Mohammed bin Salman’s Shaky Legacy in a Troubled Saudi Kingdom

How can anyone continue to believe that the Saudi crown prince may serve as a role model?
Mohammed bin Salman, Mohammed bin Salman news, news on Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia, Saudi news, News on Saudi Arabia, Peter Isackson

Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, DC, on 3/22/2018. © DoD / Kathryn E. Holm

Una Galani is the associate editor of Reuters’ Breakingviews division, which the news agency describes as “the world’s leading source of agenda-setting financial insight.” Last week, Breakingviews published her review of the book “Blood and Oil” by Wall Street Journal reporters Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck.

The book tells the story of the rise to power of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It focuses on his audacious game plan for remodeling the Saudi economy. While presenting MBS, as the crown prince is commonly known, as a reformer ready to break with tradition, the authors reveal the darker side of his character and weigh the significant risks this entails for his own future and that of Saudi Arabia. 


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Galani seems to go one step beyond the authors’ critical judgment when, in the title of her article, she refers to Mohammed bin Salman as “Saudi Arabia’s sharpest prince.” The epithet appears justified at least in the comparative sense that previous Saudi leaders had a reputation for being seriously dull and plodding. By way of contrast, “sharp” may seem appropriate as a description of MBS. Or perhaps Galani was thinking of the well-sharpened cutting edge of the bone saw that MBS allegedly provided to the hit squad that was sent to Istanbul to dismember journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

Galani writes that “it’s tempting to see [Mohammed bin Salman’s] ruthlessness as a broom to the kingdom’s problems, even as admirable,” but she avoids the temptation and entertains no illusions about his errors and failures. She lists the obvious ones: “a war in Yemen, the role of his close confidantes in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the blockade of Qatar, and the effective kidnapping of Saad Hariri, who was Lebanon’s prime minister at the time.” Galani then highlights the fatal character flaw that explains those human disasters, explaining that “the prince’s inability to tolerate dissent and black-and-white view of the world may lie at the root of his multiple misadventures.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Misadventures:

A serious and even dreadful crime committed by someone with money and power, just as the misadventure of a citizen with neither money nor power (especially if black) will be deemed a crime worthy of incarceration  

Contextual Note

Galani was undoubtedly being ironic when she characterized Mohammed bin Salman’s crimes and brazen assaults on people, nations, colleagues, family and journalists as “misadventures,” to say nothing of human rights advocates who have no place in Saudi society. At another point, she mentions his “adventures in power.” Her image of the crown prince is clearly that of a hyperreal antihero, not far from that of a cartoon character.

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Galani rightly reserves her judgment of Mohammed bin Salman’s place in history, which she nevertheless predicts will be a “highly disruptive legacy.” At the same time, she points to his failure to achieve his primary non-controversial goal, when she observes that he “hasn’t secured the inward investment needed to underwrite his economic transformation plans.” The simple truth is that Saudi Arabia today finds itself in a deep crisis aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The image of MBS that emerges from Galani’s review and Hope and Schenck’s book contrasts singularly with the points made last week in an article on Fair Observer by award-winning Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari. Seeking to develop a contrast between Saudi successes and Iranian failures, Ziabari believes that “the future Saudi king has undoubtedly scored significant gains both domestically and internationally.”

Ziabari doesn’t call MBS “sharp,” but he deems him “a strong social reformer.” He cites the “notable steps the crown prince has taken to socially liberalize a conservative country.” He mentions in passing but seriously minimizes the “misadventures” Galani ironically mentions. 

To justify Mohammed bin Salman as a model to be emulated, Ziabari cites a statistic from May 2018, months before the assassination of Khashoggi. As he recounts it, “more than 90% of young people in Saudi Arabia between the ages of 18 and 24 endorse the crown prince’s leadership.” In terms of journalistic accuracy, Ziabari should have written “endorsed” in the past tense. He may be unaware that the level of “trust” in MBS has since seriously deteriorated throughout the region as a recent Pew poll shows (even if the poll did not sample Saudi Arabia, for the obvious reason that it would not have been allowed to conduct its survey in the kingdom). Recent events have undoubtedly shaken the confidence of a lot of young Saudis.

Had Ziabari been interested in more recently observed trends, he might have noticed one expert’s assessment in May: “The erosion of the social contract between the rulers and the ruled will lead to serious problems, especially in a tribal society.” The expert in question, Colin Clarke of the Soufan Center think tank, described MBS in these terms: “He’s not the sophisticated operator that he portrays himself to be. He’s less like a businessman or politician and more like a gangster.”

Historical Note

Most people acknowledge that 2020 has become a watershed moment in history. The year 2019 now appears to represent an unrecoverable past and 2021 an utterly unpredictable future. This is true everywhere in the world, even in a despotic kingdom ruled with an iron hand by an authoritarian prince with the capacity to imprison or execute at will members of his own family. And yet, Kourosh Ziabari relies on testimony from what now appears to be the distant past to highlight the success of Mohammed bin Salman.

He approvingly reports that “The New York Times has described the measures [MBS] introduced as ‘Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring.’” He fails to point out two important facts: that the article was posted in November 2017 — nearly a year before the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi — and, more tellingly, that the author of that article was the comically unreliable, ever mistaken Thomas Friedman, a celebrity writer who still seems to believe the world is flat because US technology and the economic culture associated with it has become the universal parasite of state economies.

To justify Mohammed bin Salman’s image as a reformist, Ziabari offers several quotes, all of which predate not just the current health and economic crisis, but also the Khashoggi affair. On the basis of those by now ancient remarks, he concludes that MBS has “introduced reforms that are meaningful and important in a troubled region riddled with conflict and the absence of democracy.”

Skipping forward, he cites as proof of progress the recent decision of the supreme court to abolish flogging, as reported by the BBC. But he neglects to cite the damning conclusion in the same article: “But waves of arrests of every type of dissident under the king and the crown prince – including of women’s rights campaigners – undercut this claim, our reporter says.” 

Ziabari’s real focus is on Iran, not Mohammed bin Salman. His wish for radical change in Iran makes perfect sense. But suggesting that the model MBS provides might be, as he claims, a “benchmark” would seem to be wishful thinking if not dangerous folly. As a point of comparison, it is historically accurate to call Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler modernizing reformers with ambitious programs, who were adored by a majority of their people. But no one today would treat them as role models.

Concerning Iran, Ziabari is right to hope for a development that might “put an end to decades of hostility with the US and the West.” But, isn’t that exactly what had begun to take place when Barack Obama pushed through the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, which MBS opposed and US President Donald Trump canceled at the first opportunity?

More realistically, Una Galani offers this assessment: “One positive for [MBS] is that it’s unclear how much of a difference the Khashoggi affair has really made. Investors were quick to mingle again with the prince, albeit somewhat more in private, but still with the hope of extracting funds.”

Galani recognizes that it’s all about the decisions people with money make, not about the wise policies of political leaders. Ziabari seems to agree when he remarks that Mohammed bin Salman “has a favorable public image in the eyes of Western political and business elites.” Still, success with people who control piles of money should not turn him into a role model.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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