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Mohammed Bin Salman’s Post-Coup Bellicose Strategy, Bluff or Bluster?


Andrew Korybko
21st Century Wire

The Crown Prince is trying to strengthen his domestic standing after his unprecedented power play over the weekend, and his bellicose threats might be more about showing off his anti-Iranian/-Shiite “credentials” and mimicking Trump’s “Mad Man” policy than preparing for an imminent war. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman executed an anti-oligarchic and Bolshevik “deep state” coup over the weekend in preemptively thwarting a pro-US royalist plot designed to reverse the far-reaching socio-economic and religious reforms initiated under his ambitious Vision 2030 project, as well as to undermine his country’s newfound Great Power partnerships with Russia and China.

In the days since, however, the Kingdom’s de-facto leader has instilled fear all throughout the region after declaring that the recent Houthi missile strike on Riyadh might be an “act of war” by his hated archrivals in Tehran. In response, Saudi Arabia vowed to tighten its blockade against Yemen, thereby risking an exacerbation of the already terrible humanitarian crisis there in a de-facto blackmail bid to force the Houthis to agree to unconditional talks with the reinstalled “government” in Aden on Riyadh’s terms. Lastly, the third example of bellicosity spewed by Mohammed Bin Salman across the region was against Lebanon, which his government said “declared war” on Saudi Arabia because of its incorporation of Hezbollah into the country’s political fabric.

All of these statements have rightly given rise to profound concern about the Mideast’s stability, and some observers have questioned whether Mohammed Bin Salman might simply be going crazy and trying to spark a regional war as a last-ditch attempt to stave off a coup. While nothing of the sort can ever be discounted in Mideast affairs, that’s probably not the most accurate interpretation of events.

The most important thing right now is for the Crown Prince to consolidate his power, and one of the ways to do this in accordance with his country’s political culture is to show the remaining royals and the rest of his countrymen that he’s every bit as anti-Iranian (which is oftentimes a euphemism for anti-Shiite) as any of his predecessors and competitors. After all, Iran – and more specifically, Shiites – are what the three targets of Mohammed Bin Salman’s bellicosity have in common, seeing as how the Islamic Republic is a majority-Shiite state, the Iranian-friendly Houthi national liberation movement in Yemen is predominantly Shiite, and the Iranian-allied Hezbollah socio-political organization in Lebanon is also Shiite.

There’s of course the chance that he’ll go overboard and escalate the War on Yemen through a renewed conventional military invasion in order to “prove” his anti-Iranian/-Shiite “credentials”, but this would be extremely risky right now because the Crown Prince’s power – and even very survival, it can be argued – depends at this very moment to a large degree on the loyalty of the armed forces, the most important issue for which is the disastrous quagmire in Yemen. The Saudi military doesn’t want to continue wasting money and lives on a campaign which already proved itself a failure almost right after it started, yet they’re caught in a dilemma over how to most effectively disengage from the conflict without being paranoid that Iran will gain the upper hand on their country’s southern doorstep soon thereafter.

At the same time, however, the War on Yemen has finally boomeranged back home to the Kingdom now that the Houthis have demonstrated their capability to launch missiles deep inside Saudi Arabia, so Mohammed Bin Salman is again caught in yet another double-layered dilemma over how he should respond to this. He can’t exactly order his military to charge back into the fray head-first and senselessly risk a rise in casualties which could in turn diminish the military’s support of his “deep state” (counter-)coup, but he also can’t ignore the missile strike on Riyadh over the weekend either, ergo the “middle ground” approach that he’s taken in tightening the blockade noose against Yemen in the hopes that this humanitarian blackmail can yield geopolitical dividends. Innocent people can still end up dying as a result, but nevertheless, their deaths would be “indirect” and not due to the type of all-out war scenario that people are most afraid of right now.

Another related explanation for Mohammed Bin Salman’s bellicose behavior is that he’s employing his own version of Trump’s “Mad Man” bluff in order to stave off any potential Iranian asymmetrical destabilization of his country at its most historically vulnerable moment. Sensing that Saudi Arabia is weaker than at any moment since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and consequent commencement of the proxy war rivalry between the two competing powers, Iran might be tempted to give its nemesis a “little push” with the hope that this might send the whole unstable house of cards collapsing into the sand and remove the Saud Monarchy from the pages of history, which might in a cynical (but speculative) way explain the curious timing of the Houthi missile strike on Riyadh precisely at the moment that Mohammed Bin Salman was executing his “deep state” coup.

To wrap everything up, the Crown Prince’s statements regarding Iran, Yemen, and Lebanon are very concerning and people are justified in worrying about Saudi Arabia’s future military intentions, but at the end of the day, the Kingdom has just undergone an unprecedented anti-oligarchic and Bolshevik “deep state” coup, and the armed forces are the only thing keeping Mohammed Bin Salman safe from the vindictive reprisals of the royal elite.

After all, Saudi Arabia is about to confiscate $33 billion from four of its richest people, and that alone is enough to put a tempting price on the Crown Prince’s head, which is why he absolutely must retain the loyalty of his military and security services in order to ensure his survival. That said, it would be a very unwise move for him to start a conventional war with Iran or Lebanon, or to deepen his disastrous commitment to the ongoing one in Yemen, as even the slightest sign of military discontent could quickly spiral into a regime change attempt against him, which is why there’s a good reason to consider Mohammed Bin Salman’s post-coup regional bellicosity as being nothing more than one big bluff.

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DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

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