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Feature Article

The Crown Prince, Canada and Aramco: Shattering The Illusion?

The surprising decision to go on the offensive against Canada has baffled Saudi watchers, but in the context of the broader goals of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman it makes perfect sense. With sanctions comes prestige, yet at the same time a ruthless suppression of dissent at home exposes an agenda not so different from his predecessors.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Deciphering moves within the Saudi royal family has never been an easy task, but this summer's events have perplexed even hardened Saudi watchers. Fresh off a concerted public relations campaign to highlight the country's 'liberalisation', a crackdown has ensued, targetting critics and activists, and, most puzzling of all, the Kingdom has launched a blistering attack on long-time ally Canada after what seemed like relatively mild criticism. In conjunction with news that foreign capital investment has not been forthcoming (in fact, it seems to be in full flight), and the reported cancellation of the proposed initial public offering (IPO) of a 5% stake in state oil company Aramco, the impression is that the royals, under increasing pressure, are beginning to circle the wagons.

The Saudis took aim at Canada after that country's Foreign Ministry tweeted on August 3rd, in a call for the "immediate release" of civil society members, including Samar Badawi, the high-profile women's rights activist, along with other human rights advocates. Riyadh shot back, calling this mild rebuke a "blatant interference" in the country's internal affairs, and announced a host of retaliatory measures, pending an apology from Canada. These actions included expelling the Canadian ambassador and putting into question whether a long-delayed deal on armored vehicles would ever be completed. More surprising was a halt in trade, and the suspension of national airline carrier Saudia flights to Toronto. Thousands of scholarship students were summarily pulled out of Canadian universities, including medical students completing their residencies. The force and vehemence of the Saudi reaction was stunning, and there is no sign of any willingness to back down. Prime Minister Trudeau, for his part, is under pressure not to give in, this being an election year. He has cultivated the image of an earnest advocate of women's rights across the world, and has already run afoul of the Philippines for his nudging of that government towards more progressive inclusion (which interference cost Canada a military contract for helicopters). Trudeau already stood accused of hypocrisy at home for the Saudi arms deal, so there is little chance of reconciliation at the moment.

Co-incident with the Canadian spat, news has emerged that the proposed IPO of Saudi Aramco has been derailed. While officially, the government "remains committed to the IPO...at a time of its own choosing, when conditions are optimal", reports have it as halted completely. This is consistent with the doubts that have been raised since the 2016 announcement, as to both its viability and the company's valuation. Aramco was reluctant to divulge enough information to satisfy regulators at New York or London stock exchanges, and the $2 trillion valuation was always seen as overly optimistic. Furthermore, there was serious concern within the royal family that a New York listing would open up its members to legal liability as a result of American laws permitting individuals there to sue under anti-terrorism legislation. Though not a crucial element of Muhammad bin Salman's Vision 2030 concept, the Aramco IPO was an integral part of his modernization plans. Monies raised would go towards a sovereign wealth fund, but perhaps more importantly, the selling off of the state oil company's shares represented, in symbolic form, the weaning of the Kingdom from its reliance on oil. Muhammad (MbS) recognizes that the future is clean energy; shedding at least a part of the oil behemoth represents a tangible commitment to that goal.

The second key component of Vision 2030 (aside from the economic imperatives) was a rapid liberalization (some would say Westernization) of society. To that end, the purview of the religious police has been severely curtailed, and the unthinkable (mixing of the sexes at public venues, entertainment spectacles, lifting of the ban on women driving) has come to pass.

Related articles: Royal Crackdowns and Vanished Princes: Shakeup Or Shakedown?
A Year As Crown Prince: Forward Progress Or Sideways Shift?
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Past Feature Articles
Royal Crackdowns and Vanished Princes: Shakeup Or Shakedown?

As dozens of prominent individuals remain in Saudi government custody, the arrest of activists continues. Nothing is known of the true aims of the purge's beneficiary, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, though competing explanations are equally convincing.

A Year As Crown Prince: Forward Progress Or Sideways Shift?

The Disappearance Of Muhammad bin Salman: Rumor Mill Or Going Rogue?

The crown prince has apparently vanished from public view, stirring speculation that he was injured, or even killed in events three weeks ago that some described at the time as an attempted coup. Given the provenance of reports raising concern over his absence, how much credence should the rumors be given?

A Palace Conflicted: Royal Family Or One-Man Rule?

Historically, the royal family of Saudi Arabia has struggled with the tension between the urge by successful rulers to solidify their power and the necessity of providing for the inclusion of less prominent princes in order to maintain domestic stability. At critical inflection points the family will either rally around a disruptive leader who challenges the status quo or find itself dissolving into disunity.

Royal Family Consensus: Shattering A Myth?

As Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman wraps up his U.S. visit, few would question his apparent status as de facto ruler of the Kingdom, and whatever questions remain about the upcoming succession center on the role family consensus will play. In fact, the more recent history of the Al Saud turns out to have been an anomaly, and the rapid elevation of the crown prince suggests that the traditional mechanisms of royal governance may have been more myth than reality.