Middle Israel: Murder on the MBS Express

Whatever his role in the Khashoggi whodunit, the Saudi crown prince is unfit for the role he has chosen as the surgeon of his nation’s easy-money disease.

SAUDI CROWN Prince Mohammad bin Salman looks on as he meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Riyadh last week (photo credit: REUTERS)
SAUDI CROWN Prince Mohammad bin Salman looks on as he meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Riyadh last week
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Alfred Hitchcock would grimace and Agatha Christie would blush, had they seen the amateurism of Jamal Khashoggi’s liquidation, from the choice of the location – an intensely videotaped compound – to that sloppily costumed imposture’s emergence from the murder scene.
Unlike Hitchcock’s Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes, Khashoggi’s disappearance was at no point much of a mystery to anyone. He was murdered. And unlike Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, this one – despite Istanbul’s fitting backdrop – is not a whodunit where each of a dozen disparate train passengers is a suspect; Saudi Arabia done it.
The plotters should have known that killing a Washington Post columnist is not like killing a terrorist, a drug lord or a spymaster. Such a public figure’s vanishing in such a foreign setting would inevitably provoke the local government, the White House and every free news organization worldwide.
These perplexing miscalculations alone indicate that some Saudi princes’ understanding of the world is shallow. Then again, this drawback dwarfs compared with this affair’s most ominous aspect – its political motivation – which in turn sheds light on the broader tragedy of Saudi wealth.
JAMAL KHASHOGGI was targeted because of his mouth, and murdered because of his pen.
He was not alone. Prince Sultan bin Turki was reportedly kidnapped in Geneva in 2003 before being flown to Saudi Arabia, where he spent seven years in jail. Prince Saud bin-Saif al-Nasr was lured in 2015 to a private flight from Milan to Rome that landed instead in Riyadh, where he was jailed – the same year Prince Turki bin Bandar disappeared while in Morocco.
While none of these princes was a luminary – one’s dissidence was driven by financial disputes with other princes, and Khashoggi was sympathetic to Islamism – all four were the regime’s critics.
The royal house’s fear of public debate, and its impatience with those out to kindle it, are further proof that Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s much applauded reformism, while fueled by the right diagnosis, comes coupled with the wrong prognosis and is placed in the wrong surgeon’s hands.
The 33-year-old MBS – as he is known in the West – rightly warns that the kingdom must brace for the post-oil era.
The collapse of an oil barrel’s price from $147 a decade ago to $66 this week has been catastrophic for the kingdom’s economic formula, whereby petrodollars financed astronomical subsidies and free healthcare, while the kingdom charged no income taxes and built hardly any industry. Worse, with oil sales delivering 80% of internal revenue and 90% of exports, Riyadh’s per capita military spending was, and remains, the highest in the world.
Bin Salman understands that oil’s plunge reflects historic change whereby supply is multiplied by American fracking of shale oil and by new Russian prospecting, while wind, water and solar alternatives shrink crude’s demand.
With the plunge in oil sales initially causing reckless tapping into the kingdom’s foreign currency reserves – 16% in 2015 alone, and a further 22% in 2017; and with the budget deficit ballooning in 2016 to $79 billion, or 12.3% of GDP, the kingdom raised water, electricity and gas prices by more than 50%, introduced a 5% value-added tax, and raised corporate taxes.
Still, that was symptomatic treatment. Surgery would be offered in the crown prince’s “Vision 2030” blueprint, festively introduced in 2016.
CLAIMING that by 2030 Saudi Arabia “will be able to live without oil,” MBS vowed “to build a strong and productive society” and to overhaul education by building “a modern curriculum focused on rigorous standards in literacy, numeracy skills and character development.”
This was encouraging, much like MBS’s resolve to subdue the religious police and to let women drive. The problem lies in his action plan, which is economically shallow and socially naive.
The vision’s more practical part is the plan to treble tourism from eight to 24 million mostly Muslim annual visitors. However, the plan fails to cut defense spending, and promises to produce locally most of the Saudi military’s arms. That’s absurd.
Saudi society never underwent the industrial revolution, having wasted its good years cultivating nonwork by importing millions of foreign workers. Saudi society must therefore spend long decades producing pots and pans before making helicopters and jets, the way the Japanese, Chinese and Turks did back when they industrialized. MBS doesn’t seem to get this.
Equally frivolously, he plans to finance his blueprint’s costs by selling shares of Aramco, the Saudi oil company, in an unspecified foreign stock market. MBS assumes that a 5% stake will generate $100 billion. For now, the public offering remains unscheduled, evidently facing problems of marketability and transparency. Money comes less easily than MBS has learned to assume all his princely life.
Meanwhile, MBS provoked much of the Saudi elite, arresting millionaires and confiscating billions, thus isolating himself though the task he has chosen demands building alliances. All this is besides having launched a botched war in Yemen and, at one point, having detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, only to soon release him with no political gains.
In his urge to trigger great social change MBS is comparable to Japan’s Emperor Meiji, Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk and China’s Den Xiaoping. In his delivery he is their caricature.
MBS did not lead troops through battlefields, as Ataturk did, he did not duel with someone like Mao Zedong, as Deng did, and he never vowed, as Meiji did in his 1868 Charter Oath, to establish “deliberative assemblies” so that “all matters be decided by open discussion,” much less that “all will be done as is customary in the world” (Ben-Ami Shillony, Modern Japan, Hebrew, p. 45).
Sadly, the prince, who three years ago paid €500 million for a Russian vodka tycoon’s 134-m. yacht, is giving more and more reason to suspect that rather than deliver the cure for the illness he has so bravely diagnosed, he is its emblem.