Saudi Arabia’s Swelling Sandstorm

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A Ritz Carlton hotel metamorphoses into a makeshift jail. A Prime Minister dubiously disappears and resigns. International skirmishes materialise into acute conflicts. This could be a plotline for a fetching fictional narrative, and everyone enjoys a good mystery. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia’s saga is neither fetching, nor fictional.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially nicknamed MbS) not long ago was heralded for his progressive effort in permitting women to drive. In a transient twinkle, people applauded. But a balloon’s climb is always smoother than its punctured descent.

Turning to Machiavellian insights, if the brusque and brazen Prince of Saudi Realpolitik is currently foreshadowing the disposition of his Kingship, there is a turbulent journey ahead. MbS is perched upon a tight rope without a safety net, preoccupied with the balancing act of domestic and international contentions. Nevertheless, there is a design to all the dramatics; underlying his pursuit is the struggle for primacy.


The Sprint

MbS’s ascension began after King Salman replaced the deceased King Abdullah in 2015. Thereafter, King Salman tinkered with the order of succession to favour MbS. His course to the throne began, nevertheless, MbS mistook the route to the throne for a sprint.

March 2015 marked the advent of a calamitous conflict. MbS coaxed an Arab coalition to oust the Iranian backed Houthi rebels from Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Shortly after, the King bestowed upon MbS authority over foreign policy and socio-economic affairs.

In June 2017, MbS and the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed concocted a new crisis. They disseminated false statements attributed to the Qatari Emir by hacking Qatar’s news agencies. Subsequently, Saudi and the UAE engaged in a diplomatic assault on Qatar. A couple of weeks later, King Salman distinguished MbS as the Crown Prince, thereby replacing his nephew like a discarded toy.

With his thumb on the pulse of regional power dynamics, MbS silenced his powerful cousin by placing him under house arrest. Now assuming complete responsibility over Saudi’s defence policies and internal security, there remained but one obstacle to total command of the security forces: The National Guard.


The Distraction

The Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, abruptly departed for Saudi on the pretext of an audience with the royal family. The following day, 4 November, Saudi TV broadcasted PM Hariri’s resignation wherein he also condemned the Iranian backed Hezbollah. Hours later, a missile was shot down before hitting Riyadh.

It was shocking. People recognized the face and voice of the man broadcasted, yet the words sounded unfamiliar; they were avowedly characteristic of Saudi. Cynics have proposed a leery dimension to this recently transmitted recording by accusing Saudi of holding Hariri captive. Although, before this could manifest as coherent doubt, MbS commenced his next phase: distraction.

Over two hundred people were detained and arrested under the rubric of anti-corruption.  Among the detainees were affluent businessmen, members of the royal family, ministers, and media personnel. Embracing the glib vocabulary of ‘corruption’, MbS layered this endeavor with a veneer of rhetoric to vindicate his purge. He knew this populist oratory would gain traction amongst the younger generation, who have long been expressing their resentment for these inherited predicaments. However, employing corruption charges to extinguish opposition enabled MbS to ensnare his cousin Miteb – the commander of the National Guard – in this gambit.

Historically, Saudi has operated under a political architecture where power is dispersed across multiple branches in the House of Saud. At the moment, MbS is deliberately dismantling the traditional governance system, seizing executive power, and ending the rule of consensus. The sands of Saudi are shifting from broad-based family rule to being centered around one man.

MbS pledged to move Saudi towards being a more open and tolerant society, however, his actions do not reflect his promises. It is not difficult to conjure a blueprint of reform; but if it is to be a successful, considering diverse opinions is beneficial. Yet, his current political solipsism is more babble and bullying; he is deaf to everything in disaccord with his vision for Saudi’s future. Instead, he is remodeling Saudi’s citizens into performers; cautiously tiptoeing with bowed heads, and those daring enough to reprimand the Kingdom will do so only in hushed whispers.

In this regard, it is doubtful that these vectors of change will be appealing or beneficial. But maybe there is another hidden agenda erratically flapping about in his mind – an agenda related to oil.


The Hidden Agenda

These recent events coincide with Saudi’s debased position as an oil Eldorado. No longer buoyed by a stable bounty derived from hydrocarbons, they seek to pivot their oil-reliant economy to a more diversified one. Economic strain breeds desperate remedies, and economic tumult is building inexorably.

Since 2014, oil prices have been dwindling, precipitating a fiscal crisis in Saudi. This is especially crucial as the Kingdom depends on a social contract of largess, whereby citizens are placated through patronage expenditure schemes. By way of illustration, Saudi nationals are bestowed with plentiful gratuities ranging from subsidies to free education, to exceptional healthcare. Thus, a victim to the contagion of thriftlessness, austerity measures could provoke social unrest – another solution was required.

Faced with the specter of double-digit deficits, a tax reform was implemented in 2015. Nevertheless, to back these reforms the government will require some restructuring. Presently, citizens are taxed without representation; if the Kingdom seeks to incrementally increase taxes, citizens are going to demand a degree of participation in the decision making. Except it seems MbS has little interest in achieving this.

The recent crackdown is more than just silencing dissidents and consolidating power, he is planning for life after oil. Annually the government hemorrhages ten percent of its expenditure to corruption – MbS saw an opportunity to refill Saudi’s coffers and took it. So far, about 95 percent of the detainees have agreed to a settlement to consign their business’ money or shares to the Saudi Treasury, which could amount to $100 billion.

To a degree, his oil anxiety also manifests in a lot of his headline maneuvers. Allowing women to drive, relaxing bans on entertainment, building a $500 billion techno-utopian megacity, and curbing the religious police all relate to their efforts to be more economically efficient and diverse. MbS attributed this as progress in his goal to make Saudi a more open society; but in reality, it is a ruse to attract foreign talent and investments – which they desperately need.


The Risk

Vision 2030 outlines many key changes, but MbS risks embroiling Saudi in a dangerous predicament. The international proxy conflicts are likely to escalate; not because of tensions abroad, but Saudi is undergoing a chaotic transformation at home. In such intervals, paternalistic rulers are especially prone to bouts of paranoia and insecurity, thereby increasing the probability of an overreaction.

Still, MbS’ feverish zeal coaxed Saudis into a sentiment of senseless hope; dreaming a bright future for the Kingdom. But just as every light ultimately burns out and every festivity eventually has an end, it is only a matter of time until the grandeur of a new beginning fades into a chorus of disappointments.

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