Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud | The remarkable rise of a ruthless reformer

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, despite the criticism he faces, has consolidated power at home and made powerful friends abroad

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, despite the criticism he faces, has consolidated power at home and made powerful friends abroad

In a will with the leader of the world’s most powerful country, and a man more than twice his age, 36-year-old Mohammad Bin Salman, the crown prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, would be an unlikely winner. Yet every summary of his conversations with US President Joseph Biden last week has shown that MBS, as it is known, has prevailed over the more experienced global statesman.

All the more so because until the time the two met, at the Saudi royal palace in Jeddah on July 15, Mr. Biden had vowed to treat MBS like an outcast, and last month insisted he would not meet one-on-one. with the Crown Prince when he traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with the King and other regional leaders.

However, from the first “fist thrust” with which the two greeted each other, it was clear that MBS would be Mr Biden’s main host, controlling and dominating the story of the visit. More importantly, analysts said, MBS took full credit from its American guest, without really giving up much in the negotiations, whether it was guarantees to boost oil production, or take stronger positions alongside the US against Russia or China. , or normalizing ties with Israel (although Saudi Arabia agreed to open its airspace to flights).

To those who have seen MBS’s meteoric rise to his father’s court, his ability to have triumphed in battle comes as no surprise. Former Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad, who spent nearly a decade in more than three posts in Saudi Arabia, calls Prince Salman a “unique phenomenon” in Saudi politics. His ascension marks not only a generational change, but a “leap over two generations” as his father, 86-year-old King Salman, chose MBS, his seventh son born to his third wife, rather than a successor from the middle. from The uncles of MBS, like the convention, or even the older and more experienced brothers of MBS.

Although King Salman spent a few years guessing the kingdom after he took the throne in 2015, he named MBS its crown prince in 2017, taking in powerful figures like Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and Mohammad bin Naif, who were expected to be the successors. , pushed aside. . MBS was now crown prince, defense minister, head of the royal court and head of the two highest political and development councils, becoming the de facto ruler in the years that followed. When asked about the decision, King Salman reportedly said he was the only one of his sons “ruthless” enough to rule a kingdom with such entrenched centers of power and such a large royal family.

This came as a surprise, as the young crown prince had neither military training nor study abroad (MBS studied law at King Saud University), compared to siblings who held ministerial positions – one that was a doctorate. at Oxford University, and another, a Saudi Air Force pilot turned astronaut. “Aside from co-opting and coercion, I would say his most powerful weapon is not ruthlessness, but ruthlessness with calculation,” said Mr. Ahmad.

The calculation does not always pay off. For example, his first act as defense minister was the start of a relentless bombing campaign against Yemen, a campaign that has not yet led to the Houthi rebels’ surrender he had hoped for. His decision to lead a boycott of Qatar through the Gulf states backfired after a year, and he had to make amends with the Qatari royal family without getting the guarantees he had demanded.

Risky actions

The incarceration of hundreds of royals and other elites at the Ritz Carlton, who were held there on corruption charges, silenced them, but sparked considerable resentment against him within the family. The atmosphere of zero tolerance for infidelity that allegedly led to the alleged murder and mutilation of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, as well as the Pegasus surveillance operation he allegedly ordered on members of civil society, brought the Crown Prince unprecedented international disgrace.

Still, MBS’s moves have catapulted him toward greater control over his kingdom. The harder he dealt with the three former centers of power – royals, businessmen and religious clergy – the more his popularity rose among the restless youth of the Saudi kingdom. For them, he promised a new future, under a “Vision 2030” program, a shift from the Kingdom’s reliance on oil revenues to create education and employment, and the dream of a new $500 billion high-tech city project in the desert called ‘Noom’.

Socially, Saudi nationals began to see changes they never dreamed of — where women no longer had to wear a full veil or adhere to strict guardianship rules, drive cars, and men and women could roam freely without fear of the ‘Muttaween’ -religious police of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, attend cinemas and rap and hip-hop concerts. Like its father, and previous rulers since 9/11, MBS has also sought to decouple the image of the Kingdom from its former role in financing and promoting Islamist extremist groups, by using tougher means.

He oversaw Saudi Arabia’s largest mass execution earlier this year, in which 81 people were hanged for crimes of “terrorism and extremist ideologies”. With such short-lived actions have come the allegations that MBS has violated human rights in the Kingdom, with activists including the detention and alleged torture of dissident writer Raif Badawi and women’s activist Loujain Alhathloul, both of whom have now been released but remain under travel restrictions. bring attention. Many worry that if MBS can wield so much absolute power as crown prince in less than 40 years, how much tyranny he could unleash as king, considering he could rule for another half a century.

Western Criticism

None of the international, especially Western, criticism seems to impress MBS, instead pushing him to seek other partnerships, including with Beijing, Moscow, India, Indonesia and other countries. “I just don’t care,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year. However, the impact of his decisions domestically may worry Mohammad Bin Salman, especially as he moves closer to his ailing father’s throne. Such as how he will deal with Israel after his friend and rival UAE ruler Mohammad Bin Zayed opens ties while softening the feelings of his religious clergy and subjects about Palestine. And how far can MBS go in the proxy battle with Iran, given the sizeable Shia population at home?

Following the controversy over comments about the prophet in India, it was also telling that Saudi Arabia followed other Gulf states rather than condemning them, pointing to MBS’s close embrace of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and offers of $100 billion in investment to India. On business, MBS will have to convince its own people that opening the Kingdom to investment will not weaken strict citizenship laws, and its plans to attract global expats to Neom will not erode the KSA’s coffers.

“Experience has shown that the most dangerous time for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform,” said French politician and thinker Alexis de Tocqueville at the turn of the 19th century, and therein lies perhaps the greatest challenge for MBS in the coming years.

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