Can Muhammad bin Salman’s gamble work?

Muhammad bin Salman has accumulated power like no other Saudi royal. He has taken control of the economy, the armed forces, the national guard and the intelligence services. Yet, in the process, the crown prince has undermined all the pillars of the Saudi state. He has antagonised Al Saud princes by taking their fiefs. He has broken with Wahhabi clerics by denying them the power to enforce public morality. He has upset businessmen by raising their costs and forcing some of them to hand over part of their wealth. And he is undoing parts of the rentier system that served to buy the loyalty of the people.

Perhaps the crown prince is moving so fast on social reform to keep his opponents off-balance. But it makes for erratic government: austerity measures are imposed and then removed; appointments are made and unmade. A backlash would surprise nobody. Rumours of coups may be false, but say much about the mood. Many remember the assassination of King Faisal in 1975 in a family dispute that was ultimately about the introduction of television. The current silence of clerics leads some officials to think that the worst danger is past. Others feel unnerved. “I support the change, but I am afraid of the speed of change,” says one ex-official, “The religious people are quiet for now. Will they continue to be quiet, or will they react violently?”

A Saudi businessman says royal rulers, in their volte-face on puritanism, “have been exposed as hypocrites”. He thinks social liberalisation “will cause debates in every family”; the anti-corruption measures were arbitrary; and despite talk of promoting the private sector, Saudi Arabia remains “a family business”. Right now the crown prince acts with the authority of the king and controls the coercive powers of state. Beyond that, he casts himself as the champion of women and the young against the corrupt old elites. But in the absence of political parties, or real consultation, it will be hard for him to turn popularity into a political force. And popularity may prove fickle.

“He has many enemies. If they see he is weak they will pounce on him,” says one Gulf minister. His advice to the West? “Support Saudi Arabia. Support Saudi Arabia. Support Saudi Arabia.” The crown prince has created an unexpected opportunity to change the discourse about Islam, he says. “If it can be more moderate then we will all reap the benefits.” Some diplomats think King Salman, now 82, will step down to ensure that his son ascends the throne.

In many ways, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are grappling with an old question: why has Arab civilisation fallen into such an abject state? Arabs give one of two contradictory answers: “because we have strayed from the path of our righteous forebears” or “because we have failed to embrace Western modernity”.

For decades Saudi leaders embraced the first answer, imposing religiosity in an attempt to recapture ancient Islamic glories. The bounty of oil made the model appear workable; Saudis could have both the good life and piety (those who disliked religiosity could always go abroad). But oil rents alone are no longer enough. And the notion that Islam can provide all the answers has hit a dead end, whether in the form of strict but obedient Saudi salafism, the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood or the murderous jihadism of al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

Successive Saudi leaders might have looked out of their palaces and marvelled at how far their country has come. The young crown prince instead appears to notice how far it has been left behind: the Israelis are richer and know how to fight; the Emiratis live better and have more fun; the perfidious Iranian riyal seems to buy more friends than the Saudi one; and the West is less of a guardian than it used to be. “What has Saudi Arabia contributed to the world?” asks the Saudi businessman. “Mecca and Medina? They were made by God. We have not contributed one thing. If the oil goes, we will not even have water.”

So Muhammad bin Salman is pursuing a form of modernisation, albeit of a strange, upside-down sort. Diversification and liberalisation are directed from the royal palace; even simple entertainment requires central planning and a “giga-project”. And more social freedom is accompanied by greater political repression. “Muhammad bin Salman is doing many of the things I have been fighting for: empowering women, fighting radicalism and purging corruption,” says Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist exiled in America. “That’s great news. But why intimidate people? Why arrest people? This is the model of Arab dictators like Gamal Abdel Nasser.”

The crown prince is thus repeating one tragedy of the Arab world—liberalisation by illiberal means. In doing so he may be heeding Niccolò Machiavelli’s advice that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved. But there is an all-important rider to the dictum: “A prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred.”


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