Worldbeater: Mohammed bin Salman
Every time there is a change of the feudal guard in the desert kingdom lavish claims are made for a new broom of ‘reform’. But what does ‘reform’ mean – space for democratic discussion, equal division of the spoils of the oil economy, better treatment of the guest workers who perform the kingdom’s low-end labour, no more interference with neighbouring states, an end to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, flogging and beheading? Don’t get your hopes up.
Mohammed bin Salman is the latest broom and plus ça change. The 32-year-old King-in-waiting has a reputation for being hardworking and is pushing a programme called Vision 2030 – the political class likes to put vision stuff far off into the future. His emphasis seems to be on modernizing feudalism – a diversified economy less dependent on oil, ending corruption by some of the 15,000 strong House of Saud and curtailing the more arcane practices of Wahhabist Islam’s judicial straightjacket that dictates Saudi daily life. Cinemas and monster truck rallies will now be allowed, and women can access public services without permission of their male relatives.
Privatization is now de rigueur with plans to put shares of the state oil company Aramco on the open market. MBS, as he has come to be known, preaches fiscal discipline for public finances – always popular with the market mavens. But a day after announcing cutbacks he bought the Italian-built super-yacht Serene for around $600 million. In 2015 he purchased the world’s most expensive home, the Château Louis XIV near Versailles. Not all Saudi plutocrats have made out as well, with 200-odd taken into custody in a high-end hotel and made to turn over some of their ill-gotten gains. But at least they were spared sentences of beheading like those for political protestors (many under-aged minors) or the lengthy jail terms for dissident intellectuals. Such repression has increased under MBS’s reformed administration.
So who buys into the fatuous reform claims? For a start, young Saudis desperate to see any change at all in the stultifying culture of the desert kingdom. But most importantly, it is the Western political class who go cap-in-hand to Riyadh to sell their weapons for Saudi oil profits and get other geopolitical favours. Their much-touted liberal democratic values seem always for sale to keep the oil tap open. While Western politicians wave self-righteous fingers in Caracas or Tehran, Saudi Arabia, where there is not even the pretence of democracy, gets a pass.
While much of what MBS is dishing out domestically is commonplace in Saudi Arabia, his aggressive foreign policy is another matter. Since becoming Defence Minister in 2015 he has shown a distinct tendency to play offence. He escalated a genocidal war in neighbouring Yemen and has played a key role in supporting the most fundamentalist groups of Syrian rebels helping to turn a relatively peaceful democratic opposition to the Assadist dictatorship into a brutal civil war. He has engineered a threatening crisis with neighbouring Qatar over its relatively free and critical media, such as the al-Jazeera network. In December 2017 he even kidnapped the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (in Riyadh on a state visit) and forced him to resign – a resignation quickly reversed once Hariri escaped MBS’s clutches. All such manoeuvres can be seen as part of an obsession with curtailing Iranian influence in the region (a goal shared by the supportive Trump administration). The US President is appropriately enthused, as shown by his recent tweet: ‘I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing...’ Impetuousness makes not so strange bedfellows.