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Saudi Watchers Stunned, Mystified as Obscure Prince Catapults to Power

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A year ago, when Saudi Arabia’s King Salman named Mohammed bin Salman the country’s deputy crown prince, with an expansive portfolio that transformed him from an obscure 29-year-old royal to arguably the nation’s leading powerbroker overnight, longtime Saudi watchers were stunned. The kingdom, and its opaque ruling family, the House of Saud, has long valued seniority and spreading responsibility widely to ensure harmony.

“It was enormously shocking,” said Simon Henderson, a Saudi expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is a man who came out of nowhere. Although he is notionally second in line to succeed King Salman, behind Mohammed bin Nayef, he is, in a sense, more powerful. Ten or 20 years ago, the notion that a young upstart could become king would have been ludicrous. Now it’s possible.”

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Photo: State Department
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, is greeted by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's defense minister, during a 2015 visit.

MbS, as he’s sometimes called, does indeed wield remarkable power. He is the minister of defense, widely credited with being the architect of the Saudi offensive against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, but he is also the head of a powerful economic policy council created by the king, making him the country’s leading authority on oil and financial policy. Henderson notes that while bin Nayef, 56, known as MbN, chairs another key council focused on politics and security, MbS also sits on that council, whereas MbN does not sit on MbS’s council.

MbS’s wide-ranging portfolio puts him in charge of the kingdom’s most pressing problems, both foreign and domestic — among them, its proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, Riyadh’s power struggles with its Shiite archrival Iran and the government’s efforts to manage and modernize the economy in the face of tumbling oil prices.

MbS has been praised as a savvy, no-nonsense breath of fresh air who will usher the stagnate House of Saud into the future. At the same time, a German intelligence memo painted him as a reckless and impulsive neophyte who is plunging the country into military quagmires while needlessly provoking Iran.

So which version is correct? Why has 80-year-old King Salman placed so much trust in him? And is his ascendency a good thing for the West? A year into MbS’s tenure as deputy crown prince, all of these questions, and many others, remain largely unanswered, although some clues are emerging that mark him as a very new kind of Saudi leader — for better or worse.

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MbS is the eldest son of Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan, the king’s third and most recent wife. Unlike many other Saudi princes who tend to study (and sometimes sow wild oats) in the United States, MbS went to university at home, earning a bachelor’s degree in law at King Saud University in Riyadh. And he apparently recently took a second wife, which is also somewhat unusual among young Saudi princes.

The dashing prince wears a neatly trimmed beard and favors sandals over Gucci loafers. And in a recent interview with Bloomberg, he was photographed without a traditional headdress, highly unusual for a Saudi prince at an official function.

An early New York Times profile noted that he was fond of Apple products and all things Japanese, but had been long overshadowed by three high-achieving older half-brothers, one an astronaut, another an Oxford-educated political scientist who was once a research fellow at Georgetown and a third a well-regarded oil minister. But even if he flew under the radar prior to his appointment as deputy crown prince, many observers also note that he wisely kept a low profile as he was surreptitiously preparing to lead.

MbS’s official biography is short on specifics regarding his business career, simply noting that he “held many positions … was self-employed and had many philanthropic initiatives that earned his many awards.” Aside from that, he was an advisor to the governor of Riyadh province, among others, and served on a number of commissions. Henderson thinks that the king sees a younger version of himself in MbS and believes that his mother may have played a key role in his rise.

“The third wife is essentially the favorite wife; she’s the one who talks to the king in the privacy of the bedroom,” he said. “The king regards MbS as a son in his own image — he has a soft spot for him, and this is amplified by the fact that MbS’s mother is ambitious in her own right on behalf of her son. She may have pushed him forward or promoted him in the royal bed chamber.”

After meeting MbS at a Gulf nations summit at Camp David last year, President Obama remarked that MbS “struck us as extremely knowledgeable, very smart.” And in an interview, the president said he seemed “wise beyond his years,” in what was perhaps a subtle reference to his youth.

Paul Sullivan, a professor of economics and a Saudi expert at the National Defense University, thinks that Western leaders are “still trying to figure” MbS out.

“I think he’s a tough and smart fellow and clearly knows his way around the corridors of power in Saudi Arabia and beyond,” he said.

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Photo: U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class
Anna Van Nuys
Saudi Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman, right, laughs while speaking with Rear Adm. Andrew Lewis, commander of Carrier Strike Group 12, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which supports U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Henderson describes MbN — who is officially next in line to the throne — as cautious, stoic and intellectually a bit “plodding,” while MbS is seen as youthful, vigorous, ambitious and perhaps even a little ruthless. As evidence of this ruthlessness, Henderson cited an unconfirmed but “widely believed” anecdote asserting that MbS once left a bullet on the desk of a business rival.

Paul Aarts, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and the co-author of the book “Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril,” says that while the jury may still be out on MbS in the West, he’s undeniably popular in Saudi Arabia.

“He may be overly ambitious but nearly every Saudi I met there on a recent trip said, ‘We need a leader who is ambitious,’” he told us. “It’s a very young country and many believe it is high time for a younger leader. In a way, he is seen as the savior of the nation.”

But Aarts says that while MbS is seen as a much-needed agent of change, he carries the burden of high expectations during a challenging time of record-low oil prices, stubbornly high youth unemployment and instability in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.

“There is a huge risk because if he doesn’t deliver, that could lead to a great disappointment,” he said. “But very few people are talking about that. Most have huge trust that he will change the kingdom forever.”

No Signs of Backing Down

Aarts said that the MbS-led military campaign to defeat Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen is still popular at home, where Saudis see Iran as a growing threat and fear that the United States can no longer be trusted to counter Iranian influence in the region. Nevertheless, he says that the proxy war with Iran is a “quagmire” that is likely to drag on for years with no resolution.

On that note, critics have compared the Saudi-led bombing campaign of Yemen to America’s Vietnam War. The conflict has killed over 6,000 Yemenis — nearly half of them civilians — as the Arab world’s poorest nation falls deeper into despair. As a critical ally, the U.S. has faced blowback for supporting the Saudi aerial assault, which has been denounced as indiscriminate and ineffective. A recent Human Rights Watch investigation of a Saudi airstrike, which hit a market in northwest Yemen, found that 97 civilians, including 25 children, were killed, along with about 10 militants by U.S.-supplied bombs.

A recently announced ceasefire and upcoming peace talks may signal that Saudi Arabia, under Western pressure, is looking for a face-saving way out of Yemen.

Despite the criticism over his foreign adventures, MbS appears to be moving forward with an aggressive military posture abroad and economic reforms at home. While some countries might look inward at a time when dwindling oil revenues are draining state coffers, clearly MbS and other Saudi leaders aren’t retreating into a domestic bubble.

Chas Freeman, a career diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, says that MbS’s approach to world affairs has been popular at home, at least in some quarters.

“His war in Yemen and his notably independent and assertive foreign policy have clearly struck a chord with Saudi nationalists,” he said in an e-mail.

But clearly MbS is also savvy enough to realize that he will need to help the country diversify its economy and create jobs for its legions of unemployed young people (the official youth unemployment rate has hovered near 30 percent in recent years).

To that end, in April MbS outlined sweeping reforms that could upend Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy. “The biggest economic shake-up since the founding of Saudi Arabia would accelerate subsidy cuts and impose more levies, a plan to spread the burden of lower crude prices among a population more accustomed to government largess,” wrote Bloomberg News, which conducted a five-hour interview with the prince.

The measures would raise at least $100 billion a year by 2020, helping to boost non-oil revenues and balance the budget. MbS also revealed plans for the creation of what may become the world’s largest superfund. According to Bloomberg, Riyadh will sell shares in Saudi Aramco’s parent company and “transform the state oil giant into an industrial conglomerate.” They report that the initial public offering could happen “as soon as next year, with the country currently planning to sell less than 5 percent” of Aramco.

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Photo: © UNICEF / UNI196751 / Mahyoob
Arwa School, one of the largest schools in the Yemeni city of Taiz, was used by an armed group and got bombarded and destroyed. Human rights groups have heavily criticized Saudi Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman for orchestrating a Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen that they say indiscriminately targets civilians.

Most of the financial press hailed the announcement as a good first step toward weaning the country off its dependence on oil, but details were sketchy. (Oil revenues accounted for between 77 percent to 88 percent of the state’s total income in 2015.) Aarts isn’t convinced that the fund, which the Saudis hope will be worth some $2 trillion, will be a panacea.

“I don’t see how it solves the youth unemployment problem,” he said. “I don’t see how it will help create the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are needed.”

In a wide-ranging interview with the Economist in January, MbS denied that the country’s economy was in dire straits. He insisted that the government would create jobs in the mining and tourism sectors and through a Margaret Thatcher-style privatization of real estate holdings and other state assets, although he ruled out the idea of introducing income taxes. And he obliquely alluded to the possibility that Riyadh might make it harder for expatriate guest workers, who could make up as much as three-quarters of the private-sector workforce, to secure or renew visas.

MbS also maintained that steady progress was being made in Yemen and on enfranchising Saudi women, while evoking a rosy vision for how he’d like to see the kingdom move forward.

“The Saudi Arabia that I hope for … is a Saudi Arabia that is not dependent on oil; a Saudi Arabia with a growing economy; a Saudi Arabia with transparent laws; a Saudi Arabia with a very strong position in the world; a Saudi Arabia that can fulfill the dream of any Saudi, or his ambition, through creating enticing incentives, the right environment; a Saudi Arabia with sustainability; a Saudi Arabia that guarantees the participation of everyone in decision-making; a Saudi Arabia that is an important addition to the world and participates in the production of the world,” he said.

What — And Who — Is Next?

Saudi Arabia is a critical ally of the United States in a geopolitical hotbed. Many are optimistic that MbS might be the kind of youthful leader with whom Washington could have fruitful relations. But can he deliver the change young people in the kingdom crave, and will he leapfrog MbN when his father dies?

Aarts believes MbN, not MbS, will almost certainly be the next king. And he thinks King Salman, though not in the best of health at 80 and clearly in full-on delegation-mode, is in control of his faculties. Henderson isn’t so sure, and thinks the succession issue isn’t clear-cut.

“It hugely depends on the circumstances,” he said. “There is supposed to be a schism in the royal family, with some who don’t want MbS to become king and others who want MbN to be king. Since MbS is clearly ambitious and would like be king, he must think that if his father dies and MbN becomes king, one of MbN’s first moves will be to sack him.”

Henderson says MbS will have to “outmaneuver” MbN to ensure that doesn’t happen, but he has no idea how the jockeying will unfold. Sullivan of the National Defense University sees the potential for “trouble ahead” if MbS doesn’t figure out how to kick-start the economy. While Aarts also sees the possibility of social unrest, he believes that the House of Saud is likely to continue to deliver the kind of stability Western leaders expect.

“Their security apparatus and the methods to suppress opposition are still huge,” he pointed out. “If push comes to shove, the regime will handle unrest with repressive measures.”

He said that in a region where sympathy for radical jihadis, including the Islamic State, is a fact of life, the House of Saud is still the West’s best bet.

“There is no alternative to the House of Saud,” Aarts said. “Who is going to take over? The House is the glue that keeps the country together. Better the devil you know, as they say.”


About the Author

Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on May 4, 2016