Shiite-majority entity ruled tenuously by a Sunni minority terrified of its subjects.
When President Trump came to power earlier this year, he and his cronies quickly dispensed with any nuance with regard to the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Tehran BAD. Riyadh GOOD. The president, who can think only in the most reductive, black-and-white dichotomies, thought he could reverse a decade of Iranian gains in the region that were the inevitable byproduct of America's idiotic invasion of Iraq by handing the Saudis the biggest, blankest check that he could. Almost certainly, someone like MBS whispered a plan in Trump's ear on his glad-handling tour earlier this year and promised it would all be easy. The president certainly does love plans that are both light on details and that seem to achieve something for nothing.
Today the default obeisance of the U.S. foreign policy community to Saudi whims is joined dangerously by the Trump administration's total indifference to competently managing America's relations with other countries. Rex Tillerson's State Department is MIA, and regional policy has been subcontracted to Kushner, a man with no diplomatic experience whatsoever. Earth to Bob Corker: This is more important than your war of words with the president.
None of this, honestly, even makes much sense — on the one hand, President Trump is allowing Iran and Russia to consolidate their control over Syria in exchange for helping eliminate the threat of ISIS. On the other, he seems eager to stoke terrifying new tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, of the sort that could lead to violence in multiple countries. We don't even know why any of this is happening, since our government no longer makes a habit of communicating its policies to its citizens. What we do know is this: Something is going down, and soon, and its fallout will be managed by a foreign policy team that would have trouble holding down the night shift at a Walgreens.
It might be time for everyone to put their hands on The Orb and pray.