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Feature Article
2017-04-11

Hazards Ahead For Muhammad bin Salman: Trump To The Rescue?

The star of the deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, will rise now that the Americans have thrown their weight behind Saudi efforts to reign in Iranian regional influence. President Trump, an unlikely ally, may ensure that Muhammad's place in the succession is secure.

by Richard Smith

On the morning of April 6, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from an American fleet in the Mediterranean Sea hit the Shayrat Airbase near Homs in Syria, heavily damaging it. The airbase was believed to have been the base from which Syrian military aircraft had carried out a chemical weapons attack on civilians in the town of Khan Shaykhun a few days earlier. The surprise strike was authorized by U.S. President Donald Trump as a warning to the armed forces of Bashar al-Assad, although Syrian airplanes were reportedly using the Shayrat airbase only hours later to launch further attacks against the same town they had previously targeted with sarin gas, this time using conventional weapons. It remains unclear whether the American action was intended as a one-off display of force, or heralded further military intervention in the region; mixed signals from the administration only succeeded in muddying the waters.

Nonetheless, the dramatic strike was widely praised by the media and prominent members of both American political parties as an example of decisive action, in contrast to what was seen as vacillation by former president Obama in 2013, when he famously failed to enforce his self-imposed "red line" on the use of chemical weapons by Assad when faced with a nearly identical situation. Initially, Obama was inclined towards military action, but after a public outcry and his own concerns about becoming bogged down in an unwinnable conflict with no exit strategy, changed his mind and turned the matter over to Congress, knowing they would defeat the proposal. Russia provided a face-saving solution, which Obama eagerly took, but the perception that he had drawn a line in the sand and then done nothing when it was crossed irrevocably damaged his standing and credibility among allies in the Mideast, who did not hesitate to make their displeasure known. Prince Turki al-Faysal, the royal family's unofficial spokesman, made it clear at the time that American leadership and indeed, a military solution, were needed to remove Assad.

Frustration at the U.S. was manifest. The monarchies of the Gulf were heavily invested, financially and politically, in the fight against Assad, to the extent that they propped up "moderate" rebel groups who on any other day would have been seeking their own overthrow back home. Despite the quandary of supporting extremists who saw it as their ultimate goal to bring down the Gulf monarchies themselves, Saudi and others gambled that the rebels could be controlled, perhaps being eliminated later once they had served their purpose, even if there was never any very well though-out plan for that. More important in the short term was combatting Iranian influence in the region, and with Iran supporting Assad, the use of the rebel militias was seen as an indispensable policy tool. Unfortunately, as the war dragged on year after year with no end in sight, the lack of American backing threatened disaster. Assad was clearly winning, Islamic State (IS) was metastisizing as a result of the chaos, and Obama's failure to intervene was coming to be seen as an existential event. Iran was gaining the upper hand regionally, already dominating affairs in Iraq (an outcome blamed both on the Americans' rush to war, and on their too-rapid withdrawal), meddling in Bahrain, supporting rebel militias in Yemen on Saudi's southern border, and now looked to have a client state with access to the Mediterranean in the form of Syria.

Unsurprisingly, the decisive action taken by the new Trump administration was roundly cheered by the Gulf States. In spite of the conflicting accounts over what would follow (there seems little appetite for all-out regime change) at least there was a glimmer of hope that the Americans finally had their back. In Saudi, no one could have been happier than the deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), who now sees a way out of his predicament.

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Past Feature Articles
An Asian Tour: Opportunity At Home?

King Salman's Asian tour left the Crown Prince in charge of affairs as his deputy. But while the king's visit to Indonesia garnered worldwide attention for the displays of wealth and the size of his retinue, Muhammad bin Nayif was presented with a golden opportunity to raise his profile at home.

Taking the Measure of the New Administration: Change in Store, but for Whom?

Despite U.S. President Trump's unorthodox style, Saudi has appeared to take the new administration in stride. This is not solely due to diplomatic niceties; the royals are cautiously optimistic that the Americans will lend their weight to a regional effort to contain and confront Iran, a matter which overshadows all else. But the appearance of Trump on the scene threatens to upend royal family domestic politics as well.

Move, Countermove - Searching For Equilibrium?

The Deputy Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, although facing pressure on multiple fronts, has skillfully outmanouevred his adversaries by backing them into a corner. By making himself indispensable, he forces potential challengers to his place in the succession to accept an outcome they would not otherwise have chosen.

OPEC Deal: Tactical Retreat or Admission of Failure?

At first sight, the recent deal to cut oil production among OPEC members appears to be an admission by Saudi Arabia that its strategy to maximize the flow of crude and suppress prices has been a failure. Does backing down now represent a long-term shift in outlook, or did an improving economic outlook allow some breathing room?

A Royal Execution: Politics Or Principle?

News that Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabir had been executed for murder elicited widespread praise from within the Kingdom for the equal treatment under the law the royal's punishment represented. But was the high-profile act a response to a growing realization by the royal family that the turbulent pace of change may be putting the social compact under increasing stress?

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