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Mohammed Bin Salman's Saudi Vision Will Have to Wait

The crown prince’s plans are threatened by a weak oil market, an oil war with Russia, and a shaky international reputation. But he’s not bothered by domestic criticism

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A man walks past a banner showing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, outside a mall in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, March 2020.
A man walks past a banner showing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, outside a mall in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, March 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Newcastle United soccer club has got a problem. Until recently, club owner Mike Ashley was certain that the deal for the sale of the club to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for 300 million pounds would go ahead smoothly. The paperwork was all ready to sign.

But then Amnesty International and human rights group Fair/Square Projects protested to British Premier League chief Richard Masters that the deal did not meet the criteria for approval of club owners to be members of the league. Fair/Square argued that the crown prince could use his power to influence another club, Sheffield United, which is owned by another Saudi royal, Prince Abdullah, and that the crown prince’s conduct could hurt the U.K. regardless of whether he is convicted of a crime.

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This argument was referring, of course, to Prince Mohammed’s alleged involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two years ago. In an interview with the BBC, Fair/Square director Nicholas McGeehan said the U.S. Senate had unanimously decided that the crown prince was responsible for the Khashoggi murder and that the UN’s special investigator had also implicated him in the murder.

“Not only is bin Salman in a position of extreme control over Prince Abdullah, but we know for a well-documented fact that he has used his power ruthlessly to effectively shake down other princes, irrespective of his family ties to them,” McGeehan told the BBC. “We know bin Salman is a close ally of Mohammed bin Zayed, who effectively runs Abu Dhabi and controls Manchester City so it’s not just Sheffield United.”

Another argument being made against Mohammed is that the BEOUT network, which broadcasts via the Saudi-controlled Arabsat satellite, stole the English League broadcasts from the Qatari BEIN network, which holds the Middle East broadcast rights for the league. Even though a survey of Newcastle fans found that 96 percent supported the Saudi deal, the crown prince still would need the approval of the Premier League management, which in February asked the U.S. to place Saudi Arabia on a watch list for the pirating of sports content. Consequently, Newcastle’s owner has apparently decided to seek another buyer and to let Prince Mohammed go hunt for another club.

The crown prince’s quest to buy Newcastle was part of his effort to improve Saudi Arabia’s global image, a campaign that has included revoking the ban on women driving, construction and modernization of cultural venues, clipping the wings of the morality police and expanding the range of professions available to women. But such moves have not softened the U.S. Congress’ stance against him or removed its threat to impose sanctions, including the withdrawal of American forces from Saudi Arabia, because of his culpability in the Khashoggi murder and in the killing of tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians in a war that has been raging for five years with no end in sight.

This is a bipartisan position, despite President Donald Trump’s strong support for Prince Mohammed. But apparently even this support has its limits. Last month, Reuters broke the story about a phone call from Trump in early April in which the president warned the crown prince that if he did not ensure a cutback in oil production and a rise in oil prices on the world market, Trump would have a hard time preventing Congress from legislating the removal of American forces from Saudi Arabia.

Trump and Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.
Trump and Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

Lo and behold, within 10 days, Saudi Arabia and Russia, whose competition had caused the dramatic drop in oil prices, reached an agreement to substantially reduce the amount of oil they would sell. The U.S. does not need the Saudi oil, but oil-producing states like Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota were badly hurt by the plunging prices and pressed Trump to intervene. The shale oil producers helping to free the U.S. from dependence on Arab oil also need a price of $50 a barrel to reach profitability. There was an evidently justified fear that Moscow and Riyadh had colluded to dent shale oil production by lowering their profits.

The tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is not threatening their ties, which go back 75 years, but it is heating up at a time when the crown prince is grappling with one of the worst economic crises the kingdom has seen in decades. Besides the oil war with Russia, which hurt state revenues, the coronavirus pandemic has shrunk global oil demand and reduced the oil market for Saudi Arabia (as it has for all the oil producers). In March, the kingdom’s foreign currency reserves had plummeted by $27 billion, prompting Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan to announce that the kingdom would have to adopt a belt-tightening policy and borrow $50 billion from international finance institutions.

This policy was manifested this month when the government announced that as of June, it would not pay workers a cost-of-living allowance; that it was freezing several major projects, some that were included in the Saudi Vision 2030 strategic plan, like the construction of NEOM, “the city of the future;” and that value-added tax, or VAT, would jump from 5 to 15 percent, causing prices to rise without any compensation for wages.

Prince Mohammed then received a resounding slap from his friend Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, who immediately announced that he would not raise the VAT, signaling to investors that they ought to withdraw their investments from Saudi Arabia and transfer them to his country. At the same time, the Saudi national oil company, Aramco, announced that its profits had fallen by 25 percent in the first quarter of the year, meaning the Saudi government cannot expect to receive as much tax revenue as anticipated.

A Saudi man stands in front of a screen of stock prices in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 15, 2020.
A Saudi man stands in front of a screen of stock prices in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 15, 2020.Credit: Ahmed Yosri/ REUTERS

Unfazed by criticism

These new measures are roiling social media in Saudi Arabia, where critics are decrying the expected blow to the poorer classes while the crown prince is seen as busy buying an English soccer team for a fortune at the Saudi citizen’s expense. One Twitter account posted a caricature of Prince Mohammed squeezing the juice out of a Saudi citizen, while another posted: “Saudi Arabia’s economic crisis is the result of a series of decisions made by bin Salman since he came to power, without planning and without research… Now the citizen bears the brunt of the state’s failure.” 

The account’s owner was apparently not worried about the new directive issued by the state prosecutor’s office forbidding the publication of secret documents or information, with violators subject to 20 years in prison and a fine of one million riyals (over a quarter of a million dollars). The regulation does not clarify what constitutes secret information and whether that includes an opinion or analysis of the kingdom’s sorry state.

Prince Mohammed isn’t too fazed by the domestic criticism against which he deploys his security forces, or by criticism from the West. The occasional bones he throws to human rights activists, like commutation of the death penalty for someone who committed a crime while a minor, or easing interrogation conditions for criminals, are instantly negated by the draconian restrictions that shut journalists’ mouths, the arrest of civil rights activists and a record 184 executions in 2019.

So far, the reign of fear he has introduced has afforded him immunity from clashes with rivals, including members of the royal family and some of his close relatives. Over 20 years ago, a new generation of rulers, like the king of Jordan, the king of Morocco and the president of Syria fueled hopes that these young leaders, all in their thirties then, would institute democratic regimes (or at least regimes that were more open and transparent), that they would adopt policies to protect human rights and carry out major economic reforms. Now the next generation of leaders that includes 39-year-old Qatari ruler Tamim bin Hamad and 34-year-old Prince Mohammed is showing yet again that political tradition is stronger than any new spirit.

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