Saudi Arabia’s ambitious bin Salman will face trial by fire
“Comment: Both at home and abroad the challenges facing bin Salman will be huge. It is unlikely he will succeed where more experienced hands did not, writes Barak Barfi.”
In recent years, the historically reticent and deferential Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has increasingly discarded the traditions which have protected the insular country from regional tremors that have toppled other monarchies.
This week’s succession shakeup, in which 31-year-old Prince Muhammad bin Salman was elevated to dauphin is just the latest. At a time when Saudi Arabia is facing so many threats and uncertainties, it needs a steady and experienced hand to guide the kingdom. But Bin Salman’s trial by fire is unlikely to provide the necessary calming influence.
When bin Salman was named Deputy Crown Prince upon his father’s succession in 2015, the choice surprised many. He was a 29-year-old unknown in a kingdom where royals are slowly moved up the government pecking order.
In a kingdom and culture that prizes seniority, the meteoric advancement of a young prince was frowned upon.
Nevertheless, his elevation proceeded smoothly. Thirty-one of the thirty-four members of the Allegiance Committee, composed of the descendants of the kingdom’s founder who choose the king and crown prince, approved the change in succession.
The Mufti, the kingdom’s senior religious scholar, declared “the obligation to swear an oath of allegiance is incumbent on everybody” and publicly did so.
“In a kingdom and culture that prizes seniority, the meteoric advancement of a young prince was frowned upon.”
Since his father ascended to the throne, bin Salman has been receiving a crash course in ruling the kingdom, amassing unprecedented powers. He is minister of defense and oversees a war Saudi Arabia is fighting in neighbouring Yemen.
In addition, he manages both state oil company Aramco and the public investment company, while directing economic policy. Accruing so much power is a rarity in a kingdom where the sovereign carefully and widely allocates positions among a sprawling royal family.
The young bin Salman is brash and bucks diplomatic convention. He hastily plunged the kingdom into the Yemen war without coordinating the move across the security establishment and without fully grasping its ramifications. Read more: Saudi succession reshuffle: A threat to the house of cards During a November 2015 meeting between President Obama and his father, bin Salman unleashed an uncharacteristic diatribe against America’s Middle East policy.
While bin Salman is insular, having never studied outside the kingdom, he does not have the playboy image like that of the late King Fahd. President Barack Obama once described him as “wise beyond his years”.
Bin Salman advocates a muscular foreign policy that is at odds with the kingdom’s traditional deference to regional powers such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria and which may be beyond the Saudis’ capacity.
For decades, the Saudis worked behind the scenes, quietly persuading proxies to do their bidding by opening their deep purses. But the breakdown of the Arab order — Iraq and Syria are failed states and Egypt is a walking corpse — has thrust the kingdom into a spotlight it has never sought.
“The breakdown of the Arab order has thrust the kingdom into a spotlight it has never sought”
Its initial moves leave much to be desired, and bin Salman faces a perilous road ahead.
The kingdom is grappling with a Vietnam-like intervention in neighbouring Yemen, an infringing Iran which is expanding Shia control in the region and low oil prices which are the source of virtually all of the economy’s revenues.
And in recent weeks, the kingdom has spearheaded an anti-Qatar coalition. Even during the Arab Cold War of the 1950s and 60s, which pitted the conservative and pious kingdom against the secular pan-Arabism of Egyptian President Jamal Abd al-Nasser, it never had to juggle so many dilemmas. It is unlikely a political neophyte such as bin Salman will succeed where more experienced hands were only muddied.
Bin Salman may have not have much more success on the domestic front. He has spearheaded the Vision 2030 plan which seeks to modernise the kingdom and diversify the economy by weaning it off the oil which turned the most impoverished area of the Arab world into its wealthiest.
“But here too, bin Salman has adopted a maverick streak by not cultivating ties with the religious establishment which dictates social mores”
Among its goals is the unrealistic privatisation of Aramco. Doing so would bring in billions of dollars but would reduce Saudi control over a company it guards closely. Bin Salman has however been successful in reducing subsidies which are an albatross on budgets throughout the Arab world.
Saudi media is positioning bin Salman as “the prince of the youth”. He has championed loosening the social structures that stifle the kingdom’s younger generation. But here too, bin Salman has adopted a maverick streak by not cultivating ties with the religious establishment which dictates social mores. Without their support, it is unlikely he will be able to modernise society.
When bin Salman accedes to the throne, the passing of the baton to the younger generation will undoubtedly bring change to a kingdom that has historically viewed the concept as anathema.
The modernisation of society is undoubdetly a noble objective. But it requires meticulous preparation to avoid regional pitfalls and exhaustive consultation to ensure at least tepid support from the religious establishment.
Bin Salman has evinced neither. Until he acquires the requisite skills to do so, Saudi Arabia’s bold domestic and regional shifts are unlikely to succeed.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation, where he specialises in Arab and Islamic Affairs.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.
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