On the fifth anniversary of his being named crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the young and powerful Mohammed bin Salman is touring Middle East capitals ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit next month.
He is the de facto ruler of the wealthy desert kingdom, as he rules with an iron fist under the protection of his ailing 86-year-old father, King Salman.
Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that the prince oversees managing the kingdom’s daily affairs.
“I would call Mohammed bin Salman the head of government or the day-to-day ruler.”
Prince Mohammed has been accused of ordering the killing of Saudi national and journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
The 36-year-old favorite son of King Salman has his father's absolute support, and the backing of the Al Saud family, having virtually eliminated all competition.
US intelligence implicated him in Khashoggi’s death, saying that Prince Mohammed “approved” an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, a charge he denies.
That led to his isolation, and he was shunned by many Western leaders.
On November 19, 2019, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden said during the Democratic Party debate that he would not sell Saudi Arabia weapons.
During his presidential campaign, Biden said he wanted to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.”
But the US president’s visit to the kingdom next month will reintroduce the prince to the international community.
On his first trip to the Gulf region as president, Biden plans to see MbS during the meeting with King Salman.
“In the US you have candidates who say one thing on the campaign trail and do something totally different once they’re in office,” Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, told The Media Line.
“At this point, the practicalities of realpolitik are trumping more posturing,” says Cafiero.
Western countries have imposed harsh sanctions on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine that include a near boycott of Russian oil and gas, sending energy prices soaring, sparking worldwide inflation, and threatening an acute shortage of energy.
Ibish says Biden could explain his policy shift on Saudi Arabia by saying his top priority is the American people.
“He can say ‘I have my own feelings about human rights but my job as president is to defend the American people and serve the national interest,’ and he may say he is doing these unpleasant things in the name of statecraft,” says Ibish.
Cafiero says the shift in rhetoric from the White House toward Riyadh, and world leaders flocking to the kingdom for a meeting with MbS after years of dismissing him, is a major victory for MbS as they try to convince him to increase his country’s oil output.
“The fact that you have [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, [French President Emmanuel] Macron, soon Biden in Saudi Arabia − this tells us that major leaders around the Islamic and Western worlds are coming to terms with what seems to be the future. Whether you love Mohammed bin Salman or you hate him it seems he’s going to be the next king and governments all over the world have to start engaging him,” Cafiero says.
Since Mohammed became crown prince in June 2017, he has shaken up his conservative kingdom with major liberal social and economic reforms.
MbS has been acting as a king, making major political and economic decisions that will affect his country for generations to come.
Ibish says there is a sense of anger and frustration in Riyadh and among Saudis that as popular as his decisions have been, they are overlooked by the West.
“He doesn’t get a lot of credit for it and Saudi Arabia doesn’t get credit for. All fixated on one assassination, … human rights cases and the Yemen war.”
Ibish, who has been to the kingdom several times in the last few years, is “astounded” by the change undertaken by MbS, describing it as an “extraordinary transformation.”
“MbS is an incredible social reformer. We haven’t seen something like this maybe in a hundred years, maybe since Japan in the 19th century. This kind of transformation is so dramatic and so sudden that it’s mind-boggling.”
His highly ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 strategic framework aims to free the kingdom from its dependence on oil, diversify its economy and create financial opportunities for Saudis.
He is undertaking a risky yet ambitious program to modernize ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia and assert its primacy in the Middle East and beyond.
He is credited with opening the door for Saudi women to drive and lifting the ban on them attending concerts and sporting events.
Prince Mohammed has ruthlessly consolidated control over the kingdom’s economic and security power centers.
His aim is to satisfy young Saudis and attract foreigners to work there. He also hopes to draw tourists.
He seems to have the support of Saudi youth, who are thirsting for more freedoms and openness to the world.
Saudi Arabia is a young country, with more than two-thirds of the population under the age of 35.
“We need more jobs, we need political, social, and economic reforms, and that is what the crown prince is doing right now,” says 28-year-old Mohammad Madini, who has a business degree but is still looking for a job.
Madini told The Media Line that the kingdom has been neglected for decades with no serious vision of how to prepare for the future.
“Change will not happen easily and fast, but we can see the wheel of change in motion, and it is a serious matter. He is young and understands what needs to happen,” Madini says.
But all this has been tarnished and overshadowed by the killing of Khashoggi and the imprisonment of hundreds of activists, journalists, academics, and clerics.
And in a move to assert his control, Mohammed has taken even greater control of the Saudi media, making sure the message dispersed is controlled.
He has sent dozens of nonviolent clerics and Islamic intellectuals to prison, leading current and former US officials to question whether his talk of reform masks a crackdown on dissent.
Prince Mohammed is also the minister of defense, and he is the architect behind the intervention in the war in Yemen in 2015 to block Saudi Arabia’s archenemy Iran.
The seven-year-old Saudi-led military coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates, fighting against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, killed hundreds of thousands of people and helped to cause the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with millions of Yeminis on the brink of famine.
But sudden change often ends badly in the Middle East, and warning flags are raised for some by the crown prince’s actions at home and abroad.
“My belief is that the social, cultural, and hopeful economic liberalization that is supposed to be going on in SA − this last one is the hardest − dovetails with the political repression and political centralization because I think there’s a fear that these liberalization reforms could lead to the downfall of the government,” says Ibish.
He doesn’t see any forces at this time that might hinder MbS’s efforts to become the next king.
“Without a doubt, it’s easy to be confident that he’ll become a king because you have to ask yourself what would stop him. Everything is in place,” Ibish says.
Many describe the prince as unstable, but Ibish says that despite the cause for concern, “you’d have to say yes he’s going to be the next king.
“He’s very ruthless and he’s very volatile, and you are not sure which version of him you are going to get at any given moment,” continues Ibish. “I think you’d have to say yes. The real question is about his volatility. He’s young, and so is this youth or character rational? Inexperience or he’ll never grow into the role, we have no idea. But you’d have to bet yes. Because he’s been an effective crown prince, he does govern day to day.”
Ibish says the narrative that Saudi Arabia is an unstable state is “pretty weak.”
“[The kingdom] seems stable enough for him to ascend to the throne. It seems like it.”
Cafiero says MbS “certainly made some decisions in the past that come across as being very aggressive, some people in the region have a perception of him as a loose cannon, at times his judgment has been horrible,” but he argues that the prince has learned from his mistakes.
“I would like to think that over the years Mohammed bin Salman has learned some lessons and matured,” Cafiero says.