Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Saudi Arabia’s Gamal Mubarak

by Steven A. Cook
June 20, 2016

Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reacts upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France (Charles Platiau/Reuters).

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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.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Patrick

    Classic DC think tank thought. Spend years exhorting Middle Eastern governments like Egypt or Saudi Arabia to reform, and when they begin to do just that at the hands of a new generation of leaders who may be related to the old generation, curse them for “destabilizing” the region. If you are a pro-Western government in the Middle East, you can’t win with these people. Egypt would have been so much better off had Gamal Mubarak or Omar Suleiman succeeded Hosni. That neither did, to the cheers of the DC think tank set, is a major reason for the position it finds itself in now. Hopefully MBS can steer KSA into a more positive future.

  • Posted by Essam Abdallah

    First of all, comparing Prince Mohamed Bin Salman to Mr. Gamal Mubarak on the basis of heredity is not accurate due to the fact that one country is a kingdom while the other is a military republic. In the first, heredity is the basis. Even though Mohamed bin Salman bypassed his cousin Prince Prince Amir Mohamed Bin Nayef, the movement within the system is based on its traditional mechanism. In the case of Gamal Mubarak, the fact that he was being groomed by the National Democratic Party ( and the unannounced endorsement of Mubarak himself and his cabinet) was being considered as a coup on the military system which had been ruling Egypt from July 1952 until the arrival of the Moslem Brotherhood President Morsi in 2012.

    Second, the events that took place from January 25, 2011 until the reign of the brotherhood was a kind of “political cleansing” the Egyptian military got rid of both, Mubarak’s rule and the Moslem Brotherhood, and the military establishment regained control through President Abdel Fattah El Seesi since 2013 until the present time. This can never happen under any circumstance with the ruling family in Saudi Arabia even if someone protested whether secretly or publicly and did not explicitly endorse Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, the powerful Defense minister whose strong personality and charisma inspire the Saudi youth who represent 70% of the population, and who is also the head of the Economic Group and also the main author/founder of the National Project for the Kingdom after the oil is all gone.

    Third, the 2030 outlook does not have any resemblance to what Gamal Mubarak was calling for in 2004 neither in causes or goals. As a matter of fact, it was on a collision course with two fronts in the Saudi Kingdom that are presently being reigned in : the businessmen who have been monopolizing the country’s economy and trade for years and the religious extremists, both of whom reject him for different reasons: the movement towards adopting the western model and free trade which would lead to political achievements in the direction of democracy and universal rule.

    Part or even all of the above leads to one of the most important ideas that Cook discussed in his article, namely, the necessity of considering or thinking of the “relative instability” not of simply stability or instability. Indeed, as Cook states, the repercussions of failure of the 2030 vision will affect all of the Middle East, including the vital interests of the USA in the regions in addition to its traditional allies. And here, the USA must not take a front seat and simply watch what’s going on in the “Middle East Field”, but it must show willingness to get truly involved in supporting the changes inside the Kingdom who happens to be its largest Arab Islamic (Sunni) ally when it comes to oil.

    Essam Abdallah, Writer, Political analyst, ex Professor in Ein-Shams University presently residing in the USA.

  • Posted by Omair Anas

    With or without Muhammad bin Salman,the Kingdom needs to rationalise and diversify it’s economy. Its stability depends not on the choice of a leader, rather a choice of a most viable economic template.The Royal family appears to have acknowledged the vulnerability of the rentier system, which is the basis of the justification for a convenient marriage between religious extremism and stability of the regime. With 2030 vision,the Kingdom may weaken the role of clerics in the running of the Kingdom. Since this change, already happening gradually, will allow youth and women to be the part of new economy,their sense of empowerment will be the basis of the new model for stability. Now the question is who among the two top leaders can execute this vision,I guess that the possibility of Muhammad bin Nayf stepsiding himself,can not be ruled out.

  • Posted by NadyaAlvardo

    I am not an expert i Saudi Arabia internal or external policies.I do like the idea of a new vision..for a better future and to think of a time period..having 2030 or 2035 givea a sense of progresive change The transformacion should center in a vision for a better structure of society created by the people for the people.
    To me this means that in the process all the different sectors of society will have the chance to speak and expose their ideas and vision.
    Only the country that takes in consideration the opinion of (if not all ) most of is citisens will be able to survive and prosper.
    As a society is all members of it..not just ..its rulers..The rulers are those that hold that positon becasue they have proven to be the best leaders to guide the comunity to its highest good..

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