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Saudi Arabia's turbulent years: For how much longer can King Salman shield MBS?

In the four years since King Salman assumed the throne, his son has made a mess of domestic and foreign policy

The euphoria that accompanied King Salman’s succession to the throne in January 2015 has been difficult to sustain over the ensuing four years. 

As his son was promoted to the highest positions in the kingdom, becoming the new face of the country while his father almost disappeared from public view, the realm has looked increasingly difficult to defend. 

Several crises have left their shadow in recent years; only a miracle could stem the tide of criticism rolling over the most controversial years in the kingdom’s history. Domestically, regionally and internationally, Saudi Arabia is at an impasse. 

Zero tolerance

At home, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) mismanaged family affairs and shook the foundation of al-Saud rule when he unleashed his newfound power to exclude and humiliate several senior princes, detaining them with others inside the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel. They were released only after vast ransom money was paid, and now survive in the margins, unable to regain respect and recognition. 

The fiercest blow, however, was reserved for dissidents, with MBS showing zero tolerance for peaceful dissent. He has sent hundreds of people of all political persuasions to notorious prisons in Riyadh and Jeddah, targeting professionals, Islamists and female activists. Some have fled the country in fear, taking refuge in Western countries such as Canada or the UK. 

The real test will come when MBS loses the cover his father has provided over the last four years. When he is alone in the palace, new opportunities may arise to rid Saudi Arabia of this menace

Saudi youth have been distracted by a series of entertainment programmes, masking the brewing crisis among the unemployed, especially those who have returned with higher education, only to find no jobs (and without jobs, live entertainment becomes costly and out of reach).

The private sector is still struggling to expand, as wealth leaves the country for more reliable safe havens. The fact that Saudi officials had to call on the elite to keep their money in the kingdom revealed the magnitude of this crisis.

Many projects have been postponed, perhaps forever. The most notorious was the privatisation of five percent of the national oil company Aramco. This plan was always far-fetched, and it took just a couple of years for the difficulties and obstacles to become clear. Now, the privatisation is on hold, and no one knows whether it will ever happen. 

The Khashoggi factor

Socially and economically, many promises have been made over these past four years, with a mixed outcome. The Saudi economy is still dependent on oil, but energy prices remain flat. This will impact the ability of MBS to honour his many pledges, from the knowledge economy to the diversification programme, as all of them need cash in the absence of serious foreign investment. 

All this became even more difficult after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. Many foreign investors cancelled their participation in the glamorous "Davos in the Desert" conference. Only one option remained available: liquidating the sovereign fund and continuing to issue government bonds. Saudi Arabia has become a country that can only function by borrowing money from international markets. 

A protester wears a mask depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman next to people holding posters of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 25 October (AFP)

Regional policies are even more complicated. The war in Yemen is entering its fifth year, with no real victories. Late last year MBS succumbed to pressure to negotiate a peaceful solution and accommodate his enemies, the Houthis, but the end is not yet in sight. In the meantime, thousands of Yemenis have died from Saudi air strikes.

The Saudi-Qatar conflict is also at a stalemate. The Saudi-led blockade amounted to a declaration of war, but fortunately did not erupt into a fully fledged one. Reconciliation is not imminent, and the media war continues to rage.

Instead of toppling the regime in Doha, the Saudi-led sanctions have strengthened the small peninsula and its relations with Turkey and Iran - the opposite of what Saudi Arabia hoped to achieve. Qatar has also reigned supreme in the media battle.

Deteriorating relations

Regionally, Riyadh is now depicted as the lead Arab regime desperate to normalise relations with Israel. This may prove to be a fatal blow, whose ramifications are yet to surface.

MBS may ultimately learn that without Palestinians agreeing to a peace plan, his efforts will merely allow Israel to penetrate the Saudi market, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to threaten peace throughout the region, from Amman to Beirut to Cairo. 

At the same time, Saudi relations with old allies have been deteriorating, with conflicts arising between Riyadh and Canada, Germany and Sweden. The world watched as the Canadian ambassador was expelled from Riyadh simply because of a tweet by Canada’s foreign ministry critical of the detention of female activists. Canada has become the desired destination for Saudi asylum seekers.

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While MBS remains on good terms with US President Donald Trump, he does not seem to believe in diversifying his diplomatic relations. Both Trump and MBS are erratic and impulsive characters, whose relationship may not survive the eclectic nature of both personalities. 

It may be difficult for King Salman or his son to reverse the tide of discontent that has swept Saudi Arabia with the latter’s domination over all aspects of government. The real test will come when MBS loses the cover his father has provided over the last four years. When he is alone in the palace, new opportunities may arise to rid Saudi Arabia of this menace. 

- Professor Madawi al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. 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 Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks with King Salman in Riyadh on 9 December (Bandar al-Jaloud/SPA/AFP)