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Four ways Mohammed bin Salman's rise will change Saudi Arabia

The annointed one is not a firefighter, nor a statesman. He will rule by iron fist, run erratic economic policies and likely light more fires in the region

As expected, on Wednesday, King Salman finally promoted his young son Mohammed to crown prince after sacking Mohammed bin Nayef who, according to official sources, asked to be relieved of his duties as crown prince because of “private issues”.

The king has also amended sections of the 1990 Basic Law of Government to move to vertical royal succession from father to son for the office of king, thus ending the horizontal succession from brother to brother that had been put in place by the founder of the kingdom, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, in 1933.  

Mohammed bin Salman thinks that money solves problems but this has not enabled him to claim victories in the many wars that he has started

So far, it is unclear why the king has not appointed a deputy crown prince as is customary in these circumstances.

Furthermore, the central question - whether the king will abdicate soon and allow his son to become king in his lifetime - remains unanswered. Historically, no Saudi king has abdicated according to his own will. King Saud was deposed in 1964 under palace siege, followed by safe voyage to Greece.

Without further ado, 31 out of 34 royal members of the Committee of Allegiance, a royal consortium established as a consultation forum, are reported to have "voted" Mohammed bin Salman into his new role.

Saudi News Agency immediately released a video showing young Mohammed thanking his cousin bin Nayef for a smooth departure without a fuss and endeared him with an aborted attempt to kiss his feet in gratitude.

The king also appointed Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, the deposed crown prince's nephew and grandson of deceased Prince Nayef, who had been minister of interior until his death (1975-2012), as the new minister of interior, thus perpetuating Nayef's old fiefdom over the most important ministry for domestic security. 

Fun and neoliberalism

The new appointment means a lot of things for the future of the kingdom - and all point to uncertainty brought about by the erratic Mohammed.

First, rule by a continuous iron fist at home will be entrenched. Mohammed bin Salman will silence any dissident voices while allowing limited personal freedoms organised by his new entertainment commission in charge of keeping Saudis moderately entertained.

It is common for dictators to allow their marginalised subjects certain forms of controlled fun, lest they implode from within

It is common for dictators to allow their marginalised subjects certain forms of controlled fun, lest they implode from within. Women will also be symbols of a new Saudi consumer modernity and soon may be allowed to drive cars. In the future, Saudis will enjoy themselves up to a certain level without harassment by the religious police.

Mohammed bin Salman will continue to ignore a redundant, marginalised and discredited Wahhabi religious establishment. But with the dispersal of Saudis who had joined the Islamic State (IS) caliphate, and the possible return of those from Syria, he may expect a bumpy ride in the top seat.

When al-Qaeda was dispersed from Afghanistan after 2001, many Saudis who had joined its ranks returned and caused the worst terrorism crisis the country has seen. IS already claimed several attacks in Saudi Arabia since 2015, but its sectarian outlook may prove to be useful for Mohammed bin Salman’s current crisis with Iran.

Second, erratic economic policies that may not deliver the desired neoliberal economy - including weaning Saudi Arabia away from oil by 2020, shrinking the welfare state, privatisation and, most importantly, floating 5 percent of the Saudi oil company Aramco in international markets by September 2017 - will continue.

So one day, Mohammed bin Salman might announce that Saudis must tighten their belts, but another day he could reward them for their acquiescence by unfreezing public sector salaries and giving them extra holidays. A successful neoliberal paradise with less working days and low productivity may require miraculous intervention.

Losing the regional struggle

Third, Mohammed bin Salman will struggle to become a serious regional power on par with Turkey, Iran, and Israel, all of which currently flex their muscles in a bid to emerge as the dominant force dictating the outcomes of several conflicts in the Arab world. He has already alienated Turkey and Iran - the former sided with Qatar in the latest crisis. He also promised to bring the war deep inside Iran, a statement that ultimately amounts to a declaration of war.

He and IS share the same sectarian outlook and may well cooperate, especially after IS runs out of targets in Syria and Iraq

Mohammed bin Salman does not seem to know the implications of his flamboyant statements. But he and IS share the same sectarian outlook and may well cooperate, especially after IS runs out of targets in Syria and Iraq. IS may be instructed to move its terrorism campaign to Iran after its defeat in Mosul and Raqqa.

He may have scored success with Israel, now dubbed jokingly as the newest Sunni state, in his bid to form a pan-Islamic alliance against both Iran and Qatar. He will continue to clandestinely cooperate with Israel in security and economic matters, but we shouldn't expect an Israeli flag to be raised in Riyadh soon. This will take some preparation and coordination and the stakes in such a controversial move are high.

Trump-MBS symbiosis 

Fourth, Mohammed bin Salman will continue courting US President Donald Trump, exchanging weapon contracts and investment promises for continuous support - at least in public. Like Mohammed bin Salman, Trump is also unpredictable and the two men may fall out over minor differences. However, they will keep the facade of agreement until they achieve their objectives both at home and abroad.

The new crown prince does not seem to have time for Europe at the moment. He will continue to see it as a holiday destination for his newly purchased yacht and as a source of more weapons that he cannot get elsewhere. This will mean that European arms manufacturers and governments in Britain and France will compete for the attention of the young prince.

Trump meets with then-Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington in March 2017 (Reuters)
Both countries may have lost their favourite Saudi candidate, Mohammed bin Nayef, who had succeeded in establishing a good rapport with Western intelligence services as he was seen as crucial in the fight against terrorism. British Prime Minister Theresa May will need the new crown prince for economic reasons as Britain risks shrinking both economically and politically after Brexit.

At the moment, Salman’s kingdom seems to take shape amid real challenges both domestically and regionally. The new appointment may not be challenged by other princes or by groups inside the country but the future looks troubled. 

Mohammed bin Salman is not a capable fire fighter or a tactical statesman. He thinks only money solves problems but this has not enabled him to claim victories in the many wars and conflicts that he started. He is more likely to light further regional fires than extinguish existing ones.  

- Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at LSE. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr

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

Photo: Saudi Defence Minister and then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Saudi air forces officers in March 2015 to discuss plans and developments of the military operations in Yemen (AFP)

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