Pundits are describing recent events in Saudi Arabia as a Saudi version of Game of Thrones; and King Salman’s bloodless purges—orchestrated by his son Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)—have many of the hallmarks of palace and royal intrigue; a kind of Shakespearean trifecta of Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth without the blood and gore.
But the purges conducted in the Saudi style (the reported use of the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh as a venue for house arrests is one of the lighter aspects of the affair) should not mask its deadly seriousness. A young thirtysomething with limited experience in governance is making an unprecedented bid for control. And if he succeeds, which is impossible to know at this point, the impact could very well change Saudi Arabia and its regional role for years to come. Still, the United States would be wise not to attach itself to MBS like a barnacle to the side of a boat lest its own Middle East policy goes down with the ship.
Bold Action Is Rare in the Lands of the Arabs
To understand the significance of what King Salman and MBS are trying to do, it is necessary to first assess the context of what is normal in a region that eschews transformation in favor of more limited transactions and a preference for gray rather than black and white moves. Policymaking has traditionally meant either the status quo or incremental change framed by cautious rather than bold leaders. These men are really not leaders at all so much as politicians who are usually more focused on keeping their seats than risking them through efforts to radically change their domestic systems or project their influence abroad through ambitious acts of reform, peace or warmaking. Indeed, figuratively speaking, Arab leaders are better at looking in the rearview mirror than they are looking ahead. Bold actions for good or ill—Anwar Sadat’s decision to strike Israel in October 1973 and visit Jerusalem in 1977; Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait; and the peace treaty by King Hussein of Jordan with Israel—are rare in a region of risk-averse leaders and treacherous waters.
Bid for Absolute Control
And if that’s true for the Arab world generally, it has been a hallmark of Saudi domestic and foreign policy for decades. Conservative by tradition and driven by the need for stability in the succession process and at home, consensus has ruled Saudi decisionmaking for years. Indeed, the very nature of the transfer of power has been an opaque process, hidden from view and driven by attempting to achieve a degree of consensus that doesn’t leave disaffected power centers outside of what is deemed to be the new order of things when a new king assumes power. There have been disruptive transitions—for example, the removal of King Saud in 1964 and the assassination of King Faisal in 1975. But by and large, the royals have managed to create coherence and continuity, and have kept the dirty laundry and internal workings of succession out of the public eye.
Until now. And that’s what makes MBS’ bid for power so striking, particularly in a system that prizes and demands discretion and consensus. Over the past two years, King Salman has transferred enormous power to MBS over foreign, economic and oil policy. This summer, presumably under MBS prodding, Mohammed bin Nayef—the Crown Prince, head of the powerful Ministry of Interior, and a longtime and reliable friend of the United States in the war on terror—was put under house arrest and permanently sidelined. There has been a crackdown against hardline clerics and dissidents, and the powers of the religious police have been curtailed. But this weekend’s purges set a new standard in boldness. The head of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib, and the only remaining military power center outside of MBS’s control, was put under house arrest. In addition, MBS moved against at least eleven royal cousins and dozens of Saudi officials and business types, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, perhaps the poster child for modernization and a globalized role for the Kingdom in the world economy. Clearly the recent purges were a warning to all those who might even think of challenging the emerging new order. Never has a Saudi—not yet even a king—accumulated this much power.
Reckless Foreign Policy
Just when it seemed impossible that the reckless and impulsive MBS could not do any further damage to Saudi and American interests in the region, last Saturday night’s massacre in Riyadh puts him in a position to create even greater headaches for the Kingdom and Washington. MBS is the opposite of King Midas—everything he touches leaves a hot mess behind—whether it’s the wanton death and destruction the Saudis have wreaked in Yemen, the Kingdom’s feckless and ineffectual policies in Syria, the needless fight it picked with Qatar, or the increasingly dangerous grudge match MBS is waging with a more powerful Iran for regional supremacy, which could easily leave the United States stuck in the middle holding the proverbial bag. (See Saudi pressure in forcing the prime minister of Lebanon to resign). There is nothing in MBS’ brief tenure as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia that should inspire confidence in his stewardship of Saudi foreign policy or his competence in governance. And now that he has taken a wrecking ball to the Saudis’ consensus-oriented decisionmaking process, he will be able to operate within even fewer constraints. Washington should fasten its seat belts for a bumpier ride, unless it is prepared to base more of its actions on American rather than Saudi interests.
Trump and MBS: A New Bromance
The White House and MBS are now joined at the hip—a relationship that makes a mockery of President Donald Trump’s “America First” mantra and risks drawing the United States into more conflicts in the Middle East. (It seems there’s no limit to how many battles, domestic and foreign, the president can pick at one time). The fact is Trump and MBS have a lot in common. Both are authoritarian personalities; both are inexperienced at governance, particularly in foreign policy matters; and both have preternaturally inflated egos that get in the way of the prudence and wisdom required for wise governance.
Nothing that MBS has done in Yemen, Qatar, Syria or Lebanon has advanced America’s interests. To the contrary, his reckless pursuits have strengthened ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Iran, divided the Gulf Cooperation Council, created greater instability in Yemen and Lebanon, and made America complicit in Saudi war crimes in Yemen, further damaging our reputation in the region and beyond. By writing checks (figuratively, if not literally) that MBS is cashing, the United States has enabled the headstrong prince to plunge the Kingdom into misadventures around the region and made Saudi Arabia look more like Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China than the progressive and modernizing autocracy that he would have his admirers in the United States believe he wants to create. And he can do all this safe in the knowledge that the White House will continue to be his biggest cheerleader. If the president and his advisers want to avoid further entanglements in an angry, dysfunctional and conflict-ridden region, they should stop enabling MBS and start treating him like the menace he is to America’s interests and credibility in the region. If the president thinks that Saudi Arabia under MBS is about to become a strategic partner of the United States in achieving Arab-Israeli peace and rolling back Iranian influence, he’s even more detached from reality than seemed possible.
Can He Succeed?
Saudi Arabia faces a great many problems: low oil prices; an economy dependent on hydrocarbons; deficits that will continue to flow from a citizenry expecting cradle-to-grave benefits and the royal family’s own profligate spending habits; a protracted war in Yemen that the Saudis don’t know how to end; and an opportunistic Iran eager to capitalize on Saudi stumbles. MBS’s bold vision, including his ambitious Vision 2030 designed to wean Saudi Arabia off of oil and diversify the economy, may make sense on paper; whether it can succeed or even partially address the challenges in practice is unclear. Meanwhile, his risk-ready foreign policy, designed to contain if not roll back Iranian influence, has largely failed. Right now, MBS faces no real obstacles in his path—other than blowback at home and in the region from his own outsized ambitions. And it’s possible—assuming Saudi Arabia survives another half century—that he could be leading the Kingdom fifty years from now. He clearly has the time and, for now, the space to do big things. The question remains though whether he possesses the wisdom, patience and judgment as well. Judging from his performance so far, Washington would be wise not to place all its bets on a young man who seems to be in a big hurry to do big things.