Opinion

The Dangerous Game of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince

Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms have won global praise, but they may also pave the way to autocracy and regional war

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in London on March 7, 2018.
\ SIMON DAWSON/ REUTERS

The 19th century statesman and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville once remarked that the most dangerous moment for despotic regimes is when they try to carry out reforms. The traditional norms and institutions no longer function, while those that are meant to replace them have yet to become established. He was basically referring to changes that King Louis XVI wanted to introduce in the absolute monarchy, and which led to the violence of the French Revolution and in the end to the execution of the king himself.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

A more proximate example is the attempts by Mikhail Gorbachev to carry out far-reaching reforms in the Soviet regime, which led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the ousting of Gorbachev himself from the government. It is quite possible that the steps of the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are liable to lead to similar unexpected results.

Thanks to its tremendous oil wealth, until now Saudi Arabia has been able to disperse huge sums of money among broad swathes of its population, and to maintain the extreme fundamentalist regime, based on the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

Hundreds of members of the Saudi royal family have been transformed from desert sheiks to business moguls who are active in the international financial playing field; and even many ordinary Saudis enjoyed an unprecedented standard of living and social security. The sons of the dynasty founder Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud, who established the kingdom – which, according to the best Arab tradition, is named Saudi Arabia after its founder – inherited the throne one after another, while turning the kingdom into a central player in the regional arena and the international financial system.

The steep decline in oil prices and the shockwaves that followed the Arab Spring – which led to the fall of the rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and challenged the rule of the Assad family in Syria – were a sign that Saudi Arabia is also in need of change, if only in order to prevent upheavals.

Mohammed bin Salman won praise worldwide when he declared that he intended to allow women to drive, and at the same time reduced the powers of the Saudi religious police, one of whose jobs was to enforce the dress code in the public space, especially for women. These were unquestionably positive steps, as were his declarations that he intended to lead Saudi Arabia to practice a less fanatic and more tolerant interpretation of Islam, in terms of its attitude towards Christians and Jews, among other things.

Even statements attributed to him on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and reports of Saudi willingness to cooperate with Israel, as limited and clandestine as this may be, were justly appreciated in the West and in Israel. The same is true of his plans to free Saudi Arabia from its exclusive dependence on oil revenues.

But other steps by the crown prince are problematic. The arrest of hundreds of leading Saudis, including dozens of princes and prominent businessmen, among them several with international status, are presented as a “war against corruption” and were also positively received in intellectual circles in Saudi Arabia itself.

But this is a campaign that is being waged without any relation to the law or to civil rights – for one because Saudi Arabia lacks any orderly system of laws, and the arrests are not subject to any organized judicial system. The claim that this is the way to restore to the state treasury billions of dollars that were illegally looted is of course popular, but the practical meaning of these steps is the concentration of tremendous economic power in the hands of the crown prince himself, effectively turning him into a sole and autocratic ruler, which was never the case in the kingdom.

Already now the crown prince is also serving as deputy prime minister, chairman of the economic council and defense minister. Until now Saudi Arabia had a decentralized government system, which placed very broad powers in the hands of a number of princes, making the king perhaps the first among equals, but not a sole ruler.

The crown prince, who is supposed to assume the throne upon the death of his elderly and ill father, is already now conducting the business of the kingdom without any restrictions. Saudi Arabia lacks elected or representative institutions, and he is clearly doing nothing to encourage the development of such institutions. He is undoubtedly a reformer, but these are reforms at the end of which he will be the sole ruler of the country.

His aggressive approach to domestic issues also characterizes his approach to foreign relations. He has harshened the rhetoric and policy toward Iran, thereby intensifying the Sunni-Shi’ite rift in the region. Notwithstanding the support these moves won from Sunni countries such as Egypt and Jordan, as well as the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, these actions have not been a success story and leave open the question of whether the crown prince’s behavior is contributing to stability in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s massive intervention in the complex civil war in Yemen has proven to be a dismal failure, causing the death of thousands and triggering a humanitarian disaster, which has exposed millions of Yemenites to the danger of starvation. The Saudi boycott and the siege imposed on Qatar – a small but wealthy emirate that is unwilling to accept Saudi dictates – were unsuccessful, and even boomeranged. Meanwhile, the brutal attempt to oust Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, with methods that are reminiscent of Cesare Borgia, ended with a resounding farce.

It’s hard to know where Saudi Arabia is heading under the rule of Mohammed bin Salman, and we must not be satisfied with applauding steps such as granting drivers’ licenses to women or a espousing a viewpoint more comfortable for Israel. If the crown prince succeeds in his moves, they will lead to the rise of another authoritarian dictatorship in the Arab world, which may be less religiously extreme but will be more similar to the regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

We won’t see the birth of a freer and more liberal Saudi Arabia even if women are able to drive cars. On the other hand, Bin Salman’s aggressive moves may lead to resistance from the elites that he is now trying to crush – princes and other influential people – or even from the considerable Shi’ite minority in the eastern part of the kingdom, which is likely to seek a military or political patron for itself in Iran.

It’s also impossible to reject the possibility that Saudi Arabia – a country composed of regions that differ in nature, which were united into a single political entity only by fusing the Ibn Saud dynasty with Wahhabism – will disintegrate into its historic components, as happened and is happening in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. The political solidarity of many Arab countries is fragile and doesn’t always withstand crises.

It is also possible that the behavior of the crown prince will lead to an armed confrontation with Iran, during which there is no doubt that Iran will defeat Saudi Arabia, which despite all its advanced American equipment is militarily weak and has almost no real army. We can only hope that such a confrontation, if it takes place, won’t drag the region into a more comprehensive war, and it’s important for Israel’s leaders to be aware of that.