Is the Saudi Prince Up to His New Job?

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by Thomas W. Lippman

The audacious young prince of Saudi Arabia known as MbS owns it all now, for better or worse. As a wisecracking American might say, “Good luck with that.”

With his elevation Wednesday to be crown prince, heir to the throne, and first deputy premier reporting only to his father the king, Prince Mohammed bin Salman will exercise nearly complete control over his country’s future. He was already minister of defense and chairman of the committee that sets the kingdom’s economic policy. His only rival for power, his older cousin Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN), was dismissed as crown prince and removed from his position as interior minister, a post in which his own father served before him. MbN was widely admired in the kingdom and respected in Washington for his largely successful efforts to suppress al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, but he is now out of the government at the age of 56.

The official announcement of the long-expected shakeup said that 31 of the 34 princes who comprise the family council on succession voted in favor. It did not name the three dissenters, but it has been clear for some time that the ambitions of Mohammed bin Salman have rankled some members of the family, who have watched uneasily as power was increasingly concentrated in one branch of the ruling family.

Now MbS, 31, has what he has clearly wanted since he was appointed deputy crown prince and defense minister two years ago. His father, King Salman, 81, has steadily increased his favorite son’s authority and responsibilities as MbN was eased into the background. King Salman still has all legal authority, but with the latest promotion of his son he has become a virtual figurehead. The only power center in Riyadh that does not report to the new crown prince is the National Guard, the principal domestic security force, which is commanded by another cousin, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, a son of the late King Abdullah. Miteb’s opinion of the latest development is unknown and likely to remain so; he has no record of speaking out on royal family affairs.

Shouldering Many Burdens

MbS has an unobstructed path to the throne and because of his youth is in a position to run Saudi Arabia for decades. But with his power comes the responsibility for managing the kingdom’s affairs at a troubled time. The economic, social, and security challenges facing Saudi Arabia would be daunting for any executive who had long experience and was willing to delegate authority to competent and trusted subordinates. Neither characteristic applies to MbS. He is widely regarded as energetic and creative, but too many things are happening at once for anyone to be on top of all of them.

Internationally, MbS remains responsible for the stalemated war in Yemen, into which he led the kingdom more than two years ago. Saudi military forces and allies from the United Arab Emirates have been battling Yemeni rebels known as Houthis, whom the Saudis see as agents of their arch-rival, Iran. The war has caused widespread devastation in what was already the poorest country in the Arab world, killed thousands of civilians, and exposed large numbers of people to disease and starvation. No end is in sight as neither side has gained a decisive advantage, and meanwhile the Saudis are spending millions of dollars on the war at a time when they are short of money because of the long slump in oil prices.

Saudi Arabia has also provoked an absurd conflict with Qatar. The Saudis imposed a boycott on its next-door neighbor, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and other countries, based on accusations that the Qataris support extremist groups and are insufficiently hostile to Iran. The boycott has disrupted lives and businesses all across the Arab side of the Gulf—on Wednesday the Saudis reportedly expelled thousands of Qatari-owned camels who crossed the border to graze—just a few weeks after Qatar joined all the others in apparent harmony at President Trump’s anti-terrorism summit in Riyadh.

Trump tweeted his support for the Saudis when the boycott was imposed, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has sought to bridge the differences between the Qataris and the others, and has made no secret of his annoyance at Saudi Arabia for a move that undermines longstanding U.S. policy in the region. Qatar is an important military partner of the United States, home to the largest U.S. military base in the region as well as the forward headquarters for the U.S. Central Command. In Washington, relations with the United States are now being managed by MbS’s even younger brother, Prince Khaled bin Salman, a former fighter pilot with no diplomatic experience who became ambassador in April.

As defense minister, MbS also has the tasks of managing the region-wide effort to stave off Iranian influence and of finding an acceptable solution to the intractable conflict in Syria, where Saudi Arabia is committed to the ouster of President Bashar al-Asaad.

Managing the government as deputy prime minister—the king remains nominal prime minister—MbS also assumes the domestic challenge of limiting recruitment by the Islamic State, which Interior Ministry officials have said is making inroads among the millions of non-Saudi Muslims living in the kingdom as contract workers. Many of them have lost their jobs because of the economic slump brought on by the decline in oil prices; living in the kingdom without their families, they are ripe for recruitment by extremist groups. Until Wednesday, that security task was the responsibility of the experienced, trusted Mohammed bin Nayef. Now it is the job of another young and little known price, Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef. King Salman also removed MbN’s deputy, Abdulrahman bin Ali Al-Rubaian, from office.

Domestically, the kingdom faces all the same issues that have plagued it for years: over-dependence on oil revenue, a bloated government employment sector, reliance on foreign labor, a struggling education system that largely fails to prepare young Saudis for the modern job market, and social restrictions on women that inhibit economic development. In the past the kingdom could surmount those problems by throwing money at them, but the money has dwindled as the price of oil has dropped from more than $100 per barrel to about $45.

Vision 2030

MbS has taken on the task of re-structuring the economy through an ambitious plan known as Vision 2030, which calls for reducing government spending, cutting subsidies, diversifying the economy, and building up the private sector. A key component of the plan calls for selling a small portion of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, and investing the proceeds for future development. If successful, which remains uncertain, it would be the largest initial public stock offering in history,

The jury is still out on this program. A “report card” on vision 2030 issued recently by the Arabia Foundation in Washington said, “In a short period of time, the Vision has meaningfully transformed the economy of Saudi Arabia, hastening the customary glacial pace of government decision-making that the Kingdom had become accustomed to. However, as is to be expected with a massive reform program, preliminary mistakes were made,” a reference to cuts in salaries and bonuses that caused widespread disgruntlement and were later rescinded. “Although eventually rectified, these mistakes impeded the pace of progress and dented public sentiment,”the report card said.

Among the flurry of royal decrees published Wednesday by the official Saudi Press Agency, one that drew little immediate attention could have the greatest long-term implications for royal rule. It amended the law of succession to stipulate that, although the throne will always pass to a direct male descendant of the founding king, Abdul Aziz, “after the sons of the founder King shall not be a King and a Crown prince of one branch of the offspring of the founder King.”That indicates that after the deaths of King Salman and the few remaining brothers of his generation, future kings—including Mohammed bin Salman—will not be able to appoint crown princes from their own branch of the family, as Salman just did. That could placate whatever princes of the other branches who may be resentful of the latest concentration of power by Salman and his sons.

Photo: Mohammed bin Salman

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Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.