Since he assumed the role of Crown Prince in June of 2017, Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS) has been widely seen as the power behind the throne of Saudi Arabia. He has not shied away from this role and has waged an intense campaign to win over the West as a reformer. His actions in public life before and after becoming Crown Prince should show him as a faux-reformer.
While many view him as a ruthless consolidator of power, his reputation in the West has generally been that of a reformer. He has made an attempt to change some particularly repressive parts of the Kingdom’s social fabric – lifting the ban on female drivers, opening its first movie theatres, hosting concerts, and his largest project, Saudi Vision 2030. While the international reputation of MbS has changed in recent months because of the war in Yemen and the recent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, his reforms have carried significant weight with business leaders and politicians in the West.
The social reforms that MbS pushed to the international community were ultimately for economic self-interest. In March of 2018 MbS went on a tour of the US on which he met with major figures in American business and culture – everyone from Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, Oprah, and President Obama. He even visited Rupert Murdoch and toured both Harvard and MIT. In addition, he met with high level federal politicians including President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner. MbS was treated very well in American media while on his tour, and fed into his Vision 2030 goals to open Saudi Arabia to American tourism and business. His meetings with Wall Street and business executives led to a heightened interest in the first ever ‘Davos in the Desert’ where MbS pitched an ambitious new investment zone in Saudi Arabia to draw tourists and financiers. This vision was received very well by those in attendance, including Richard Branson, although tainted by the number of CEOs who decided not to attend because of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
These business pitches have a publicly expressed purpose – to open Saudi Arabia to the world – but they also support the economic concerns of Vision 2030, to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy to insulate it from changes in oil supply and demand and promote investment in arms development and production. His repeated promises to sell stakes of ARAMCO (the Saudi state owned oil giant) to raise capital have teased the financial world for years now. If ARAMCO was to go public, it could be the largest IPO in history. The vision is quite an ambitious one, but MbS fits the bill for someone pushing such a vision.
At only 32, he is much younger than anyone else holding his level of power in the Kingdom, and has garnered an immense amount of respect in his short time. Before serving at his current post as Crown Prince, he was Defense Minister, the youngest person to hold that role as well. His legacy in that position is the highly controversial war in Yemen, in which countless air strikes and throttling of port access have led to some of the worst humanitarian situations in recent memory.
The war in Yemen has perhaps been the most destructive event that MbS has been a part of. It started when Houthi rebels overthrew the Yemeni government, and created a largely destabilized vacuum. Saudi Arabia claims these Houthi rebels are backed by Iran and represent an existential threat to their sovereignty. To combat this, Saudi Arabia collected a coalition of Arab nations (and American fuel/weapons) to intervene. This intervention has included the blockade of a major port city and the throttling of humanitarian aid supplies, in addition to constant airstrikes which have taken the lives of thousands of civilians. The connections between the Saudi war in Yemen and the United States in not inconsiderable, without US refueling capabilities and assistance the Saudi’s could not continue the aggressive bombing campaigns (As of Nov 10, the US has said it will stop providing refueling capabilities to Saudi planes.). Even though the horrific effects of this war have been widely reported despite the limited access journalists have been given, the support from the US has continued and the perception of MbS as a liberal reformer has continued.
The only act that seems to be making a dent in MbS’ reformer reputation so far has been the recent assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As an American resident and Saudi dissident living in exile in Turkey, Khashoggi was critical of the Saudi royalty in his Washington Post Column, and in October was murdered by a hit squad in the Saudi embassy in Turkey while trying to get a marriage license. The international reaction to this murder has been immense, although no tenable actions to curb the autocratic tendencies of MbS so far.
While it is undeniable that Saudi Arabia is an important ally in the Middle East for natural resources and the fight against terror, MbS’ actions as Defense Secretary and now Crown Prince are hard to align with western democratic values. The murder of dissidents, beheadings of prisoners, and a widely unpopular war that has murdered countless civilians cannot be overlooked when considering MbS’ impact. The business and political establishment must remember that MbS is not allowing women to drive and opening a movie theatre because he feels it is morally right, he is doing it to attract Western investment for his own self-preservation. It is much too early to anoint MbS with the halo he was given in March on his American tour, and the international community should continue to ask more of him and the Saudi leadership.
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