International pressure on Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS), has put forth questions regarding the future developments of the European Union’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Ever since MBS took charge, the EU keeps trying to keep the kingdom’s ruler in check without damaging its own vital interests.
Saudi foreign policy today is more assertive than it has been for the past three decades, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In previous years, Saudi decline in foreign policy gave leeway to the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East. Trying to reinvigorate an active foreign policy has taken a major toll on Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. The ineffective military intervention in Yemen’s civil war has aggravated the humanitarian crisis. The several blockades on Qatar have created a crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, the feud with Canada, and withdrawal of the kingdom’s German Ambassador have created several diplomatic spats.
Monopoly over the throne:
Mohammed bin Salman has proved to be a textbook case of power politics himself. Since his appointment as crown prince, he quickly consolidated power by bringing the most important domestic security bodies, including the national intelligence service and elite special forces, under his direct control. In the previous years, these organs had been scattered among several royal figures. Moreover, MBS appointed one of his supporters as the head of the National Guard, selected his brother as Vice-Minister of Defence, and replaced many key royal governors with close allies, giving him active control of Saudi Arabia’s security establishments. With the King’s tight control over so many institutions, it would be nearly impossible for any faction within the royal family to organize against him, even if foreign powers such as the European Union or United States threaten to cut ties.
Liberal hero or authoritarian villain?
Domestically, Mohammed bin Salman has pinned his future on Vision 2030, his economic reform plan, which will transform Saudi economy and society. The 2030 package envisions a monarchy that relies less on oil industries, which would be reduced from 50% to 16% of the GDP, and more on other revenues, such as petrochemicals, solar power, and tourism. He even announced a new investment of USD 500 billion in a new economic zone dubbed Neom. Middle-class urban Saudis perceive the 33-year-old King as a visionary young reformer because of these recent modernization initiatives.
In addition, the crown prince has taken many actions to empower women in public life. A movie theatre was built where men and women sit together, and women were permitted to attend sporting events. Moreover, the driving ban on women was lifted, and women were given the right to vote.
Similarly, MBS sought to reduce the power of the conservative Wahhabi clergy. In 2016, he introduced a decree which restricts the powers of the mutaween, the local police forces which had been tasked with “promoting virtue and preventing vice”. Music and gender-mixing are no longer deemed immoral, allowing more room for concerts and music shows to flourish. Yet, at the same time, any space for freedom of expression has vanished.
As sweeping as MBS’s economic and cultural reforms may be, he has expressed no interest in liberalizing the country’s political system. According to Human Rights Watch, a minimum of 11 women rights activists were arrested in May 2018 – just one month before the driving ban on women was officially lifted. Even earlier in November, the crown prince detained 381 persons, including more than 20 influential princes, businessmen and clerics, as part of an anti-corruption crackdown. Modernizing initiatives have been based on a Chinese-model approach which aims to consolidate the House of Saud’s authoritarian power while keeping the public satisfied. For the crown prince, Saudi citizens should understand that the liberalization of religious, cultural, and economic life did not come because of civil disobedience, but because their rulers had issued a decree.
Keeping an eye on Vision 2030:
For the first time, major decisions are being adopted much faster without waiting for the slow consensus among the royal family’s ruling members. Therefore, as the sole decision maker, MBS’ behaviour can either improve or further provoke the deteriorating relations with the international community. Shunning Mohammed Bin Salman will not likely serve the interest of Western powers, as Saudi Arabia can serve as a great ally in regulating the energy market, increasing security cooperation, and countering the growing Iranian influence in the Middle East. As for the crown prince, success would likely mean ascending to the throne of a more powerful and prosperous kingdom, with his national and international adversaries eventually subdued. With a quest to take back control, one thing is certain: no Saudi official has been more applauded and vilified at the same time as Mohamed bin Salman.