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Is Saudi Arabia’s coming man the victim of Western misconceptions?

January 12, 2016


Prince Mohammed bin Salman has not had the kindest of write-ups in the Western press of late. I believe that much of what has been written about him has been unfair, or at least misconceived.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince was for many years a close aide of his father King Salman. When Salman became king earlier this year, MBS, as he is known in the media, leapfrogged a number of potential successors to become second in line to the throne. Not only that, but he was appointed Minister of Defence and given responsibility for the Kingdom’s economic policy. Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil and gas producer, was also came under his wing.

Big responsibilities for a man of 29, especially in a country where the key government posts have traditionally been occupied by senior members of the royal family decades older than him.

There have been rumbles of discontent among the Saudi elite at his promotion, including, it is alleged, among princes who are unhappy at having been side-lined. MBS seems to have acquired a reputation for being brash, arrogant and impulsive.

Charges against him in the Western media include that he has pitched his country into an unwinnable war in Yemen, that under his watch Saudi Arabia has exacerbated the conflict in Syria by its support of more than one Islamist fighting group, and raised the stakes in its uneasy relationship with Iran by executing Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and then breaking off relations with Iran over the subsequent storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

On the economic front, Saudi Arabia has been criticised since King Salman’s accession for maintaining its oil and gas output despite the collapse in the oil price. The country is now running at a substantial deficit.

In response to the economic downturn, MBS has announced that the Kingdom is contemplating a number of measures to reform the economy, including the privatisation of Saudi Aramco, the reduction of utility subsidies, the introduction of VAT and the slimming down of government ministries. Last week a substantial increase in the price of gasoline came into effect.

Critics have questioned these measures on the grounds that they potentially threaten the delicate social contract that exists between government and citizens in lieu of electoral representation. Under that implicit contract, the Kingdom has never taxed its citizens, and provides generous handouts to help the poor and unemployed, but has no directly elected parliament with legislative powers.

A Western commentator even went so far as to compare the economic reforms to those introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in an unsuccessful attempt to stem the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One doom-laden headline specifically singled out MBS by asking whether he is “the most dangerous man in the world”.

Strong stuff, and, I think, much of the criticism is indicative of a lack of understanding among many commentators of the way decisions are made in Saudi Arabia. Here’s why.

Let’s start with his perceived arrogance. I have no personal experience of MBS that allows me to comment either way. But I would suggest that anyone with the determination to cut the Gordian knots that underpin the Saudi establishment is bound to upset a few people along the way. A recent interview with the Economist has been seized upon by critics because he spoke in the first person when referring to the government. That seems as likely to be an awkward figure of speech as evidence of a “l’etat c’est moi” attitude.

Another factor that might lead to his getting people’s backs up is his youth. Saudi culture is one of deference to age. If you enter a room full of people, politeness dictates that you automatically make your introductions first to the oldest person. MBS’s father also has a reputation for plain speaking, but unlike MBS, his age and seniority mean that he is unlikely to offend in the same way that his son, fifty-odd years his junior, might.

Then there’s his educational background. It seems to have been held against him that he chose to go to university in Riyadh as opposed to abroad. He would probably find it quite insulting to suggest that his capabilities as a leader are in anyway diminished because he doesn’t have a flashy degree from Harvard or Princeton, and I would agree with him. I would suggest that he learned far more about the task of governing in the unique culture of Saudi Arabia while working at his father’s side from the age of twelve than he might have done had he taken a degree in politics at Georgetown University.

Western degrees are great, but few if any would qualify the recipient to navigate successfully across the delicate web of family, tribal and religious interests that make up the Saudi establishment.

Let’s now look at some of the decisions that have attracted so much comment since his appointment.

Not everybody who looks at Saudi Arabia from afar realises that the Kingdom is not an absolute monarchy. Far from it. Saudi kings from the first king, Abdulaziz, onwards have realised that major decisions require a degree of consensus from key elements of the establishment. These include senior members of the royal family, the religious sheikhs, the tribal leaders and last but not least the country’s business leaders. This is not to say that each of these elements is consulted on every decision, but the Kingdom’s leaders know that to ride roughshod over the sensibilities of the major stakeholders would be dangerous and might reduce the effectiveness of the decision.

In the case of the Yemen intervention, for example, which most commentators represent as being purely his decision, his voice will not have been the only one in the debate over what action to take. He is not a military man, and undoubtedly he will have been convinced by his senior military staff that the action against the Houthis was feasible, and the objectives achievable. Such a major action will have undoubtedly gained the consent both of the King and MBS’s cousin, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif. In other words, it would not have been a unilateral decision, and to blame MBS alone for an unsatisfactory outcome would be unfair.

The same reasoning applies to the execution of Nimr Al-Nimr. MBS is the Minister of Defence. Recommendations as to the fate of Sheikh al-Nimr would have come primarily from Prince Mohammed bin Naif, who, in his role as Minister of the Interior, is responsible for internal security. Rightly or wrongly, Sheikh Al-Nimr was seen as a threat to the security of the Eastern Province, where most of the Shia population live. To point the finger of blame for the consequences of the execution solely at MBS would be unfair, even if he, like most senior members of Al-Saud, regards Iran – the alleged fomenter of the unrest in the East – as an existential threat.

Moving on to the proposed economic reforms, much of the foreign media give the impression in reports that the reforms are a done deal. That’s highly unlikely. What they don’t understand is that a standard tactic used by the government for decades is to float ideas and gauge the reaction to them before making a decision wheter or not to implement. Not quite as formal as a government white paper, but similar in effect.

One of the major measures being spoken about is the flotation of Saudi Aramco. Oil revenues are too deeply entwined with the system of stipends and endowments that underpin the comfort and cooperation of the extended royal family and of the influential tribal leaders to allow a wholesale privatisation. My guess is that if a privatisation takes place it will only be after the company has been broken up into chunks, some of which will be off limits, but others can be safely floated. In any event, the idea that the government would be prepared to cede control of 80% of its revenue to private ownership is inconceivable.

Other concerns include the idea that efficiency drives within the major ministries would lead to mass redundancies, thus alienating many upon whom the government relies for support. The government has used the public sector for decades not only as the executive branch of government, but also as a means of alleviating the Kingdom’s acute unemployment problems. MBS will be acutely aware of this, and is unlikely to make decisions that provoke unrest among the middle classes who have come to believe that a government job is security for life.

Under his aegis there will undoubtedly be privatisations, a process started long before his appointment with the flotations of Saudi Arabian Basic Industries (SABIC), Saudi Telecom and more recently Saudi Electricity. But the implication that hundreds of thousands of civil servants will be cast out at the recommendation of consultants like McKinsey is absurd.

And what of MBS’s youth? We have become used to the Gulf states being ruled by monarchs of advanced years (a trend most recently bucked by the appointment of Sheikh Tamim as Emir of Qatar at the age of thirty-three). But we forget that MBS’s grandfather, King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, was in his twenties when he became head of Al-Saud and embarked on his career of conquest of the Arabian peninsula. We also forget that King Hussain of Jordan, the consummate survivor, assumed the throne at the age of seventeen.

Youth does not preclude political acumen or leadership capabilities, as will be evident to readers of Tom Holland’s Dynasty, his recent history of the Julio-Claudian family that ruled the Roman empire after the collapse of the republic. Augustus, the architect of the new model of imperial rule, was 19 when he succeeded his adoptive father Julius Caesar, and in his late twenties when he finally eliminated all his rivals.

To discount MBS purely on grounds of his youth would be foolish and condescending.

Another factor is that he seems to be highly popular with the youth of Saudi Arabia. 70% of the population is under thirty. If he has the ability to speak for and to them, then he will be in a better position than many of his predecessors to address the enormous problems facing the Kingdom on account of the youth bulge – extremism, indifferent education and high unemployment being the most significant.

As to the suggestion that the proposed reforms MBS is contemplating represent an attempt to stem the tide that might lead to the end of Al-Saud, again I’m not convinced. Faced with a massive drawdown of the nation’s reserves, what MBS is trying to do would be seen in any other country as a move towards best economic practice.

There seems to be a degree of wishful thinking on the part of commentators who are characterising the reforms as the beginning of the end. You could argue that MBS will be damned if he does reform and damned if he doesn’t.

Finally, to the clarion call of “no taxation without representation”. Do those who Westerners who call for an elected government realise the potential consequences?

Consider the massive following on the social media of conservative clerics. There are twenty million Saudis; many of the ultra-conservative sheikhs have Twitter followings of five million or more. I am absolutely convinced by the oft-expressed opinion that if there was a directly-elected a parliament with legislative and executive powers, it would not be the “liberal” reformers whose voices are often heard in the West who would be in the majority. It would be others whose views would be far less sympathetic to Western values and concepts of human rights who would hold sway.

Whatever one thinks of political, social and religious structures in Saudi Arabia, one shouldn’t forget that for all its shortcomings the government has largely managed to keep the peace within its borders for the past eighty years, something that no other state in the region has managed. For that, its rulers deserve respect.

The dire consequences being predicted for the country in the following years might bring a wry smile and “I told you so” from the Kingdom’s detractors, but I for one never forget that many of the victims of the disorder that might follow would be ordinary people, just as the conflict in Iraq and Syria has devastated the lives of millions of innocent citizens.

There is no political agenda behind my opinions. I’m not a journalist or an analyst. I write on the basis of knowledge and experience I’ve acquired through years of visiting and working in the Kingdom. My concern is for people, especially the many friends I have made there over several decades.

I wouldn’t want the same fate for ordinary Saudis as others have suffered throughout the region. So for that reason I wish Mohammed bin Salman and his colleagues the best of luck, and suggest that foreign observers should refrain from hasty judgement. He at least deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt.

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