The deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was in Washington last week, arousing all the usual questions about what is going on in his country. Is it stable? Is the crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, in good health? Has the deputy crown prince, who is the son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, already eclipsed the crown prince, the king’s nephew? Nobody knows for sure, of course, but Saudi watchers and other observers keep trying to guess anyway.
Saudi-ology seems infinitely more difficult than Sovietology. During the Cold War analysts sought to divine what was happening behind the Kremlin’s walls based on pictures or videos of who was standing near the Soviet leader during public events, which officials waved to a crowd, and who among them smiled. The speculation about Saudi politics is often based on which courtier of which prince or official whispered what to a Western interlocutor. Some of what we learn about Saudi Arabia this way may be accurate, but often it seems more akin to the children’s game of my youth, telephone. By the time the nugget of alleged information reaches the end of the line, it has been so wildly distorted that it usually bears little or no resemblance to what was originally communicated. When it comes to Mohammed bin Salman—who is either twenty-nine, thirty, or thirty-one years old—this game has taken on a new urgency because he has accumulated so much power at a tender age in such a short period of time. The deputy crown prince, or MbS as he has come to be known in these parts and others, is also, among many other things, minister of defense and aviation, secretary-general of the Royal Court, minister of state, special advisor to the king, and chair of the Council on Economic and Development Affairs. Based on the number of positions and titles Mohammed bin Salman has, he definitely seems like a good bet to be the one to succeed his father, not the current crown prince. That said, Mohammed bin Salman reminds me of another Middle Eastern heir apparent: Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mohammed bin Salman and Gamal Mubarak have very different upbringings and backgrounds, and whereas Mubarak ultimately proved unable to bring Gamal, who was the most powerful person in the then-ruling National Democratic Party, to power, King Salman seems to have the resources necessary to make the deputy crown prince his successor. There are, however, enough similarities to make the analogy interesting. Here I am not talking about the somewhat amusing and trivial facts of both men’s circumstances: they are both favorite sons, whose political power is (or, in Gamal’s case, was) based on this fact; they both have cutesy nicknames (the aforementioned “MbS” and “Jimmy,” respectively); and neither had a lot of political experience before becoming one of the most significant political actors in their respective countries. At a more important analytic level, like Gamal before him, Mohammed bin Salman has been placed in charge of the transformation of his country. I presume some journalists and commentators might describe Mohammed bin Salman as a “disrupter.” The term has a positive connotation in a breathlessly clichéd, Silicon Valley kind of way, but like Gamal before him, Mohammed bin Salman and his project for Saudi Arabia may very well prove destabilizing for the country.
Part of the reason why Mohammed bin Salman traveled to Washington, DC, and other parts of the United States was to sell U.S. officials and investors on something called Vision 2030. The broad goals of the project are the modernization, rationalization, and diversification of the Saudi economy. More specifically, the plan envisions the transformation of Saudi Arabia into an “investment powerhouse” and the country’s development as an “epicenter” of trade and commerce. Vision 2030 also seeks to improve the performance of the Saudi bureaucracy, permanently reduce subsidies, and loosen social strictures in an effort to entice Saudis to spend more on entertainment within the country rather than in neighboring countries, Europe, or the United States. The part of the plan that has received the most attention from the press and the analytic community is the planned privatization of some parts of Saudi Aramco and its downstream enterprises. In an effort to provide momentum for Vision 2030, King Salman made critical changes to the Council of Ministers—most notably, longtime Minister of Petroleum Ali al-Naimi was retired, and Khaled al-Faleh, who had been the chairman of Saudi Aramco, was placed in charge of a new Ministry of Energy, Industry, and Natural Resources, which will have responsibility not just for Saudi oil policy, but also the exploitation of the country’s gold, phosphate, uranium, and other resources. In addition, the king ordered changes to the leadership of the Ministry of Commerce and Trade as well as the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency. Both Saudi and Western analysts understood these changes to be at the behest of the deputy crown prince.
Mohammed bin Salman’s plan is similar in aims, if not substance, to Gamal Mubarak’s highly touted “New Thinking and Priorities.” Middle East analysts and financial service industry types are focused on the details of Vision 2030, but set them aside and it is abundantly clear that Mohammed bin Salman has a broader goal than making Saudi Arabia a global center for investment, trade, and commerce. Like what Gamal proposed for Egypt in 2004, Mohammed bin Salman intends to restructure the way things get done in Riyadh. That may very well be a good thing. No one ever held out Saudi Arabia’s decision-making process as a model of efficiency, but it managed to maintain what Saudi officials and their international partners have long cherished—stability.
I am told that Saudi leaders have approached major policy issues often-times through protracted consensus-building negotiations among members of the royal family, heeding the concerns of major tribal leaders and paying attention to the sensitivities of religious constituencies on policy issues of major importance. The unwritten exigency of consultation with the king’s disparate, and at times implicitly hostile, constituencies tends to constrain policy options, but also keep the peace. According to Saudis, without this consultation, the cohesion and stability of the kingdom would be in jeopardy.
It seems that Mohammed bin Salman has tossed this process aside and moved forward with Vision 2030 with little regard for the impact it will have on the vested interests associated with the status quo. This is risky in a country where royals and officials place an emphasis on consensus to ensure their own equities. The deputy crown prince no doubt has the backing of his father, which may be all that he needs, but he is in a race against time. No one knows how long King Salman will live—there are widely divergent and mostly uninformed reports of his health—so it seems that Mohammed bin Salman must make haste. He has to use the opportunity he now has to force change and build his own foundations of support before his father, who is his power base, dies. The deputy crown prince may have other royals and officials on the defensive, but it would be odd to believe that he has already won the game. Politics, especially royal politics, are exceedingly difficult to see clearly in Saudi Arabia, but it is entirely plausible to believe that they may get in the way of Mohammed bin Salman’s grand plans.
Like Gamal Mubarak, who seemed to be the heir apparent and among the most powerful people in Egypt during the last decade of his father’s rule, Mohammed bin Salman seems well placed to outmaneuver his cousin, the crown prince, to become Saudi Arabia’s next king. Analysts, journalists, and government officials should not settle on this scenario, however. Neither Gamal Mubarak nor Omar Suleiman, the other contender for power in Egypt, ended up in the chair after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011. And no one ever imagined that Mubarak’s successor would be a Muslim Brother. The fact that all this came to pass in Egypt was in part because Gamal was a “disrupter” whose policy proposals (some of which were pursued) and goals for the country proved highly destabilizing both for Egyptian society and, importantly, the primary constituents of the regime. Unlike Egypt’s military officers, the Saudi royals, officials, and business elite who are on the losing end of Vision 2030 do not have guns and thus do not have the ability to push King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman from power. Yet they do have the ability to drag their feet, bend, deflect, and otherwise try to undermine aspects of the plan they do not like and diminish the deputy crown prince in the process. In that case, the accumulation of Saudi Arabia’s socioeconomic problems will continue adding to already uncertain political dynamics associated with Vision 2030.
Rather than thinking about Saudi Arabia as either stable or unstable, it may be time to start thinking about its relative instability. There have been highly touted Saudi economic development plans that have failed before—does anyone remember the alleged transformation that the late King Abdullah’s plans for economic cities were supposed to have wrought? Mohammed bin Salman’s vision is grand and, yes, disruptive enough that it is important to consider the consequences of Vision 2030’s failure not just for the man, but Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more broadly. A destabilized Saudi Arabia is something we have never known and I am willing to wager would not be pretty.