There is something almost clichéd in the urge to put a politician on the psychoanalyst’s couch in order to try to decipher his motives; to ask the elementary questions about his childhood traumas, the formative experiences of his youth, his relationship with a domineering father, the power entrusted to him all at once, the psychological effects of his failures.
These questions can be asked about almost any political leader, and they do not in themselves imply any kind of pathology. It is obvious that a leader is the product of his childhood landscape, and that his political biography is bound up with his personal biography. The pathology, of course, arises from the answers, and that is especially the case when the subject is the career of a young man, all of 37 years old, who holds in the palm of his hands one of the most promising, and least fulfilling, countries of our time.
Muhammad ibn Salman ibn Abd al-Aziz al-Saud (MBS) will shortly, perhaps very shortly, be king of Saudi Arabia. His father, King Salman, will soon be 88. King Salman’s predecessor died aged 90, but his predecessor’s predecessors generally failed to live past 80. When the crown is laid on his head, MBS will be the youngest ever king of Saudi Arabia, and, given the average life expectancy of the House of Saud, it can be presumed that he will have 40 or even 50 years to reign.
MBS didn’t want to be “first among equals”
The day that he ascends the throne, it will not just be the identity of the king that will change; the political regime will change radically. Since it was founded, 90 years ago, and even more so since the death of its founder, Abd al-Aziz, Saudi Arabia has been an oligarchy, never a one-man dictatorship. Its kings have been “first among equals”, sometimes very first, but always collaborating and consulting. The circle of collaborators has always been small, sometimes very small.
Until 60 years ago, the participants were not just the princes of the House of Saud, but also the Ulama, the religious scholars of Sunni Islam. The circle then narrowed to the members of the extended family, and amounted to about 2,000 people. There was always some need to listen, to compromise, to consider, to proceed cautiously.
That is exactly what MBS regarded as a millstone around the kingdom’s neck. From the first day of his father’s reign, MBS strove to end the practice of government by broad consensus once and for all. He did so by the only means known to him, perhaps the only one available to him: methodically scaring off any real or imagined rival, big or small. He did that from day one, in 2015, even before his father deposed two crown princes one after another, and made him his heir.
This was the first time that one of the kingdom’s founding family had ever decided to bequeath the crown to his son. Before he died, Abd al-Aziz made his eldest sons, Saud and Faisal, swear to bequeath their crowns, when the day came, to their brothers, not to their sons. Since then, whenever a king died, his sons would immediately forego their right to succeed him, and the family would confirm the succession of the Crown Prince appointed by the late king. This arrangement became a tradition. The assumption was that the tradition would continue to be observed, because the kings of Saudi Arabia were acrobats walking a thin tightrope stretched over a deep and rocky abyss.
The oligarchy was a result of a tradition that began well before Saudi Arabia. It was characteristic of a tribal society. It became more and more difficult for it to remain compatible with the needs of a modern state.
Interestingly, King Salman has a particularly long record as an acrobat He was governor of Riyadh Province for nearly 40 years, and in that role he became intimately acquainted with the complexity of tribal society. His task was to mediate in disagreements and to take account of conflicts of interests. He was the guardian of the porcelain; his son is smashing it to smithereens.
This does not mean that he is not prepared to listen to advice. Two of his Western biographers, Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, write in their portrait of the Crown Prince “Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power”: “He surrounded himself with new advisers, some with little government background, and encouraged them to argue with him into the night on policy ideas.”
On the other hand, Hope and Scheck also describe his impatience: “He also spoke with mounting frustration about Saudi youth. ‘We are the ones who can decide the future of our generation,’ he said one night, an attendee recalls. ‘If we don’t step up, who else will?’”
During his years of de facto rule, MBS has made a series of colossal mistakes. Each one of them would have toppled any prince other than him from power.
He entangled Saudi Arabia in a pointless war in Yemen that was meant to end quickly and bring about Saudi hegemony in the Arabian peninsula, but that only succeeded in demonstrating his country’s military and moral weakness, and ended with no achievement whatsoever. He positioned himself in head-on confrontation with Iran in Yemen and in the Gulf, and was forced to capitulate. He zig-zagged on oil policy, got himself into conflict with the Russians, and then formed a united front with them, to the detriment of the West.
And of course, the biggest mistake of all, at least for public relations, was the shocking murder of exiled journalist and critic of the regime Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. MBS’s attempt to lay the blame on rogue intelligence agents met with universal incredulity. The CIA unequivocally pinned the responsibility on him.
But the US and the Western democracies could at most turn up their noses and grit their teeth. Brain-Dead Biden vowed in his 2020 election campaign to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah. In the end, however, in the second year of his presidency, in July 2022, he had to make the pilgrimage to Riyadh, and bump elbows with MBS. The prince treated him with undisguised coldness. Biden’s visit gave the Crown Prince the opportunity of demonstratively ignoring the US request for a change in its stance on oil prices, and, six months later, to show extraordinary public fondness for Chinese tyrant Xi Jinping, the bitter rival of the US.
Tyrants simply like tyrants
The US is very disturbed, not by the fondness itself, but by what it implies. It doesn’t take deep intuition to know that tyrants feel much better in the company of other tyrants. It often looks as though MBS studies Xi and imitates him.
Xi rose to power four years before MBS, and immediately began unprecedented purges of the most prominent people in every area of political and economic activity. The strongest people, natural candidates to succeed him, were put on trial for corruption, and thrown in prison for years. Some were executed. Xi set dramatic goals for Communist China, with target periods of a few years or two to three decades, and showed readiness to achieve them by any means. He started a cult of personality the like of which had not been seen since the days of Mao Tse Tung. He stifled any budding of resistance or independent thought.
It’s hardly any wonder that these two found pathways to each others’ hearts. The US started to suspect nuclear cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Communist China as long as six years ago. It could not guess, because no-one could have guessed, that out of this cooperation would develop the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, with proud Chinese mediation. That would not have happened unless MBS had reached the conclusion that the US was becoming ever weaker.
It started in September 2019
It seems that two events dictated the pace. First of all, there was the missile attack on Saudi oil terminals in the Gulf in September 2019, for which the Iranians may not have taken responsibility, but which no-one doubted was their doing. That was a formative event, one that brought home to the Saudis the weakness of the US commitment to their security. The next event was the humiliating capitulation of the US in Afghanistan, a strategic neighbor of Saudi Arabia on the other side of the Arabian Sea.
The question in Washington since then has been what to do to win back MBS’s trust. The answer now emerging is a military alliance in return for full recognition of Israel and detachment from Communist China. Washington is also giving MBS an opportunity to play the role of international statesman. Last week, a multi-national conference took place in Jeddah to discuss a peace plan for Ukraine, although the Russians refused to participate.
MBS is in a hurry. That is obvious from everything he has said and done or tried to do since 2016, when he became Crown Prince. He wants to construct huge cities in the midst of the desert that will be bigger than New York and will kickstart the future. He wants to construct an entrainment city bigger than Disney (Groomers) World on the Red Sea coast. He wants to build an entirely independent nuclear industry. He wants internal reform, including in social issues, as long as his total monopoly on political processes is not put in the slightest doubt.
MBS wants an ultra-modern society without granting it pluralism. Had he been in Europe a hundred years ago, we would have compared him to Benito Mussolini. Perhaps there really are grounds for a comparison. Perhaps MBS is about to give us the first totalitarian monarchy of our times. Many serious people, even liberals, admired Mussolini back then. It took them nearly twenty years to discover his shortcomings. For twenty years he gave the impression that he was someone to do business with, and that he was actually a pragmatic and rational person.
Then Mussolini became bored, and there is nothing more dangerous in our time than a bored fascist dictator.