What does the Saudi crown prince want?

Muhammad bin Salman is a curious political character. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, colloquially referred to as MbS, was the driving force behind the disastrous war in Yemen and the diplomatic crisis with Qatar. The recent “purge” undoubtedly has to be seen as an attempt to consolidate his power. On the other hand, he is said to be a reformer who wants to “bring back moderate Islam to Saudi Arabia, which sets him on a collision course with the extremely conservative clerics, the Wahhabis. Additionally, the crown prince pushes for economic reform and modernisation. For instance, Saudi Arabia set up “a project representing the next generation city and global center for innovation, trade and creativity in the kingdom”, according to Al-Arabiya. This prestige project is entitled NEOM.


Muhammad bin Salman undoubtedly has already left his mark on Saudi Arabia and he will be a decisive character in the future. If he follows his father, king Salman, on the throne, he will be the first grandchild of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abd al Aziz ibn Saud. The consequences of his controversial foreign policy may take a while to materialise but they may be unpredictable. And if he truly is a reformer, he will either succeed in completely re-shaping Saudi Arabia’s political landscape or he will fall from grace. Either way, he tries to transform Saudi Arabia in risking both the stability of the kingdom and his own position. The question in this context is whether the crown prince knows how to achieve what he wants and whether he knows what he does. In any way, his policies have been exceptional.

War in Yemen, Qatar crisis

Taking a look at the cases of Yemen, the diplomatic crisis with Qatar, and the purge, we can see a mixed picture. Both the escalation in Yemen and Qatar have been perhaps the biggest miscalculations on the part of Muhammad bin Salman. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia feared the support of the Houthi rebel group by Iran. Therefore, Riyadh decided to intervene by military means in order to push back Iranian influence. The consequence, however, was that Iran, now actually supporting the Houthis, is now in the position that Saudi Arabia has feared in the first place. In other words, the Saudis have provoked the Iranian support for the Houthis. Additionally, they failed to identify clear goals for a success, a failure whose consequences they are now facing. Saudi Arabia, furthermore, is responsible for one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Of course, this is to be considered a debacle for Saudi Arabia’s public image.

In August, leaked e-mails revealed that MbS allegedly wants to end the war in Yemen, Middle East Eye reported. However, it is clear that Saudi Arabia did not achieve anything like stability in Yemen but they cannot easily withdraw without virtually handing Iran over the country. Saudi Arabia cannot afford the Iranians actually seizing the opportunity and establishing a presence on the Arabian Peninsula. As a consequence of the lengthy war, Saudi Arabia intercepted a ballistic missile over Riyadh, allegedly started by the Houthis, maybe with assistance by Iran. As a consequence, Riyadh decided to intensify its blockade over Yemen. This shows that the Saudis, who reacted to an alleged Iranian presence in Yemen with maximum force, cannot just withdraw as Yemen has turned from a PR disaster into a major threat for Saudi security.

In addition to the war in Yemen, the Qatar crisis did not exactly improve Saudi Arabia’s position in terms of its international relations. Saudi Arabia even failed in isolating Qatar internationally as Doha is now supported by Tehran. The Saudis may have imposed a blockade in which Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and others are participating but it is estimated that Qatar has the means at its disposal to endure such a blockade for years. Indeed, it seems as if Riyadh is lacking the means to achieve a face-saving solution and did not develop an according strategy. To be fair, Saudi Arabia and its allies could easily maintain this blockade to much lower costs than for Qatar. Nevertheless, there has been a miscalculation on behalf of Muhammad bin Salman whose name is Donald Trump. The crown prince clearly thought that he would have the support by the USA, which he has not. But again, who could have predicted the behaviour of the unpredictable president?

In this case, too, Muhammad bin Salman relied on the maximum force of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If someone does not meet his maximum demands, be it Qatar, be it Yemen, MbS now seems likely to react with utmost brutality. However, this leads to situations from which Riyadh cannot easily escape. This is true for Yemen but it is also true for Qatar. Saudi Arabia cannot easily end the blockade without its demands being fulfilled. The consequence of such a strategy would be that no one would take Saudi Arabia seriously anymore.

Modernisation

Just as ambitious are Prince Muhammad’s efforts to loosen stifling moral codes, enhance cultural life and promote a “moderate Islam open to the world and all religions”. That approach is a stark contrast to the puritanical version of the faith that the kingdom has long exported around the world. Yet in this area he has al-ready made progress. A royal decree, proclaimed in September, will allow women to drive next year, ending a ban that has lasted decades. Saudis may soon be allowed to go to the cinema, too.

On the other hand, the purge from November 4 was a somewhat logical but highly risky move by “MbS”. Not only did the crown prince abolish the consensus principle among the members of the al-Saud family, he also is on the path of terminating the alliance with the Wahhabis. This has to be interpreted as a dramatic and radical step. The Wahhabis and the king of Saudi Arabia have had an alliance for quite a long time, resulting in an extremely conservative climate in the kingdom. Ending this extraordinarily strict religious hegemony would certainly be a bold move toward modernisation. The purge must also be seen in this context as king Salman had issued decrees that allow women to drive and “forbidding the Saudi religious police from arresting Saudi citizens” beforehand.

Is this what the crown prince is after? Modernising Saudi Arabia and transforming its economy? Various things would support this point of view, for instance the decrees that were mentioned. Furthermore, the purge could also be seen in this light.

“The old, sclerotic system of governance would have made it difficult to implement such reforms; allowing corrupt and privileged princes to continue milking the kingdom would have undermined them. “You cannot re-form the country without a rupture with the past,” says Bernard Haykel of Princeton University.

What does the crown prince really want? Analyses indicate that he is a moderniser, a reformer, but also an absolute monarchist. He cannot and does not tolerate any form of opposition, despite announcing the return of the kingdom to “moderate Islam”. Muhammad bin Salman continues to have a tough stance toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and as of late toward extremely conservative clerics. The interesting and contradictory aspect of this are miscalculations on behalf of Muhammad bin Salman and the extraordinarily aggressive Saudi foreign policy.

In conclusion, Muhammad bin Salman’s strategy is interesting as it seems to be directed toward reform for the sake of economic development and further autonomy for the future king of Saudi Arabia. While the embracement of the extremist religious stance of the Wahhabis alienates (Western) investment, he does not want to go as far as to introduce democratic reforms. In fact, his stance is far from being democratic or pluralistic. In analysing the possible transformation of Saudi Arabia, this must not be ignored. Muhammad bin Salman may transform Saudi Arabia in order to make it more open and more tolerant, he may even manage to (re-)introduce what he calls “moderate Islam”. However, Muhammad bin Salman cannot and will not tolerate any challenge to his rule, neither from the inside nor from the outside. He aims at transforming the kingdom of Saudi Arabia into a state in which only one person has unchallenged control over state institutions: himself.

More on this topic

Al Arabiya (2017): Crown Prince marks new era of social justice in Saudi Arabia

Al Jazeera (2017a): Rights groups slam Saudi arrests of religious figures

Al Jazeera (2017b): Profile: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Associated Press (2017): Saudi Arabia: 201 people held in $100bn corruption inquiry, in: The Guardian

Harrer, Gudrun (2017a): Saudi-Arabien: Die Hochrisikopolitik des jungen Kronprinzen, in: Der Standard

Harrer, Gudrun (2017b): Saudi-Arabien zwischen Megalomanie und Reform, in: Der Standard

Miller, Aaron David/Sokolsky, Richard (2017): Donald Trump Has Unleashed the Saudi Arabia We Always Wanted — and Feared, in: Foreign Policy

Al-Rasheed, Madawi (2017): Can the Saudi Crown Prince Transform the Kingdom?, in: The New York Times

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