TIC Analysis l
Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS), the 34-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia is considered the de facto ruler of the world’s leading oil exporter. He has won plaudits from Western leaders for some of the reforms he has overseen in the conservative Gulf kingdom, including lifting the ban on women driving and seeking to diversify the economy. However, he has also been heavily criticized for pursuing a war in neighboring Yemen that has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, starting a diplomatic dispute with Qatar that has divided the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), and escalating a crackdown on dissenting voices. There were even calls for him to be replaced as crown prince after the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the government, was killed by Saudi intelligence agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. This brief aims to determine whether his hold on power is consolidated or not.
Biography: Mohammed bin Salman was born on 31 August 1985, the eldest son of then-Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud’s third wife, Fahdah bint Falah bin Sultan. After gaining a bachelor’s degree in law at King Saud University in the capital Riyadh, he worked for several state bodies. In 2009, he was appointed special adviser to his father, who was serving as governor of Riyadh at the time. Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power began in 2013, when he was named head of the Crown Prince’s Court, with the rank of minister. The previous year, his father had been appointed crown prince after the death of Nayef bin Abdul Aziz.
Rise to power: In January 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz died and Salman acceded to the throne at the age of 79. The new king immediately made two decisions that surprised observers, naming his son minister of defense and nephew Mohammed bin Nayef deputy crown prince. The latter became the first of the grandsons of Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom, to move on to the line of succession. In April 2015, King Salman made more startling changes to the line of succession, appointing Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and his son deputy crown prince, second deputy prime minister and president of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs. In late June 2017, King Salman ended months of speculation by replacing Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince in favor of his son.
Major reforms/steps attributed to MBS: Following major foreign policy decisions, reforms and ambitious steps have been taken by MBS since his appointment as defense minister and later crown prince:
- One of Mohammed bin Salman’s first acts as defense minister was to launch a military campaign in Yemen in March 2015 along with other Arab states.
- Mohammed bin Salman unveiled an ambitious and wide-ranging plan to bring economic and social change to the kingdom and end its “addiction” to oil. The plan, called Vision 2030, envisages increasing non-oil revenue to 600bn riyals ($160bn; £123bn) by 2020 and 1trn riyals by 2030, up from 163.5bn riyals in 2015.
- The prince envisaged to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth up to $3trn, with money generated by partially privatizing the state oil company, Saudi Aramco.
- MBS also envisaged changing the education curriculum, increasing women’s participation in the workforce, and investing in the entertainment sector to help create jobs for young people.
- In April 2017, the kingdom at MBS behest, announced plans for a 334 sq km (129 sq mile) entertainment city on the edge of Riyadh offering a range of cultural and sporting activities – including a safari park.
- The prince was also seen as having spearheaded a boycott of Qatar, which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt began in early June 2017 over its alleged support for terrorism and meddling in its neighbors’ affairs.
- Mohammed bin Salman was given much of the credit for King Salman’s announcement that a ban on women drivers would end in June 2018, despite opposition from conservatives.
- MBS announced the investment of $500bn in a new city and business zone, dubbed Neom.
Crackdown on dissidents: In September 2016, a crackdown was launched against perceived opponents of the crown prince’s policies. More than 20 influential clerics and intellectuals were detained as the authorities targeted a group allegedly acting on behalf of “foreign parties against the security of the kingdom”. The next month, he launched a sweeping anti-corruption drive that many analysts said removed the final obstacles to his gaining total control of the kingdom. The billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of the late king and chief of the National Guard, were among 381 people detained.
In January 2018, the attorney general announced that settlements worth an estimated 400bn riyals ($107bn; £82bn) had been agreed with those who admitted guilt and handed over properties, cash, securities and other assets. In early 2019, three senior Saudi royals were arrested amid rumors of an alleged coup plot in Riyadh. Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, brother of King Salman, former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (who had been under house arrest since 2017), and his younger brother, Prince Nawaf bin Nayef were detained along with a number of high-ranking officials, as security in the capital was increased.
Is MBS hold on power consolidated? Just like his predecessors, MBS has struggled to resolve the most pressing problem of the House of Saud – that of legitimacy. His grandfather, King Abdelaziz Ibn Al Saud, the man who founded modern Saudi Arabia, set up the fledgling Saudi state on two pillars: the distribution of oil wealth among the kingdom’s people in return for allegiance to the House of Saud and an alliance with the Wahabi religious establishment. He also concluded a strategic alliance with the US to ensure the country’s regional security, which one could see as the third pillar of the Saudi state. It is these three pillars which will help determine whether MBS hold on power is firm or not.
- With a growing population and increasingly inefficient oil-dependent economy, Saudi Arabia is facing a crisis which the reforms of Vision 2030 cannot tackle. Part of the problem has been that MBS has not really tried to dismantle the oligarchic structures suffocating the Saudi economy; he has solely tried to replace the old guard of kleptocrats with a new one loyal to him.
- At the same time, he has pressed for austerity without trying to tackle poverty. This has angered the public and forced him to roll back a number of austerity measures. Now, the collapsing oil prices and the disappointing performance of the Aramco IPO are also threatening to unravel his Vision 2030.
- The disempowerment of the religious establishment has also not gone down that well. It has naturally caused a degree of resentment in conservative circles and at the same time has not really won MBS support among the kingdom’s progressives because they too have been cracked down on. The killing of Khashoggi and the imprisonment of dozens of activists have also damaged irreparably the reputation of MBS abroad.
- The alliance with the US has also appeared shaky. Although Trump has done much to shield MBS from demands by Congress for a response over Khashoggi’s killing, which he ultimately sees as an internal Saudi matter, the US president has been not so enthusiastic in coming to Saudi Arabia’s rescue when tensions with Iran escalated. The US response to the drone attacks on Aramco facilities was rather disappointing for Riyadh and signaled that it will no longer be able to rely on the US alliance for its regional security.
- Amid this insecurity and mounting economic failures, MBS also finds himself in a hostile environment within the House of Saud. His decision to jump the succession line, centralize power and appoint young princes and non-royals to important positions, sidelining powerful members of the royal family, have all created tensions within the royal family and endangered the internal consensus of the monarchy.
Analysis: Despite MBS’s best efforts, cracks have appeared in all three pillars. Of course, this is not the first time there has been a royal power struggle in Saudi Arabia. The country witnessed a bitter rivalry between King Saud and his crown prince, Faisal, in the late 1950s and early 60s, with the latter trying repeatedly to unseat his brother. In 1964, Faisal succeeded in dethroning Saud, with the backing of the religious establishment and Washington, but only after consensus to that effect was reached within the royal family. The problem today is that MBS has subverted the tradition of internal political consensus that had kept the dynasty intact for decades through various tumultuous times. By undermining decades-old unwritten rules about succession and distribution of power and influence, the crown prince has thrown the royal family – and with it the whole country – into uncharted territory. The legitimacy crisis of the Saudi state has been simmering for a while. In the past, it was suppressed through a combination of repression and co-optation. Under MBS, however, the situation will only get worse.