Perhaps as a child Mohammad bin Salman watched too much Superman. Now, as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, he’s dashing hither and thither, ostensibly remaking the royal family, the country and the region. In his wake there’s profound confusion, national austerity mixed with personal profligacy, imprisoned billionaires, bruised egos, civil war, fractured alliances, recovered loot and many crossed fingers. Will MbS (as he is invariably dubbed) end the Kingdom’s addiction to oil and change its lazy economic ways? Will he force Iran and its backers to pull their heads in, acknowledge Saudi suzerainty and the joy of regional peace and Trumpism? Will he find a cure for the pathogen infecting Saudi Islam and drag his kingdom in the 21st century? Or will his dictatorial and impetuous ways blow up the House of Saud, destroying enemies and friends alike?
When, in early November, scores of Saudi royals, businessmen and government officials were arrested for alleged corruption, the only thing clear was that Mohammad bin Salman was behind it. His father, the ailing King Salman, had just appointed MbS as head of a newly created anti-corruption watchdog.
Was MbS simply ensuring that the watchdog got off to a flying, well-publicised, start? Those detained, many of whom were held in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, included multi-billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (whose holdings include Citigroup and Twitter) and MbS’s would-be rivals for the throne. Was this a palace coup, or perhaps a counter coup? Was it about settling old scores or charting a dramatic new way forward for the Kingdom, both internally and externally?
Foreign Affairs commentators neatly captured the uncertainty, observing that the arrests had ‘nothing to do with corruption or everything to do with it; they are about consolidating power or a sign of power consolidated; they are the beginning of a new era of transparency and accountability or further evidence of unchecked power at the height of the Saudi government’.
The arrests highlighted that, for the first time, all the coercive elements of the Saudi state—army, police, national guard—are controlled by a single individual. The message to the sprawling (15,000 plus) royal family, wrote Adel Abdel Ghafar from the Brooking’s foreign policy program, was that the old ways of checks and balances are gone, that kinship ‘does not guarantee safety; fall in line or be purged’.
Yet what exactly does a new way involve? In April 2016, MbS launched Vision 2030 built on three pillars: ‘our status as the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds…our determination to become a global investment powerhouse…transforming our unique strategic location into a global hub connecting three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa’. A National Transformation Plan soon followed. Mocked by some as the ‘Prince of Visions’, MbS has also announced plans to sell off part of the state-owned oil company, Aramco, and to create a $700 billion economic zone staffed by robots.
There’s good reason for scepticism about whether the visions will add up to much. Read one way they’re an indictment of how poorly the kingdom has been governed to date.
One Australian Middle East expert wrote recently that MbS’s economic reform agenda ‘falls under a label which could easily have come from the producers of the TV series Utopia…there is next to no detail about how the agenda will be realised, let alone any recognition of the deeply rooted institutional obstacles to the agenda’. Adel Abdel Ghafar noted that arrests of businessmen do not bode well for the investment climate of the kingdom. ‘Foreign investors will be very cautious about entering into commercial agreements with Saudi entities or businesspersons who may at any later stage fall out of favour and be prosecuted.’
Perhaps the naysayers are being unfair. Economists and many others have long urged economic diversification and ‘Saudi-isation’. At least MbS has a vision, both for the economy and for a gradual liberalisation and modernisation of Saudi society. The plan to allow Saudi women to drive is a well-publicised element of the latter.
But as much as MbS might fancy himself a superman, his track record is a problem. He has driven an economic austerity program, including increased fuel, water and electricity process and a cut in the take-home pay for public-sector employees. Yet such austerity clearly did not apply at home. On vacation in the south of France in 2015, MbS spied a luxury yacht owned by a Russian vodka tycoon and promptly bought it for 500 million euros (nearly $800 million).
Maybe he was just good at saving. Or maybe this shows a glaring double-standard and lack of judgment that bodes ill for the future. MbS’s foreign policy adventures to date are the stuff of nightmares. As Defence Minister, he drove Saudi military involvement in the war in Yemen, taking on the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The result has been a military, political and humanitarian disaster.
Undeterred, MbS then turned his attention to Qatar, blockading the kingdom ostensibly for its lack of hostility towards Iran and support for Sunni extremists (a display of hypocrisy by the Saudis worthy of an Oscar). The main result has been a fracturing of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
With these two foreign policy disasters under his gown, MbS might just have been a bit circumspect in chasing a third one. But his seemingly pathological allergy to all things Iranian has now led him to try his hand at rearranging Lebanon’s politics. That will not have a happy ending.
Where MbS had succeeded—another cause for concern—is his bromance with Donald Trump. Two former senior State Department officials wrote in mid-November ‘King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman seem to have set a new land speed record in convincing the Trump administration that they hold the keys to war, peace, and the transformation of the region…The Saudis have become everything we wanted them to be … [and] maybe a lot more.’
That should worry us all. Find the Kryptonite someone.
Peter Rodgers is a former Australian ambassador to Israel who has written two books on the Middle East