Can Mohammed bin Salman really save Saudi Arabia?

The young crown prince seems to have transformed one of the Middle East’s most traditional nations in months—but does he know what he's doing?
March 19, 2018

Even as western governments have bonded themselves closely to Saudi Arabia, thinkers and writers have long said the monarchy could not last. Here was a bloated and sclerotic ruling family, they said, presiding over a system of what has been called gender apartheid, only marginally less repressive of everyone else than it was of women. Fearing democracy, the Al Saud promoted an intolerant version of religion as a distraction. Sages acknowledged that petrodollars and American weapons could prop up this brutal anachronism of a regime for only so long; in the end—surely—it couldn’t survive.

For their own part, the Saudi royals presented themselves as merely respecting the needs of a conservative population, which they sought to educate and to modernise, gently. They were a moderating force, they explained; if they held elections, the world might end up with Islamic State in charge of Mecca and Medina. While some of the thousands of princes might whisper concerns in private, in the public eye they kept a united front. This was the path that Saudi Arabia had chosen—and change, if it came at all, would be gradual.

Conventional wisdom in the west, therefore, was that the Riyadh regime could not be sustained, whereas the prevalent view at home was that it couldn’t radically reform. It seemed stuck. But no longer. In June 2017, 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman was appointed as Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince—a role that is both heir apparent and effectively chief executive under his 82-year-old father, King Salman. At first blush, MBS, as he is known, appears to have transformed one of the Middle East’s most traditional nations in a matter of months, while keeping a firm grip on political control.

Corruption? It is, he says, a “cancer” throughout the body of the nation. It can only be fixed by “shock treatment,” by “chemotherapy.” Oil? It’s an “addiction,” something that has virtually become part of Saudi Arabia’s constitution along with the Koran. Those strict social rules? Abruptly, they are “not normal” anymore. As for extremists, it no longer has to be whispered: previous rulers “didn’t know how to” deal with them.

All these things have been voiced before outside the country and privately by Saudis. But never, until now, from the top of the ruling family. MBS has naturally found a fawning audience in the west: Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times that MBS was a one-man Arab Spring for Saudi Arabia. (No matter that those were mass uprisings and not merely the appointment of a new crown prince. No matter either that Riyadh’s sky-high rate of executions continues as before).

"His role models include Xi Jinping, 'elements of Putin,' and Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore with an iron grip for 30 years"
MBS fits the model of the west’s favourite partners in the Middle East: regime reformists, who promise change but not too much of it. Here is an apparently anti-establishment leader who hails from the very heart of the establishment. Even while he consolidates his power in the centre of a deeply autocratic system, he has adopted a discourse of youth empowerment, portraying the Saudi population as dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative. The sense that MBS is empowering women made it much easier for Theresa May to roll out the red carpet for his first official visit to the UK in March. When the previous king visited a decade ago, his entourage of over 100 people included one woman. This time the rising female stars of Saudi Arabia were too many to count—from government officials to social entrepreneurs.

People who know MBS say his role models include Xi Jinping, “elements of Putin,” and Singapore’s first, authoritarian premier Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled with an iron grip for 30 years. None of this sounds reassuring. But the west has preferred to concentrate on MBS’s more palatable heroes. He told Bloomberg he looked at what Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg had achieved and asked himself, “what could I create?” A question that the rest of the world is beginning to ask too.

Rise, rise and reform

MBS had no real profile until his father came to the throne in 2015. He is said to have been a quiet and thoughtful child, and a diplomat recalls he was evidently his father’s favourite from a young age. In contrast to much of the Saudi elite, he did not study abroad, instead reading law at Riyadh’s main university, King Saud, though a contemporary says he was rarely seen there. His mother gave him the only career advice he would ever need: stay close by your father’s side. When his father became defence minister, he became his adviser, trying to overhaul a corrupt system of procurement and bringing consultants in to establish a blueprint for reforming the military. Eventually, after many, many years as a king in waiting—spending decades as governor of Riyadh—the octogenarian Salman took the throne.

MBS—then just 29—was made deputy crown prince and defence minister, while his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, became Crown Prince. The custom in this gerontocracy has been to pass the crown between different branches of the family, but two years into King Salman’s rule he dramatically overturned tradition, removing Bin Nayef and installing MBS as his successor.

Bin Nayef had controlled the ministry of the interior, where he had built up unprecedented security capacities; he was in charge of the religious police and internal surveillance, and enjoyed close ties with the CIA. Yet the man who defeated al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia found his own guards melted away one night and, under pressure, he agreed to give up his claim to the throne. Before long, he was being smeared as a drug addict.

The palace coup was followed by a purge in November 2017, when MBS had a Who’s Who of the country’s business, media and ruling-family elite arrested for corruption and imprisoned in the Ritz-Carlton, forcing them to hand over assets to the government. The message was clear: the royal family had no immunity, including the sons and associates of previous kings.

Along with corruption, he tackled culture. The ban on women driving, reviled around the world but claimed to be indispensable in placating the traditionalists, was overturned. In effect, MBS has said that the rules Saudi Arabia has enforced for decades in the name of Islam were wrong. Concerts, once banned, are being promoted and cinemas, long illegal, are to open.

Economic reform is also on the table, from deep cuts in public spending, to plans to partly privatise Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest and most powerful state-owned enterprise. Many of his social reforms are driven by economic ambitions. Saudis spend an estimated $30bn on entertainment and tourism in the rest of the Middle East, much of it in neighbouring Dubai. That money could be spent at home, creating jobs.

All this represents, at the very least, an audacious new style of governing, although not all the policies are actually new. The previous king, Abdullah, who was in his 80s when he came to the throne in 2005, seemed to want to take the country in the same broadly liberal direction. But he tried to do this subtly, avoiding backlash from conservatives. The reason that King Abdullah didn’t make major changes was exactly the same reason that the new leadership did. These decisions are designed for maximum impact and to send the signal that things are changing. While King Abdullah wanted to avoid disruption, MBS wants to follow his hi-tech heroes: to move fast and break things.

The flipside of the reforms was that lingering tensions in foreign policy were suddenly ramped up into crises—witness the embargo slapped on Qatar, which effectively broke the Gulf Co-operation Council and overnight did for its long-nurtured ambitions of moving towards a common market. Witness too, the strange case of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, who gave a televised resignation speech in Saudi Arabia, only to rescind it as soon as he was back in Beirut. An attempt to throw the Kingdom’s weight around in the region backfired spectacularly, with western diplomats privately calling it a “kidnapping” and Hezbollah—the supposed target of MBS’s machinations—emerging stronger.

Breaking things: the case of Yemen

Another old assumption about Saudi Arabia was that the country would never use the expensive weapons it kept stockpiling. After all, Saudi soldiers would not want to fight. MBS wants to prove this wrong—a desire that, in Yemen, has had disastrous consequences. The starting point was an obsession, shared with most of the Saudi elite, with Iran. MBS recently described the country as a “new Hitler” in the Middle East. This is the driving force behind his desire to upgrade Saudi military capacity and his move to deploy it so controversially.

After a coup took place in Yemen in 2014, Saudi Arabia feared an open goal for Iran on its doorstep. In truth, the coup was part of a complex and long-running internal power struggle going back to the Arab Spring year of 2011, when an uprising saw the longstanding president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, kicked out. But as the Yemeni saga played out, MBS—who by this stage was Saudi Arabia’s defence minister—was preoccupied by only one aspect of the chaos: a new alliance between Saleh and his former enemies, the Houthi militia, who were friendly with Iran. Back then, the relationship was limited: the Houthis got the vast majority of their arms and money inside Yemen. But MBS looked ahead, and imagined the Houthis transforming into a kind of Hezbollah on the Arabian peninsula, with missiles pointed at Saudi Arabia. The stage was set, and the briefings given to journalists promised a quick and decisive war.

Instead, Yemen has been a classic case, almost a caricature, of an asymmetric war, where the larger, stronger, richer outsider cannot win against a guerrilla movement fighting on its own turf. Many Saudis welcomed the sight of a leader taking action against a perceived Iranian threat, though scepticism about the war seems to have risen as austerity has bitten at home. But outside Saudi Arabia, it is seen as a losing battle which carries an immense cost for the Yemeni population. The military intervention has been futile in terms of either reversing the coup or demonstrating Saudi power to Iran. And after all that, the Houthis now have the capacity to fire missiles into Saudi territory.

It’s unclear whether MBS really has a long-term plan for Yemen. He does, however, have a long-term plan for the Saudi military. In this vision, Yemen isn’t seen as such a disaster—he portrays it as a war of necessity, and it may also be a testbed. The weaknesses of the military that MBS inherited have been exposed. But he thinks he can fix them.

Whatever problems they cause, Saudi Arabia’s foreign adventures are unlikely to seriously damage MBS at home. The same cannot be said for the economy. From 2003 until 2013, the government ramped up public spending by over 10 per cent every year, enabled by an oil price boom (it relies on oil for 90 per cent of its revenue). Then oil prices tumbled. By 2015, the country was eating up its financial reserves so fast that it would be insolvent within two years. Sweeping budget cuts followed. Saudis are now paying VAT, tax on cigarettes, and higher prices for electricity, which used to be practically free. Petrol prices more than doubled. Yet while overall public spending was trimmed, public-sector handouts have continued.

Young Saudis are preoccupied more with jobs, the cost of living, education and housing than with anything else. The biggest risk to MBS is that he will struggle to deliver on employment, damaging his standing with the younger generation that he sees as his support base. Public-sector hiring has been largely frozen for several years and while the foreign private sector is watching MBS with interest, it is rarely committing money. According to Financial Times data, western European countries started only eight new greenfield foreign direct investment projects in Saudi Arabia last year, creating jointly around 500 jobs between them.

A young man in a hurry

MBS could spend 50 years on the throne, given the longevity of previous Saudi kings. Why do everything at once, when it throws up contradictions and trade-offs, such as hosting an investment conference one week and jailing so many well-known businesspeople (and the economy minister) the next—in the very same hotel?

Part of the reason is probably a sense that change is already years overdue. “I think his view was that without this, in 30 or 40 years we’d have a catastrophe,” says one senior government adviser. Similarly, Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, who knows MBS, says: “He really thinks the country is facing a crisis, and that he has to very quickly and in a very determined fashion turn the ship around or it will sink—and the ruling family will lose its power base.” In other words, he is loosening things up in order to retain his power.
"MBS is leading an austerity drive but has lavish tastes"
In the latter days of King Abdullah, the ruling family’s reliance on internal consensus almost paralysed decision-making. Power was dispersed among the increasingly elderly half-brothers of the king, all sons of the kingdom’s founder, who ran the major ministries as their own fiefdoms. “One of the things [MBS] disliked the most was the one-man show which some ministries had become,” says the Saudi adviser. For instance, western diplomats say that one of his uncles, Prince Sultan, held the Yemen portfolio for many years, with a detailed knowledge of the country’s tribes, many of whom were on Saudi payrolls. As Prince Sultan aged, and died, the government connections to Yemeni tribes atrophied.

Meanwhile, there was a sense among many young Saudis that others were stealing a march on them. Other Gulf countries, especially the UAE, pushed ahead with economic diversification; Dubai built a metro while Riyadh stayed clogged with traffic; the UAE, with its nine million citizens, started to attract more inward investment than Saudi Arabia with its 32m. And in their neighbourhood, they saw Iran advancing and expanding its influence through paramilitary and political proxies in several Arab heartlands. To put it bluntly, the young sensed they were being treated as idiots while the old men stayed in charge.

A game of thrones

The 2017 anti-corruption purge allowed MBS to do several things at the same time. It sent a message to the royal and business elite that the leadership would no longer tolerate them siphoning off money, whether directly or through systems of kickbacks and nepotistic procurement. It was a populist move, showing the public that in a time of austerity, the rich would be paying their share, and it allowed MBS to gain leverage over a variety of media organisations and businesses. And with the arrest of Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the previous king, it helped him push aside his last possible royal rival. Prince Miteb headed the country’s National Guard, a major internal fighting force separate from the rest of the army.

The arrests of princes prompted many an article on the Saudi Game of Thrones. In reality, what happened is closer to the The Wizard of Oz, where at the end of the film the terrifying wizard turns out to be a little man behind a curtain with a talent for illusions.  “We grew up thinking the National Guard was a state within a state,” says one young Saudi analyst, “made up of fighters who were fiercely loyal to one man, and then he was removed and nothing happened.” “Normally you would expect such major changes only to happen through bloodshed,” says Haykel. But, he explains, “it’s a system that looks to the king, and there’s a culture of total deference to the king.”

MBS now appears to have no rivals within the ruling family who could challenge him for the throne, although some diplomats worry about the risks of assassination from within the family. Certainly, he made enemies. But so far, none of them are organised. Even politicised Islamists, who have at times been the most organised opposition force in the kingdom, appear on the back foot, with some of their leaders recently imprisoned.

One of the risks to such a suddenly powerful man is that he may mistake the lack of overt opposition for a lack of any opposition. For now, many liberal Saudis are cheering him on because they are glad to see the conservatives put in their box; “it’s our turn now,” they say. The question, however, is whether he has the wisdom to retain this loyalty in the absence of any obvious checks.

Some criticisms are already voiced. There are inevitably questions being asked about how, for instance, the driving ban could be official policy one day and extremism the next. The fact that MBS is leading an austerity drive but still has the lavish tastes that Saudi royals are accustomed to—such as his purchases of a super- yacht, a Leonardo supposedly gifted to Abu Dhabi, and the world’s most expensive home, in France—has also prompted cynicism.

Najah Al-Otaibi, a Saudi researcher at the Henry Jackson Society, says: “He’s questioning the royal family. And that means people will eventually start to question him.” Prominent Saudi journalist Saleh al-Shehi gave a television interview in February saying that there were many “windows to corruption” inside the royal court. He was sentenced to five years in prison. And a host of activists and clerics were arrested in 2017.

MBS is trying to replace the traditional pillars of support for the Saudi regime with a new popular youth constituency, more interested in jobs and fun than ideology. But this constituency too will have complaints as the shift away from oil messes with the living standards they have grown to expect. Right now, there is little appetite in Saudi Arabia for revolution, and even calls for reform are muted. Al-Otaibi says “I think he’s popular. Not with the royal family, as they’ve never been questioned before. But people support this.” Another Saudi researcher says: “He is not popular. But there is no alternative to him.”

But there is one issue that may gnaw at MBS and those around him. Over the past year, Saudis have witnessed a series of once unquestionable power centres turn out to be chimeras, leading people to question their established beliefs more generally. If the young Crown Prince’s reforms fail, will they start questioning MBS himself?