by Ghassan Kadi

The thirty year old Saudi Prince, Mohamed, son of incumbent King Salman has risen to prominence by way of mere chance.

When I worked and lived in Riyadh back in 1979-1980, nearly every Saudi government office I ever walked into had at least one wall that featured the then four-tiered royal lineage.

Back then, Khaled was king, so his portrait was the main one, followed by the portraits of his half-brothers Fahed (the Crown Prince), Abdullah (the Deputy Crown Prince), and Sultan (the Second Deputy Crown Prince).

That was perhaps the golden age of Al-Saud, and in brandishing the photos they were giving two statements, one of national stability, and one of royal unity.

All of the celebrated four of this era were the direct sons of the founding father King Abdul Aziz. And because Abdul Aziz had many marriages and dozens of children, his 25 sons had a huge age gap. His eldest and successor Saud was born in 1902, whilst the current king, Salman was born in 1935.

It has always been a matter of time before a grandson of the founding father became king, but even during the golden age of the “fab four”, the question of deciding who would this lucky grandson be, was avoided. After all, with 25 sons, King Abdul Aziz has had hundreds of eligible grandsons.

The once mighty Prince Bandar was grooming himself to become the first grandson to assume the throne. After all, he was very well connected, very influential, and above all, the son of the prince (Sultan) who was meant to become king.

The fate of Bandar began to change when he lost the plot in Syria, and was totally decimated when his father died before assuming the throne and whilst King Abdullah was still alive.

Abdullah rushed and appointed his half-brother Nayef as Crown Prince, but Abdullah also managed to outlive Nayef.

By then, the last surviving direct male descendent of King Abdul Aziz was Salman, but by then also, Salman was 79 years old and already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Soon after his inauguration in January 2015, Salman appointed the son of the previous Crown Prince Nayef as his Crown Prince, but he also appointed his little-known son, Mohamed ie Mohamed Bin Salman, aka MBS, as his Deputy Crown Prince. To the surprise and dismay of many, both domestically and internationally, he also gave him the position of Minister of Defense.

It is tipped that Salman is going to soon change his Will and appoint his son MBS as the Crown Prince instead of Mohamed Bin Nayef. In effect, MBS is already acting like he is the king. In a twist of fate, two, or three, what Bandar had been planning and plotting for has slipped in between his fingers, just like desert sands does, and seems destined to land on the hands of his cousin MBS.

As soon as the little known MBS suddenly became the de-facto king, he had embarked on a number of “projects” to make his mark.

He is infamously known for his war on Yemen. A closer look at this man however reveals more than what meets the eye, and much more than the tragic story of Yemen.

MBS was very studious in his youth, and he spent a great deal of his teenage years in the company of his father rubbing shoulders with senior princes and power brokers.

Unlike most Saudi princes of his generation, ie the generation of the grandsons of founding King Abdul Aziz, MBS does not seem to be interested in wild parties and debauched life. He is a hard worker and an advocate of hard work. And ever since his rise to power, rumour has it that he “raids” government departments at random to see if employees are working and if some are absent without a legitimate reason.

This attitude seems to make him popular among Saudi youth; especially those who are quite bluntly disgusted by their royals, their lifestyle, lavish spending and laziness.

On the economic front, MBS is trying to find ways to change the dependence of Saudi wealth on oil. For starters, he is planning to privatize Saudi Arabia’s oil company Aramco. Aramco is believed to be the world’s richest company with assets estimated anywhere between 1.5 and 10 trillion American Dollars. He wants to use the funds generated in the sale in building a diverse economy.

He is now trying to build economic and strategic alliances with countries like Egypt, Pakistan and Uzbekistan in order to have a stronger clout in the power brokerage of the Sunni world; and this is not to mention his strong ties with Erdogan.

There seems to be little doubt that MBS is a cut that is different from that of his peers, but this is not to say that he is a cut above the rest. Credit must be given to him however for thinking laterally; at least on the economic front.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, given his indoctrination, he is not only aware of the sliding stature of Saudi Arabia, but he is painfully watching the rise of Iran.

He has witnessed the fall of Bandar and saw his mistakes. He has learned from this that he cannot rely on America as an equal ally.

MBS obviously knows that the golden age of Al Saud is over. He knows that what seemed to be an endless wealth a few decades ago is coming to a sudden end, and sooner than anyone thought. He realizes that Saudi Arabia is no longer on America’s most favourite list. He is totally aware of the early signs of those reality checks, and he wants to do something about them.

Whether he is going to be successful or not, is another story.

Young age is not a predicament. By the time Alexander the Great ruled the old world, he was the same age as MBS now.

MBS may have the right vision, ideas and intentions, but does he have the substance that is capable of creating the changes he wishes for in Saudi Arabia?

In reality, MBS’s passion for change is yet to show its first achievement. Perhaps he needs more time to show his real mantle, but thus far, we have heard much and seen nothing. In reality also, he doesn’t have much time to start walking at least some of his talk. If his father wants to pass on the baton to him, he must do this very soon and before he loses his mental capacity and certainly before he suddenly dies. Saudis, both royals and otherwise, will need to see some MBS success stories before they endorse his promotion and accept his rise to power.

But such success stories are yet nowhere to be seen.

On the military and strategic fronts, MBS has called for the formation of a Muslim anti-terror front to be established and have its HQ in Riyadh. When that alliance was announced, many “member states” were taken by surprise because they found out about it when the rest of the world did. They were neither consulted nor asked. They were clumped into a list that MBS believed he had liberty to construct without the need for approval of his partners. This is exactly like declaring war on a nation in the name of a third nation.

One wonders; was this a show of strength and authority, or just one merely of juvenile immaturity? Or, was it an act of archetypal Saudi arrogance?

Regarding MBS’s Aramco sale venture, on the surface, it may seem like a great innovative idea. However, this undertaking is not as simple as it seems. Many economic analysts and pundits argue that this venture will never work in accordance with the expectations of its architect. When Aramco was set up, it was not meant to ever be put on the open market, and as such, its corporate structure imposes many complexities that will render its privatization a corporate impossibility. As a matter of fact, it seems that MBS expected to see would-be investors lining up in droves, instead, the proposal of privatizing Aramco has generated a very lukewarm global reaction

Furthermore, given that Saudi Arabia had always been tightlipped about the volume of its oil reserve, investors will be reluctant to invest in the unknown. After all, the estimate of what Aramco is worth, 1.5 -10 trillion dollars, is too huge a gap for investors to overlook, and they will be even more reluctant to believe new figures that may contradict with previous estimates.

And speaking of MBS’s ideas and ventures, we cannot but stop and go back to examine the war on Yemen. That war was given the name that major powers give to swift operations. In an attempt to reverberate America’s wars on Iraq, MBS named his war against Yemen operation “Decisive Storm”. It was meant to last a few weeks. Thirteen months later, and after inflicting upon Yemen a massive human tragedy that the world choses to ignore, militarily speaking, that operation is turning into a decisive joke, and the joke is on the Saudi military whose budget surpasses the Russian defense budget.

Now, let us give MBS some fairness again. Anyone who has been to Saudi Arabia and had to deal with Saudi people KNOWS that Saudi Arabia is a country like no other country. It is afflicted by very serious human and social disabilities.

Saudi Arabia is a country whose people, by-and-large, are obsessed with money, sex, food, and sloth; all more or less to the same extent. This is not to mention the obsession with alcohol, which is of course forbidden.

Those who know Saudi Arabia, feel that it will take a miracle for Saudi Arabia to change and “get real” in terms that are in par with other nations.

So even if MBS has the spirit, determination and substance of Alexander the Great, Saudis are neither the historical Macedonians nor today’s Russians.

When Russia was at her nadir during the Yeltsin era, the invincible Russian spirit was staying put waiting for the right leadership. When Putin stood up, Russians stood up with him. Anyone who knows Saudi Arabia and Saudis will tell you that this cannot and will not happen in Saudi Arabia, not in the foreseeable future.

MBS undoubtedly wants to be a reformer. He wants to lift Saudi Arabia up, but Saudis will need more than just a great leader in order for them to be able to partake in the real world. After all, after decades of wealth and stability, the nation of Saudi Arabia did not provide the world with a single achiever in any field of excellence. Not a single scientist, doctor, artist, musician, poet, not even an athlete, not in any field at all. Instead, the kingdom of sand has flooded the world with religious schools that teach and promote radicalism, hatred and violence, and MBS does not seem to have the substance to change this.

If anything, MBS wants to be a world Sunni patriarch, and to establish Saudi Arabia as the centre of the Sunni Muslim World at all levels, not only religiously, not only by housing Mecca, but also economically, culturally, militarily and industrially.

MBS is probably trying to carve for himself a position that is somehow in between Osama Bin Laden and Bandar Bin Sultan, with an eye on Erdogan as a model for success; even though Erdogan in this respect is his biggest rival for Sunni leadership.

With national stability and royal unity of the bygone “fab four” era in tatters, MBS is trying to portray himself, especially to Saudi youth, as a national reformist and saviour. But little does he realize that nation-builders need to perform.

But this is a two-way street. For him to perform, he needs not only leadership substance, but also popular support. The support he is receiving is a little more than well wishes, and the performance he is exhibiting, is little more than failed gambles.

“What conquest brings he home? What tributaries follow him to Rome?”

 

The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world