The aggressive policies of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman have contributed to a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the potential exit of Qatar from the GCC. Many in the Muslim world are watching cautiously as Prince Salman gets closer to the throne.
Speculation about Saudi Arabia's next monarch came to an end last month when King Salman appointed Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to crown prince. The shakeup sidelined the previous crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, whom the King also stripped of his other position as counter terrorism chief.
Assuming that MBS ascends to the throne, there will be major implications for the future of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy based on the young prince's vision for the Middle East.
What will his Custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques mean for Riyadh-Tehran relations and all the conflicts where the Saudis and Iranians are on opposing side? Moreover, how will he navigate the crisis surrounding Qatar's ties with Riyadh and other Arab Gulf capitals?
Many outside of Saudi Arabia have major concerns about the trajectory of Riyadh's foreign policy, especially now with MBS set to fully dictate aggressive policies, after two and a half years of him essentially doing so. King Salman has groomed MBS for leadership ever since the sitting monarch's ascension to the throne in January 2015 and the monarch's son has unquestionably been the driving force behind most of Saudi Arabia's bold regional initiatives since the death of the late King Abdullah.
As defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman was largely responsible for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, initially framing the military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels as a matter of national security.
However, it has largely devolved into a bloody misadventure with an insurmountable toll on civilian lives in the Arab world's poorest country, which has not protected the Kingdom from the Houthis' rocket and missile attacks. The campaign has also failed to keep Iran out of Yemen. To the contrary, Iran has recently stepped up its support for the Houthis, sending them advanced weapons and military advisers.
With the most recent Saudi/UAE-led bloc's diplomatic and economic action against Qatar, MBS and Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, have demonstrated their vision for a future GCC.
These two leaders' quest is to transform the Council into a more cohesive organisation that is strongly unified behind the Saudi and UAE understanding of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Jazeera posing grave threats to regional stability. They want the council to be supportive of efforts to counter Tehran aggressively, designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, and prohibit media platforms from preaching hate, as well as those with scores of Muslim Brotherhood figures as guests, from broadcasting from any Council member.
Ultimately, at this juncture, it is far too early to determine how the inner-GCC feud will evolve. Yet given the varying degrees of support for Doha from the United States, Oman, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, as well as other governments across the world, it is clear that Riyadh's efforts over the past several weeks to convince the international community to view Qatar as a ‘rogue' state have failed.
The Qataris have demonstrated that they could and would adapt their trade links and infrastructure to remain solvent amid a blockade imposed by neighbouring Arab states.
Given MBS' hawkish approach to addressing Saudi Arabia's geopolitical challenges in the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant since 2015, there are indicators as to how he'd manage Riyadh's foreign policy moving forward. It is worth asking, who in the Middle East fears the idea of the 31-year crown prince becoming the first Saudi of the millennial generation to inherit the throne?
MBS articulates his resolute opposition towards Iran, which he accused of trying to "take over the Islamic world", with anti-Shi'ite rhetoric. He stated that the Saudis will not "wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we'll work so that the battle is for them in Iran." He stated that Shi'ite Muslims' "logic is based on the notion that Imam Mahdi will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for his arrival and they must control the Muslim world." Naturally, Shi'ite and other non-Sunni Muslim communities across the Islamic world from Lebanon to India find such intolerant language disturbing.
Also, two Gulf Cooperation Council members (GCC) members, Kuwait and Oman, both seek to defuse tension between Riyadh and Tehran and have signalled dissatisfaction with Riyadh's foreign policy course since MBS' ascension to Deputy Crown Prince in 2015.
Unquestionably, if King Salman's successor doubles down on Riyadh's approach to Iran and the battles for influence in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, and Yemen, the Kuwaiti and Omani leadership would fear the implications for their countries' interests.
Should MBS continue steering the Kingdom in an increasingly hawkish direction with a more assertive and sectarian foreign policy, he risks protracting ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen and bringing about the end of the GCC as an institution with the "birth" of six independent countries depending on how the Qatar crisis evolves.
To be sure, MBS' strategies for asserting Saudi influence amid Iran's regional ascendancy and Qatar's refusal to capitulate severely dim the prospects for any reconciliation in Riyadh-Tehran and Riyadh-Doha relations.
Ultimately, whatever the country's foreign policy trajectory will be under MBS' leadership, what is certain is that many in the Muslim world will be watching, and many will be doing so with a host of trepidation and very specific geo-sectarian concerns.
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