Saudi ‘game of thrones’ consolidates autocracy


The appointment of Mohammad bin Salman, 31, as Saudi Arabia’s next king will accelerate his radical reform and further solidify the U.S.-Saudi partnership, says analyst Karen Elliott House, author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines-and Future. King Salman’s long-anticipated decision to name his son crown prince almost certainly is intended to present a unified face to the kingdom’s adversaries, especially Iran—and to bolster U.S. support for a more assertive Riyadh, she writes for The Wall Street Journal:

Because Mohammed bin Salman has already been setting policy almost single-handedly, his elevation isn’t likely to lead to any sharp changes at home, where he is pressing an ambitious agenda to wean the Kingdom off declining oil revenues and create a private-sector led economy. His reform plan, known as Vision 2030, is revolutionary. Out with government dependence; in with self-reliance. Out with antimodernist Wahhabi dogma and in with moderation.

“This is a consolidation of power in the hands of one member of the family that is unprecedented since the founding of the modern kingdom,” said Gregory Gause, a professor at Texas A & M University.

“Given how low oil prices are, how unsettled the politics of the Middle East are, and how many members of the ruling family have now been cut out of any element of political power, it is a dangerous time for Saudi Arabia,” he told The Financial Times. 

Whether the bin Salmans can keep the line of succession is a question that will engage the entire royal family, but presumably need not be faced for decades, Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams writes for the National Review:

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is about the only country on earth whose likely ruler for the next half-century can now be identified. And that man, MbS, has plenty to worry about. The Saudi population is now over 30 million and, as noted, skews young, but is ill-trained for modern jobs. Forbes reported last December that “Unemployment in Saudi Arabia rose to 12.1% in the third quarter of the year, marking a four-year high. And although the labour force participation rate of Saudis rose to a record level of 42%, most jobs that are being created are going to expatriates.” Oil revenues have of course sunk as oil prices declined by half in the last few years, and the kingdom runs a budget deficit; it was $79 billion last year. Saudi reserves, once over $730 billion, have now sunk to under $500 billion and are still falling.  

MbS has a plan to deal with all of this, called Saudi Vision 2030, and the goal is right: Move from an oil-only economy into a more normal and diversified one, meanwhile loosening some of the strictures (on women, for example) that have held the kingdom back, notes Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

A series of other new appointments of individual princes also in their thirties suggests a complete generational makeover of a system previously dominated by royals marked by age and experience, notes The Washington Institute’s Simon Henderson, coauthor of its 2017 Transition Paper “Rebuilding Alliances and Countering Threats in the Gulf:”

Additionally, the new appointments acknowledge legacy bloodlines. The Ministry of Interior has been passed to a nephew of MbN. Another person promoted is the son of the former Saudi ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan — Khaled bin Bandar is the new ambassador to Germany. (MbS’s own younger brother is already the newly arrived incumbent in DC.) … But sharp differences remain between the U.S. and Saudi positions on certain issues, including Yemen and — apparently — Qatar. Future ties will not necessarily be harmonious.


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