By Jacob L. Shapiro
After months of relative silence from Saudi Arabia, this was a noisy weekend. For the second time since he was named heir to the throne last June, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced a major Cabinet reshuffle, this time focusing on ministries related to culture, Islamic life and social development. Just one day earlier, French newspaper Le Monde reported that the crown prince had sent a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron threatening to attack Qatar, the target of last year’s Saudi-led blockade, if Doha acquired Russian-made S-400 air defense systems. Last but not least, Israeli news site News1 published an article about Saudi Arabia’s plans to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, potentially with help from Pakistan or Israel.
These stories point to the intense internal and external pressures Saudi Arabia is facing, even with the recent spike in oil prices. The Cabinet reshuffle is further evidence of Mohammed’s attempt to win the loyalty of the Saudi bureaucracy. The first salvos in this campaign were aimed at the military and wealthy Saudi citizens – two groups that could have been hotbeds of dissent against the young crown prince. Now Mohammed is turning to some of the ministries that will be responsible for implementing the reforms upon which he is staking both his life and his country’s future.
Saudi Plans Backfire
Mohammed has managed to install individuals loyal to him at many levels of Saudi Arabia’s political, military and religious structure, and the most surprising thing is that he has done so without creating significant backlash against his rule. Perhaps his opponents are biding their time, or perhaps there is a consensus within the ruling elite over the direction the country must take. Mohammed is by no means out of the woods – his position remains extremely precarious – but each step he takes allows him to cement his authority even further. He will need all the support he can get as he tries to transform Saudi Arabia from a tribal petrostate to a mature, 21st-century nation.
Le Monde’s report on the Saudi threat to attack Qatar is not nearly as heartening. This time last year, Saudi Arabia initiated a coordinated diplomatic assault against Doha to get Qatar, which was getting cozy with Riyadh’s main rivals Iran and Turkey, to fall back in line. Riyadh had no intention of allowing Qatar to become a fifth column in the Gulf, which Saudi Arabia views as its sphere of influence. So Saudi Arabia got its allies, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen, to sign on to a plan to isolate Qatar economically and financially.
But the plan backfired. Qatar didn’t bend, Al-Jazeera didn’t shut down, and the U.S. didn’t stop using Qatar as its forward headquarters for U.S. Central Command. In fact, Qatar’s economy grew stronger after the initial shock wore off, and its relationship with Turkey has deepened, with Qatar even agreeing in March to allow Turkey to establish a naval base in the country. Qatar also hasn’t stopped dealing with Iran on a pragmatic basis, restoring full diplomatic relations with Tehran two months after Saudi Arabia’s aborted attempt to bring Doha to its knees. Indeed, the Saudi strategy actually demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s fundamental weakness, not its strength.
If the report from Le Monde is true, Saudi Arabia is now pressing the issue once more. If Qatar were to acquire the S-400 system, it would help negate Saudi Arabia’s only real military advantage over its neighbors – its formidable air power, built through years of acquisitions of U.S. military hardware. Saudi Arabia has already seen what Russian involvement in the Middle East can mean for Saudi interests; Moscow’s intervention in Syria is the primary reason Bashar Assad’s regime survived, spoiling both Saudi and Turkish hopes to replace Assad with a Sunni leader. Saudi Arabia does not want Russia to prop up yet another Middle Eastern regime hostile to Saudi interests, especially not one with which Saudi Arabia shares a border.
But Saudi Arabia is playing a dangerous game here, one that it may not be able to win. On the one hand, Riyadh can’t look much weaker than it already does when it comes to Qatar, so there is little lost in making the threat and not following through. But following through on the threat would be dangerous because Riyadh could find itself not just stoking tensions further with Iran but even forcing Turkey – which already has a military base in Qatar in addition to the naval base that was agreed to – to directly oppose Saudi moves.
Nuclear Arms Race
The Israeli media report that Saudi Arabia may pursue nuclear weapons if it becomes clear that Iran has done the same is based mostly on conjecture and inference. There is no evidence that Pakistan is stockpiling nuclear bombs to transfer to Saudi Arabia should an arms race begin in earnest, only unconfirmed reports. Furthermore, the headline attracting most of the attention – that Israel might be transferring nuclear information to Saudi Arabia – is based not on evidence but on what the author describes as a “reasonable assumption” based on Israel’s interest to cultivate closer ties to Saudi Arabia.
It’s still notable, however, that a potential Saudi move to acquire nuclear weapons is being talked about at all. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister told CNN in May that the country would absolutely pursue a nuclear weapons program should Iran restart its own program following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. And since most indications suggest Iran never intended to fully give up its nuclear weapons program in the long term, even if it was willing to suspend uranium enrichment in the short term, a nuclear arms race between the Middle East’s major powers is a matter of when, not if.
Indeed, there is perhaps no country outside of Israel for which nuclear weapons would be more valuable than Saudi Arabia, especially if the United States pulled back from the region in the future. Of the major Middle Eastern powers vying for regional supremacy, Saudi Arabia is by far the weakest, and nuclear weapons are a tremendous equalizer. In other words, though we cannot confirm the veracity of the Israeli report, we also cannot find much fault in the underlying logic of its prediction.
Though Saudi Arabia has taken its licks in recent years, it remains a rich petrostate with formidable if limited conventional military capabilities and a history of relying on proxies to do its bidding. Riyadh no doubt still favors this strategy, as evidenced most recently by reports in Turkish media suggesting that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are working to create a new Arab militia in northeastern Syria that might be sympathetic to Saudi interests. The problem for Saudi Arabia is that this strategy has consistently failed to bring about an improvement in its overall strategic position, and in all directions, Saudi Arabia faces enemies stronger than itself. The crown prince can shuffle his Cabinet all he wants, but even if he can transform Saudi Arabia – a herculean task in its own right – his country is not even powerful enough to get Qatar to toe the line.
In that sense, these three reports from the weekend offer a window into the imminent challenges Saudi Arabia is facing – and it’s not a pleasant view.