Is Saudi Arabia going downhill under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 1 Nov 2019

Prominent experts argue that under Crown Prince's command Riyadh has made “disastrous mistakes” that weaken the kingdom in a volatile region where Iran’s stature is on the rise.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 14, 2019. ( Credit: Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky / Reuters )

Saudi Arabia’s inexperienced Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman emerged both as a nominal heir and de-facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom as he ruthlessly pursued an ambitious political agenda ranging from countering archrival Iran in the Middle East to reforming the kingdom's Wahhabi foundations. 

But many experts have warned that Muhammed bin Salman, or MBS, is not the right person to lead the country, citing his poor track record and disastrous foreign policy fallouts. 

"He is definitely not the right person to lead the kingdom,” said Sami al Arian, an American-Palestinian professor, who is the director of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. 

“He is somebody who is totally ignorant. He’s just ambitious, adventurous and ruthless. We have seen what he did to Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. He’s a person who is willing to do whatever takes including killing, maiming and torturing.”

“He has been on a policy that I think will hasten the collapse of Saudi Arabia for several reasons,” Arian continued.

MBS reforms

The beginning of his decline, according to Arian, was when MBS made attempts to 'modernise' the Saudi society by sidelining or silencing conservative religious leaders, and even brushing aside the old guard within the Saudi monarchy. In the past the monarchy was careful in navigating the religious-minded society, using the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam to maintain its legitimacy and tribal connection since its founding in 1932. 

“What MBS is doing basically changing everything in a very fast [manner]. He is losing tribal chiefs. He has just eliminated a very important tribal leader, who was also the chief guard for his father [King Salman],” Arian told TRT World. 

Arian refers to the highly suspicious killing of King Salman’s long-serving personal guard Abdulaziz al Faghem, who'd also served the previous king. According to Saudi authorities, Faghem was allegedly shot and killed by a friend during a disagreement in Jeddah on September 29.  

Arian thinks that Faghem adds to the tally of victims who dared to prioritise the kingdom’s interests over MBS’s personal ambition. 

Showing his incapability to develop any balancing act, MBS is alienating not only the country’s religious establishment but also secularists, because he wants to reform Wahhabism, angering Islamic scholars and their supporters while jailing liberal women and activists, who wanted to exercise their rights in the kingdom, according to Arian. 

MBS’ unbalanced conduct of the reform has been revealing serious deficiencies across the board. 

“That internal reform does not put a finger on the right things. Entertainment is not the only thing people need. They need jobs, material life,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, Professor of Contemporary History at Qatar University. 

During a press conference, Tyson Fury and Braun Strowman, two famous wrestlers, go head to head in King Fahd International Stadium, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on October 30, 2019.(Reuters)

Without having money, people can not really entertain themselves, Zweiri told TRT World. 

The professor thinks that these steps represent a serious miscalculation process of the reform, potentially leading to other problems. 

“These kinds of changes and developments across countries and history did teach us a very important thing. Any unbalanced change within society would lead to instability. Changes need balance,” Zweiri analysed. 

Against the royal family 

Beyond his controversial reform, MBS has also angered his own rich tribe members, who are part of the Saudi family, detaining them in the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, the country’s capital, for several months. 

“He has also alienated a lot of people within the royal family because basically he dismissed them, taking over [the state single-handedly] while in the past that rule was by consensus,” Arian said. 

Since the Saudi state has largely functioned on consensus between different components of the royal family, a bureaucratic tradition established almost a hundred years ago, Salman is likely to face more resistance from within the kingdom, a situation that will further impact its role in the region.   

“Now all his cousins and uncles are angry, but they can not do anything to him,” Arian said. 

Arian believes that MBS has consolidated power in crucial institutions across the state and at the moment there is no one who can really challenge him on any political ground. 

But at the same time he thinks that his consolidation could be the very cause of the Saudi family’s fall in the peninsula of Arabia. 

“I don’t believe that he will be able to maintain it. He may be the last king because the rapid changes that he is doing right now is going to hurt him, particularly, inside the kingdom,” Arian said. 

Other experts agree with him

“MBS is creating a very dangerous situation for Saudi society. He’s creating alliances and pursuing policies that are not in the interests of a growing young population in a country where corruption continues where he deals with this country as if it is his own fiefdom, like a medieval fiefdom, not like a modern state,” said Maha Azzam, the head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council. 

President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington March 20, 2018.(AP Archive)

“I think MBS is inexperienced and he is disloyal not only to the traditions of his country and ignores the fact that progress requires political participation of the people and government accountability,” Azzam told TRT World. 

According to Azzam, MBS only defends the politics of the self interest of a small ruling elite and their clique for which he’s willing to wreak havoc if need be.

“Since 9/11, Saudi Arabia was in process of declining as a regional power,” Zweiri said.  

He thinks that Saudi’s badly designed Iraq policy has also empowered Iranian presence in Baghdad after the US invasion in 2003. 

“The way how they handled politics and the way how they read their interests have not led them to achieve any of their goals, but have actually created more enemies and more vacuums in region, giving Iran more opportunities to achieve their goals,” Zweiri told TRT World. 

MBS’s disastrous Yemen expedition

In Yemen, Riyadh has also been stuck in a war with Iran-backed Houthis, who are outmanoeuvring forces backed by Saudi-led Gulf. 

“MBS has miscalculated his venture in Yemen. He has been losing widely [there]. Iran has been playing its cards very wisely in my view in terms of its strategy and tactics [in Yemen and other places against Saudis],” Arian said. 

While the Houthis claimed that they hit the kingdom’s biggest oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia in mid September, Arian thinks that Iran could be the force behind the attacks

In mid September 2019, the drone attack on Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq plant and its Khurais oil field led to the interruption of an estimated 5.7 million barrels of the kingdom's crude oil production per day, equivalent to more than 5% of the world's daily supply.(AP)

“In one very strategic move, very cost-effective move, they [the Iranians] knocked down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. One strike! Just imagine what they could do. They can wreak havoc,” Arian said. 

While the crown prince has a close relationship with US President Donald Trump, after the strikes Washington did not provide any military support to Riyadh at all. 

Saudis has made some disastrous mistakes, from the Khashoggi killing to the Syrian war and the Yemen failure, said Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University. 

“They have a series of failures,” Falk told TRT World. 

But Falk also offered caution about the fall of the House of Saud. 

“Anything in this region is very hard to be too sure about it. There are a lot of complexities. People were wrong about Syria repeatedly. They kept predicting wrong things,” said Falk.

“So I would be reluctant to trust any judgments that pronounce coming collapse of the House of Saud.”

But there is a series of developments, including the American withdrawal from Syria, which creates a nervousness in Riyadh about whether they first need to stabilise their own situation, addressing some of the issues related to MBS’s internal and external policies. 

“They did not respond to the attack [over their oil facilities]. I expected they would. That was a huge attack. They did not do anything,” Falk said. 

“I think they are scared to engage Iran in any kind of real war. One thing is they come against the limits of their power.”