The young Saudi royal at the heart of the Middle East’s great power struggle


On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was in Islamabad, meeting with Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif. The recent flaring of tensions between the Saudis and their regional foe, Iran, compelled the visit to a longstanding ally. The Pakistani military reiterated its commitment to Riyadh, declaring in a statement “that any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.”But the Saudi overtures present an uncomfortable conundrum for Islamabad. Home to both some of the world’s largest Sunni and Shiite populations, and a grim recent history of sectarian violence, Pakistan can ill afford getting too deeply involved in the wider power struggles of the Middle East — that is, the rivalry between Iran, a theocratic Shiite state, and Saudi Arabia, which sees itself at the vanguard of Sunni Islam.

The tension between the two main sects of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, is one of the factors driving the violence in the Middle East. Here is an overview of the sects’ differences and where adherents live. (The Washington Post)

Sections of the Pakistani establishment have long benefited from Saudi largess and patronage and Islamabad is ostensibly a willing member of Riyadh’s grand military alliance of “Islamic” countries unveiled last month, which was widely seen as a bulwark against Iranian interests. But Pakistan also shares a vast border with Iran and harbors hopes of deepening ties with Tehran. Not long after Mohammed bin Salman’s departure, a key Sharif aide emphasized Pakistani support for the Saudis would not come in the form of ground troops.

“Sending our troops to any country is against our policy. Pakistan never sends its forces for any coalition apart from the United Nations,” said Sartaj Aziz, a senior foreign policy adviser to the president.

The awkwardness of the present isn’t helped by the outsized role played by the young Saudi deputy crown prince, who, at just 30, has had a conspicuous ascension since the coronation of his father, King Salman, last year.

Mohammed bin Salman not only has the defense portfolio, but has also assumed responsibility as Saudi Arabia’s chief economic planner, a vital task given the perilous effect that a slide in global oil prices has had on his nation’s economy. There are rumors that the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, 56, could even eventually be moved aside for Mohammed bin Salman.

Unsurprisingly, the prince’s rise has caused ripples, and has antagonized some other members of the vast royal House of Saud who resent being shunted aside by the younger generation. Moreover, the prince and his father have presided over a pronounced — and, to some, worrying — shift in the kingdom’s role on the world stage.

Last year, Post columnist David Ignatius pointed to “the aggressive policy role played by Mohammed bin Salman,” seen most keenly in the largely derided Saudi war effort in Yemen. The intervention was aimed at thwarting the country’s Houthi rebels, a faction loosely affiliated with Iran. The conflict, though, has spiraled into a protracted battle and led to a crippling humanitarian crisis.

Earlier this month, Saudi and Iranian relations reached a new nadir after Saudi authorities went ahead with the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. Critics accused Riyadh of playing a deliberately provocative sectarian game, fueled in part by its own domestic insecurities.

Saudi Arabia announced Jan. 4 that it was stopping all air traffic to and from Iran and halting trade with the Islamic Republic, as the rift between the two regional rivals widened. (Reuters)

In an interview with the Economist last week, Mohammed bin Salman attempted to cut a conciliatory role. When asked if he considered Iran his country’s biggest enemy, he responded: “We hope not.” But he gestured at an underlying theme: Riyadh’s own unease at perceived U.S. attempts toward rapprochement with Tehran, as well as the larger sense that the United States is attempting and its aversion to the perhaps more confrontational, muscular approaches of an earlier era.

“The United States must realize that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” said the prince.

There is more widespread concern, though, in the destabilizing effect of Saudi Arabia’s own actions. Both in the United States and Europe, a frustration with the kingdom is growing. In an unusually blunt memo distributed to journalists last month, Germany’s chief intelligence agency, the BND, warned of the dangerous ambitions of King Salman and his son, who they claimed aspire to be “leaders of the Arab world.”

“The previous cautious diplomatic stance of older leaders within the royal family is being replaced by a new impulsive policy of intervention,” the BND said.

Old assurances have given way to a new, uncertain dynamic.

“There is also a sense that Prince Mohammed is an inexperienced gambler who is likely to double his stake when his bets fail,” writes veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn. “This is the very opposite of past Saudi rulers, who had always preferred, so to speak, to bet on all the horses.”


Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.


  1. I for one am always cnefusod for a local person or at least with family ties to the many countries I have visited. Just recently, I spent two months trying to convince Sri Lankans that I am not in any way related to them or other South Asians for that matter. To no avail. It was the same in Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. My parents who were in Cuba a few months back faced the same situation while my sister was taken for a prostitute servicing her white boyfriend during their visit there. And also in Brazil, actually. Meanwhile, people from the horn of Africa, where we are originally from, also confuse us for being part of their own ethnic group. My mother and sister are often accused by Somalis of being snobbish/haughty when they deny the connection. I usually get Ethiopian and less often Northern Sudanese.While it can all be quite annoying, I like the advantages it brings me while travelling…at least until I open my mouth.


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