Saudi Arabia’s Game of Thrones
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has now replaced the 57-year-old Muhammad bin Nayif with his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, as crown prince, signaling a clear break from a decades-old tradition of building consensus. That implies a return to the absolute monarchy established by Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.
PRINCETON – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has just replaced the 57-year-old Muhammad bin Nayif with his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, as crown prince, completing a process of power centralization that began with Salman’s accession to the throne in January 2015.
Prince Mohammed, commonly known as MBS in Western circles, is the king’s favorite son. By appointing him as crown prince, Salman, who is now 81, has signaled a clear break from a decades-old tradition of building consensus among the leading sons of the Saudi state’s founder, the late King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.
In structural terms, Saudi Arabia is no longer a power-sharing gerontocracy. It has returned to the absolute monarchy that it was under Ibn Saud himself. Power is concentrated entirely in the hands of the king, who has delegated most of it to his son, the new crown prince.
In practical terms, MBS’s rise will streamline decision-making, and mitigate the political risks that are inherent in any system of multiple, competing power centers. There is now absolute clarity on the questions of succession and where power lies. But while this new arrangement certainly has its advantages, it also has potential pitfalls, because far-reaching decisions could go unquestioned and unchallenged.
When Salman dies, MBS will become king, and will most likely rule Saudi Arabia for many decades, leaving his imprint on the country’s social, religious, and economic life. His rise to power – which started in 2009, when he became an adviser to his father, who was then governor of Riyadh Province – has been meteoric. But being named crown prince is his most impressive achievement to date. MBS has won a race to the throne that included hundreds of princes, most of whom are older and more experienced – and all of whom feel entitled to rule.
To be sure, the king’s favoritism clearly gave MBS a leg up; but that alone does not explain his success. MBS had to rely on his wit, guile, and force of personality to consolidate power and assert his authority over key sectors of Saudi society. These include the royal family itself; the bureaucracy and technocratic elites; the media and intelligentsia; the massive national oil company, Saudi Aramco; and the religious establishment and its various institutions.
Moreover, MBS managed all of this while still formally adhering to the Saudi royal family’s strict protocols and elaborate codes of hierarchy. This helps to explain why the transition from one crown prince to another appeared to go so smoothly. In a widely distributed video clip, MBS can be seen falling to his knees to kiss the just-dismissed incumbent crown prince’s hand. But it is Nayif who formally offers his allegiance to MBS, leaving no doubt about where power lies.
MBS’s second great achievement has been in foreign policy, where he has been able to prove his capabilities to his father. MBS took the initiative to reach out to US President Donald Trump and his team immediately after the US presidential election in November 2016, and his efforts paid off, culminating in Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May 2017.
Trump’s visit was a major victory for Saudi Arabia. US-Saudi relations had reached a nadir during former US President Barack Obama’s tenure, but they have now been reset. During his visit, Trump emphasized the importance of the US-Saudi strategic relationship, offered his full support in Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran for regional primacy, and signed various business and investment deals worth many billions of dollars.
MBS, who is nothing if not ambitious, has set two broad goals for Saudi Arabia. The first, which he outlines in a program called Vision 2030, is to diversify the Saudi economy, by reducing its heavy dependence on oil revenues, and creating good jobs outside of the oil sector. MBS is convinced that Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves will be far less valuable in the future, owing to the rise of alternative fuels and renewable-energy technologies.
Under Vision 2030, MBS will try to monetize the upfront value of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves as much as possible. These proceeds will then be allocated to developing the country’s non-oil sectors, and invested in offshore assets to offset the inevitable loss in oil revenues. To that end, MBS is keen on privatizing part of Saudi Aramco through an initial public offering in 2018.
MBS’s second major goal is to turn Saudi Arabia into a regional military hegemon that can stand up to external threats, not least Iran. To do this, he will have to make his country far less dependent on US military protection, on which it has relied since 1945.
It will take a decade or more to accomplish each of the new crown prince’s goals. But now that MBS’s power base is finally secure, he seems to have every intention of carrying them out.
The Saudi Prince’s Dangerous War Games
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to consolidate power and establish his country as the Middle East’s only hegemon. But his efforts – which include an attempt to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.
TEL AVIV – A series of stunning political developments, originating in Saudi Arabia, has been roiling an already volatile Middle East. Is a major new war in the offing?
Saudi Arabia’s ambitious 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (widely known by his initials, MBS), who is overseeing an historic (and destabilizing) transformation of the Kingdom’s economy, has ordered the arrest of many of the country’s most powerful princes and officials. The move, framed as an anti-corruption drive, is a brazen bid to consolidate power.
But MBS’s ambitions extend far beyond his country’s borders. On the same day, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation in a live television broadcast from Riyadh, accusing Iran of causing “devastation and chaos” through its meddling in other countries.
When, days later, Riyadh was targeted by a long-range missile launched from Yemen by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, the Saudis lost no time in warning Iran of a possible war. Saudi leaders also denounced Hezbollah – Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shia militia – for aiding the Houthis. Citing the inclusion of Hezbollah members in Lebanon’s government, Saudi Arabia accused the country of declaring war on the Kingdom, and ordered its citizens to leave the country.
MBS clearly hopes to establish Saudi Arabia as the Persian Gulf’s sole hegemon, and the protector of Sunni Islam throughout the Middle East. But his efforts increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.
Saudi Arabia has already suffered from the farcical failure of its blockade on Qatar, not to mention its two disastrous attempts to stem Iranian advances in Syria and Yemen. Add to that MBS’s ham-fisted political purge, and the escalation in Lebanon may be viewed as a desperate gambit.
Yet provoking Iran is probably not in Saudi Arabia’s best interests. As MBS knows all too well, the Kingdom cannot match Iran’s military might. And his likely back-up plan – increasing security cooperation with Israel – might not work as he would like.
True, Israel’s chief of staff, General Gadi Eisenkot, spoke in a rare interview with a Saudi newspaper about the “many shared interests” between the two countries. Moreover, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has warned that Israel would not permit the consolidation of a Shia “axis in Syria.” And Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel will not allow Iran to gain military ground and naval footholds in Syria.
But it is folly to think that Israel would engage in full-scale war north of its border for Saudi Arabia’s sake. It would not even be the first time Israel frustrated Saudi Arabia’s expectations of an intervention. In 2012, Netanyahu did not follow through on threats to attack Iran’s nuclear installations.
More recently, Israel refused to intervene in the Syrian civil war against Bashar al-Assad’s Shia-affiliated Alawite regime. In fact, Israel has taken great pains to avoid being sucked into that conflict, even as it has scaled up aerial attacks on arms convoys headed for Hezbollah, which has been attempting to open a second front against Israel on the Golan.
Yet it would be irresponsible to dismiss the idea of war altogether. After all, wars on Israel’s northern front have not always been premeditated. And an increasingly self-confident Assad no longer seems resigned to Israel’s insistence that its air force should have full freedom of action in Syria and Lebanon: his anti-aircraft batteries have started to respond to Israeli military flights over Syria. On November 11, Israeli forces shot down a Syrian drone.
Moreover, Israel has established a new red line in Syria: the protection of Syria’s Druze community, with whom Israel’s own highly loyal Druze citizens have strong bonds. On November 3, after rebel forces killed nine people in a Druze village inside Syria, the Israeli military warned that it would intervene to prevent the occupation of the village.
While Israel is not interested in waging all-out war, it does not see such a scenario as entirely implausible. In September, it conducted its largest military exercise in two decades, with its air, sea, and large ground forces spending two weeks simulating conflict on both the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. A massive evacuation of northern Israel’s civilian population was also simulated. After two wars with Hezbollah that ended in a sort of tie, Israel has made it clear that, in any new conflict, the goal would be unequivocal victory.
Hezbollah, drained by its costly effort to support Assad in Syria’s civil war, is not particularly eager to engage in a showdown with Israel now. Iran, for its part, has avoided disrupting Lebanon’s stability and always-precarious truce with Israel, in order to enable Hezbollah to focus on Syria.
But Saudi Arabia would welcome a clash between Israel and Hezbollah, believing that it would inevitably lead to a confrontation between Israel and Iran. This is particularly true now: as the fighting in Syria subsides, the Saudi-led Sunni axis is eager to compensate for its losses there, and thus is pushing Lebanon as the next battlefield.
As it stands, Lebanon remains split between Hezbollah’s pro-Syria and Iran camp – which includes President Michel Aoun – and Hariri’s “March 14 Alliance” of Sunni, anti-Syrian groups, which Saudi Arabia hopes to push into the conflict it so desires. Of course, engaging in a war led by powers that view Lebanon merely as a piece of a broader strategic puzzle is not in the country’s best interests.
It is not in Hariri’s best interests, either; after all, such a conflict would deny his family’s construction companies the opportunity to win lavish contracts for rebuilding Syria. Indeed, it seems highly likely that Hariri is in Riyadh against his will.
As MBS plays with fire, US President Donald Trump has offered him broad support, owing to his own animosity toward Iran and, perhaps, the hope that Saudi Arabia will support a US-led peace plan on Palestine. But a more benign enticement must urgently be found. After all, as the Syrian conflict has starkly demonstrated, wars usually defeat their own purposes.
Saudi Arabia’s Revolution From Above
After becoming the heir apparent to the Saudi throne earlier this year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has quickly consolidated his power and begun to usher in a period of radical change. But as he overhauls the country's domestic and foreign policies, he is also heightening the risk of another conflict in the Middle East.
BERLIN – Seven years after the Arab Spring unleashed a wave of revolutionary fervor across most of the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi Arabia is finally catching up, albeit in its own unique way. A younger generation is demanding that the arch-conservative Kingdom modernize, and it is being led not by revolutionaries in the streets, but by Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the country’s 32-year-old crown prince and heir apparent.
In terms of population and geography, Saudi Arabia is one of the largest Arab countries, and its staggering oil wealth has made it an indispensable strategic partner for the West, and particularly for the US. But, as a country caught between the Islamic Middle Ages and Western modernity, it has always abided extreme contradictions. State-of-the-art infrastructure and American-style shopping malls have come to Mecca and Medina, home to Islam’s most important holy sites.
But, even to this day, Saudi Arabia is home to an anti-Western tribal society, ruled by one family, the House of Saud, as an absolute monarchy since the country’s founding in 1932. Its moral and legal codes appear medieval to most outsiders. And it adheres to the extreme reactionary version of Islam known as Wahhabism, a Salafist doctrine that influences many of today’s most radical Islamist groups.
Owing to the long-term decline in oil prices and the need to provide education and employment to a fast-growing young population – who might otherwise turn to extremism – King Salman and MBS have apparently concluded that the country needs to modernize. To avoid a slow decline, or even an eventual disintegration, they are taking measures to open up the country, not just economically, but socially and culturally, too.
Earlier this month, MBS – who seems to have studied Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own consolidation of power – ordered what the Saudi government has described as an anti-corruption purge. Already, dozens of high-level princes, former ministers, and wealthy and influential businessmen have been arrested and had their accounts frozen. The purge came not long after an announcement that Saudi women will no longer be banned from driving cars or attending public sports events. Clearly, the new leadership in Saudi Arabia intends to orchestrate a veritable revolution from above.
But, lest we forget, the last autocratic ruler in the Middle East who attempted to bypass his country’s Islamic clergy and carry out a top-down revolution was the Shah of Persia, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He and his “White Revolution” were eventually swept away by Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.
One can only hope that MBS’s revolution will fare better. If it fails, the radical Salafists who will assume power in Riyadh will make the Iranian mullahs look like liberals. If it succeeds in modernizing the leading bastion of reactionary Islam, the stage would be set for other countries throughout the Islamic world to do the same.
As part of his agenda, MBS has also launched an aggressive new foreign policy, particularly toward Iran. The modernizers around MBS know that the revolution’s success will require breaking the power of Wahhabism by replacing it with Saudi nationalism. And in order to do that, they need a compelling enemy. Shia Iran, with which the Kingdom is competing for regional hegemony, is the ideal foil.
These domestic considerations help to explain why Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet and escalated tensions with Iran in recent months. Of course, from the Saudis’ perspective, they are merely picking up the gauntlet that Iran already threw down by interfering in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, and other countries.
So far, the battle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been limited to proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, with disastrous humanitarian consequences. Neither side, it seems, wants a direct military conflict. And yet that outcome can hardly be ruled out, given recent developments. In the Middle East, a cold war can turn hot rather quickly.
Over the long term, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry will shape the Middle East in much the same way that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once did. Consider, for example, an episode that occurred just hours before MBS launched his anti-corruption purge: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while visiting Saudi Arabia, announced his resignation from office. According to Hariri, the Iran-aligned Shia militant group and political party Hezbollah, with which his government had a power-sharing relationship, had made governing Lebanon impossible, and may have been plotting his murder.
But Hariri, whose father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, was assassinated in 2005, raised more questions than answers. Why leave office now? Was he acting under Saudi pressure, and, if so, to what end?
Shortly after Hariri’s announcement, Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile that Houthi rebels in Yemen had fired at Riyadh. According to Saudi Arabia, because the Houthis are backed by Iran, their attempted missile strike was tantamount to an Iranian “act of war.”
This flurry of unusual developments in such a short span of time can hardly be a coincidence. The question now is whether civil war will return to Lebanon, and whether Saudi Arabia will try to involve Israel and the US in a confrontation with Hezbollah to push back against Iran.
For now, the Saudis lack the power to do that on their own. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has suffered major defeats in the regional struggle for hegemony. The Sunni minority has been ousted from power in Iraq; and Bashar al-Assad’s Iran-backed regime has managed to hold on to power in Syria. MBS may be looking for ways to offset these defeats, in Lebanon or elsewhere.
Saudi Arabia’s revolution from above is a high-risk endeavor that neutral observers must regard with ambivalence. Although it cannot be allowed to fail, given what that would entail, its success is likely to be accompanied by a dramatic increase in regional tensions and the possibility of war.
Saudi Arabia’s Populist Temptation
In the past, political stability in Saudi Arabia rested on three separate deals: within the royal family; between the royal family and the Kingdom’s traditional elites; and between the state and the population. With the sharp fall in oil revenues, this political order has become unsustainable.
NEW YORK – Most efforts to comprehend the dynamics of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing political earthquake have focused on the psychology of the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. But there are also structural reasons for Prince Mohammed’s brand of populism. Understanding these factors is key to finding a better path forward.
In the past, political stability in Saudi Arabia rested on three separate deals: within the royal family; between the royal family and the Kingdom’s traditional elites; and between the state and the population.
The deal within the Al Saud family is rooted in asabiyya – the ability of an ambitious tribe to stick together to monopolize power. But the royal family has grown too large and become too divided to justify the cost of maintaining its unity. Loosely estimated, the 5,000 or so third-generation princes and their entourage consume $30-50 billion per year.
The deal among traditional elites is also rooted in the Kingdom’s genesis. These notable families were encouraged to accumulate economic power. Privileged access to government contracts, subsidies, capital, protection from competition, and the ability to import labor freely have embedded their companies deeply in the economy.
This protected elite private sector grew to represent over 50% of Saudi GDP. But, because it is largely staffed by expats, it generates no trickle-down benefits to the local population, only negative externalities.
The population, meanwhile, was offered economic security in exchange for loyalty – an arrangement institutionalized through a patronage network of high-paying public-sector jobs and a broad array of generous welfare benefits and consumer subsidies. As a result, more than 75% of Saudi citizens work for the state, and much of the rest of the public budget is spent on cradle-to-grave social support.
But with per capita revenue from oil exports now only $5,000 a year for Saudi Arabia’s 20 million nationals, the system has become too costly. The challenge for Prince Mohammed is to oversee a transition to a less expensive political order, while generating sufficient economic efficiency gains to prevent the necessary adjustment from fueling instability and civil unrest.
Other autocratic regimes in the region, with larger populations and less oil – such as Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, and Syria – followed a “republican strategy” that appeased the poor with various forms of patronage, and repressed economic elites. This blocked the rise of any credible opposition, at the cost of entrenching an anemic, largely informal, and consumption-based economy.
Such a Venezuela-style approach could appeal to Prince Mohammed, because its populist fervor aligns with his purges of elites and neutralization of any serious opposition. Foreign and state-controlled firms could replace the notables in delivering necessary private services. And the balance of payments could be stabilized with lower consumption and imports, particularly that of the royals and the rich.
The problem with this approach is that it would only delay the essential challenge of raising labor productivity. While other autocrats under pressure – such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin – are increasingly choosing this myopic route of sacrificing the private sector on the altar of regime survival, the Kingdom can do better, given the assets at its disposal.
The alternative of an authoritarian ruling coalition of traditional elites is even less attractive to Saudi Arabia’s current rulers, as it would entail lower levels of consumption for ordinary people – and thus, in all likelihood, higher levels of repression. Domestic strife is the last thing the crown prince needs.
A better way forward requires more balance and better coordination. The pain of adjustment should be shared more widely among all groups, and reforms should focus much more on enlarging the economic pie.
This route is feasible, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s abundance of low-hanging fruit: a youthful society clamoring for social emancipation, better-educated women yearning for more participation, and millions of jobs created for expats available for nationals to fill.
What clouds this scenario is the low productivity of the elite private sector. To break free of its middle-income trap, Saudi Arabia needs to democratize, if not its politics, then at least its markets, through greater reliance on the rule of law and fair competition. Viewed from this perspective, Prince Mohammed’s current anti-corruption campaign will need to be followed by efforts to establish more inclusive rules for the private sector.
If the Kingdom’s private sector can be made to work, the economic challenge becomes modest. About 200,000 young people enter the labor market every year. If as many jobs are needed to allow women to join and to slowly wind down the public sector, two million new jobs would be needed over the next five years. To put this in perspective, there are now nine million foreign workers employed in the Kingdom.
Rather than new mega-investments in high tech, the difficult route of Saudization, initiated a decade ago, can gradually do the job, if augmented by greater support for competition and for small and medium-size enterprises. But the starting point is challenging, because public servants currently earn three times more than private-sector workers. To unify the labor market, a medium-term goal could be to reduce Saudi workers’ pay by a third, increase their productivity by a third, and subsidize the rest from state coffers.
The populist temptation promises at best an authoritarian, middle-income welfare state. Saudi Arabia would be better served by a strategy of economic and social inclusion that broadens the basis of political support by convincing all influential groups – royals, notables, and mere mortals – to view their short-term losses as an investment in the Kingdom’s future.