Mohammed bin Salman's insatiable lust for power could sink Saudi Arabia

Mohammed bin Salman's insatiable lust for power could sink Saudi Arabia

Comment: Mohammed bin Salman is erratically pursuing short-term gains in a desperate and dangerous bid to secure his own ambitions, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
6 min read
13 Mar, 2020
The crown prince has effectively removed anyone who could challenge his path [AFP]
Saudi Arabia's megalomaniac Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) presents himself as the figure ushering in progressive change within the ultra-conservative kingdom, to attract support for his grand economic visions.

Yet his latest series of arrests and an oil price war with Russia indicate his feelings of vulnerability as he cements his extreme rule over the kingdom, which could ultimately backfire.

On 6 March, bin Salman arrested prominent figures of the royal family, including his father King Salman's nephew, former Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, and the King's younger brother Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, allegedly fearing a coup amid rumours of King Salman's declining health.

This is the second round of surprise arrests that are likely to continue as the brash young Crown Prince continues to consolidate his grip on power.

Acting in a power-hungry and irrational manner, in November 2017, MbS arrested scores of prominent businessmen and leading Saudi figures in a so-called anti-corruption campaign, after assuming power as crown prince.

Yet having achieved de facto dominance over a country where the reigning king now is a mere figurehead, MbS apparently fears his rule may yet face challenges from those Saudi figures who oppose his unpredictable antics.

An oil price war with Russia triggered on 6 March further reveals MbS' erratic nature, after the kingdom cut oil prices to attract increased exporting and boosting production, effectively ending the OPEC+ cooperation agreement. Though the fallout was cited as a geopolitical casualty of the coronavirus epidemic - and the virus has affected Gulf countries' energy sectors - MbS' responses go hand-in-hand with his lust for economic power and strengthening his vision for the kingdom.

MbS' global reputation sinks with every erratic action he takes

Saudi Arabia then passed drastic austerity measures on March 11, cutting its state agencies budget by 20-30 percent. A harsh measure considering Riyadh's own economic woes, particularly after the loss of oil giant Aramco's valuation following the attack on its facilities last September, and the company's disappointing IPO. 

MbS is desperately flailing to recover the kingdom's growth, particularly for his ambitious but increasingly unrealistic Vision 2030 economic designs. Aramco's share value was also 
slashed by 10 percent on 10 March, falling well below its listing price. Global stock prices were hit, showing how this spat has created wider international blowback, while MbS makes a shaky gamble which may not pay its desired dividends.

On 9 March, MbS also arrested several Palestinians with alleged links to the Gaza-based faction Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist faction. It's worth remembering MbS simultaneously seeks closer ties with Israel, seeing it as a vital ally against Riyadh's regional rival Iran, suggesting this move was likely an appeasement measure.

Yet for MbS, the US is its key ally; along with Washington's overwhelming military support, Donald Trump's affection for MbS has effectively normalised his rule.

MbS' policies however have already delivered political and economic backlash. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 delivered harsh reputational repercussions, showing the world that reformist claims within Saudi Arabia were merely a facade. Kidnapping the former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2017, and hacking Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos' phone, has further stained his image.

Read more: Saudi Arabia to implement biting austerity measures over coronavirus and plummeting oil price

Riyadh is stuck in a quagmire in Yemen, despite vast economic expenditure. Yet it has failed to achieve its stated goal of defeating the Houthis within weeks of the war's commencing in March 2015, of which MbS was the architect. Now, the Houthi rebels have largely secured control over northern Yemen and have even threatened Saudi territory in the past year, leaving the kingdom on shaky economic and security ground; along with knowledge of MbS' role of the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

In 2018, MbS had a diplomatic spat with Canada after its foreign ministry tweeted concerns over the kingdom's treatment of imprisoned civil society women's rights activists, causing Riyadh to withdraw its ambassador.

This incident also highlighted Saudi Arabia's ongoing cruelty towards reformists, despite bin Salman presenting himself as champion of the Kingdom's progressive agenda for change.

Furthermore, its blockade against Qatar in June 2017 has lost it even more friends.

Continued actions like this could see the kingdom losing vital support. Canada's criticism showed the West may not be willing to tolerate Riyadh's actions forever.

Even its closest regional ally, the United Arab Emirates is not entirely in-line with Saudi Arabia over various regional issues such as Yemen and Iran, and merely uses Riyadh's overt policies as a smokescreen to pursue its own agenda.

Though MbS' global reputation sinks with every erratic action he takes, it is really the deafening silence and tacit support from western capitals that is keeping his reign afloat.

Trump views MbS in a positive light; both are corrupt and without morals, seeing eye-to-eye on many issues. Meanwhile the United Kingdom is trapped in its own populist bubble amid Brexit and the ascension of Boris Johnson's majority government, meaning that any stern challenges to MbS' measures from London are also out of the question for now.  

Saudi Arabia has passed drastic austerity measures, cutting its state agencies budget by 20-30 percent.

Alongside Trump's otherwise indifferent manner to the repercussions of Saudi Arabia's drastic policies, the US president argued that the oil price war was "good for the consumer", and simply accused the "fake news media" of exaggerating the crisis.

However, America's upcoming presidential election could alter Saudi-US relations, should Trump lose, and would diminish the current polarity between the two governments. A Bernie Sanders victory could set a new precedent for revising Washington's relations with Riyadh - Sanders has been a cheerleader for ending US military support for Saudi Arabia over its catastrophic war on Yemen.

Even Joe Biden, the other leading Democrat nominee, could grant less impunity to bin Salman's actions compared to Trump, though he would still likely take only limited steps in addressing the kingdom's behaviour.

In any case, Trump will not be in the White House forever, and should the current global Trump-led populist wave cease, a decline in Washington's policy of impunity towards Saudi Arabia could easily follow. MbS' support depends on Trump, and Bin Salman knows this, which might also partly explain his desperate grab for power.

While MbS erratically pursues short-term gains in a desperate bid to secure his own ambitions, his policies will lead to further diminishing of future Saudi security, and continued economic strife in the coming years.

For now, however, MbS has consolidated his grip over the Saudi kingdom, while the West sits idly by.


Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.