The Saudi auto-coup

Thirty-two year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has taken on a lot:

  • Domestic political and economic reforms, including partial privatization of Aramco, allowing women to drive, and shifting the economy away from oil and gas;
  • The war in Yemen against the Houthi takeover of part of the country, in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and with sometimes reluctant support from the US;
  • A major diplomatic spat with Qatar over its alleged support of terrorists;
  • Removal of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri to protest Iran’s influence there;
  • Arrest of rival princes for corruption.

What could go wrong?

Each of these moves may have virtues. Certainly Saudi Arabia needs reforms to get it into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. The Houthis overreached and merit comeuppance. Qatar’s financial empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood has caused problems for Bahrain, Egypt and Syria. Iran-sponsored Hizbollah is an armed non-state actor within a state that merits opposition. Corruption is endemic in the Kingdom and needs countering.

But each also poses problems. The “Saudi Vision 2030” reforms that MbS has proposed are far-reaching, but implementation is likely to be problematic and lag. The war in Yemen is causing massive civilian suffering and political division. It will be difficult if not impossible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The blockade against Qatar has drive Doha in the direction of Ankara and Tehran, rather than bringing it back into the Gulf orbit. Hariri was a weak reed, but now there is none. Lebanese are united in wanting his return, which the State Department also supports. Countering corruption only among your political opponents is not a good way to clean up a system.

One other, less visible but important, initiative is the Saudi rapprochement with Israel, which shares the Kingdom’s hostility towards Iran. How far can this go? What are its implications for the geopolitics of the region?

But most of all: doing all these things at once, without ample consultation even within the royal family, is far from the Kingdom’s cautious tradition. A 32-year-old Crown Prince undertaking it amounts to an auto-coup: a takeover by someone already in power.

Some will argue that is the only way to get things done. The parallel to President Trump’s efforts to upset the apple cart in the US is obvious. It is no surprise that the White House (in the person of Jared Kushner) apparently encouraged the arrest of the royal opponents, and maybe even the resignation of Hariri, making the State Department statement against it moot. But how is Trump’s radical program working out in the US? The repudiation Trump suffered Tuesday in America’s equivalent of by elections was massive, even if concentrated in blue states (one-purple Virginia, New Jersey, and New York).

Of course there will be no voting in Saudi Arabia to test MbS’s initiatives. The consequences are likely to be less visible, at least initially, and possibly less peaceful, eventually. MbS has taken big risks for big gains. Pay day, if it happens, is still a long way off.

 

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