The Saudi king’s decision to elevate his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31, to crown prince and heir to the throne, in place of his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef – as part of a broad reshuffle, is not merely the internal affair of the royal hierarchy, but a game-changing international event.
DEBKAfile’s analysts see it as the outcome of a global and regional process initiated by Donald Trump soon after he settled in the White House in January. With his appointment as de facto ruler of the oil kingdom, the Saudi king’s son is ready to step into his allotted place in a new US-Arab-Israeli alliance that will seek to dominate Middle East affairs. Israel will be accepted in a regional lineup for the first time alongside the strongest Sunni Arab nations who all share similar objectives, especially the aim to stop Iran.
Trump’s trip to Riyadh and Jerusalem in early May laid the cornerstone for the new US-Sunni Arab bloc versus Iran’s Shiite grouping and also cemented Israel’s co-option.
This bloc is in its infancy and has yet to display staying power and prove the wisdom of its policies. But its contours have taken shape. US President Trump is taking the lead role along with Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, another crown prince, Egypt’s President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi, and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Three of those leaders already maintain strong direct – albeit discreet – ties with Israel’s prime minister, its security establishment, military and various intelligence agencies.
In a lecture on Tuesday, June 20, Israel’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott, spoke of the covert relations between the IDF and certain Arab nations, which he did not name. There is clearly a lot going on under the surface in various political, economic, financial, intelligence and military fields.
Recent events in the region already point to President Trump acting on important matters, such as the confrontation with Iran, the war on terror, the Syrian conflict and US intervention in the Yemen conflict, on the advice of the two Arab crown princes rather than Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
This was strikingly demonstrated when Trump overrode Tillerson’s recommendation to apply diplomacy for resolving the dispute that led to four Arab nations boycotting Qatar, with the Saudis in the lead, whereas the president then demanded strong action to stop Qatar’s funding of terrorists. He therefore opted for the aggressive Saudi and UAE stance against Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
These developments bear strongly on US-Russian relations. The two crown princes maintain active ties with President Vladimir Putin. They could, of course, act as go-betweens for smoothing relations between the White House and the Kremlin. But, on the other hand, their influence could be counter-productive and goad Trump into engaging the Russians in a limited confrontation in Syria. It is hard to see Washington and Moscow coming to terms in Syria at this point when the former is closely allied to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Moscow maintains its loyalty to Tehran.
The evolving bonds between the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel are the source of President Trump’s optimism about the prospects of pulling off an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, a vision which eluded all his predecessors in the White House, while knocking over the decades-old barriers between the moderate Arab nations and the Jewish State.
The first steps towards this goal are in the making. They will include exposing parts of their hidden interaction to the light of day, as well as such important symbolic actions, as opening Arab skies to the passage of Israeli commercial flights, or direct telephone links.
None of this is expected to transpire overnight but rather over years, especially since there is opposition to the process still to overcome in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, and also in the United States. Critics lay into Mohammed bin Salman, who has made his mark as a visionary social and economic reformer at home, as too young, brash and impatient to rule the kingdom. His decision to entangle Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war, which many believe it cannot win, is held up as evidence of his reckless nature.
But the process switched on by Trump in Riyadh took a large stride forward on June 21, with the formalization by King Salman of his young son’s role as the top mover and shaker in the Saudi kingdom. King Salman obtained the support of 31 out of 34 members of Saudi Arabia’s Allegiance Council for confirming Prince Muhammad Bin Salman as crown prince as well as deputy prime minister and minister of defense.