by Ghassan Kadi
Much has been said about the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (aka MBS), and most of it, has been in the form of criticism from different analysts and individuals including some members of the Saudi royal family itself. The relatively few voices of support come only from sources close and loyal to him. The famous Saudi blogger who calls himself “Moujtahid” has been taunting the Saudi royals for a long time, blogging and tweeting about in-house matters and exposing its dirty linen. No one seems to be certain who Moujtahid is, let alone where he lives, but given the information he is privy to, he is believed to be one of the many disgruntled members of the royal family.
Moujtahid has made many predictions, including predictions about the transfer of power within Saudi Arabia and away from the old guards. His predictions were invariably spot on. He was also instrumental in relaying to the outside world the state of unease and unrest within the royal family seeing the rise of Salman and his previously little known “juvenile” son to power. He even reported that some royals are actually under house arrest and others in jail; much of which cannot be verified from behind the very thick Saudi iron shroud.
Others have looked at MBS’s and his attempts of reform very cynically, and those who know Saudi Arabia well cannot be blamed, because the very basic backbone of the kingdom and the guarantee of the longevity of the House of Saud is founded on preventing and opposing any form of reform, and the concept of reform, in any manner, shape or form, is in itself, a guaranteed death warrant for the royals.
This makes one ask three pertinent questions: 1) why would MBS be seeking reform? 2) what form of reform is he seeking? and 3) why?
To implement reform or otherwise is a domestic matter, and we shall go back to this later on. But first, let us take a look outside the Kingdom of Sand and Holy Shrine.
Regionally, the Saudi influence has reached its peak in 2013 when Prince Bandar believed that his plot to topple President Bashar Assad was bearing fruit. Cocky and arrogant Bandar went as far as having enough audacity to meet with President Putin in Moscow and offer him both a threat and a bribe. He asked Putin to join his plot in Syria with a financial bribe that comes with it, and a threat of activating Jihadi sleeper cells in Chechnya if he refuses. When Putin showed him the door, Bandar thought that the second line of attack was to lower the price of crude and put the squeeze on Moscow.
Little did Bandar know back then that his first gamble with Syria was going to fail and that his second and bigger gamble with Russia was going to turn and bite him and put the Saudi economy in deficit and turmoil.
The failure of Bandar led to his demise, and the takeover of MBS meant that he needed a diversion and a clean sweep victory, and this was how Yemen came into the scene. But the so-called “Operation Storm of Resolve” was meant to be a swift and easy operation, and most ironically, its name indicated this, but in reality, it turned into a huge Saudi quagmire. Then came the on-going Qatar crisis, and MBS was one of its main architects. As he could no longer hide the flow of Arab funds to terrorist organizations in Syria, the blame, all the blame, was put on the former partner in crime Qatar.
With failures in Syria, Yemen and Qatar, MBS realized that his kingdom is in deep trouble. To make his woes more woeful, reversing the decision to lower crude prices initiated by Bandar was taken out Saudi hands when his American allies made their push to sell their shale oil products. The Saudi decision became irreversible and back fired in the worst manner possible. Oil revenues were reduced to less than half, and to add insult to injury, the defense budget had to increase dramatically not only in the face of the Yemen war, but also in the face of the rising regional power of Iran.
MBS had to take drastic economic decisions and for the first time, austerity measures were put in place that included higher taxes, lower financial aids and gifts, and even lower salaries/stipends for members of the royal family.
MBS has also initiated his 2030 vision for the kingdom that included an ambition to build an economy that is less reliant on oil and oil products.
Traditionally, before the economic downturn, the royal family had an unwritten accord with tribal leaders based on pledging unwavering loyalty to the crown. But that loyalty came with a cost, a financial cost, or in other words, money for doing nothing other than pledging loyalty. We are not talking here about free schools and hospitals only, we are talking about huge interest free government loans (invariably later on forgiven), and gifts totaling billions of dollars given regularly to tribal leaders and certain key citizens in lieu of guaranteeing their continued loyalty to the crown.
So when those funds were reduced and others came to a halt, eyebrows were raised and the smell of dissent reeked all over. And this is exactly what has been happening in the Kingdom of Sand of once bottomless coffers.
This is not to forget that the alleged anti-ISIS stance of the Saudi Government has angered many Saudi hardliners. The Saudi Government and its clerics found themselves at odds in between what they teach and what they practice. After all, this is exactly what happened when Bin Laden fell out of favour, or should we say it the other way around; when the royal family fell out of Bin Laden’s favour because of their open and overt rapprochement and military partnership with “infidel” America against Iraq on “holy” Saudi soil
On the regional and international scenes, Saudi Arabia was left with little more than desperately trying to bolster its military by signing the historically biggest ever armament purchase deal with Trump; a deal that is touted to cost Saudi Arabia one third of its savings reserve; a deal that also pleases and appeases Trump’s thirst for funds in his attempts to “make America great again”.
But that was not enough, because Saudi Arabia had to make amends with Russia, not only because they lost in Syria and Russia won, but also because contracts and money is their way to say sorry. Saudis understand only the language of money, and in their way of apologizing and snuggling up to Russia, they don’t mind buying some state-of-the-art defense capabilities (S-400) that are far superior than anything that their American partners can supply them with. To this effect, one wonders if the Saudis feel they need the S-400 system in fear of Iran or the fast-developing Yemeni missile capability. With a five year delivery plan, it is highly likely that Yemeni missiles will be able to reach deep into Saudi Arabia long before the missiles are delivered. After all, they have already reached Yanbu’, north of Mecca. Incidentally, Yanbu’ is equidistant to Riyadh, and its choice as a target last month was a clear Yemeni message to their Saudi foes that the capital Riyadh is now within the reach of Yemeni fire power.
To put all of the above into context, MBS knows that Saudi Arabia is in deep trouble. He knows that it needs a significant change in direction if it were to survive. He knows he literally can no longer afford to buy loyalty. He has done the best he could internationally with both America and Russia. He cannot do much against Iran. He concedes that he lost the war in Syria. He still hopes to win his war on Yemen. With all said, he most importantly realizes that the continuity of the throne is at risk and he must conjure up new ways to be granted a new form of domestic loyalty.
It was the former King Abdullah who gave Saudi women the right to vote in municipal elections back in 2011. But MBS’s gamble is taking the rights of women in a much bigger step and perhaps towards the right of elections at all levels. Furthermore, he is making a highly controversial decision to allow women to drive, a decision that was deemed unfathomable by virtually everyone who knows Saudi Arabia.
Most importantly perhaps, what doesn’t seem to be reported in the West is that MBS is putting the status “Matawia” (Shariah Police) on notice.
These men are actually Wahhabism in action and are highly representative of the tyranny of Al-Saud. Those often frail-looking men, and sometimes frail and old, roam the streets armed with canes. But those canes are mightier than tank guns. Those men literally have a license to beat anyone, man woman or child, on the spot, irrespective of their stature and position, if and when they don’t abide by strict Wahhabi rules of conduct. For decades, the “Matawia” reigned with an iron fist and caned any woman who was, according to their regulations and norms, improperly dressed, any man walking down the streets during prayer time, and any shop owner who did not close his shop door to go to prayer. They did not need search warrants or court decisions. They simply caned and lashed anyone they did not like and did not have to provide any justification because they were not answerable to anyone.
They were untouchable, and any confrontation with them was tantamount to playing with fire. The power they had was second to none.
According to a report on “Al-Mayadeen”, (http://m.almayadeen.net/files/830931/نهاية-حكم–المطاوعة—-الغضب-قد-ينفجر) their government-sanctioned reign of street terror is coming to an end. For better or for worse, to put this decision in a contextual perspective, we can put it on par with the US “prohibition” laws, Gorbachev’s infamous Perestroika, and the erection and destruction of the Berlin wall. It is a huge decision, and it will change the face of Saudi Arabia forever. It can mean, among other things, that soon women will be able not only to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, but to also walk the streets alone and to uncover their heads; because there will not be anyone there to stop them.
Once again, this is yet another huge reform gamble that MBS is making, a gamble that is bound to make him lose quite a bit of popularity among the traditional regimented hard-line Saudis and supporters, generate more disgruntled royals, but he knows that this level of support is waning either way, it is no longer financially affordable, and he is now targeting a new grass-root support and he hopes that this gamble will not fail.
Whether or not MBS will be able to implement the changes that will modernize Saudi Arabia remains to be seen, but he is definitely racing against time, watching his allies and enemies, and watching every step he takes within the perimeters of his own palaces. It is even said that MBS is spending most of his time either in hiding, or on board his yacht in the Red Sea. If true, this definitely is not an indication that he is a recluse, but rather a reflection of his concerns for his safety.
Going back to the original three questions this article asked. In response to the first question one can argue that MBS is in an unenviable situation because he is damned to seek reform and damned not to.
In the regard to the second question, MBS knows that the time to buy loyalty has gone and he is trying to improve the international image of Saudi Arabia, all the while meeting the rising expectations of Saudi youth and women. He is risking more dissent, but according to his gamble, the support he is banking on will outweigh the dissent. He is taking a huge gamble here, but he is left with one and perhaps only hope left, and that is to implement reform and capitalize on the popularity it brings, or stick to the existing rules and norms and brace for an impending avalanche.
A quick summary of the answer to the third question is that the risk of implementing reform has now been exceeded by the risk of the iron fist control and maintaining the status quo.