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The World According to MBS

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is wooing his country’s young people in order to head off the sort of discontent that erupted across the Middle East during the 2011 Arab Spring. As two recent books show, the events of almost a decade ago still weigh heavily on Arab governments and publics alike.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known to Saudis and foreigners alike as MBS – is already his country’s de facto ruler, owing to the infirmity of his 84-year-old father, King Salman. With the king currently recovering from gallbladder surgery, the spotlight is shining even more brightly on his anointed successor. The big question is what MBS – a 34-year-old leader in a country long known as a gerontocracy – portends both for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia traditionally exercised its influence abroad by doling out money to supplicants, be they the Palestine Liberation Organization or governments in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, and by managing the oil price set by OPEC. As the guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest sites, the kingdom could always rely on the respect and even the deference of the Muslim world. In both foreign and domestic policy, successive Saudi rulers preferred glacially slow evolution to rapid, sweeping change.

But that was before MBS. As Ben Hubbard shows in his eponymous, highly readable assessment of the crown prince’s extraordinarily rapid rise to quasi-dictatorial power, MBS has abandoned gradualism with a decisiveness that Machiavelli would have approved.

Hubbard, a Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, charts the process with page-turning verve. MBS, he writes, seemed to emerge from nowhere: “As the sixth son of the twenty-fifth son of the founding king, there was little reason to expect that he would rise to prominence. And for most of his life, few people did.”

Luck certainly played a part. Salman was elevated to crown prince and, in 2015, became king only because two more senior brothers had died. Similarly, MBS became his father’s favorite after the death of two of Salman’s other sons.

MBS was quick to seize his opportunity. In March 2015, after his father appointed him defense minister, he intervened in Yemen’s civil war, launching a military campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Two years later, King Salman announced that MBS would be the heir to the throne, displacing the king’s nephew Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) as crown prince. In what amounted to a public humiliation, MBN – who, as head of the interior ministry, had expelled al-Qaeda from the kingdom and won friends in the CIA – was recorded pledging his allegiance to his young cousin.

Hubbard describes MBS’s tactics succinctly. “Gone were the days when seniority reigned, elder princes divided the portfolios among themselves and made decisions through consensus,” he writes. “MBS has destroyed that system, extending his control over the military, the oil industry, the intelligence services, the police, and the National Guard, replacing senior princes with younger ones who answered to him.”

But Hubbard’s account is also chilling. MBS’s rivals, such as Prince Mutib bin Abdullah, head of the National Guard, found themselves stripped of both their government functions and their bodyguards. In November 2017, some 381 of the kingdom’s wealthiest and most powerful men, including the international investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, were summoned to Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel. It turned out to be a luxurious prison: the detainees secured their release only by signing over ill-gotten gains to the state.

According to the government, a total of $106 billion was recovered. But, as Hubbard notes, “None of the detainees wanted to acknowledge that they had been corrupt or had surrendered assets, and the government never spelled out who had paid what, why, or how the amounts had been calculated.”

It was obvious that MBS’s power was now absolute, and dangerously so. Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister at the time, was invited to Saudi Arabia and then effectively held hostage until November 4, 2017, when he abruptly announced his resignation from office – apparently to protest Iran’s influence in Lebanese politics through its domestic proxy, Hezbollah. After French President Emmanuel Macron intervened, Hariri managed to return home and retract his resignation.

More egregious still was the October 2018 killing and dismemberment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a well-connected Saudi journalist known for perceptive criticisms of his homeland, including as a columnist for the Washington Post.

In December 2018, the US Senate unanimously adopted a resolution holding MBS “personally responsible” for Khashoggi’s death. But, as Hubbard notes, a world eager for Saudi business was soon ready to move on. “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” US President Donald Trump said. The president went on to declare that, “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country.”

How much that partnership will change is hard to say, regardless of who wins this November’s US presidential election. MBS’s foreign policy is based on a loathing of the Muslim Brotherhood and a paranoid hostility toward Iran – a position shared by Israel. Traditional concerns such as the plight of the Palestinians barely register. As Hubbard points out, “[MBS’s] quiet rapprochement with the Jewish state could accelerate after his father dies.”

What is clear is that MBS’s foreign ventures carry a cost. The war in Yemen is a prolonged humanitarian disaster and is straining the patience of US politicians. The same may prove true of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Libya’s civil war, which now pits the kingdom by proxy against Turkey, whose ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ultimately, though, it will be domestic policy that determines MBS’s impact on the world. When the crown prince was born, Saudi Arabia’s population was around 13 million. Today, the kingdom contains more than 33 million inhabitants, one-third of whom are foreigners. Moreover, until MBS took charge, the country had no cinemas, music venues, or any of the other opportunities for entertainment and fun that young people almost everywhere else in the world take for granted. Women, strictly segregated from men, could not travel abroad without a male relative’s permission; most famously, they were not permitted to drive.

Happily, all that has changed. Women may now drive, and those over the age of 21 can apply for a passport and travel abroad without a male guardian’s authorization. Western pop stars such as Mariah Carey and the Backstreet Boys perform to rapturous Saudi crowds (and for a handsome fee).

In short, many of the strictures of the puritan Sunni doctrine of Wahhabism, whose clerics helped the Saud family establish the kingdom in 1932, are gone. Following an April 2016 royal decree, the religious police – the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice – can no longer berate women for showing a few strands of hair or force men to the mosque at prayer time. MBS is even rewriting history to claim that Saudi Islam was traditionally moderate. Its recent zealotry, he says, emerged to counter the 1979 call by Iran’s Shia leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to spread his Islamic revolution to the larger Sunni world.

The revisionism is blatant. Jihadi extremists, from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (ISIS), share the language of Wahhabism and Salafism, a similar creed that advocates a return to the early days of Islam. Wahhabism recommends loyalty to the ruler, but it also provides an ideological basis for criticizing the corruption and hypocrisy of the House of Saud over the decades. No one should be surprised that Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 participants in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US were Saudis.

History is, of course, written by the winners, and if MBS’s social revolution succeeds, the world will applaud. Although the murder of Khashoggi, the carnage in Yemen, or the Saudi regime’s suppression of even the mildest dissent may appall foreign critics, most Saudis practically idolize MBS. The crown prince has given people the right to enjoy themselves, and, as one of the few senior Saudi princes who was not educated abroad, is somehow “one of them.”

Does this mean that MBS will never have to hear the slogans that rang out across the region almost a decade ago during the Arab Spring? The most famous of these, as Harvard Law School’s Noah Feldman notes in his scholarly but fluid account of how that spring turned into bloody winter, was Al-sha’b yurid isqat al-nizam! – “The people want the overthrow of the regime!” But, Feldman asks, who are “the people”? What do they want if the regime falls, and, just as importantly, what are they most likely to get?

These are good questions. They are asked, whether openly or discreetly, from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, where King Mohammed VI has cleverly co-opted potential opponents. But they apply most of all to the countries that rejoiced in an Arab Spring which proved all too brief.

Back in 2011, many Western pundits and politicians assumed that popular uprisings would lead to some type of democracy across the Arab world. Perhaps they had in mind the then-recent “color” revolutions in the former Soviet Union, which had toppled authoritarian regimes in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine.

But reality mocked such wishful thinking. Egypt is once again a dictatorship, while Syria, Libya, and Yemen have been wracked by a decade of civil war. Seventeen years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq now exemplifies corrupt sectarianism in the region. Even Lebanon, supposedly the epitome of resilience, owing to its rebirth following the 1975-90 civil war, is on the brink of economic collapse, with protesters demanding an end to corruption and the political paralysis caused by sectarian power-sharing arrangements. Only Tunisia has come close to achieving the outcome that many Westerners expected.

As Feldman, a long-time scholar of Islam, is well aware, democracy needs the support of a free press and an independent judiciary – institutions more notable by their absence in the Arab world. But what of al-sha’b, the people? It is tempting to think of Arabs as a single “people.” After all, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, they share a language (albeit with many dialects), a religion, and a nostalgia for a golden age that lasted for more than six centuries, until the emergence of the Ottoman empire.

As Feldman points out, the chants that began in Tunisia in January 2011, following the self-immolation of a desperate fruit vendor, had no national stamp. The demonstrators said neither that, “the Tunisian people want,” nor that “the Arab people want.” Conceivably, they did not want to spoil the Arabic slogan’s poetic rhythm.

But it is just as likely that they felt no need to spell out a sentiment transcending national borders. Chinese people from Singapore to Beijing identify as Chinese, regardless of their national passport, and Arabs have a similar outlook. Given the history of British and French colonialism, pan-Arabism has always struck a popular chord, which explains the appeal of the Ba’ath Party in Iraq and Syria, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya. Today, al-Qaeda and ISIS preach a similar notion, which they extend beyond the Arab world to the worldwide Muslim umma, or community of the faithful.

Several factors triggered the Arab Spring: entrenched corruption, rampant joblessness (and the alienation and hopelessness it spawned), and inept governance. All are still in evidence today. But one thread running from Arab Spring to Arab winter is political Islam, which Feldman helpfully defines as, “broadly, the set of ideas and movements that aspire to a constitutional order grounded in the shari’a” (Islamic law). As Hubbard points out, the same thread is uncomfortably present in the fabric of Saudi Arabia.

Feldman’s definition of political Islam embraces movements from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda and ISIS, from those prepared to achieve power through the ballot box to those who prefer bullets and bombs. But, in MBS’s view, all of them need to be crushed.

Does MBS have a point? Feldman concentrates on Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, and sees evidence of political Islam’s success only in Tunisia (where he was present during a period of crucial negotiations over a new constitution).

Feldman’s description of Tunisia as “the first functioning Arab democracy” may yet turn out to be something of a stretch. But he is right to emphasize the flexibility shown in the wake of the 2011 uprising by the political leader Rached Ghannouchi and his Ennahda Party, a movement inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite having a plurality in the assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution, Ennahda agreed that shari’a should not even be mentioned in the document. At least for a while, that quieted critics who argued that the Brotherhood and parties like it view democracy as “one man, one vote, one time.”

The contrast with Egypt is stark. When demonstrators filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January 2011, one of their slogans was Aish, karama, hurriya (bread, dignity, freedom). Another, addressed directly to then-President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for three decades, was simply irhal (go). Young people spearheaded a popular desire for regime change and a better life.

But it was the army, not the demonstrators, who removed Mubarak from power. “The Tahrir protests changed the military’s calculus in a fundamental way,” Feldman writes. “The protests told the military that support of Mubarak or inaction would both have potentially major costs for its institutional standing.”

After the military ousted Mubarak, the Brotherhood and allied Islamist parties together won three-fifths of the popular vote in the parliamentary election held in late 2011 and early 2012. In the subsequent presidential election, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically chosen leader.

Morsi’s tenure was both hapless and short. He had neither the flexibility of Ghannouchi nor the political skills to neuter a military and bureaucratic establishment that had opposed the Brotherhood ever since its founding in 1928. In Feldman’s view, “the deck was stacked against Morsi from the beginning.”

And so it was. By July 2013, Morsi was under arrest, the victim of a military coup d’état mounted by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the Brotherhood was banned. The Tahrir demonstrations turned out to have swapped the autocratic Mubarak for the dictatorial Sisi.

This outcome came as a relief to most Arab governments, which historically have always been alarmed by political Islam. In 1991, for example, when Islamist parties looked set to take power democratically in Algeria, the military-backed government launched a decade-long civil war that killed perhaps a half-million people. Today, only Qatar supports the Brotherhood, which is one reason why Saudi Arabia has led a blockade of its tiny, gas-rich neighbor since June 2017. The lesson that Qatar is reluctant to learn is that it must bow to Saudi Arabia’s will – or, more specifically, to that of MBS.

At the same time, MBS is wooing Saudi Arabia’s young people precisely in order to silence any domestic rumblings of discontent. His grandiose Vision 2030, launched in 2016, recognizes the need for economic as well as social reform. As Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi oil minister in OPEC’s halcyon days, once observed, “The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil.”

The economic reality for MBS is that oil prices are weak and the kingdom’s financial reserves are rapidly being depleted – hence the need to privatize part of the giant state-owned oil firm Saudi Aramco. Moreover, few Saudis have the skills to flourish in the private sector. Vision 2030 could all too easily turn out to be a mirage.

Hubbard is too scrupulous a journalist to make bets on the future. Feldman, the academic, sees some hope for the Arab world in the protests that last year toppled Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir. “Bleak as circumstances are now for Arab politics, there will be changes,” he writes. “New possibilities will eventually emerge. The current winter may last a generation or more. But after the winter –and from its depths – always comes another spring.” The reader may be tempted to add in sha’allah – God willing.

(Ben Hubbard, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman , William Collins, 2020. Noah Feldman, The Arab Winter: A Tragedy , Princeton University Press, 2020.)

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