The risks of Saudi war on too many fronts
Until the sudden purge in Saudi Arabia, there was little doubt that the kingdom’s young crown prince had the world’s admiring attention for his prospectus for change. He promised women a share of the public place and the chance to legally get behind the wheel of a car (almost 130 years after Bertha Benz, wife of Karl, who patented the first “horseless carriage,” but change proceeds at its own pace).
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz offered young Saudis legitimate outlets such as cinemas for the fun-loving instinct shared by humans and many mammals (dolphins, for instance, are famously playful). Most important of all, Crown Prince Mohammed vowed his country would “return” to a more “moderate, balanced” Islam.
So far, so admirable. Only the churlish would deny the necessary logic of the prince’s grand plan for Saudi Arabia: A future that looks beyond oil. A better-adjusted society. A more holistic appeal to and for the world.
Then, there was the November 4 purge. There was the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister, announced by him on a Saudi television station and from within Saudi Arabia. There have been repeated muscular verbal threats against Iran. Separately, but in sync, there has been US President Donald Trump’s tweeted support for Riyadh’s bold moves against sections of its royal family, leading businessmen and executives.
The developments came within a week of a quite different slew of head-turning announcements from Riyadh. The Future Investment Initiative was launched, along with plans for a fully automated city for “dreamers” on the Red Sea. The kingdom’s robust open-for-business message only added to the rising excitement in London (and New York, via Trump) over the proposed initial public offering of oil giant Saudi Aramco.
However, the purge and Saudi tough talk in the neighbourhood may have raised the political risk the country faces. No one can presume to know for sure but those who have long studied the kingdom from afar say Aramco’s valuation may be dented and some foreign investors may be leery.
But, of what? The purge is a sign that Crown Prince Mohammed is consolidating power for the long and difficult road of radical reform. That is an internal matter and frankly — despite the explosion of commentary — impenetrable to the outside world. That said, there is another visible fault line between intention and initiative.
Many are wondering whether Crown Prince Mohammed and Saudi Arabia will be able to hold up and hold on as they fight on multiple fronts. Domestically, there is the battle against current and future opponents of reform. Abroad there is the nearly 3-year-old war in Yemen, the seven-month impasse with Qatar and a new martial mood towards Tehran. All of this while Crown Prince Mohammed pursues the most far-reaching social, cultural, political and security changes in the 85 years Saudi Arabia has existed in its current form as an independent country.
The worry is that in its attempt to confront Iran — whose relentless regional meddling undoubtedly does need to be checked — Crown Prince Mohammed will begin yet another war abroad even as he soldiers on through a domestic fight. One is difficult enough; both at the same time are immeasurably hard.
More than 200 years ago, the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted that war cannot be seen in terms of military victory. The defeated enemy may not accept the result and will simply wait for a better time to fight again, he said, so the maximum use of military force is only a necessary, not a sufficient condition for final victory.
Diplomacy and political wisdom are the “missing ingredients,” Clausewitz counselled, if the results achieved in battle are to be consolidated. It is wiser, then, to rely on a combination of adequate strength and diplomacy.
The subtext is clear: Choose which fights to pick and when.