To Save Saudi Arabia, They Needed a Young King

Great kings can overcome the burdens of geopolitics by force of will and shrewd wisdom. But they need time.

Ray Mabus, then America's secretary of the navy, speaks with Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, November 28, 2016
Ray Mabus, then America’s secretary of the navy, speaks with Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, November 28, 2016 (USN/Armando Gonzales)

By most metrics, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is running out of time. It’s finding it impossible to balance its budget after trying to wage a failed price war on shale oil. It is lurching toward a knowledge economy but hoping that knowledge does not bring a demand for political freedom along the way. Its economic model has hit a dead end. A housing crisis coupled with high, nearly permanent unemployment is dragging down the competitiveness of the kingdom.

Plus there’s the surging power of Iran, the madness of the Sunni supremacists in the Islamic State and Al Qaeda and the quite probable retrenchment of the Americans away from their old alliances in the Middle East.

To be a Saudi leader is to look into the future and despair.

Yet doomsday is not certain. In other places, great kings have overcome the burdens of geopolitics by force of will and shrewd wisdom. Peter the Great of Russia force-marched his empire into modernity, bestowing a powerful polity for his successors. Emperor Constantine cobbled together a Roman Empire from the fragments of a century of civil discord. Fredrick the Great managed to guide Prussia from a minor German state to the spine that would eventually unite the whole country after his death.

They all had one thing in common: decades of absolute power. Peter the Great ruled 39 years; Constantine, 31 years; Frederick the Great, 46 years. They had both time and energy to fix the many problems afflicting their domains.

Now the Saudis are gambling that Mohammad bin Salman, just 31 years old, can do the same for their kingdom.

Enemies within and without

Recently, Reuters and The New York Times have published articles on the details of the soft coup that brought Mohammad bin Salman to power. There are telling hinge points in the tale that reveal the priorities of the ever-opaque royal family.

Prior to King Salman, there was King Abdullah. He was a slow-but-steady type of leader, who brought very small reforms in politics and economics but did not want to rock the boat too hard. His close relationship with George W. Bush gave way to a more strained one under Barack Obama, yet the king wasn’t about to throw any curve balls so late in his life, even if he didn’t trust President Obama.

Abdullah saw Al Qaeda as the kingdom’s prime threat, followed closely by Iran. After an Al Qaeda rising in 2003-06 bloodied Saudi Arabia, Abdullah refocused what powers he had on combating the strains of Sunni supremacism his religious establishment had lost control of. He didn’t go so far as to abandon the state ideology of Sunni supremacism, but he sought allies who could identify the factions that were a direct threat to Riyadh.

A key ally was Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the iron-fisted interior minister and crown prince. Prince Nayef had come to power just after the assassination of King Faisal in 1975. Faisal had been killed by a fellow Saudi family member for modernizing too fast and Nayef learned the lesson fully. To survive as a Saudi royal meant to watch for enemies both within and without.

Nayef was there in 1979 when Sunni supremacists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and he helped lead the battle that retook the holy site. Nayef was also part of the decision to call in French commandoes to do so, realizing Saudi security forces were not up to par for that kind of a battle.

Nayef took a dim view of humanity and his security forces grew increasingly focused and capable under his watch. For his service, King Abdullah replaced him with his son, Muhammad bin Nayef, when Prince Nayef himself died in 2012.

Muhammad bin Nayef took up the anti-Al Qaeda struggle his father had left behind. He tried varying strategies to crack the Qaeda shell, including a rehabilitation program that spectacularly backfired when a supposedly reformed Al Qaeda agent tried to kill him with a suicide bomb. Yet King Abdullah did not lose faith in Nayef’s son; the incident even made him look heroic in Abdullah’s day.

Now it smacks of incompetence.

Soft coup

When King Abdullah died in 2015, factions within the Saudi family began to mobilize against him. Al Qaeda was still a threat, but economic stagnation, a rising Iran and a disloyal America were beyond Bin Nayef’s abilities to manage.

So first they did as all soft coups do: they siphoned power from one to give to another. They convinced King Salman to empower Mohammad bin Salman, giving him control of the armed forces, Saudi Aramco, the state oil company and charge of Vision 2030, the economic reform scheme. Muhammad bin Nayef was outflanked but apparently didn’t realize it until it was too late.

Sources report that Bin Nayef had little support in those unsteady hours, even as he dug in his heels to try to hold onto his job. Violence was not an option; Mohammad bin Salman and his allies already controlled the armed forces and via Aramco could stop the flow of checks to anyone in the kingdom.

Clearly Bin Salman had done his homework. Despite his disastrous war in Yemen, the new crown prince had won over the key royals needed to become the next king. They must be thinking that only new, young blood can possibly save the kingdom from stagnation and ruin.

The long view

That longevity is critical to understanding why the royals would gamble on someone so inexperienced. Bin Salman will only be in his early forties when Vision 2030 comes to fruition. If it fails, he’ll have decades more to learn and improve on the original plan. Even if Yemen grinds on, Bin Salman can manage the war rather than win it for years to come. Such a stalemate serves Saudi strategic purposes if it keeps Iran from gaining a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula itself.

Even if America rethinks its alliance with Riyadh, it won’t abandon Saudi completely and Bin Salman can only become more adept at manipulating American politics to his advantage.

In other words, the royals are hoping that even if Bin Salman lacks wisdom today, he has time to gain it in the future. That may work. It has in other places. The philosopher-king strategy has a good track record. Time will tell if Mohammad bin Salman can become one.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, July 19, 2017.