MBS: From Prophet to Pariah?

Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman

If, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once quipped, a week is a long time in politics, a year is an age. Almost twelve months to the day that King Salman announced that women would be allowed to drive in the Kingdom, reports emerged of the disappearance of Saudi journalist and newly-turned critic, Jamal Khashoggi, after he entered a Saudi consulate in Istanbul for an administrative errand. Hopes for a new, more liberal, more tolerant Saudi Arabia under the auspices of King Salman’s son, and effective Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) took a nosedive with Saudi authorities unable to provide answers, and Turkish authorities claiming to have incontrovertible evidence of Khashoggi’s murder inside the consulate.

Khashoggi has by no means been the only cause for concern; the arrest of women’s rights activists and the continuing war in Yemen also contribute to a less than rosy picture of the political dynamics within Riyadh. The backlash has been formidable, and perhaps surprisingly vituperative, with a major investment conference planned for late-October in Riyadh suffering from withdrawals by numerous media outlets and prospective investors. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, said `what has reportedly happened in Turkey… would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government`. Even the White House, not a bastion of human rights concerns under the current occupant, has threatened `severe punishment`.

The outrage will continue for a period; it will reach new heights if, as Turkish authorities claim, evidence becomes undeniable that Khashoggi indeed expired inside the Saudi consulate. The US may be forced into limited sanctions against the Kingdom and a diplomatic slap on the Crown Prince’s wrist. But it will likely subside – the economic opportunities, and the social and political prospects are too great.

The world has long called for a revolution in the Kingdom, where the state of women’s rights would make even some medieval polities blush

The world has long called for a revolution in the Kingdom, where the state of women’s rights would make even some medieval polities blush – Saudi law requires that all females have a male guardian. In recent years Saudi Arabia has executed people for sorcery and witchcraft, and in early 2018 it was reported by Human Rights Watch that the Kingdom beheaded a number of people convicted for non-violent drug charges. A picture can easily be painted of an almost fictional dystopia of ruthless, and absurd, theocratic oppression.

And a revolution is exactly what the world is getting from Crown Prince MBS. In the past year, the Crown Prince has lifted the ban on women driving, improved relations with Israel, increased the presence of women in the workforce, opened cinemas and other cultural events and clipped the wings of the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, an Orwellian authority which patrolled the streets ensuring strict adherence to medieval morality. He appears to want to accelerate this process through his ambitious project, Vision 2030. In the forward he writes “our Vision is a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method. We will welcome qualified individuals from all over the world and will respect those who have come to join our journey and our success”.

But revolutions come with excesses. Whether it’s the guillotines of France, the cultural devastation of China, the mass starvation of the Soviet Union, the combination of revolutionary fervour, hubris, power and, particularly in the case of MBS, youthful impetuousness (the Crown Prince is 33) inevitably produces an often-horrifying collateral damage. MBS is not Robespierre, nor is he Mao or Stalin. The list of revolutionary excesses is long – the war in Yemen, the bizarre and seemingly coerced resignation (and then deresignation) of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the arrest of women’s rights activists, the incarceration of 200 prominent Saudis at the Ritz-Carlton, the continuing executions, and now the disappearance of Khashoggi. But, unlike that of many other revolutionaries, the vision of the Crown Prince is genuinely commendable.

The list of revolutionary excesses is long… but, unlike that of many other revolutionaries, the vision of the Crown Prince is genuinely commendable.

Nevertheless, his worst excesses must be curbed. It is likely that the backlash he is suffering will already have done this; however, limited, and targeted action by Western governments, and a public reprimand would be appropriate. If Khashoggi was executed at the behest of the Saudi authorities, as now appears the case, it would be an egregious act. Yet in the cruel, unforgiving world of international politics, the best must not be the enemy of the good. Regimes have committed far worse, and responses have been far feebler. Private assurances should, and most likely will, be given to the Crown Prince that the West supports him in his vision for the Kingdom, with the realistic alternative being the reimposition of a Salafist theocratic state.

Revolutionary aspirations, combined with monarchical power and youthful recklessness, is a recipe for behaviour of the kind emanating from Riyadh. Still, the world will mourn its short-sightedness in decades to come if it fails to assist the Crown Prince in dragging his recalcitrant Kingdom kicking and screaming a dozen-plus centuries into the twenty-first.