Saudi Arabia Tries the Waters of Retrenchment

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia attends a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, March 16
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia attends a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, March 16 (DoD/Amber I. Smith)

In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s new minister of defense, Mohammad bin Salman, sent the kingdom’s armies to Yemen. In 2017, shortly before usurping the position of crown prince, Salman organized a blockade on little Qatar, which had dared defy the kingdom’s geopolitical priorities.

Both were bold moves fraught with risk. The Yemen war was meant to roll back Iranian influence on the southern border, deny ever-dangerous Al Qaeda a base and prove Saudi Arabia was a capable, independent military power that could fight without mighty America.

The blockade on Qatar was meant to secure the kingdon’s backyard. Regime-rattling Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood both enjoyed Qatari state support and, in uncertain times of economic restructuring and inevitable cultural change, having those two wildcards in the mix was not a game the Saudis wanted to play. Read more

To Save Saudi Arabia, They Needed a Young King

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. Read more

Meet Mohammad bin Salman, the Last King of Saudi Arabia

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, arrives at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China September 5, 2016
Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, arrives at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China September 5, 2016 (Bundesregierung)

From Reuters:

Mohammad bin Salman, 31, was appointed crown prince by his father King Salman on Wednesday, replacing his cousin who is 26 years his senior. This made the prince, who already oversaw defense and energy policy, the most powerful figure in the country by some stretch after the octogenarian monarch.

Already more than a few have mentioned Mohammad bin Salman’s hawkish anti-Iran policies and his bold economic vision. But there’s more to the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia than that. He may be dynamic, comparatively worldly and supposedly forward-thinking, but the odds are we just met the last king of Saudi Arabia. Read more

Saudi Family Dispute Bursts into the Open

Saudi defense minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud greets his American counterpart, Ash Carter, in Washington DC, May 13
Saudi defense minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud greets his American counterpart, Ash Carter, in Washington DC, May 13 (DoD/Glenn Fawcett)

German intelligence this week warned that a generational transition in Saudi Arabia could lead to further instability in the Middle East.

In an unusually blunt assessment of the Western-allied kingdom’s policy, the Federal Intelligence Service warned in a memo that was distributed to German media that, “The cautious diplomatic stance of the older leading members of the royal family is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention.”

The Foreign Ministry quickly repudiated the spies’ warning, saying that the “statement reported by media is not the position of the federal government.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Read more

Saudi King Seen Preparing Favorite Son for Power

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the defense minister and deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia
Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the defense minister and deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia (AP/Hassan Ammar)

When King Salman shook up Saudi Arabia’s leadership last week, the member of the royal family that seemed to benefit most from the changes was his favorite son, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, who was put second in line to the throne as deputy crown prince.

Before the weekend, Prince Mohammad was also named the chairman of a new council that will oversee the state oil company, Saudi Aramco.

Mohammed was previously appointed defense minister by his father who ascended the throne in January when his older brother, Abdullah, died. In the capacity, he has overseen the kingdom’s military intervention in neighboring Yemen where Houthi rebels are supported by the Sunni regime’s nemesis, Iran.

Although the campaign has so far failed to push back the Houthis, who control almost the entire west of the country, and Salman ordered the National Guard to join the operation in April, the relatively inexperienced Mohammad’s elevation to defense chief does not appear to have been called into question.

The prince’s official duties now give him command over the desert kingdom’s two pillars of external power: arms and oil.

Saudi Arabia has long armed and financed causes and proxy wars across the Middle East without involving itself directly in conflicts. Recently, it has supported the largely Sunni uprising in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, another Iranian ally.

The kingdom has also kept up oil production despite falling petroleum prices worldwide in a move that puts pressure on other oil-exporting countries, such as Iran and Russia, while making shale oil production less competitive.

Mohammed was Salman’s private advisor when he himself became defense minister in 2011. After he moved up to crown prince following the death of Prince Nayef in 2012, Mohammad was named chief of his court.

Unlike most Saudi princes, Mohammed was not educated in the West. Instead, he studied law at King Saud University in Riyadh.

Last week, King Saud replaced several key members of his cabinet, including the economy and foreign ministers. He also named his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef crown prince in place of Prince Muqrin, the former intelligence chief. Muhammad would be the first Saudi king from the second generation of princes. All monarchs so far have been sons of the modern kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud.