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Feature Article
Parisian Affairs - A Cautionary Tale? 2016-10-13
As the deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, travels the world showcasing his ambitious plans for the Kingdom's future, his sister's escapades in France cast an unfavorable light on the royal family. Does the apparent contradiction between words and action highlight a flaw in the prince's vision?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

In late September, French media reported that an unidentified Saudi princess had ordered a decorator in Paris to "kiss her feet" and told her bodyguard to "kill" him. According to French reports, the man had been caught photographing the interior of her flat in a chic apartment block on Avenue Foch, in the affluent 16eme arrondissement. When discovered, she allegedly screamed, "you must kill him, this dog. He doesn't deserve to live," at her armed bodyguard. The decorator survived his ordeal (though somewhat worse for wear, having been tied up for hours and beaten), whilst the princess fled the country, at the same time claiming diplomatic immunity. Embarrassingly, she was subsequently identified as Hussa bint Salman, only daughter of the king.

This is far from the first time a misbehaving royal has made the headlines, and the bizarre episode would easily have been overshadowed by other, more serious examples, were it not for the fact that the incident encapsulates the fundamental issue at the heart of the internal conflict raging within the royal family - the tension between the ingrained sense of entitlement among its members, and the way the changes ushered in by the king's son, Muhammad bin Salman, Hussa's brother, threaten to undermine the relationship between the family and the Kingdom's citizens - challenging the foundations of the social contract itself. State-owned Saudi media rushed to present Hussa in a more favorable light, with stories of her involvement in local events, but the damage had been done; the contrast with her brother, the purported savior of the nation, and Hussa's behaviour, long associated with boorish princes vacationing abroad, made all too apparent the tenuous nature of Muhammad's ambitious blueprint for change. While benefits were being slashed at home and citizens told to buckle up for austerity, here was another royal acting in stereotypically loutish fashion, and the king's daughter at that. Was the deputy crown prince's agenda really to be taken seriously?

Crude oil prices have fallen precipitously from their highs of around $100/bbl, severely eroding the Kingdom's ability to balance its economy. Saudi policy had been a large part of that, with a strategy of flat-out production, in the hopes of crushing U.S. shale producers and securing a larger market share. But at around the same time, some began to realize the severity of the budgetary situation - with oil prices this low, the Kingdom would face bankruptcy, sooner rather than later. So Muhammad and his advisors put together the Vision 2030 plan, aiming to wean the economy off its oil addiction with a program of diversification. Still, the hope was that somehow Saudi, the most powerful OPEC player, could finesse oil price just high enough to cut Saudi's growing deficit, but not high enough to restart U.S. shale production, whilst maintaining the illusion that oil policy was working as planned, whatever happened (just this spring Muhammad said, with characteristically studied offhandedness, that he didn't care if prices were $30 or $70).

He was forced to concede defeat, however, in early October, when at the OPEC summit in Algiers, Saudi finally abandoned the strategy. OPEC will cut production by 700,000 barrels a day, agreeing to stabilize global markets. This represents a major reversal for the Kingdom, which now says it will limit output to between 32.5 and 33.0 million barrels per day, down from the current 33.6 million, no longer ceding market share to balance global oil markets. Khalid al-Falih, the oil minister, ( who earlier said that the Kingdom had become "a little fat around the belly, a bit complacent" during the era of high oil prices) says the deal will involve "gentle adjustments and reassurances to the market". Indeed, the economy has slowed to near-recession levels, with a current deficit expected to be almost $100 billion by year's end. The current course did not appear to be sustainable.

the social contract at risk?
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