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The Rise of Mohammed bin Salman

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Mohammed bin Salman © Jim Mattis

June 22, 2017 00:30 EDT

In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has his work cut out for him.

King Salman’s appointment of his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as crown prince at the expense of his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, could prove to be a mixed blessing for a country in transition that faces significant challenges of its own making. Prince Mohammed’s ascendancy was never in doubt. It was a question of when rather than if. Reportedly ill and clearly feeble in his public appearances, the Saudi king may have wanted to ensure sooner than later that his 31-year-old son would be his successor.

In doing so, King Salman appears to be taking a gamble. Prince Mohammed has garnered popularity among Saudi youth, many of whom feel his ascendancy puts in office a member of the ruling al-Saud family who, because of his age, is more attuned to their aspirations.

The prince has introduced — to the chagrin of religious ultraconservatives — music concerts, theatrical productions, film showings and comedy performances in a country in which culture was largely limited to traditional, religious and tribal expressions. He has also signaled his support in principle for lifting the ban on women driving and other rollbacks of austere public codes.

But the prince’s more liberal vision, part of a far broader process of change, comes with a heavy price tag. Forced to restructure Saudi Arabia’s rentier economy at a time of reduced energy prices and an upgrade of the country’s autocracy, Prince Mohammed’s measures sparked criticism not only from the kingdom’s religious establishment, but also ordinary Saudis who have felt the cost of change in their wallet.

The significant revamp set out in Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan for the future involves a unilateral rewriting of the kingdom’s social contract, which offered a cradle-to-grave welfare state in exchange for political fealty and acceptance of ultraconservative moral and social codes.

Saudis have, since the introduction of cost-cutting and revenue-raising measures, seen significant rises in utility prices and greater job uncertainty as the government seeks to prune its bloated bureaucracy and encourage private sector employment. Cuts in housing, vacation and sickness benefits have reduced salaries in the public sector, the country’s largest employer, by up to a third. Online protests, fueled in part by Prince Mohammed’s acquisition of a $500 million yacht shortly after he came to office, persuaded the government in April to roll back some of the austerity measures and restore most of the perks enjoyed by government employees.

Reduced public spending and delays in payments have put two of the kingdom’s major companies, Binladin Group and Saudi Oger, in dire straits. Thousands of employees have been unpaid for months. In 2016, workers at Binladin Group burnt a bus in Mecca in protest. Oger is reportedly bankrupt and likely to go into liquidation.


On the foreign policy front, Prince Mohammed, since first coming to office in 2015, has embroiled Saudi Arabia in two major international entanglements without an exit strategy, forcing the kingdom to grope for a face-saving way out.

Prince Mohammed also serves as defense minister and is the lead official responsible for the war in Yemen. Three years into the conflict, Saudi Arabia’s ability to effectively deploy its massive state-of-the-art military acquisitions is in question. The war has dragged on, producing a humanitarian crisis with large numbers of people on the verge of starvation and risks of epidemics — as evident in a recent outbreak of cholera. The crisis has caused Saudi Arabia reputational damage and promises to produce a generation of Yemenis who will resent the suffering and destruction caused by the ill-fated invasion.

Similarly, the diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, initiated by Prince Mohammed and his Emirati counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, threatens to backfire. The ability of Qatar, a tiny state with only 300,000 citizens, to resist the embargo and the inability of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to put forward demands that stand a chance of garnering international support have turned into an embarrassment.

On June 20, the US State Department took the two Gulf powers to task. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in the strongest US language yet: “Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

Nauert’s comments followed a series of US steps that appeared to strengthen Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These included a joint American-Qatari naval exercise, a $12 billion fighter jet deal, and a statement by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, a key demand floated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was all but impossible.

Prince Mohammed, moreover, has failed to win substantial support in the Muslim world for the Saudi-Emirati campaign. Most major Muslim nations, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia, are keen to stay on the sidelines. Turkey is supplying Qatar with food and has sent troops to the Gulf state.

On a third front, tension with Iran has escalated since Prince Mohammed’s rise. In May, the prince poured fuel on the fire by portraying the conflict between the two Middle Eastern rivals in sectarian rather national or ideological terms and promising to take the fight to Iran itself. At least, regarding Iran, Prince Mohammed enjoys the support of the United States even if, like in the case of Qatar, much of the Muslim world does not want to be sucked into the dispute.

The new crown prince has his work cut out for him. To succeed in turning the Saudi economy around, blunting the sharp ends of Sunni ultraconservatism, and bringing the kingdom’s autocracy into the 21st century, Prince Mohammed will have to demonstrate the kind of deftness and ability to build bridges he has yet to put on display. While bold in his ambitions and willingness to gamble, he will also have to recognize the need for exit strategies.

Prince Mohammed could well prove to be the figure that pushes through the kind of change that will enable Saudi Arabia to successfully compete in the world today. By the same token, he could also tie the kingdom further into knots.

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

Photo Credit: Jim Mattis

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