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On the eve of 2020, Mohammed bin Salman has let down the world

Amid domestic repression and regional misadventures, the coming year holds dim prospects for Saudi Arabia
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the GCC summit in Riyadh on 10 December (Bandar al-Jaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AFP)

If success is measured by achievements, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sunk deeper into trouble on many fronts over the past year. 

The domestic scene has been punctuated by the contradiction of reform and repression. Regionally, Saudi oil fields suffered two attacks that crippled production, and an aborted reconciliation with Gulf neighbour Qatar stumbled before it even started.

Globally, Mohammed bin Salman is yet to salvage his reputation as a reliable leader after a failed five-year military adventure in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in late 2018, both of which tamped enthusiasm for his project to draw international investors and float the oil company Aramco in global markets. 

On these three fronts, the crown prince proved successful only in undermining the kingdom’s credibility, and tarnishing its reputation beyond repair. 

Imprisoned activists

Notwithstanding the hype that accompanied bin Salman’s declared social and economic liberalisation plans, which made the Saudi public sphere less restrictive for women and young men, successive waves of arbitrary detention remained a thorny issue. More intellectuals and professionals were detained, and most are still waiting to appear in court. 

Famous religious scholars, such as Salman al-Awdah and Awad al-Qarni, feminist activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul, and tribal leaders have found themselves behind bars for long periods of time. Without effective pressure from Saudi society or the international community, the imprisoned activists risk being forgotten, except in Twitter hashtags - almost all generated by an incipient Saudi diaspora. 

His social and economic reforms have failed to generate consensus, leaving many Saudis with no alternative but to flee the country

The Saudi crown prince is responsible for the forced migration of hundreds of Saudis who seek safe haven abroad. His zero tolerance approach to critical voices, and his relentless desire to be at the centre of all decisions, have made the kingdom a grand prison for those with alternative visions and opinions. 

His social and economic reforms have failed to generate consensus, leaving many Saudis with no alternative but to flee the country and continue their struggle for free speech from afar. Their increasing number has prompted them to seek an institutional base abroad to regroup and create a unified voice that rejects regime propaganda. Exiles - united despite differences in ideology, gender and sect - run diaspora conferences every year, with the last meeting taking place this month. 

As Saudi Arabia’s entertainment and tourism industries were strengthened in 2019, the regime has yet to show signs of real openness, beyond the propaganda of concerts, festivals and circuses. It is unlikely that both sectors will generate enough jobs to appease the youth; both industries are more about conspicuous consumption than production. 

Failed reconciliations

As the two regional crises of Yemen and Qatar appeared to have yielded no victories for the crown prince this year, a bleak reconciliation in Yemen is yet to prove a durable solution that will pacify warring factions and allow the kingdom to move beyond its entrenched military intervention. 

Meanwhile, an invitation to Qatar’s emir to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh this month was snubbed, and the blockade imposed on it has yet to be declared a wrong move. By the end of 2019, Qatar seems in no rush to accept a permanent reconciliation with the kingdom or its UAE ally. 

Fighters gather in southern Yemen on 30 August (AFP)
Fighters gather in southern Yemen on 30 August (AFP)

Bin Salman has fractured the Gulf beyond repair. No previous Saudi ruler has pursued such an aggressive policy with a neighbour. While the objective was to isolate Qatar, the prince was the only one isolated by his uncompromising policies, which aimed to humiliate other states rather than cooperate and solve conflicts through diplomacy. 

The crown prince’s aggressive approach to regional policy has backfired, and many observers blame Saudi Arabia for deepening the Gulf rift. Under bin Salman, the GCC has become irrelevant as a regional forum.

Facing this regional failure, the crown prince is counting on the new waves of Arab protest in Lebanon and Iraq to rid him of his Iranian rivals. From Riyadh, the protests are understood as a new drive to shrink Iran’s influence in both countries.

Yet, while this may be one of the causes, serious underlying factors prompted protesters to rush to public squares. They are demanding more than the expulsion of Iran - these marginalised constituencies are rejecting corrupt and inefficient governments. 

Misguided calculation

Counting on the protesters to expel Iran and replace it with Saudi hegemony is a misguided calculation. Neither the Iraqis nor the Lebanese protesters seem to seek the replacement of one bad overlord with another equally bad one. Bin Salman does not understand the mindset of people who rebel; he is more comfortable with repression than liberation. 

His regional non-Arab neighbours, Iran and Turkey, share a common revulsion for the prince. Both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appear to be uncompromising when they deal with him. Both refuse to take him seriously and hesitate to trust him, even as he recently held secret talks with Tehran. 

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The Iranian regime is still strong enough to squash local protests, despite months of severe economic hardship caused by international sanctions. Bin Salman will not see the disintegration of the Iranian state anytime soon. He must learn how to reach compromises with both Turkey and Iran. 

And as long as Saudi Arabia fails to pursue justice for the murder of Khashoggi, a crime committed on Turkish soil, Turkey will not warm to the crown prince. The announcement of death sentences for five suspects in the state-sanctioned killing, while releasing without charge the three individials considered to have led the operation, including bin Salman aid Saud Qahtani, will not solve this problem.

The international community is still reluctant to fully endorse the prince’s economic reforms. The sale of a mere 1.5 percent of state oil giant Aramco was finally launched this year, but not many international investors seem to have rushed to grab profits from the deal of the century. 

As long as Saudi Arabia does not have transparency, governance and rule of law, it will be difficult to achieve global financial success. The Aramco IPO looked more like a local smash-and-grab than a global market listing. 

The coming year does not look bright, as the entrenched repression and regional adventures appear destined to continue. The crown prince has let down his own people, regional powers and the international community.

Only a change in leadership could bring about a better future for Saudi Arabia and restore its image beyond its borders. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Madawi al-Rasheed
Madawi al-Rasheed is visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics. She has written extensively on the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender issues. You can follow her on Twitter: @MadawiDr