by Ghassan Kadi

Love him or hate him, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) is like no other prince that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has seen since its inception under the rule of his founding grandfather King Abdul Aziz in 1932 and the establishment of the Al-Saud dynasty that changed Arabia; including its name.

Some argue that even the worst of humans can do a bit of good. The question is this; is MBS capable of doing any?

MBS has been the architect of that awful and criminal war on Yemen. Tens of thousands of innocent Yemeni civilians have been killed either by Saudi-led raids or by starvation and diseases inflicted upon Yemen as a result of the war. Hundreds of thousands of Yemeni men, women and children are living under abject conditions; with lack of provisions, medication and basic requirements for survival.

On the account of Yemen alone, MBS is a war criminal, an architect of genocide, and ought to face justice.

His legacy in Yemen should not make us forget and ignore his sanctioning of the execution of Saudi Shiite scholar Nimr Nimr and many others, and his rabid ambition sweeping out anything and anyone in his way.

A few years ago, and before the death of the then Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, the incumbent king Salman, father of MBS, was nowhere to be seen in the throne succession hierarchy. Saudi succession has always been left to a matter of “Shoura”, a council of princes (Bai’aa council) who decided how and when the third and fourth in line had to be picked; but the position of the Crown Prince was never a question, because it was always pre-determined many years prior to having to worry about the king’s successor.

With the many wives and sons that Saudi founding father King Abdul Aziz has had, he must have died thinking and believing that he had procreated enough to guarantee the survival of his dynasty, and in more ways than one, his hopes worked for four to five decades after his death. But in retrospect, that was a blessing with a hidden curse.

His first successors were the sons of his first wives. But more than six decades after his death, the generational change was not so much to be dictated by the father king, but rather by the maternal lineage.

Traditionally in polygamic societies, older wives and their children naturally loath younger wives and their children. When power is involved, the older generation tries hard, very hard, to hold on to it to make sure it does not get passed on to the children of the younger wives.

But because King Abdul Aziz had a fifty year age gap between his eldest and youngest sons, as older sons became kings, younger half-brothers had to inherit the throne because for as long as some direct sons of founder Abdul Aziz were still alive, the throne was not meant to skip the generation to appoint grandsons as kings.

It is this scenario that inadvertently allowed MBS to rise to power; the death of his older uncles.

It must be remembered that not only MBS, but his father King Salman, had lived their lives in a state of “discrimination”; albeit as members of the royal family with all the financial privileges. They were raised to understand that their royal status has its limits. They can have all the money they want, but no power; none whatsoever. They were made to feel like second class royals, for no reason other than being the sons and grandsons of the younger wives.

All the while, the sons and grandsons of the older wives of founder King Abdul Aziz lavished in power and wealth under the watchful eyes of royals who were designated to be “inferior” to them.

Much has been said and reported about the rorts and spoils of the Saudi royals and their debauched lifestyle, and no words of dismay and criticism can match those of young Saudis who have been recently educated and do not feel that they owe the royal family anything at all. Added to their voice of dis-satisfaction is the voice of women who virtually have no rights at all within the kingdom of sand.

It is within this atmosphere that MBS has found himself, by shear luck, by the virtue that the once fourth in line, Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz died before his half-brother King Abdullah.

The house of Saud was not ready for this, and the death of Sultan put the whole succession issue into jeopardy, and to the amazing fortune of MBS, his father eventually landed on the throne because he was the only surviving son of founding father Abdul Aziz who was in reasonable health to take the throne, and before the throne jumps the generation from the direct sons, Salman could not be ignored.

The elevation of Salman to the throne would have gone without much ramifications had he kept his nephew Mohamed Bin Nayef as his Crown Prince. Such a succession would have kept the tier of succession back into the box of the old princes. But Salman has a son who is different, and this son Mohamed, MBS, is seemingly like no other prince, and he had his father nominate him as the Crown Prince to the dismay of the generation of many grandchildren of the founding king who thought they were more worthy.

For many years, Al-Saud and their constituency agonized as to who was going to be the first grandson of founding king Abdul Aziz to assume the throne. A multitude of candidates have aspired to this position, and the most likely winner was Bandar Bin Sultan, the son of the would-be king, but that crown prince died before he became king and his son Bandar failed in his venture in Syria and missed out.

When the highly ambitious MBS found himself in a position that can secure his ascension to the throne, he had to make sure that nothing and no one stood in the way.

But ambition does not seem to be the only thing on MBS’s mind. The man does seem to have the attributes of a nation-builder; for better or for worse.

MBS is certainly trying to change the face of Saudi Arabia. As a matter of fact, he already has.

The recent arrests of top notch princes and government officials can indeed be seen as a crackdown on corruption as MBS claims. But the bigger message that MBS is giving his cousins is that he is the boss, and he can throw anyone in jail; and none is bigger than Al-Walid Bin Talal.

Al-Walid is incidentally not only the grandson of founding King Abdul-Aziz, but his mother is Lebanese, and his maternal grandfather is Lebanon’s first post-independence Prime Minister Riyad Al-Solh. Al-Walid was never interested in politics. He is perhaps the richest Saudi prince at a net worth estimated to exceed USD 50 bn. His interest is in business and in spending most of his life on board of one of his yachts in the Mediterranean. He is the status symbol of how “successful” and powerful a Saudi prince can be, and if anyone in the whole world can touch him and put him behind bars, it is MBS, and he did. The irony is that no clear charges have been laid; and this cements the theory that MBS is mainly trying to set into concrete the rules of the pecking order.

And former King Abdullah, who was endearingly called Abu Mutiib by those close to him, and this is in reference to his eldest son, well, where is Mutiib now? In jail with his cousin Al-Walid. If King Abdullah could have a sneak look from his grave, he would not recognize the royal court that he departed from less than 3 years ago.

And as events develop quickly, we learn that Aziz Bin Fahed, son of former King Fahed, has been killed in a gunfight between his body guards and police forces who were trying to apprehend him.

What we are witnessing in Saudi Arabia is nothing short of a coup d’etat.

No Saudi prince has ever been jailed in Saudi Arabia before; with the exception of Faisal Bin Musaed who killed his uncle the then King Faisal.

Even if there is a faint whim floating around in Saudi Arabia saying that princes are now facing accountability and can stand trial for corruption, then MBS has already done a great reform. This is because for decades, Saudi princes were above the law and above other humans and their rights in a manner that is fairly akin to their pre-democracy European predecessors.

Back to whether or not cruel monstrous men are capable of doing any good, and apart from his insane cruelty to the people of Yemen and bitter hatred to Shiite Islam and insatiable thirst for power, is MBS doing any good at all?

Well, he is going to allow Saudi women to drive and go to sporting stadiums. He is planning to dismantle the Shariah police (Mutawea). He commissioned a committee of clerics to review the Hadith of Prophet Mohamed PBUH in an attempt to remove any interpretations that can lead to violence. He is pushing for moderate Islam, and he is bringing accountability to the house of Saud. For someone who is not very familiar with Saudi Arabia this may not sound like much, but for fairness to MBS, such steps were utterly inconceivable just a few months ago.

His dream city project “Neom” is portrayed in its advertisement as a modern city with women not wearing Hijab. Perhaps MBS is a visionary and a nation builder. Perhaps he has a sound long-term vision to modernize Saudi Arabia as he claimed many times that he would. Perhaps he is so determined to lift Saudi Arabia from the doldrums of Wahhabism into modernity, and he realizes that the only way to do that is to remove all of the obstacles; including many royals who support the old ways.

This article is not an attempt to praise MBS, because perhaps also he is only a power monger. Mass genocidal murderers cannot be praised. That said, the dark side of people should not totally mask the bright side; if there is a bright side at all.

MBS is now in an ideologically paradoxical situation with one foot that is allegedly deeply entrenched into modernizing and reforming Saudi Arabia, and another foot that is sinking in the war in Yemen, a war that is based on the hatred and prejudices of the old ways that he is claiming he is trying to change. He has to make up his mind and stop being enigmatic, and if he truly wants to be the reformer who will be marked in history as the one who miraculously reformed the seemingly irreformable kingdom, he must first and foremost end the war on Yemen, respect the Yemenis political choices, and send the Yemenis reparations, food, medicines and aid instead of bombs.

Last but not least, speaking of reform, there is no bigger and more urgent reform that the Muslim World needs than mending the Sunni-Shiite divide and which has been growing into a hugely dangerous rift that can set the whole region ablaze and make the wars we have seen recently in the area as only a prelude. Under the excuse of blaming the West and the “divide-and-conquer” strategy, the Muslim World keeps feeding the dispute that was based on the succession of Prophet Mohamed PBUH. The least Sunnis and Shia can do is to agree to disagree and live in peace with each other instead of stoking wars and proxy wars all the while blaming Western interference for their own failures and hatred for each other.

But MBS is not giving the indication that he has the substance for reform of this caliber. He is one of those Muslim leaders who invite the West in and beg to buy arms from it in order to help him fight his rivals in the Muslim World.

The real question to ask is this; what is it really that MBS is after? Certainly, he is seeking ultimate and unrivaled power within Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, he is trying to modernize his kingdom and gain the support of the educated Saudi male youth and females, and this support should bolster his tenure on the throne. But if he wants to be the historic reformer that he makes out himself to be, he must realize that he cannot be both that and a bigot. There is no better way for reform for him to embark upon than breaking ranks with the American-Israeli camp and trying to make amends with Iran and put an end, once and for all, to the senseless Sunni-Shiite mutual fear and anxiety.

Will MBS be the man to take the conciliatory initiative with Iran? Unlikely. If anything, he is upscaling his anti-Iran stance and promising it war. Given his close American and Israeli links and his strategic reliance on American military hardware, he cannot break away even if he tries, and he will most likely implode, but his implosion can potentially bring down the Al-Saud dynasty with him. However, with MBS we have learnt to expect the unexpected, and the next surprise; positive or negative, can be just around the corner.

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