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How Saudi Prince could bring Middle East tensions to the boiling point

  • Saudi Arabia's succession change tells us the kingdom is preparing for a major war.
  • The new crown prince is a defense expert already overseeing the kingdom's war in Yemen.
  • Oil prices will continue to stay very low as the preparations continue, but will jump when fighting really starts.
FAYEZ NURELDINE | AFP | Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has made the rare move to replace Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef with his 31-year-old son Mohammad bin Salman. This "promotion" could have ominous implications for the middle east.

First off, let's meet the new direct heir to the throne. Prince Bin Salman is already known for his very public role in trying to reform the Saudi economy to a system that will rely on something other than oil, (good luck with that one).

But less known is the fact that he's a leading hawk against Iran. For more than two years, the new crown prince has been leading the Saudi involvement against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen's civil war. He's also the one who has taken the lead in the Saudi-led blockage of Qatar over its perceived ties to Tehran.

Further, Bin Salman is a key player in the kingdom's stunning and growing cooperation with Israel. Observers say the two countries are joining forces mostly to jointly defend themselves against Iran.

And finally, he's well ahead of the curve in establishing relationships with the new leadership at the White House. He's even met twice with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, beginning with his first visit to the Trump White House in March.

"Some experts are calling it just another "Game of Thrones." Others are insisting this is a move to bolster young bin Salman's economic reforms and bring Saudi Arabia into a more modern age. But when you look closely at what bin Salman has been doing, this really seems a lot more like a game of war."

The moves define bin Salman's growing leadership in the areas most vital to the country's interests. To continue what the king obviously sees as his most crucial work, bin Salman is now in the highest possible place in the royal pecking order.

Some experts are calling it just another "Game of Thrones." Others are insisting this is a move to bolster young bin Salman's economic reforms and bring Saudi Arabia into a more modern age. But when you look closely at what bin Salman has been doing, this really seems a lot more like a game of war.

Of course this war isn't new. Saudi Arabia and Iran are simply the leading nations representing the 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shia war that began after Muhammad died in the year 632. There's been bad blood and many proxy wars between these countries for a very long time. Also not new are the trillions of dollars in oil money at stake.

What is new are nuclear weapons, and specifically the nuclear arsenal many experts believe Tehran's mullahs will control within a decade or so thanks to President Obama's and Secretary of State John Kerry's nuclear deal with Iran.

The deal, and the long lead up to it, has irrevocably changed the reality in the Middle East in ways no one would have dared to guess just a few years ago. It has mobilized the Sunni nations in the region to pool their efforts and bolster each other's defenses. That along with the prolonged slump in oil prices led to the obvious need for defense and economic leadership changes in Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman is the embodiment of that new move for change, and not just because he's young.

Now bin Salman will indeed be the next king. And his elevation means the winds of actual war and not just continued proxy wars are blowing harder between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That war would likely be between the Saudi-led Sunni nations and the Iranian-led Shia coalition that includes the Alawite President Bashir Assad and once Sunni-dominate groups like Hamas on Tehran's side.

What that war will look like and when it will actually break out is not as clear. The Saudis don't have enough troops to fight Iran alone, so its allies like Egypt may get involved and then there's the question of Israeli help which is becoming more likely by the day.

But serious preparations are now more clearly underway than ever. Saudi Arabia is just making them more openly than the much more secretive, and still-isolated, Iranians. But several reports show that the billions of dollars the nuclear deal freed up for Iran has mostly been spent on boosting Tehran's military power.

Another major result of this is that we can start to expect oil prices to remain under pressure as both sides need to bring in money to ramp up their war chests. This is no time to keep a chunk of your only real commodity off the world market.

Despite some assurances that this succession move won't change OPEC's ability to impose those production cut agreements, don't bet on it. Supply is going to be high, at least until hostilities begin.

But when and if those direct military conflicts do begin between the Saudis and Iranians, things will flip quickly and prices will jump. Anything that stands in the way of peaceful crude production and delivery in the Persian Gulf region will create a real supply cut that won't rely on any government's compliance.

Such developments could be a positive for U.S. oil production, which could step into the void. There's not much else that can be done about the very loud and getting louder drumbeats for war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But it's becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. and all the leading nations in the world need to prepare for this conflict. Saudi Arabia has basically told all of us that it's putting a war team in place. The massive weapons sale the Trump team is pushing on the Saudis makes it clear which side we're on. Bin Salman's new position and his closeness to the Trump administration are likely all part of the plan to make sure the Saudis can count on the U.S. like never before.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.