Saudi Arabia's dramatic moves to counter Iran in the region appear to have backfired, significantly ratcheting up regional tensions and setting off a spiral of reactions and anger that seem to have caught the kingdom off guard.

Now it's trying to walk back its escalations in Lebanon and Yemen. Yesterday, the kingdom announced that the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shia rebels in Yemen would begin reopening airports and seaports, days after closing them over a rebel ballistic missile attack on Riyadh.

The move came just hours after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who shocked the nation by announcing his resignation from the Saudi capital last week, backed off his condemnation of the Lebanese militant Hizbollah, saying he would return to the country to seek a settlement with the Shia militants.

The two developments suggest that Saudi Arabia's bullish crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, 32, may be trying to pedal back from the abyss of a severe regional escalation. "This represents de-escalation by the Saudis," said Yezid Sayigh, of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. "The general trend is that the Saudis are going to back off and this is largely because of the unexpected extent of international pressure."


The prince has risen to power in just three years to oversee all major aspects of politics, security and the economy in Saudi Arabia. As Defence Minister, he is in charge of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He also appears to have the support of US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner, who visited the Saudi capital this month.

Saudi partners in the Gulf and the Trump Administration rushed to defend the kingdom publicly after the Houthi missile attack.

However, Saudi Arabia's move to tighten an already devastating blockade on Yemen was roundly criticised by aid groups, humanitarian workers and the UN, which warned that the blockade could bring millions of people closer to "starvation and death".

Saudi Arabia's decision to ease the blockade suggests it bowed to the criticism, and did not want the bad publicity of even more images of emaciated Yemeni children.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US opposes action that would threaten the stability of Lebanon and warned other countries against using Lebanon "as a venue for proxy conflicts" - a statement that seemed to be directed equally at Saudi Arabia and Iran. The White House issued a strongly worded statement calling on all states and parties to respect Lebanon's sovereignty.

"I think the Saudis fundamentally misjudged this ... and should have known better," said Sayigh. "They've been relying too heavily ... on Trump's people and misjudged that the US Administration is not just Trump."

- AP