The Destabilizing and Reckless Mohammed bin Salman
Iyad el-Baghdadi reviews Mohammed bin Salman’s record and finds it severely lacking:
In short, the crown prince is promising economic reform while imprisoning economic reformers; he’s promising religious reform while imprisoning religious reformers; he’s promising social reform while imprisoning leading feminists. As he silences the once dynamic Saudi public sphere, note how these voices are being replaced: thousands of bots are flooding Saudi social media, many with pictures of the crown prince, cheering his every move.
The decision-making of the world’s largest oil exporter is now in the hand of a small number of individuals with no consultative process in place, and with dissenters immediately jailed.
Many of the crown prince’s big moves have deteriorated into protracted wars of attrition, such as the war in Yemen or the feud with Qatar. His mass arrest of the leading women’s rights activists is another potential quagmire.
Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has proven himself to be very good at picking fights and grabbing power, but so far those are just about the only things that he has been able to do successfully. The atrocious war on Yemen is now over three years old, which is three years longer than the Saudis and their allies expected it would last. The war has thus far failed to achieve any of the coalition’s stated goals, it has been marred by thousands of war crimes committed by coalition forces, and it has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Qatar crisis has dragged on for more than a year, and in that time the Saudi-led bloc’s efforts to bully Qatar into submission have backfired about as badly as they could have. Qatar has not only rejected the bloc’s demands, but has improved relations with Iran and Turkey in a pointed rebuke to Saudi and Emirati wishes. Inept, heavy-handed Saudi meddling in Lebanon redounded to the benefit of Hizbullah and its allies. The crown prince’s only notable foreign policy achievement has been to cultivate the easy marks in the Trump administration, who have foolishly bound themselves and the U.S. to the crown prince’s fortunes. Even when MbS delivers on promised modest changes inside Saudi Arabia, he makes a mockery of those changes by locking up the activists that supported them. He has made many enemies with his hasty and reckless behavior, and those enemies can only be encouraged when they see that he doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.
Many foreign pundits and journalists may bend over backwards to flatter and spin for the crown prince, but foreign investors are not nearly as enthusiastic. As el-Baghdadi notes, the supposed “anti-corruption” purge last fall probably contributed to the slump in foreign investment in the kingdom:
His recent shakedown of leading business figures had nothing to do with the rule of law and may have spooked investors. Recent figures show that foreign direct investment hit a 14-year low in Saudi Arabia last year (compared to an 8 percent rise in the neighboring United Arab Emirates).
Investors typically crave stability, and Mohammed bin Salman’s behavior over the last year has done nothing to reassure them that the kingdom is a good investment.
The crown prince’s Western fans have spent months building him up and celebrating his agenda before he had succeeded at anything beyond taking more power for himself. It should start dawning on them sooner or later that their enthusiasm wasn’t just premature but also entirely misplaced.