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Under Mohammed bin Salman, there has been an incremental erosion of Saudi Arabia’s strategic power

By Stanly Johny

October 25, 2018

In April 2018, while in the U.S., Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that he would “encourage the power of law” inside the Kingdom. “We would like to encourage freedom of speech as much as we can, so long as we don’t give opportunity to extremism,” he told The Atlantic. Six months later he himself faces questions about the horrific murder of a dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. This contradiction perhaps explains how Saudi Arabia is functioning under MBS, as he is widely known.

After moving to the front of the line to the throne, MBS has promoted himself as a social and economic reformer who could lead the Salafi kingdom to the 21st century. American journalist Thomas Friedman called MBS’s reforms as Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, but the reality has been more complex. MBS is no radical prince. Rather, he appears to be reckless and power-hungry, having launched some reforms in the process of centralising huge powers in his hands. Khashoggi’s murder should be seen in this larger context.

The way Khashoggi was murdered has been a shock even to supporters of the Crown Prince. Riyadh maintains that it was a rogue operation that went bad — a feeble argument which even his ardent supporters would find hard to buy. In MBS’s dictatorial world, it’s unimaginable that a rogue intelligence officer would despatch a hit squad to Turkey — a country with which Saudi Arabia has a tense relationship — in order to confront a 59-year-old Washington Post journalist known to be critical of the Crown Prince. MBS can’t easily shrug off responsibility for this incident. The larger question is: why should Saudi Arabia carry out such a horrific, reckless and risky operation in a foreign country? Leave aside the moral argument, given Saudi Arabia’s appalling rights record. Didn’t the perpetrators think of the diplomatic consequences? Perhaps they are used to getting away with disastrous policy decisions.

The purge

MBS, a monarchist to the core, had promised his people to loosen the grip of the conservatives on culture and liberalise the economy further to make it less dependent on oil. But this was the means towards power and influence in the larger power struggle within the palace. MBS may have allowed women to drive and cinema halls to open, but he has also gone after every potential rival in the palace. In effect, a purge was carried out, last year, in the name of fighting corruption and to take control over all arms of the security establishment. While the important targets were confined to a luxury hotel for weeks, dozens of other critics and clerics were incarcerated in unknown places. In that move, MBS tasted absolute power. State institutions caved in. Even his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, remained a mute spectator.

MBS’s vision is of a stronger monarchy that uses fear at home and maintains an aggressive foreign policy. But most of his foreign policy decisions have been counterproductive. As Defence Minister, he has been the main architect of the war on Yemen, which has yielded a humanitarian catastrophe. Yet, Saudi Arabia has never been held accountable for its actions. On the contrary, it has U.S. support.

The same recklessness was visible in Riyadh’s blockade last year against neighbouring Qatar. Initially, it said Qatar was supporting terrorism in the region and made a host of demands for the blockade to be lifted, including shutting down the Al Jazeera television station and severing ties with Iran. Ties remain tense as Qatar has rejected the demands.

In November 2017, Saudi Arabia detained Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, from where he announced his resignation. Weeks later, he returned to Lebanon and the office of the Prime Minister. This August, Saudi Arabia recalled its Ambassador to Canada and froze new trade and investment after Canada raised concerns over the arrests of women rights activists in the Kingdom.

A miscalculation

All these incidents have three things in common. One, the Saudis have not been perturbed about the results of their actions. In other words, they are not strategic. Two, MBS, despite promises of reforms, appears to be extremely intolerant of any criticism. The response is to be disproportionately aggressive. Three, he continues to enjoy a sense of impunity, thanks to the solid support from the Trump administration. It is no wonder then that the Saudis miscalculated the consequences of the Khashoggi murder. They chose the wrong place and underestimated Turkish intelligence.

Saudi Arabia may still get away as the U.S. is unlikely to sacrifice its strategic relationship with the Kingdom. All sides may be waiting for global shock and anger to subside. But it would be hard to miss the big picture — of how the misadventures of the Crown Prince are hurting Saudi Arabia geopolitically. In Yemen, the Saudis have still not won over the Houthi rebels. When Qatar rejected Saudi demands, Riyadh did not have a plan B. At a time when Sunni Gulf monarchies are supposed to stand in unity against Iran, Saudi Arabia’s hostility towards Qatar has only created new rifts within West Asia. It has lost the Syrian civil war and its military and monetary investments there have been in vain. Now, the Khashoggi case is a public relations disaster for a country which wants to be the leader of the Sunni world. There has been an incremental erosion of Saudi Arabia’s strategic power under MBS and the Kingdom will have to deal with it soonest.