MbS and the domestic front

Summary: Mohammed bin Salman has experienced both rebuffs and successes on the foreign front but it is how well he manages domestic issues that will determine his future and the future of the kingdom.

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We thank Kristian Coates Ulrichsen for today’s newsletter. Kristian is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East. Working across the disciplines of political science, international relations and international political economy, he has published extensively on the Gulf. His books include Insecure Gulf: the End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (Columbia University Press, 2011) Qatar and the Arab Spring (Oxford University Press, 2014), The Gulf States in International Political Economy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics, and Policymaking (Routledge, 2016). He is a regular contributor to the Arab Digest podcast.  His most recent podcast is available here.

A year has passed since Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election raised the prospect of a significantly different phase in U.S.-Saudi relations over the four-year period, one that might well see Mohammed bin Salman succeed his father as King of Saudi Arabia. As president, Biden has neither followed through on his campaign declaration that he would make the Saudi leadership “the pariah that they are” nor ended all aspects of U.S. support for military operations in Yemen, to the dismay of progressives in his own party. The first year of the Biden administration has arguably been toward the least-bad end of the spectrum the Saudi leadership might have expected when Biden took office ten months ago; Biden has clearly decided that his administration has no option but to continue to deal with MbS, even if Biden himself refuses to do so and delegates meetings to officials such as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

Biden’s reluctance to engage directly has rankled with the crown prince, who reportedly abandoned plans to travel to Glasgow for COP26 – after officials had briefed that he would attend – in part because he feared being snubbed in public should he and Biden have come face-to-face. Nor did Mohammed bin Salman participate in person at the G-20 meeting in Rome immediately before Glasgow, despite Saudi Arabia having held the G-20 presidency the previous year. The crown prince’s no-show at both high-profile global events suggest he has still to rebuild his international standing three years after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, his rapturous reception among football supporters in Newcastle notwithstanding.

MBS & Tamim
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meeting the Emir of Qatar in Riyadh last month [photo credit: SPA]
Away from the international spotlight on MbS, there are signs that the style of Saudi regional and foreign policymaking has undergone a shift or, at the very least, a change in emphasis as political and economic priorities have evolved. Most obvious has been the reconciliation within the Gulf Cooperation Council following the ending of the 40-month rift with Qatar in January 2021. Saudi-Qatari bilateral ties have improved farther and faster than Qatari relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar’s Emir Tamim has made at least three subsequent visits to Saudi Arabia, most recently for the Middle East Green Initiative which took place in Riyadh in October. Saudi-Omani relations have also improved markedly in 2021 with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq’s visit to the Kingdom in July considered a success and with major bilateral infrastructural projects making progress.

Further afield, the provision of Saudi economic support for Egypt and Pakistan, in the form of renewed central bank deposits and, in the case of Pakistan, extension of trade finance assistance, as well as the ratcheting down of tensions with Turkey, suggest a tactical readjustment in Riyadh to put greater weight on political and economic coexistence after the decade of geopolitical confrontation post Arab Spring. Like many of its current and former regional adversaries, the leadership in Riyadh must focus on domestic post-pandemic economic recovery and, in Mohammed bin Salman’s case, the task is made more urgent by the need to generate tangible results for his vision of change as 2030 begins to loom into view.

For better of worse, MbS has staked his credibility on the premise that he, and only he, has the vision and the drive to transform Saudi Arabia economically and socially. Vision 2030, which he launched in 2016 while still Deputy Crown Prince, has become his calling card but it also risks becoming a millstone around his neck should it fail to produce favourable outcomes for Saudi citizens. It is through this lens that recent efforts to pressure international firms to locate their regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia by 2024 and impose new tariffs on imported goods made in regional free-zones must be seen. Both measures are a shot across the bows of regional competitors, especially the UAE, which also engaged in an acrimonious spat with Saudi Arabia over oil quotas at the OPEC+ meeting in July.

Mohammed bin Salman, or at least the people around him who advise on policy, appears to have recognized that the challenges of the 2020s – not merely those arising from the pandemic but also from the need to remain ahead of any eventual energy transition and global push on climate politics – require a new approach that moves beyond the contested geopolitics of the recent past. This is easier said than done, as the protracted inability to identify an end to the Yemen war consistent with Saudi security (to say nothing of political) interests testifies. However, the multiple rounds of dialogue with Iran indicates a desire to come to a workable modus vivendi with regional adversaries that would provide the crown prince the breathing room he needs to refocus more heavily on domestic affairs and deliver needed economic gains.

His ongoing entanglement in Yemen and lack of a direct relationship with Biden have made it clear that Mohammed bin Salman cannot just turn a new page and act as if the past five years had never happened. Policy and political choices made between 2015 and 2020 cannot simply be undone or wished away and will continue to have consequences that may be unpalatable for him to swallow, especially if Iran retains the upper hand or drives a hard bargain in negotiations for a regional rapprochement. And yet, it will be domestic rather than foreign policy that Mohammed bin Salman will be judged upon, both as Crown Prince and as eventual King, and he needs to create the space to focus on the former as his succession – and 2030 – draw inexorably closer.

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