The new prince confronts Iran (with other people’s armies)

Brian M Downing 

Mohammad bin Salman is solidifying his position as future king of Saudi Arabia. The aged king has ceded authority to him and may step down in coming months. At home, Mohammad is directing a sweeping industrialization program and a modest reform effort. In world affairs, he’s determined to weaken Iran and other Shia powers. Part of the reason for the industrialization push is to catch up to Iran.

Israel has long been building a concerted anti-Shia campaign and will do its part by attacking targets in Syria and Lebanon and pressing the US to get involved. President Obama refrained from hostile actions against Iran but it did not lead to diplomatic opening. President Trump has entrusted Middle Eastern policy to a son-in-law more experienced in real estate than realpolitik. Perhaps it was a nod to Saudi family tradition.


Prince Mohammad, like his neoconservative and Likud supporters, sees Iranian-Shia power on the rise. This is dubious or at least overstated. Iran has made gains by thwarting Kurdistan’s independence and keeping Assad in power, but fares less well elsewhere. The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was courting ties with Iran until a Saudi-backed coup ousted it. Syria has broken into pieces, faces interminable hostility from its Sunni majority, and has decades of rebuilding ahead. Yemen is a costly stalemate that has helped Riyadh unite the Sunni monarchies. Iran itself is beset by two low-level insurgencies and disaffection by its large urban middle-class.

The ruling clique’s geopolitical outlook is shaped by Wahhabist ideology which sees Shia as apostates and Persians as enemies. Sectarian beliefs and passions are a poor basis for foreign policy, and allies should beware rash policies built on such bases.

The young prince may calculate that aggressive action will strengthen his grasp on power. There are thousands of ambitious princes who are excluded from the ongoing succession from one small clique to another. They are eager to expand their power but will be thwarted by a prince who stands triumphant on the world stage.

Government bureaus and assemblies will laud a victorious warrior king. His support will be formidable, his succession assured. His rule will enjoy the legitimacy of military victory which no Saudi ruler has had since Abdul Aziz defeated rival clans and imposed his will across the Arabian peninsula. Or so it may seem to a young prince. He and his allies should ponder the consequences of failure. Both sides in any war are confident of victory but only one side wins. Oftentimes, both lose and disastrously so.


A ground war between Saudi and Iranian troops is unlikely. Iran’s forces are not as well-equipped as Saudi Arabia’s but they are much larger and have at least a little combat experience, though they have not acquitted themselves well in Syria. More likely, Prince Mohammad will use proxies.

Riyadh and its allies will support Mujahedin-e Khalq bombings and assassinations. Concurrently, support can go to Kurdish and Baloch insurgents in northwest and southwest Iran, respectively, though neither is likely to become much larger.

One of the more significant theaters will be Syria and possibly Iraq. Rebels in the northwest have been stalemated but those in the northeast and east have successfully defeated ISIL and now face Syrian forces. Saudi Arabia and Iran may conduct a proxy war. American advisers and even an artillery unit are already there. Israeli and American airpower may support them with strikes in western Syria.


Even the brashest world leader knows that oil prices are low and expected to remain that way. Prince Mohammad’s geopolitical campaign comes at the same time as his industrialization program. Neither will be cheap, combined they will be burdensome. Failure with one or both might well be calamitous, both financially and politically.

The ruling clique will face opposition from excluded princes and princesses, traditionalists who see industrialization as a betrayal to westernization, as is their partnership with the US and Israel – the greater and lesser “satans” in Wahhabist ideology. And his Shia population (10-15%), inconveniently concentrated in oil-rich areas, is angered by increased mistreatment.

The young prince’s war on the region’s Shia may result in an oppressed minority becoming an insurgent movement. And one might hope that he and the neoconservatives in the US will realize that events in the Middle East do not always play out as thought.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.