Aggressive and Controversial, Will “MbS” Bring the Fall of the House of Saud?
King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his son, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as “MbS”), are being accused of a palace coup following their arrest of dozens of fellow royal family members and other Saudi establishment figures.
Until now, Saudi Arabia has always been an ultra-conservative state, both in its attitudes and resistance to change. Although an absolute monarchy, successive kings have ruled through carefully calibrated consensus between different factions of the sprawling Al-Saud royal family and the religious, tribal and business elites. This cautious system has been vigorously shaken since the 81-year old King Salman acceded to the Saudi throne in 2015 and controversially appointed the 32-year old MbS as the de facto ruler of the country.
As well as skipping over hundreds of older members of the family in appointing him, King Salman granted MbS an unprecedented degree of personal power over the commanding heights of government, including the economy, oil policy, defence and foreign affairs.
MbS’ initial attempts at asserting his authority were focused outwards. His various sorties beyond Saudi’s borders have all gone badly and earned him a reputation for headstrong incompetence. The brutal war in Yemen has caused immense suffering for little purpose. Neighbouring Qatar has been boycotted and isolated in an unnecessary dispute with no obvious face-saving ending.
MbS has become increasingly hyperactive on internal politics too
Meanwhile, the Saudis unsuccessful attempts to counter Iran’s influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon predate MbS’ rule but have worsened on his watch. Last weekend, Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, was apparently summoned to Saudi Arabia (where he also holds citizenship) and ordered to resign by Riyadh. He is supposedly now being refused permission to return home and the Saudi government has instructed its citizens to leave Lebanon. These are just some of the alarming signs that MbS is planning to use Lebanon as the venue for escalating Saudi Arabia’s proxy war with Tehran, possibly in tacit alliance with Israel.
MbS has become increasingly hyperactive on internal politics too. His radical, by Saudi standards, domestic initiatives may also end up having a dramatic and destabilising impact.
MbS’ proposed economic reforms include some eye-catching and expensive plans to wean Saudi Arabia off oil dependence. His “Saudi Vision 2030” for the economy is already beginning to resemble the misconceived and over-funded desert utopia satirised several years ago by Dave Eggers in his novel “A Hologram for the King”. It includes a new city called Neom, a Dubai-esque project intended to attract tourists and an extremely optimistic $500billion of investment, partly by promising that the suffocating rules of Saudi society will not apply there.
Nonetheless, MbS’ desire to modernise and open up the Kingdom is at least ostensibly in keeping with what it has needed for years. The country is unlikely to prosper in the long-run by relying almost entirely on a declining commodity, oil, and corruptly squandering much of the proceeds. Saudi Arabia currently compounds this problem by restricting its interactions with the world and denying itself the potential of the female half of its population.
On social policy, MbS is starting to loosen the restrictions on Saudis, symbolised by the recent lifting of the infamous ban on women driving. He is also advocating a return to a gentler brand of Islam that he claims is more in keeping with Saudi Arabia’s real traditions.
These moves are a recognition of the futility of attempting to force archaic social mores on a youthful population. Two-thirds of Saudis are under thirty years old. They are extensively internet connected with the outside world and over 100,000 of them study overseas every year, gaining extensive experience of greater personal freedoms.
A stable and successfully reformed Saudi Arabia matters immensely to the world
MbS strategy appears to be to win the support of women and the young by appealing to them over the heads of the older elites and hard-line Wahhabi religious establishment. This would secure the House of Saud’s royal rule, in the form of himself, for decades ahead, however much the decline in the price and demand for oil begins to bite.
A stable and successfully reformed Saudi Arabia matters immensely to the world. The oil and money it gushes into the global economy is substantial. The country sits at the heart of the Middle East, is the guardian of the two most important Muslim holy places and arguably the leader of the majority Sunni strand of Islam. The malign role the homeland of Osama bin Laden and the majority of the 9/11 hijackers has played in spreading religious extremism around the world can hardly be overstated. A reduction in the influence of its many well-funded radical clerics would be welcome.
In the domestic sphere at least, then, we should wish MbS success. But the concern is that he is unlikely to achieve it. The long-standing argument in favour of the Saudi regime was that the only available alternatives to it were even more radical and extreme. There is a risk that MbS’ aggressive approach to the region and his fellow inhabitants of the House of Saud could provoke the resistance that brings the whole structure crashing down. And, to say the least, further instability in the Middle East is not what the world needs right now.
About the author
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.
He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.
All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.
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