For many years, Saudi Arabia punched below its weight in the region—struggling, for all its immense wealth, to project power and shape political outcomes beyond its Gulf neighborhood. Iran, by contrast, advanced a low-cost, high-yield strategy to build its influence by exploiting the cracks within the Middle East’s American-led order. But now, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman orchestrates a sweeping consolidation of power at home through mass arrests, Saudi Arabia is changing its posture abroad as well, in a move that could have repercussions throughout the region and beyond. And the U.S. appears to be giving the kingdom carte blanche.
President Donald Trump took time out of his travels in Asia to tweet his support for Saudi Arabia’s stunning arrests of dozens of royal family members, military officials, ministers, and leading businessmen this past weekend. Trump’s endorsement of the Saudi moves, just after his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s third visit to the kingdom this year, follows troublesome patterns in both countries. For Trump, it is another example of him offering while ignoring the strategic costs of autocratic repression—or even outright celebrating it.
On the Saudi side, it appears the government may, once again, be leaping before it looks. The risk is that Riyadh’s aggressive moves at home could destabilize the country, while its more muscular foreign policy could draw the country and its partners into open-ended conflicts across the Middle East.
It remains difficult for outside observers to offer a credible analysis of what’s happening inside Saudi Arabia right now. Much remains unclear, particularly what grand designs or threats, however imminent or notional, drove King Salman, his son, and their allies to act so boldly against their fellow royals. What is clear is that, even as Riyadh undergoes a political earthquake at home, its leaders are not shying away from raising tensions in the region.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s hands-off approach has allowed others to set the regional agenda. With Riyadh, Trump squanders U.S. leverage by offering unconditional support to Saudi Arabia. To Tehran, he offers tough talk without any actual plans to compete more effectively in the region. The result? An emboldened Saudi Arabia acts as it sees fit to fill the void. It’s a formula that leaves the Middle East more vulnerable to military conflict, and American troops enmeshed in the middle of complicated fights. From Yemen to Qatar to Lebanon, it’s not clear if this approach serves U.S. interests. In the worst case, it could even drag America into a regional war with Iran.
The crackdown in Saudi Arabia is just one in a series of events that have roiled the Middle East in recent days. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned while visiting the Saudi capital this weekend, citing an assassination plot and criticizing Iran and its Lebanese partner Hezbollah. In response, Saudi Arabia said Lebanon had declared war against it. Meanwhile, a ballistic missile fired from Yemeni territory targeted Riyadh this weekend—a brazen act of aggression no country would accept. Though the missile was shot down, Saudi Arabia called this a possible “act of war,” blamed Iran, and announced it was closing all land, sea, and air travel to Yemen.
The broader context for all of these events is a wider struggle for power and influence among and between the Middle East’s leading countries—Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also Turkey and other Gulf states. These countries have used military, economic, and political support for proxies to project power, as well as media campaigns designed to influence populations and discredit rivals. The dilemma is that each state fears its meddlesome rivals are funding proxies and then does so itself. As a result, conflicts deepen and the region becomes more polarized, less stable, and less secure—and each government can point to the actions of others. The aggregate effect has been profoundly destabilizing, helping to fragment states and allowing groups like the Islamic State to thrive.
With Saudi Arabia in tumult, its internal stability remains a top concern. Global energy markets have already taken notice of the recent arrests, with the price of oil spiking to a two-year high on Monday. Prince Salman has taken down the heads of powerful security institutions—including former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a key counterterrorism partner for the United States for decades, and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the former head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard—but it remains to be seen whether his moves to sideline potential rivals will create an internal backlash. So far there are no obvious signs of an organized resistance to the crown prince, who has also outlined a plan to reform the economy and press ahead with significant social reforms, such as taming the country’s religious police.
Then there’s Yemen. A ballistic missile targeting Riyadh was a reckless move by the Houthis, who have benefited from Iranian weapons. America should redouble efforts to help interdict Iranian military aid to the Houthis, but closing Yemen’s access to the outside world would make an already terrible humanitarian disaster even worse. Active U.S. engagement is needed, first to help Saudis find a more responsible way to reestablish deterrence, then to make it an American priority to end this war quickly on terms Saudi Arabia can accept.
Finally, there’s Lebanon. Unless Riyadh treads carefully, it could do long-term damage by stoking conflict within a society still coping with the strains of refugees from Syria’s civil war. Worse, many observers believe Lebanon faces heightened risk of another conflict with Israel—and Saudi Arabia’s contention that Lebanon has declared war on it only compounds the volatility. Saudi Arabia has proven unable to ease Hezbollah’s grasp on Lebanon or counter Iran’s influence there—but walking away from the Lebanese state, or attempting to isolate it, are unlikely to improve matters.
Saudi Arabia’s increased assertiveness in the Middle East has its upsides, including a historic diplomatic opening to Iraq. Saudi rulers have earned high marks for courting Iraqi Shiites as well as Sunnis, despite Baghdad’s close ties to Iran. Moreover, Iraqis have high hopes that Saudis can help rebuild ravaged Sunni areas and help them maintain national independence against their overbearing neighbor. Saudi Arabia’s growing partnership with Israel could also be quite positive for the region.
But there’s no denying that some of Saudi Arabia’s recent foreign policy moves have also had a negative impact. The United States, as the main external power in the region, could do more to shape the choices of its allies—not simply boosting weapons sales or lobbying over which stock exchange Saudi Aramco should use to go public, but by encouraging U.S. partners to act as shared stakeholders in regional stability.
Making good on the promise of constructive relations between Riyadh and Baghdad will require significant U.S. diplomatic spadework. It will also require no small amount of luck to insulate this burgeoning diplomatic success story from wider Saudi-Iranian tensions. In fact, there’s no shortage of constructive work that needs doing. The U.S. could bolster the missile defense systems of Gulf countries, for instance, but that requires a much stronger diplomatic and military effort and the political will to coordinate amongst America’s partners. Similarly, the U.S. could ensure that efforts to crack down on terrorist financing and counter-extremist ideology deliver tangible results. From Iraq to Syria to Yemen, there are wars that need winding down and societies that need rebuilding. None of that will happen by presidential tweet. All of it requires sustained American diplomacy.
Trump acted early to win political capital with Saudi rulers. He should spend some down. But instead of putting America’s interests first, too often it feels like he is simply along for a ride that could get a lot bumpier.