IntelBrief: Is Mohammed bin Salman Leading Saudi Arabia into the Abyss?
Bottom Line Up Front
- The combination of record-low oil prices and mounting demographic pressures poses significant challenges to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) future plans in Saudi Arabia.
- In mid-April, a Saudi citizen named Abdul Rahim Ahmad Mahmoud al-Hwaiti refused to abandon his home so that MBS could pursue his pet project, building the futuristic city of Neom, and al-Hwaiti was subsequently killed by security forces while being falsely portrayed as a terrorist.
- From the shakedown of fellow royals at the Ritz Carlton in November 2017, which includes allegations of torture, to allegedly ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the jailing of human rights activists, MBS continues to reaffirm his disregard for human rights and transparency.
- Strong-arm tactics have been the hallmark of MBS’ tenure to date, even as they frequently prove counterproductive.
The combination of record-low oil prices and mounting demographic pressures poses significant challenges to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) future plans in Saudi Arabia. As part of MBS’ audacious Vision 2030 plan, which seeks to overhaul parts of Saudi Arabia’s economy and society, the government plans to build a ‘future city’ in Neom in the northwest Red Sea region of the country. In order to clear out room for the construction of the $500 billion project, Saudi authorities have forcefully evicted tribes that have lived in the area for as many as 800 years. The high-tech city in Neom is the crown jewel of MBS’ future vision for Saudi Arabia, but it remains unclear how a Prince’s pet project will help the Kingdom deal with its future youth bulge, especially when combined with other economic and socio-political changes over the next decade. With decreased revenue streams resulting from the Saudi-Russian oil price war, and the prospect of a long-term recession due to the coronavirus pandemic, the government will have less cash to dispense as patronage to assuage Saudi citizens. The erosion of the social contract between the rulers and the ruled will lead to serious problems, especially in a tribal society. A generous social welfare program dates back to the time of King Abdulaziz al Saud, the founder of the country. Under his reign and that of subsequent leaders, Saudi Arabia’s tribes always felt like they were being cared for, but that paradigm is now being called into question by the actions of the Crown Prince. The implications are dire—an unstable Saudi Arabia will have reverberations beyond the country and the region itself.
In mid-April, a Saudi citizen from al-Khuraybah named Abdul Rahim Ahmad Mahmoud al-Hwaiti refused to hand over his home and was subsequently killed by Saudi security forces. But al-Hwaiti was prescient in that after the authorities’ initial visit and mere hours before being killed, he filmed a video predicting that the security forces would murder him and frame the scene, placing weapons onsite and labeling him a terrorist. This is exactly what happened next. Proving that MBS is both brutal and predictable, extra-judicial killings have once again cast a negative light on the Crown Prince’s modus operandi, which equates to murdering anyone who stands in his way. After all, MBS reportedly earned the nickname ‘Abu Rasasa,’ or ‘father of the bullet.’ after sending an envelope with a single bullet inside to a land registry official he was attempting to intimidate into helping him forcefully acquire a tract of land. MBS has promised to modernize Saudi Arabia, yet old habits are apparently difficult to quit—since 2015, Saudi Arabia has carried out 800 executions, according to data from human rights groups. The rate of executions under King Salman has nearly doubled since he became the leader of Saudi Arabia.
To move forward with MBS’ project, Saudi Arabia could displace as many as 20,000 citizens and tribal members from the northwestern province of Tabuk. The government has made vague offers of compensation to the residents, interpreted by some tribes as an insulting gesture and one which could lead to a permanent rift with citizens in the area. Local residents consider the area as their ancestral lands and forcefully removing them, especially under the implicit threat of detainment or death, is a typical myopic move by MBS and likely to backfire over time. Strong-arm tactics have been the hallmark of MBS’ tenure to date, even as they often prove counterproductive. From the shakedown of fellow royals and wealthy elites at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton in November 2017, which include allegations of kidnapping and torture, to allegedly orderingthe murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its clumsy attempted cover-up, MBS continues to reaffirm his disregard for human rights and transparency. This is a dangerous trend for the Kingdom because jailing human rights activists and suppressing all dissent will exacerbate tensions in a frustrated society that is ruled over with an iron fist.
Frequent missteps, both domestically and internationally, have revealed MBS’ actions as amateurish and naïve. Disastrous foreign policy choices, including the failed war in Yemen, have proven MBS’ impulsive behavior and lack of experience on the world stage. Saudi actions in Yemen have led to the destruction of the country’s already-brittle health infrastructure, with indiscriminate airstrikes destroying hospitals and health clinics. Beyond the initial devastation, this also means Yemen will be unable to handle the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, leading to the death of its most vulnerable citizens. Even the United Arab Emirates seems to have outmaneuvered the Saudis in Yemen, with the UAE-supported, Aden-based Southern Transitional Council (STC) recently declaring self-rule, a move that the Saudi-backed Yemeni government called ‘dangerous.’
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