Saudi Arabia's Quicksand

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman waves as he meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Riyadh, Saudi Ar
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman waves as he meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 11, 2017.

After King Abdullah’s death in 2015, his half-brother Salman ascended the throne of Saudi Arabia. He discarded his tribe’s long-held rule of succession (sons of their father Abdulaziz in order of their date of birth); nudged aside the then Crown Prince (his half-brother); took the decision to appoint a prince from the next generation, a nephew (son of a full brother) as the new Crown Prince; and catapulted his 30-year old son, Prince Mohammad, to the position of Deputy Crown Prince, and the effective day-to-day ruler of the realm ahead of hundreds of senior princes in the line of succession.

Prince Mohammad embraced a report from the management-consulting firm of McKinsey and Company as his blueprint for economic reform. He expanded the Saudi adventure into Yemen with troops and indiscriminate bombing of civilians. He placed an embargo (an act of war) on Qatar that threatens the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, a regional security arrangement). He continues to support the oppressive minority rulers of Bahrain in their crimes against humanity. He has threatened Iran, killed an Iranian fisherman and captured two other Iranian sailors. In sum, the young Crown Prince has embarked on fundamental economic reforms at a time of low oil prices, may have initiated the breakup of the GCC, is fighting wars (or surrogate wars) in Syria and Yemen, is supporting oppression in Bahrain, and is instigating a potential armed conflict with Iran, which could eventually involve Iraq. Where is his train headed?

On the reform front and as we have said before, institutional reform must be at the foundation of Prince Mohammad’s vision. Can he establish institutions (essentially the rules of the economic game) and especially a legal system that is fair and just? We believe not. His reforms are a pipe dream without any accompanying political reform. Is the Al-Saud clan willing to consider political reforms that would strip them of their “inherited rights”? We believe not, given the Al-Saud mindset, namely, that their father, grandfather, great grandfather, as the case may be, took over the land and Saudi Arabia is simply theirs. We don’t believe that reforms will succeed without political reforms, which, in turn, we believe are not even on the table.

If this were not enough, the prince has even two bigger and more immediate worries. First, will the United States continue to support him in whatever he does? And second, will the roughly 10,000 Saudi princes fall behind him and obey his every command?

In the past, the U.S. has made hollow pronouncements in support of human rights and representative governance, but has still continued to support its client dictators as long as they buy arms and do Washington’s bidding. The Trump Administration has put all pretensions aside to wholeheartedly embrace Prince Mohammad and the Al-Sauds. During and after his recent visit to Saudi Arabia Trump made it clear that the U.S. will sell Saudi Arabia any arms it wants, will support its surrogate wars in Yemen and in Syria, will do all it can to isolate, contain and realistically alienate Iran, and we believe that from private words Prince Mohammad believes he has U.S. military support in case of a conflict with Iran. Will the U.S. keep all these commitments, real or imagined?

President Trump appears to prefer autocratic rulers to democratically elected governments, especially if they are rich and people with whom his family can do business. The Al-Sauds have always dangled money in front of those they want to coopt. We are confident that Prince Mohammad has received much verbal support for his plans and adventures from the new U.S. President or from his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, but he should keep several points in mind. President Trump has at most seven years in office, which could be shortened to three and a half years if he is not re-elected, or to a few months if he is impeached or resigns. What is important is that U.S. administrations and policies change. But Iran and Iraq will be always on the Persian Gulf. Moreover, a direct armed conflict with Iran is altogether another matter. It could entail Iraq, which would pose a serious threat to U.S. troops in light of Iranian influence in Iraq and could also mean a threat to U.S. interests worldwide. Does the U.S. have the stomach for following this young prince in a prolonged war? We believe not. Prince Mohammad should think long and hard about the extent and longevity of U.S. support before he takes even more irreversible steps.

Be all this as it may, we believe King Salman has delivered a potential mortal blow to Al-Saud rule and even to some other rulers of the GCC. He has upended the succession rules that had been largely adhered to, he has initiated the direct descendant practice, he has given unprecedented power to one man and he has allowed himself to be seduced by the words of a U.S. president who cannot remain in office for ever and is most interested in business deals.

While Al-Saud princes may have remained silent for the last two and a half years, this silence will be transformed to action before, but undoubtedly upon, King Salman’s death. It was one thing to have Prince Mohammad elevated to such power two years ago as Deputy Crown Prince because a new king could have stripped him of all powers. But now that he has been elevated to Crown Prince, the issue has taken on more urgency for the other 10,000 or so princes. This is made all the more dire as the young Crown Prince could break up the GCC, entangle Saudi Arabia in an armed conflict with Iran and lose U.S. backing when Trump gets cold feet or is out of office. In that eventuality, the Al-Sauds could be driven out of power and lose their position and their direct access to the national treasury, the thing that matters most to all princes given their over-the-top lifestyle.

President Trump and his Middle East Czar, Jared Kushner, would be well advised not to make unintended commitments or to use ambiguous language in their dealings with the Crown Prince. Ambiguous words and polite talk could be erroneously interpreted by the Crown Prince, which could drag the U.S. into a long human and resource-draining conflict.