A game of crowns

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) is once again in global focus. Reports emerged that he had directed that prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a full brother of his father King Salman and prince Mohammad bin Nayef who MBS replaced as crown prince to be put in detention. This grave step was apparently taken on allegations of treason. As the Saudi system is particularly opaque it would be a while before MBS’s real motivations would be publicly known but this much is clear: this decision may mark a critical, if not final and abiding break in the manner in which the al-Saud ruling family has managed the affairs of the Kingdom for the past five and a half decades. This would be significant for the world at large and particularly the Islamic ummah.

The founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Saud who had fathered 45 sons from numerous wives died in 1953. Since then, in a remarkable but not initially smooth arrangement, the country has been ruled by six of his sons—Saud, Feisal, Khalid, Fahd, Abdullah and from 2015 Salman, the present King. Saud was virtually deposed by Feisal in 1964 but since then succession has been relatively tension free—the crown passing from a brother to another even when Feisal was assassinated by a nephew in 1975. King Salman broke this tradition when, soon after becoming King, he replaced his brother Muqrim by his nephew Mohammad bin Nayef who he removed in 2017 and in his place appointed his 32-year-old son MBS. Effective state power passed into his hands because of the King’s age and poor health.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer of crude oil. Till 2011 its reserves were the greatest in the world; that year Venezuela declared that it held larger reserves. In view of Saudi Arabia’s pivotal position in the global energy supply chain the entire world and more especially the Western powers led by the United States developed a great stake in its stability. There have been recent changes in the international hydrocarbons scene because of shale oil. This has made the United States which possess great reserves of shale oil a net exporter of oil. However, Saudi significance to the international oil market has not reduced because demand for oil has dramatically increased in Asia. This has implied that the international community continues to have a vested interest in Saudi stability. Hence, it is closely observing MBS and the moves he continues to make domestically and in the external sphere.

Western countries were greatly enthused by MBS’s initial policy decisions in the social sphere especially those relating to women. He decided that women would be permitted to drive motor vehicles. Indeed, for a long time, Saudi law which prohibited women from driving was held out as a symbol of the country’s regressive social attitudes in general. MBS also ordered that women would also be freer to open businesses and moving around in public. He also appointed the first Saudi woman to hold a position as an ambassador. Princess Reema bint Bandar, daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan was appointed as ambassador to the United States in February 2019. Interestingly Prince Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to the US for 22 years.

While these changes attracted global attention the international community also noticed that MBS was unwilling to allow greater political freedom or the right to dissent. The state’s heavy hand continued to be on Saudi men and women who were critical of any government policy. There were kept under detention. A large number of prominent businessmen were also detained for long periods apparently on corruption charges. The low point was reached when a dissident prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally killed in the Saudi consulate-general in Istanbul October 2018 by an official hit team from Riyadh. MBS denied any role in this brutal murder. While leading countries, including the United States, accepted MBS’s denial many sections of global opinion that had looked favourably towards him were outraged. He has since then been characterised as brutal and impulsive. The second characteristic is in sharp contrast to the traditional caution and circumspection that has been the hall mark of especially Saudi foreign policy.

MBS was appointed defence minister soon after Salman became King. He quickly forged an alliance with other Gulf Cooperation Council countries to intervene the ongoing Yemen civil war through an aerial bombing campaign. While as a neighbour Yemen impinges on Saudi security the real reason for armed action was to prevent the spread of Iranian influence in Yemen; Iran supported Houthi militias were gaining ground. The Saudi move has not fully succeeded for war continues, the Houthis remain in the field and the Yemeni people are undergoing great suffering.

MBS has also being aggressive in seeking to curb any move by other Islamic countries such as Turkey and Malaysia to undercut Saudi leadership of the ummah. Earlier Saudi leaders also maintained their country’s primacy in the ummah but they did so with finesse and discretion. On the other hand, MBS has no reluctance to openly pressuring other states to the point of humiliation. In this he is like Donald Trump and it is not surprising that the two share a warm relationship.

And now MBS has taken on Russian President Putin in an oil war which has thrown the global energy sector in turmoil at a time of Covid-19 induced global economic turbulence. MBS will not find Putin a pushover. Will this make him revert to traditional Saudi courteous diplomatic ways?