Feras Klenk, PhD Candidate
University of Arizona, School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies
Recently the world was awoken to a show of force by Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In a relatively short period of time, the prince has managed to remove any real or imagined rivals from the centers of political and economic power and authority in Saudi Arabia, by charging them with corruption. It is presented to a foreign, especially western, audience as an anti-corruption drive by an energetic young reformer against old vested interests. It is cleverly couched in the liberal language of technocratic reform in the style of Emmanuel Macron, and liberal pundits emphasize its “revolutionary” potential. Hence, MbS’ allegedly necessary and urgent actions appeal to both domestic and international audiences.
These very same calls for reform, in the context of Saudi Arabia, must be seen in light of a changing political economy and regional geopolitical risks. Although it is clear that these arrests are more than an act of much needed economic reform, many liberal commentators seem content to accept the government narrative as presented to them. I argue that this power grab is a risky gambit by Muhammad bin Salman, and an attempt to consolidate his authority within and without Saudi institutional structures. It is part and parcel of his program of adapting Saudi Arabia to what he and his supporters see as the challenges of the 21st century. For example, the spread of both real and imagined Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, are seen as existential threats to Saudi security, and must be fought with a variety of tools (e.g., military and diplomatic) on different geographic fronts. At the same time, there is a need to reinvent the Saudi economy as the sustained decline of oil prices has placed tremendous pressure on the Saudi welfare state and its main source of legitimacy. Hence, around the same time the arrests took place, we also witnessed the announcement of Saudi women being given the right to drive (the announcement was made in the United States and in English first), and the spectacle of a robot being given state citizenship. These incidents are displays meant to exhibit a new, modern, and reforming Saudi Arabia (in terms of economy and society) that is ready for business with the world. Hence, the arrests were portrayed as a part of a larger program of reform.
The Rise of the Prince
Muhammad bin Salman was elevated to the throne of Saudi Arabia, as it were, by the accession of his octogenarian father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, following the death of King Abdullah in 2015. Quickly, behind-the-scenes, Salman bin Abdulaziz appointed his son as Saudi Arabia’s new defense minister and deputy crown prince, thus politically marginalizing his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef who held power as the Minister of Interior. While this was taking place, there was a push to reduce several bureaucratic fiefdoms in the Saudi government; which in addition to streamlining the bureaucracy had the concomitant effect of concentrating power in the hands of Muhammad bin Salman and Muhammad bin Nayef. However, the royal decree of Salman bin Abdulaziz upended this delicate political arrangement. Muhammad bin Salman was pronounced the crown prince, and Nayef was stripped from all official duties and placed under house arrest, leaving Muhammad bin Salman as the most powerful of the princes. Yet his power and ambitions rest on a precarious foundation.
War in South Arabia
Between 2014 and 2015, MbS who served as the Saudi Defense Minister at the time, spearheaded the coordination of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-led campaign (i.e., Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) into Yemen, to restore the rule of President Abd rabbuh Mansur Hadi after the collapse of his government in the fight against Houthi rebels. The Saudi led military intervention, which promised swift victory, rapidly transformed into a brutal war of attrition with the specter of famine and disease stalking the Yemeni landscape with more than 7 million on the brink of starvation and the country in the grip of “unprecedented” cholera outbreak. The conflict has been a disaster for Saudi Arabia with the loss of men, material, and money with the promised military victory in tatters. In trying to explain away this failure, the Saudi government puts the blame on Iran, given the supposed Shi’a affinity and Iranian support for the Houthis. Iran and its partners are accused of exporting advanced military hardware (with Omani collusion) and expert military advisors to the Houthi rebels, which has resulted in a stalemate. Besides the claim of anonymous sources, no real evidence has been given to substantiate the accusations against Iran. Similarly, when the Houthi rebels launched a missile toward Riyadh, it was stated that the missile came from Iran and was fired by Hezbollah. As it is currently unfolding, the war depends on western (i.e., American, French, and British) military, intelligence, and logistical support and aid to continue. The defection of Ali Abdullah Saleh (the former President of Yemen) from the Houthi camp may have broken the deadlock, but his death has forestalled this and will probably result in further escalation. So, what does this mean for MbS? The war calls into question his judgment and political acumen. The financial cost of the war may have destabilizing effects on the Saudi economy and welfare state as well.
The Lebanon Affair
When the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, declared his intention to quit his position in a televised address in early November, it took everyone by surprise. He blamed Iran and Hezbollah for this decision by alluding to an assassination plot against him by Hezbollah and the Iranian perfidy in the Arab World. This move broke the recently forged political compromise that made Michael Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, the president of Lebanon. Thus, Hariri’s resignation had the potential to destabilize the carefully crafted Lebanese political system. In the wake of the announcement, Saudi nationals were asked to leave Lebanon, and restrictions were placed on Lebanese workers in Saudi Arabia. It was also declared that both countries were in a state of war. While the former was a frontal assault against the Lebanese economy, as Lebanon depends on large capital inflows and remittances, the latter referred albeit obliquely to Hezbollah, which Saudi Arabia considers an enemy. It was later revealed that Saad Hariri, under house arrest at the time, was pressured to resign by the Saudis in order to generate unfavorable political conditions for Hezbollah and remove them from the political scene. This ill thought out scheme backfired spectacularly, as the Lebanese political factions united and demanded that the former prime minister return in the name of national unity. This was a crude attempt by the Saudis to isolate Hezbollah from the Lebanese political system, and to limit supposed Iranian influence by imploding the government. It should be said that many Lebanese politicians follow foreign agendas but maintain the fiction of autonomous action within their country. In this instance, Saudi actions were too vulgar and gained the ire of many Lebanese citizens. This should definitely be seen as a foreign policy failure for MbS that may further backfire on him in the future.
Six months ago, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt declared a land, sea, and air blockade of Qatar, thereby effectively placing it under siege. The reasons that were given were Qatari “support for terrorism” and violations of a GCC agreement. The Saudi-led coalition issued a list of demands to the Qatari government, which must be fulfilled in order to restore the status quo. Among them was cutting all diplomatic ties with Iran. This clause is important for understanding the conflict because both Iran and Qatar share close diplomatic and economic relations (i.e., oil and gas industries) as they jointly control the world’s largest natural gas field. In the midst of the crisis, Iran responded by sending tons of food supplies to Qatar, and declaring that Tehran will stand by Qatar. Although the deadlock continues to this day, the desired outcome of the Saudis, including potential regime change in Qatar, has not materialized, which illustrates the fragility of Saudi power. What should have been an easy win for the Saudi-UAE axis has transformed into a stalemate, which has potential repercussions for MbS in terms of the undermining of the Saudi state.
Vision 2030 and the Robot
In the midst of geopolitical crisis, Saudi Arabia unveiled a vision of transforming its political economy by diversifying away from oil and strengthening other areas of private sector development. This plan calls for huge capital inflows from foreign direct investment into various projects in different sectors of the economy (e.g., tourism, health, infrastructure, and education), creating many opportunities for investment. Part of the strategy to attract foreign investments is to improve the austere image of the Kingdom in popular culture hence for example, lifting the ban against female driving. The swift change in religious discourse, with regard to female driving, revealed that it was always a political and not a religious injunction, contrary to popular understanding. Another example was granting Saudi citizenship to the robot Sophia, who was shown to the public during the Future Investment Initiative. However, there is cause for concern: public opposition to the austerity measures will accompany economic change, especially when members of the Saudi elite, including MbS himself, indulge in what could be called frivolous spending. For example, he recently purchased a mega yacht valued at $550 million dollars, and the Da Vinci painting of dubious provenance for a cool sum of $450 million. Attempts to trim the bureaucracy have not succeeded to date either for similar reasons.
As I have argued in this piece, the geopolitical dimensions of Saudi foreign policy cannot be disentangled from its political and economic program. Rather, they should be seen as engines of change in the Saudi context. The political program will provide Saudi Arabia with proper security by combating and defeating its rival Iran, and thus ease anxieties and tame markets. The economic program is a shift to a post-oil economy, and thus attempts to attract as much foreign investment to various projects through different schemes. However, it should be noted that any opposition to MbS and the Saudi royal family faces savage repression that includes imprisonment, torture, and execution. It was not for nothing that MbS jailed prominent al-Sahwah leader, Salman Al-Audah, for remaining silent during the Qatar blockade. This was seen as a threat to the future king, where even silence is perceived as a threat. Hence, it remains unclear if he will last long on the throne.
Feras Klenk is a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona, School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. His research focuses on the intersections of security, development, and entrepreneurship in the Arabian Gulf.
 Thomas L. Friedman, “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last,” New York Times, November 23 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/23/opinion/saudi-prince-mbs-arab-spring.html.
 Ben Hubbard, “The Upstart Saudi Prince Who’s Throwing Caution to the Winds,” New York Times, November 14 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/14/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-mohammed-bin-salman.html.
Daniel Lazare, “Will the Saudis Go to War?” Jacobin, November 22 2017, www.jacobinmag.com/2017/11/saudi-arabia-iran-trump-bin-salman.
 Jane Kinninmont, “Vision 2030 and Saudi Arabia’s Social Contract” Chatham House, July 20 2017, https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/vision-2030-and-Saudi-Arabias-social-contract-austerity-and-transformation.
 Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Arabia Rewrites Succession as King replaces Heir with Son, 31” New York Times, June 21 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman.html.
 The Houthis or Ansar Allah (Supporters of Allah) as they call themselves is a religio-political movement that emerged in North Yemen in the 1990s. It was initially formed to defend the Zaidi community against perceived government marginalization and fight against Saudi influence in Yemen. Tensions with the government especially after the Yemeni revolution would later explode into civil war by 2015.
 Farah Najjar and Khalid Al-Karimi, “Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen a strategic failure,” Al Jazeera, August 23 2017, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/08/saudi-arabia-war-yemen-strategic-failure-170823072854582.html.
 Jonathan Saul, Parisa Hafezi, and Michael Georgy, “Exclusive: Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s War- sources,” Reuters, March 21 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-iran-houthis/exclusive-iran-steps-up-support-for-houthis-in-yemens-war-sources-idUSKBN16S22R.
 David D. Kirkpatrick, “Saudi Arabia Charges Iran With ‘Act of War,’ Raising threat of Military Clash” New York Times, Nov 6 2017, https://nytimes.com/2017/11/06/world/middleast/yemen-saudi-iran-missle.html.
 Anne Barnard, “Saad Hariri Quits as Lebanon Prime Minister, blaming Iran,” New York Times, November 4 2017, http://nytimes.com/2017/11/04/world/middleeast/saad-hariri-lebanon-iran.html.
 Rayan El-Amine, “Can Lebanon survive Saudi Arabia’s miscalculated moved?” Middle East Eye, November 14 2017, www.middleeasteye.net/columns/can-lebanon-survive-saudi-arabias-miscalculated-moves-742000229.
 Adam Hanieh, “The Qatar Crisis,” Jacobin, July 26 2017,www.jacobinmag.com/2017/06/qatar-saudi-arabia-uae-crisis-middle-east.
 Khalid Waleed Al Braikan, “Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan spurs international investment,” World Finance, August 25 2017, http://worldfinance.com/wealth-management/saudi-arabias-vision-2030-plan-spurs-international-investment.
 Martin Chulov, “Saudi Arabia to allow women to obtain driving licenses,” The Guardian, September 26 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/26/saudi-arabias-king-issues-order-allowing-women-to-drive.
 Zara Stone, “Everything You Need to Know About Sophia, The World’s First Robot Citizen,” Forbes, November 7 2017, https://forbes.com/sites/zarastone/2017/11/07/everything-you-need-to-know-about-sophia-the-worlds-first-robot-citizen/#6204850746fa.
 David D. Kirkpatrick, Mark Mazzetti, and Eric Schmitt, “Saudi Crown Prince was behind record bid for a Leonardo,” New York Times, December 7 2017, https://nytimes.com/2017/12/07/world/middleast/saudi-crown-prince-salvator-mundi.html.
 Reuters Staff, “Saudi clerics detained in apparent bid to silence dissent,” Reuters, September 10 2017,https://www.reuters/com/article/us-saudi-security-arrests/saudi-clerics-detained-in-apparent-bid-to-silence-dissent-idUSKCN1BL129.