Saudi Arabia’s purge of senior officials and royal family members highlights aggressive changes taking place in the 85-year-old kingdom and, some analysts say, possibly risks in the newly close relationship the White House has forged with Riyadh.
Government ministers, former officials and princes were swept up in an anti-corruption campaign that some analysts said could raise the risk of internal conflict, particularly as the arrests looked more like a consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the force behind the kingdom’s most assertive new policies.
The 32-year-old, popularly known as MBS, has forged a close working relationship with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, while Trump himself has praised Saudi ruler King Salman, along with the relationship he’s developed with him, and made Riyadh the first pomp-filled stop of his first official trip overseas.
The Trump administration has aligned the US more closely with Saudi Arabia, even as some of the kingdom’s policies – including a fight with Qatar, home to a major US military base, and a Saudi-led war in Yemen that is creating a catastrophic humanitarian crisis – have raised concerns among US national security officials and experts.
“I would say there are other elements in US government that are concerned more significantly of the risks that some of MBS’ actions pose to regional security,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a former CIA analyst who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute specializing in Arab Gulf politics.
While those officials and experts may see dangers in aligning the US too closely with Saudi Arabia, Boghardt said, they “are not front and center and able to overcome the support of key elements of the White House” for the Saudi view of the way forward.
Analysts point to risks of the war in Yemen, particularly if the US is identified as complicit, there is a strong possibility that the conflict will become a terrorist recruiting draw. Meanwhile, Saudis are pushing increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward Iran, coming close to accusing it of an act of war after Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen reportedly fired a missile close to Riyadh airport on Saturday.
The spat with Qatar could create openings for Iran to sow division and, separately, difficulties for the US military, which uses its base there to fly critical missions to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. None of that seems to have dimmed the White House affinity for Saudi Arabia or, analysts say, lessened national security officials’ wariness.
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump, who spoke with King Salman on Saturday, tweeted Monday evening, adding, “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”
‘Putting his chips on MBS’
“I think that President Trump is putting his chips on MBS,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute, but added, “I don’t think institutionally, the State Department or Pentagon are.”
The wariness isn’t just in the US. In December 2015, a German intelligence report leaked to news agencies identified bin Salman, who is also defense minister and leading economic reforms, as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East, given his youth, inexperience and the possibility that he might overreach.
Indeed, bin Salman has been involved in some of the more aggressive moves since King Salman, his father, assumed power in January 2015. He’s been a driver behind the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the campaign to isolate Qatar, an overhaul of the Saudi economy, a move to allow women to drive and the anti-corruption purge that led to the arrests of 17 people on Sunday.
The prince and his father have also invested heavily in relationships with the new White House team, with King Salman making one of his younger sons the new ambassador to Washington, and bin Salman cultivating close ties with Kushner.
Kushner worked closely with the crown prince on Trump’s May visit to Saudi Arabia, helped broker an arms deal to Saudi Arabia worth nearly $100 million that was announced in May, and traveled to the kingdom in August and October.
The point of cultivating such a close relationship, said Boghardt, was to “try to get Trump to see their regional view, who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, who the US should have a tight relationship with, who are the trouble makers.”
“They were very successful,” she added.
That has meant continued strong support for the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen, where more than 10,000 people have been killed and support systems so badly crushed that famine and disease are ravaging the country.
“The longer the war continues without an endgame, the more strongly the US will be viewed as complicit in the humanitarian tragedy and as not doing enough to save civilian lives,” Boghardt said. “There are also major security implications for the US that accompany that view,” she added, including the possibility of radicalization.
Perhaps the most public example of a difference in outlook on Saudi Arabia might have been early in the ongoing fight between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia and others accused Qatar of supporting terrorists and cut diplomatic relations.
State Department officials privately pointed to concerns that the dispute could be exploited by Iran to undermine Gulf cooperation and US security aims in the region.
But even as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis pushed for reconciliation and talks when the Gulf spat erupted in June, Trump dispensed with nuance and took to Twitter: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!”
For Henderson, it was clear that, “the Trump White House has supported the position of MBS” and allied Gulf countries “to the evident frustration of Mattis and Tillerson.”
CNN’s Mohammed Tawfeeq and Flora Charner in Atlanta, CNN’s Nic Robertson in Tokyo, CNN’s Sarah El Sirgany in Abu Dhabi contributed to this report