In a test of wills with the leader of the world’s most powerful country, and a man more than double his age, 36-year old Mohammad Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, would be an unlikely winner. Yet, every summary of his talks with U.S. President Joseph Biden last week has shown MBS, as he is known, to have got the better of the more experienced global statesman.
More so because up until when the two met, at the Saudi Royal palace in Jeddah on July 15, Mr. Biden had sworn to treat MBS as an outcast, and just last month, insisted he would not meet one-on-one with the Crown Prince when he travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet the King and other regional leaders.
From the first “fist bump” that the two greeted each other with, however, it was clear that it was MBS who would be Mr. Biden’s main host, and controlled and dominated the narrative of the visit. More important, analysts said, MBS received every honour from his American guest, without actually giving up much in negotiations, whether it was guarantees on boosting oil production, or taking stronger positions alongside the U.S. against Russia or China, or in normalising ties with Israel (although Saudi Arabia did agree to open its airspace for flights).
To those who have watched MBS’s meteoric rise in his father’s court, his ability to have prevailed in the tussle doesn’t come as a surprise. Former Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad, who spent nearly a decade over three postings in Saudi Arabia, calls Prince Salman a “unique phenomenon” in Saudi politics. His ascension marks not just a generational change, but a “leap across two generations”, given that his father, 86-year old King Salman, chose MBS, his seventh son who was born from his third wife, rather than a successor from among MBS’s uncles, as was the convention, or even MBS’s older and more experienced brothers.
While King Salman did keep the kingdom guessing for a couple of years after ascending to the throne in 2015, he appointed MBS his Crown Prince in 2017, casting aside powerful figures like Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and Mohammad bin Naif, who were expected to be the successors. MBS was now Crown Prince, Minister of Defence, head of the royal court and head of the twin supreme political and development councils, and became the de facto ruler in the years that followed. When asked about the decision, King Salman reportedly said he was the only one of his sons “ruthless” enough to control a Kingdom with such entrenched power centres and such a large royal family.
This came as a surprise, as the young Crown Prince had no military training, nor had he studied abroad (MBS studied Law at King Saud University), in comparison to siblings who held ministerial positions — one that was a PhD at Oxford university, and another, a Saudi Air Force pilot who became an astronaut. “Apart from co-option and coercion, I would say his most powerful weapon is not ruthlessness, but ruthlessness with calculation,” said Mr. Ahmad.
The calculation doesn’t always pay off. His first act as Defence Minister, for example, was to begin an unrelenting bombardment of Yemen, a campaign that has not yet brought the surrender from Houthi rebels that he had hoped for. His decision to lead a Gulf country boycott of Qatar floundered after a year, and he had to patch up with the Qatari royal family without receiving the assurances he had demanded.
The incarceration of hundreds of royals and other elites at the Ritz Carlton, held there on corruption charges, silenced them, but led to considerable resentment against him within the family. The atmosphere of zero tolerance for disloyalty that reportedly led to the alleged killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, as well as the Pegasus surveillance operation he reportedly ordered on civil society members, brought the Crown Prince untold international opprobrium.
Even so, MBS’s moves have catapulted him to greater control of his Kingdom. The more harshly he dealt with the three erstwhile power centres — of royals, businessmen and religious clergy — the more his popularity rose among the Saudi Kingdom’s restless youth. For them, he promised a new future, under a “Vision 2030” programme, a shift from the Kingdom’s dependence on oil revenues to create education and job opportunities, and the dream of a new $500 billion high-tech city project in the desert called ‘Neom’.
Socially, Saudi subjects began to see changes they had never dreamed off — where women no longer had to be fully veiled or abide by strict guardianship rules, could drive cars, and men and women could walk around freely without fear of the “Muttaween” religious police of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, attend cinemas and rap and hip-hop concerts. Like his father, and previous rulers since 9/11, MBS has also sought to delink the Kingdom’s image from its past role in funding and fostering Islamic extremist groups, by employing tougher means.
He oversaw Saudi Arabia’s largest mass execution earlier this year, with 81 people hanged for crimes of “terrorism and extremist ideologies”. With such summary actions have come the accusations that MBS has trampled human rights in the Kingdom, with activists highlighting the incarceration and alleged torture of dissident writer Raif Badawi and women’s activist Loujain Alhathloul, who have both been freed now, but remain under travel restrictions. Many worry that if MBS can wield so much absolute power as Crown Prince at less than 40 years old, how much tyranny could he possibly unleash as King, given that he could well reign for as much as half a century more.
None of the international, particularly western, criticism appears to impress MBS, instead turning him to seek other partnerships including with Beijing, Moscow, India, Indonesia and other countries. “Simply, I do not care,” he said in an interview earlier this year to The Atlantic. However, the impact of his decisions domestically may actually make Mohammad Bin Salman care, especially as he grows closer to his ailing father’s throne. Like how he will deal with Israel after his friend and competitor UAE ruler Mohammad Bin Zayed has opened ties, while assuaging the feelings of his religious clergy and subjects on Palestine. And how far can MBS go in the proxy battle with Iran, given the sizeable Shia population back home?
After the controversy over comments on the Prophet in India, it was also significant that Saudi Arabia followed other Gulf countries rather than leading them in condemnation, pointing to MBS’s close embrace of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and offers of $100 billion investment to India. On business, MBS will need to convince his own population that opening up the Kingdom for investment will not dilute strict citizenship laws, and his plans to attract global expatriates to Neom won’t hollow out the KSA’s coffers.
“Experience teaches that the most dangerous time for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform,” said French politician and thinker Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 1800s, and therein may lie MBS’s biggest challenge in the years ahead.