We haven’t heard too many new outrages from Saudi Arabia in a few days. So perhaps the ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is toning down his ambitions after the U.S. warned him he was going too far; or else he temporarily moderated himself preparing for a new onslaught on as yet unspecified targets.
Salman has been doing a lot of summoning of his rivals and satraps in order to apprise them who’s the new sheriff in town and demand broad obeisance. If he doesn’t like the answers he’s getting or doesn’t trust his interlocutors, he has them shipped off to the “spa” for a session with one of his royal masseurs, schooled in the art of relaxation techniques. Many of the royal rivals he arrested received such treatment.
But Salman has treated his foreign satraps a bit more gingerly. He didn’t like seeing Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri meeting in Beirut with the former Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati. That led to the Lebanese leader getting a ‘special invitation’ to join Salman at his Ritz Carlton “guest house.” Once he was safely under the Saudi thumb, they told Hariri if he expected any more business or infusion of capital into his bankrupt construction business he must resign as punishment for his impudence. No satellite state of the Saudis would ever exhibit such a streak of independence again if he wished to retain any Saudi financial support.
Hariri dutifully resigned as if he was a trained seal, on Saudi TV, leaving Lebanon in political chaos and not knowing what was going on. Now you have the strange phenomenon of Hariri’s political enemies, the Shiite Hezbollah, speaking of him as if he was the nation’s beloved leader and begging him to return and resume his presidency. While Hariri remains imprisoned in his gilded cage.
Though Salman appears to have temporarily backed off his worst impulses and perhaps decided to take a breather, the second stage of his putsch could be worse. He has already placed Qatar in the doghouse for its temerity in seeking out an independent political path in the Gulf by pursuing commercial ventures and relations with Iran. Qatar is under siege by all of the Gulf and Sunni states in the region. It remains to be seen how severe the long-term impacts will be on Qatar. It certainly will harm their economy. But to what degree is unknown.
Salman may have the same plan in store for Lebanon if he doesn’t get his way there. His demands, like those he made against Qatar, are entirely unrealistic. He wants Iran to stop meddling in Lebanon. He wants Hezbollah to withdraw from Lebanese politics. One presumes that if his demands aren’t met (as they weren’t by Qatar) that he could pursue the same path against Lebanon. The Saudis provide immense amounts of aid and commerce to Lebanon. Withdrawing it, would have a severe impact.
But Salman doesn’t seem to have realized that Hezbollah and its Iranian allies are a tough, hardened lot. Lebanon survived a brutal civil war and two decades of Israeli occupation. No matter the level of pain the Saudis tried to inflict, it would not break the country just as western sanctions never broke Iran. In fact, such a draconian approach would likely strengthen the hand of Hezbollah in Lebanon. It would pose itself, just as it does regarding Israel, as the chief force defending Lebanese independence and sovereignty. And what could Hariri or his Sunni Future Movement offer? Their fealty to a sclerotic, corrupt Saudi petro-state?
Hariri wasn’t the only satrap summoned to Riyadh. Salman also snapped his fingers and demanded that Mahmoud Abbas make an appearance before him at the royal court. We don’t know what they discussed. But it’s not hard to guess.
We’ve been hearing about the much-vaunted Trump Middle East peace plan. Apparently, it will be rolled out in a matter of weeks. Kushner and Greenblatt have made their own jaunts to the House of Saud to iron out the details. They’ve huddled with Netanyahu as well to be sure that the proposed plan ratifies all of Israel’s current rights and privileges.
The odd man out here was Abbas. No one cared much what he thought. That’s why he was summoned. Salman likely informed him of what he would be expected to do when the time came–to perform like a seal before the world. This “deal” would be ratified by the Saudis on behalf of their Palestinian brethren. The latter would be expected to bow obediently and accept the lot offered them. Israeli TV even reported that the Saudi prince told Abbas to take the deal or resign. That would be a suitably bleak appraisal for Israeli media of their quisling Palestinian interlocutor. I doubt even the Saudis would be that crude. But who knows?
If I were a Palestinian I would be very apprehensive about what the future holds. The Saudis don’t give a farthing for the Palestinians or their interests. They would sell them out for an oil well. The deal, if one is ever presented, will make Palestine into a bantustan. No Palestinian in his right mind would consider accepting whatever Trump and the Saudis will offer.
The question is how Abbas and the PA will react. Clearly, the Saudis hold the purse strings and the PA leadership is as crooked as the day is long. So in that sense, the Palestinian fate may be sealed. The only question is how frightened are they of the Palestinian street? What will Marwan Barghouti do? Will he call out the resistance? Or will he remain quiet?
And if the Palestinians resist, can the Saudis bring them under their thumb as they did Hariri? Can they lay siege to Ramallah like the Israelis are laying siege to Gaza?
In fact, one might argue that much of Salman’s approach has been learned at the knees of the Israelis. They have taught Salman how to wage war on his neighbors like Yemen and how to cultivate proxy forces like the Yemenis fighting against the Houthis there (think of Israel’s repeated incursions into Gaza and Lebanon). They’ve offered the example of a decade long siege of Gaza in order to throttle the political ambitions of uppity Hamas militants. That is likely one reason Salman is employing siege tactics in Qatar and threatening them in Lebanon.
The problem is that none of these Israeli tactics worked. Cultivating proxies to fight your battles has failed in Lebanon (the South Lebanon Army) and in Syria (al-Nusra in the Golan). The Gaza siege has not ended Palestinian militancy nor has it destroyed Hamas. The most you can say is that they temporarily “mowed the grass.” That is, they beat back their opponents, tamped down their military power and forced them to spend down their weapons arsenal a bit. That’s not statecraft. It’s managing chaos like the Dutch boy holding his finger in the dike.
If this were a poker game, Israel and Saudi Arabia would bluff and bluster. But their Iranian and Hezbollah opponents would see right through it. They are the ones with the strong hand. Bibi and Salman have a weak hand. While they may fool the world into thinking they don’t. Nasrallah and his Iranian allies know what cards they really hold.