The grand ambitions of the Saudi crown prince seem to be falling apart amid the new realities in the age of coronavirus.
When a young Mohammad bin Salman was appointed as the head of Saudi Arabia’s defence ministry in January 2015, few people outside the kingdom took notice.
The Saudi military was not known for fighting wars. But within months, Salman ordered the airforce to start bombing neighbouring Yemen, an impoverished Arab country, where the Houthi rebels had ousted a Saudi-backed government, taking control of the capital, Sanaa.
Salman’s advisors boasted the war would end within weeks, but it dragged on for five years. It has left more than a 100,000 people dead and brought widespread criticism of Riyadh for bombing homes, schools, marriage ceremonies and even funerals.
Since then, Salman, known commonly as MBS, has been elevated to the status of the crown prince, the next in line to the throne of the oil-rich country. But his ambitious military project is falling apart just like many of his other initiatives.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced a two-week ceasefire in an apparent humanitarian gesture in the wake of the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic. However, the Houthis, emboldened by their ability to remain a potent threat to a well-oiled military establishment, refused the offer.
With their AK-47s and improvised rockets, the Houthis have attacked targets inside Saudi Arabia, including oil facilities. Now they wanted a ceasefire on their own terms or none at all.
The war, which The Economist says, was a “vanity project” of MBS, has unravelled Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic clout. And no amount of financial muscle can help fix its tainted reputation.
A contagious spillover
As part of his bid to diversify the economy and reduce reliance on oil revenues, MBS has invested billions of dollars in other countries. The Public Investment Fund (PIF), a sovereign wealth fund of the Saudi state, is overseen by MBS. With its estimated assets of around $320 billion, the PIF has bought stakes in companies ranging from Uber to Japanese Softbank’s Vision Fund.
The PIF is often used as a strategic tool. But with the reputation of MBS taking a hit, it’s running into roadblocks as its attempt to buy the football club Newcastle United shows.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International are pressing the English Premier League to block Riyadh’s bid to buy the 127-year-old football club considering grave rights violations including the 2018 grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The move is widely seen as an attempt by MBS to whitewash the kingdom’s image by throwing money on sport and entertainment events.
MBS has tried hard to present himself as someone who can change Saudi Arabia into a modern state and do away with its image of a country that exports rigid religious doctrines. He has curbed restrictions on women, allowing them to drive a car for the first time, and reopened cinemas.
At the same time, he has overseen a crackdown on activists such as Loujain al Hathloul, the female rights advocate, who was detained two years ago. MBS has systematically sidelined political opponents, going as far as to order the detention of royal family members and businessmen in 2017 without any formal trial.
But his ambitions are now being tested amid the fallout of the coronavirus impact.
A necessary tussle in a necessary lockdown
This week’s oil price crash, which in the US went below zero for the first time, is mainly a result of the forced lockdowns that have drastically cut the need for people to burn fuel for travelling in cars or aeroplanes. It could also be, in part, an outcome of MBS’s growing belief in his flawed judgement.
When the oil price came under pressure last month, Saudi Arabia proposed that major producers cut supplies to the world market. Russia, which is only second to Saudis in oil output, insisted that they wait a while to see how far down the price goes.
It was basically about how much each country was depending on oil - Russia needed $42 a barrel to balance its budget, Saudi Arabia needed $80 a barrel.
Unable to work out a deal, Saudi Arabia did the opposite: it opened the valve and flooded the market with additional supplies, causing the price to tank.
Even though this month the two sides came to a deal and producing nations have agreed to trim oil output to support the price, it’s unlikely that the damage done to sentiment could be fixed anytime soon.
Away from the oil trades, something else is happening on the streets in Pakistan that sheds light on the waning Saudi influence. Pakistani clerics have decided to keep mosques open for congregational prayers during the month of Ramadan despite a Saudi decision to suspend religious gatherings.
Since the 1980s, Saudi Arabia has spent a lot of money on mosques and religious schools in Pakistan, beholding some of the religious leaders to its whims. Islamic decrees by Saudi religious scholars are generally taken seriously by peers in other Muslims countries.
Now, it seems, local prayer leaders have decided to go their own way.