March 2, 2024
Who Is The Real Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia?
GCC Middle East Opinion

Who Is The Real Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia?

Is the new Deputy Defense Minister Prince Abdulrahman Al-Muqrin a potential contender for the Saudi throne?

by Irina Tsukerman

Can normalization with Iran alone fully explain the sudden change in Saudi policy from a combination of defense assertiveness and diplomatic engagement to complete docility?

The signs that an interest in appeasing Tehran played a major part in Riyadh’s tacit acceptance of the growing Houthi aggression in the region are certainly there. Since normalizing with Iran, Riyadh put an end

to military engagement in Yemen, has engaged in failed peace talks with the Ansar Allah representatives in Sana’a with the help of Omani mediators, and following the dismal end of these talks, invited the Houthi leadership to Riyadh for negotiations, which have been ongoing for months with no results.

When Houthis violated the ceasefire terms by attacking a Bahraini base in Yemen, killing 4 Bahraini officers at the end of September, and wounding over 50 others, the Saudi Defense Ministry remained silent, tacitly accepting this attack. Saudi silence indicated to Manama that Riyadh may no longer be counted on for unconditional defense in the event of Iran-backed aggression. Should the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, involving a popular uprising instigated by Hezbullah and Iran-backed Bahraini opposition repeat themselves currently, it is not clear whether Saudis would be ready to come to the Bahrain monarchy’s defense as they did at the time.

Since October 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, leading to the declaration of war on the Gaza-based terrorist organization by Israel’s PM Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia suffered several attacks by Houthis, including at least three at its borders, and at least one via an intercepted object attack. However, that not only did not put an end to the talks in Riyadh, but according to credible sources from the region, Saudi Arabia and the US have since come to press the Yemen government to include Houthis in a new governance structure. US has not given up its pursuit of some sort of a rapprochement with Tehran; however, given that the White House has agreed to review the Congressional initiative to re-designate Ansar Allah as an international organization, the US interest here, beyond, pressure Houthis into compliance through a stick and carrot approach, is not clear.  However, the Saudi interests remains murkier still, given that Houthis have not moved away from their radical ideology and have only increased their aggression as Riyadh continues to appease them. These developments beg the question: does Saudi Arabia have a defense policy or a strategy in response to Iran and its proxies, and if so, who is really behind it, given the silence from the Defense Ministry?

Part I:

Iran-Saudi reestablishment of relations

4th November 2023

On Friday, March 10, Saudi Arabia, and Iran announced their agreement to re-establish diplomatic ties based on talks held in Chiba after relations between the two countries were cut for seven years due to the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and Mashhad.

The United States cautiously welcomed the announcement, while UN Secretary-General António Guterres thanked China for its mediation efforts in the deal between both countries.

Prince Faisal and Amir Abdullahian stressed the importance of implementing the agreement to restore relations in a way that “expands mutual trust and areas of cooperation and helps create security, stability and prosperity for the region.”

The two countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a conflict because of Iran’s attempt to dominate the region through terrorist proxies for decades. However, in recent years, the conflict between them has worsened due to the proxy wars waged by Iran against the stability of the Middle East, such as Yemen via Houthis, Iraq via Shiite militias, Syria and Lebanon via Hezbollah and other Shiite groups as well as Shiite in Bahrain and Jehad Islamic and Hamas in Gaza.

Iran supported the Houthis with weapons to carry out missile and drone attacks on Saudi cities and oil infrastructure. Targeted the Saudi interests in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria as well as attempted to target the security in Bahrain.

In fact, Saudi Arabia has been increasingly interested in finding any kind of way to end the conflict in Yemen, so this agreement presented by China is likely to move that forward. However, Iran violated the agreement by launching a Houthi attack on the Saudi border areas, while Iran refused to interfere in the matter.

A drone attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels killed a Bahraini officer and soldier who were patrolling Saudi Arabia’s southern border early Monday, Bahrain’s military command said. The Houthis did not immediately acknowledge carrying out the attack as efforts to strike a peace deal between Riyadh and the rebels continue.

The Houthis in Yemen launched a drone attack against the Bahraini military camp in the south of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on September 24, which led to the killing of 5 Bahraini officers who were patrolling the southern border of the Kingdom, even though Houthi officials visited Saudi Arabia for a peace agreement.

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the Houthi group’s attack on the Bahraini army, which resulted in the killing of two of its members on the day of the attack and the injury of others, as 3 others died in the hospital (overall 5 killed) due to their injuries. Saudi Arabia described the attack as “treacherous,” because according to the agreement with Iran, the conflict between the two sides freezes and they are heading to find a way for peace agreement.

Bahraini forces who were killed by Houthis:

1- First Lieutenant Mubarak bin Hashel bin Zayed Al Kubaisi, killed on 24 September in Jizan.

2- Yacoub Rahmat Moulay Dad, killed on 24 September in Jizan.

3- Adam Salem Nasib, a member of the Bahraini Defence Forces, died on 27 September in Bahrain. He was injured on the Houthi attack on 24 September in Jizan in southern border of Saudi Arabia.

4- First Lieutenant Hamad Khalifa Al Kubaisi died on September 29 in Bahrain because of his injuries following the Houthi attack on 24 September.

5- Major Muhammad Salem (29 years of age) died on 27th October in Bahrain. He was seriously injured on 24th September by Houthis.

The expediting and executive authorities in Bahrain held an emergency meeting on September 29, after the death of the fourth wounded officer, to hand over the perpetrators of the terrorist attack to Bahrain or the Arab coalition, but the Houthis rejected the request.

With this attack, the Houthis violated the United Nations resolutions to stop violence and the affect the agreement with Iran to stop all conflicts in the region. The Houthis also harmed the interests of Yemen and efforts to bring about sustainable peace and violated international law.

There is no doubt that Iran is behind the terrorist attack against Bahraini forces in Jizan, Saudi Arabia, on September 24. This attack indicates that Iran, through proxy wars, specifically Houthi, does not adhere to political customs and international agreements between Saudi Arabia and Iran, sponsored by China, to stop and freeze any conflict. Iran, through Houthi, seeks to destabilise the security and stability of the region and does not respect or abide by all international laws.

Note: Two Bahraini officers were killed on 24th September and 50 were injured (6 of them are in serious condition). But three of the injures died in Bahrain. So, overall, 5 were killed. Bahraini condemned and demanded that the perpetrator be punished. However, Saudi Arabia and Iran chose to remain silent, but Houthis said that the conflict in the border areas is still continuing, even against our forces.

Second violation of the agreement by Iran through Houthis against Saudi Arabia:

Houthis attacked Saudi border on 25th October and also on 31 October 2023, caused the death of four Saudi forces (on 25 October).

After four Saudi soldiers were killed in a clash with Houthi militias near the Yemeni border, military forces in Saudi Arabia were placed on high alert. The maximum alert continues until now, and there are ongoing clashes with the Houthis. It is worth noting that the Houthis tried to storm the Saudi borders several times.

This conflict occurred last week in the Jizan region in southern Saudi Arabia, and the Riyadh authorities and the Houthi have not yet wanted to publish information about the conflict, as even the official Saudi media channels like Al-Arabiya have not published any news. The news was widely reported on social media, specifically Twitter, by Saudi activists, after which the government was forced to announce the killing of 4 border officers.

The name of four Saudi forces who were killed on 25 October:

  1. Ahmed Al-Amiri

  2. Khalid Al-Makhloti

  3. Nasser Rdini

  4. Sultan Al Harithi

Houthis on 2nd November 2023 attacked the Saudi border, caused the death of Saudi officer named: Hamadi Ali Hazari

Consequently, 5 Saudi forces were killed by the Houthis despite the Iran-Saudi peace agreement sponsored by China.

Researchers in Middle East issues believe that Saudi Arabia and Iran did not publish anything about these violations by the Houthis for several reasons:

  1. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia still do not trust each other and the agreement was a political tool for China to gain concessions in the Middle East. According to the agreement, within two months, both Iranian and Saudi sides will resolve the conflicts to the extent possible, but no issue has been resolved.

  1. The Houthis, like many other militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, are groups affiliated with Iran. Therefore, attacking the Saudi border is primarily an Iranian attempt. Iran’s goal is to take broad privileges from Saudi Arabia and exploit the current political circumstances to target Saudi Arabia’s security and stability.

  1. Iran’s aim to target Saudi Arabia through the Houthis is a direct message to the US government stating a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program and an end to all boycotts and economic and political sanction on Iran.

  1. Saudi Arabia has no plan to respond due to the current situation in the region. Therefore, Saudi Arabia will continue to clash with the Houthis, but it will not enter a political and media conflict and tension with Iran. So, the agreement with Iran sponsored by China will not be affected (at least until the US election in November 2024).

Houthis threat:

The Houthi threat is not limited to Saudi Arabia only, but includes many countries and the world.

After the 7th of October 2023, Iran asked Saudi Arabia to stop oil supply to countries that support Israel. But Saudi Arabia rejected Iran’s proposal, saying that many of these countries have common interests with Saudi Arabia, and that Saudi Arabia does not link the economy to regional conflicts.

Therefore, Iran sees attacking oil suppliers in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, by targeting border areas and oil wells, targeting Israel with Houthi missiles, threatening to target Bahrain, and also targeting Egypt (they announced that the missile fell in Egypt by mistake because the target was Israel, but in reality it is an Iranian message to Egypt that any party that deals with the Saudi-American project will be targeted), means available to target the stability of the region through the Houthis. The Houthis also have missiles to target Bab al-Mandab, so targeting Bab al-Mandab, southern Israel, and Egypt will constitute an economic disaster for the world.

Consequences:

There is no doubt that the escalation of Houthi attacks on the Saudi border may put Saudi Arabia in a difficult position, which will expose the cease-fire to collapse.

The Houthis are without the slightest doubt acting as an agent of Iran, but the main reason behind launching the attack on the border areas may be to obtain hidden support or a green light from Iran due to the world’s preoccupation with the war between Israel and Hamas and Saudi Arabia’s rejection to allow the Houthi missiles to pass towards Israel.

Part II

The Old Guard is winning inside Saudi Arabia

The recent visit to Washington by the Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman raised more questions than answers.  The readout of the visit by the NSA Jake Sullivan addressed the efforts to deescalate the regional hostilities, including the war in Gaza as well as the regional aggression by Iran proxies, but made no mention of a common strategy to put an end to Houthi attacks at Saudi borders. The Saudi Defense Minister’s meeting with Secretary Blinken likewise did not appear to produce any tangible action points regarding this issue, only a very general discussion about mutual concerns. The US did deliver emergency supplies of weapons, including THAAD and Patriot batteries, to its own military bases and locations where its troops are present,  in various Middle Eastern countries in the shadow of the continuing hostilities in Gaza; however, it is not clear whether US has agreed to any additional assistance directly to Saudi Arabia’s government in light of the regional escalation by Houthis and others.

As a Deputy Defense Minister while his brother, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the Defense Minister, Khalid bin Salman was known to be vocal and articulate, writing articles and making statements in English, and assertively pursuing a strong pushback against Iran-linked threats to Saudi security and to regional interests. However, once the portfolio of the Defense Ministry was taken from the Crown Prince, who received the title of the Prime Minister, and handed to Khalid bin Salman, the latter appeared to have faded into the background of the defense policy. His appearances have become increasingly rare. He was not present at a major and rather unexpected meeting with Turkey’s President Erdogan, when the two countries signed an agreement related to the purchase of Turkish drones, which amounted to the biggest defense contract in Turkey’s history. Known to be a supporter of the Crown Prince’s strong anti-Iran policy, the Defense Minister, just like his brother, appeared to be absent from most major meetings related to Saudi-Iran normalization, nor did he appear anywhere quite public with respect to the Saudi-Houthi talks, which appeared to be handled entirely by the Foreign Ministry.

The tensions between the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry have been palpable throughout the years of the war in Yemen, since Mohammed bin Salman, then a Deputy Defense Minister, entered into the picture to help the Yemen government put an end to the Houthi uprising in 2015. While the future Crown Prince appeared to be seeking a decisive victory, various members of the foreign policy established were more inclined towards backchannel diplomacy with Ansar Allah, and by extension Iran, which may have undermined the defense policy from the start. These included the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al-Jaber, who has been in that position since September 1, 2014, before King Salman came to power, and ten days before the Houthi uprising started. Al-Jaber is closely associated with the “Old Guard” circles around the former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, well known for their close proximity to the Muslim Brotherhood (and its Al Islah chapter in Yemen), and who in turn overtly supported the Saudi vision of Yemen unity, while covertly cooperating with the Houthis and Iran on various matters.

The Old Guard faction was notorious for its flexibility towards Iran at various points in time. According to the former Saudi intelligence officer Adnan Rahmatallah, the Islamic Development Bank, heavily linked to Saudi Islamists and Old Guard, played a role in Iran’s nuclear program development in the early 1990s. None other than Turki Al-Faisal, the former intelligence chief and then Saudi Ambassador to London, was one of the parties who appears to have approved the whitewashing of these activities. In 2014, Ariane Tabatabai, part of the Obama inner circles, and an influencer who reportedly coordinated her US government activity with high level Iranian officials, received permission from her handlers to engage with the same Turki Al-Faisal.  Did Iran inform some of the Saudi officials that Houthis were about to rise up? That remains unclear, but whether Al-Jaber’s choice was a coincidence or not remains a subject of debate.

These developments seem particularly mysterious given that Al-Jaber, the creature of the Old Guard was not removed from his position once Mohammed bin Salman was appointed to lead the charge on the defense front. Was the Saudi intention all along to use the war as a pretense for secret negotiations with Iran via Houthis, while letting the young generation of Saudis take the financial and public relations fall for the defense policy that never had the full commitment or support and was likely consistently undermined by the foreign ministry appointees with sympathies towards various Islamist factions? We may never get an answer to that question, but in 2018, when the Arab Coalition, with the Saudis answering to then Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, was on the verge of taking Hodeidah and depriving the Houthis of a major source of their military and humanitarian support from Iran, the Foreign Ministry, following a UN directive, intervened and negotiated a failed Stockholm Agreement which threw the Houthis an effective lifeline and put an end to the successful advance of the Arab Coalition forces.

However, while the Crown Prince, and later, his brother, despite these obstacles seemed full heartedly dedicated to securing a complete victory, the mood visibly shifted in Riyadh.

After COVID pandemic broke out, Mohammed bin Salman appeared absent from most engagements, and was hardly heard from with respect to the subject of Yemen specifically.

And the Iran normalization agreement seemed to be handled entirely by the Foreign Ministry team; with little public input from the Defense Ministry and no accounting for violation of the terms.

But while Khalid bin Salman had been visible and vocal during his stint as the Deputy Defense Minister under his brother, his own Deputy’s appointment passed without apparent notice. In July, Prince Abdulrahman Al-Muqrin was quietly appointed by the decree of King Salman (who himself at that point appeared absent from the public scene) to the Deputy position. Worth noting is that appointment may be pointing to the outcome of interfactional struggle within the royal family. Prince Abdulrahman is the son of Prince Muqrin Al Saud, who was briefly the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia from January to April 2015, during the first three months of his half-brother King Salman’s reign. Muqrin is the youngest surviving son of Abdulaziz, and was thought to be the natural successor to the throne, until he was removed from that position by King Salman. He was considered one of long-standing allies of King Abdullah; his son Abdulrahman played a role in the royal court since at least 2009. Muqrin was replaced by the ex-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, another King Abdullah fixture, who was once known to be the lead US counterpart on security and intelligence sharing, but who inside Saudi circles was known to be weak, ineffectual, and surrounded by Islamists inside the powerful Ministry of Interior, known as the “falcons of Nayef”.

When King Salman secured the heir position for his son Prince Mohammed, that appears to have thrown the contention for the thrown off entirely. Whether Muqrin and his supporters are now looking to undermine the Crown Prince and his brother, weakened by the Khashoggi affairs, by the strong dislike of the current US President Joe Biden, and by various other political campaigns, remains unclear, but getting an appointment for his son to a prominent position which in the past has led a few of the Saudi royals to the Crown Prince position and then ultimately to the throne, seems like a good first step in that direction. With King Salman largely absent from the scene, the transition process to the throne is far less clear, with more potential contenders being likely to try to take advantage of any lack of clarity in the decisionmaking process and to wrestle the position and power away from King Salman’s sons.  Abdulrahman Al-Muqrin’s positions and agenda have thus far been ambiguous. He has stayed out of the limelight and does not appear vocal at relevant gatherings. But could he be the real and growing power behind the Defense Ministry? Is it possible that Prince Abdulrahman is now one of the “gray cardinals” ruling Saudi Arabia, with the Prince Khalid being relegated to the position of a mouthpiece conveying policy to the US and other power?

This suggestion becomes more plausible still upon revelation that in addition to the Deputy position, Prince Abdulrahman, just like the supposedly free-ranging and free-roaming Turki Al-Faisal, is an adviser to the King. Whether it is Salman he is advising, or in reality, is part of a faction that has quietly taken advantage of (if not outright engineered) the king’s effective disappearance from public view, is more food for thought. Moreover, the trajectory of PRince Abdulrahman’s career suggests that he at the very least, his empowerment was always a matter of compromise between factions of the family, many of which were deeply opposed to Mohammed bin Salman’s rise. Indeed, On April 22, 2017, a royal order was issued appointing Prince Abdulrahman as the Secretary-General of the Council of Ministers, putting him in a far more visible position and making his consequent rise far less questionable.

These events indicate that for now, whoever is gearing up for a battle royale for the succession of the throne may also be handling most of the Saudi foreign policy which in the last few years has taken a turn from secret meetings between the Crown Prince and PM Netanyahu in Saudi Arabia to a complete reversal in very public favor of China, Russia, Iraq, Qatar, and the return to members of the Old Guard to political prominence, verbally attacking Israel and coordinating statements with Tehran, Doha, and Hamas. Very likely, Mohammed bin Salman and Khalid bin Salman, are not initiators, but hostages to these policies.

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