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Feature Article
2020-09-13

Ambition Meets Reality: The Crown Prince's Dilemma

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, now effectively in charge of policy, has gambled that the support of the younger generation and a pragmatic approach to foreign and domestic affairs will win out over the traditional pillars of the Saudi state in his quest for major reform. His over-reliance on an American ally may jeopardize his ambitions, however, if a change in Washington comes to pass.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Bob Woodward's book, "Rage", the latest in a recent spate of "tell-alls", reveals how Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) took advantage of incoming US President Donald Trump through a targeted campaign of flattery and praise, and ingratiated himself with the new administration using the knowledge that promises of massive business deals would overcome all other considerations. Despite his age, MbS has had ample experience dealing with vain and prickly old men, in the form of an over-abundance of cousins and uncles from the royal family, princes who craved the displays of deference and respect they felt their seniority and position entitled them. The crown prince recognized the similarities with Trump, and acted accordingly. The result, paired with Trump's natural mistrust of Iran and a general alignment of principles, was that MbS secured a diplomatic win; after the frustration of the Obama years, the Kingdom's relationship with the Americans seemed on much firmer ground.

Given virtual free reign, however, Saudi foreign policy quickly alienated almost all others. But Trump remained steadfast in his support, even after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, when he boasted of "saving" MbS, according to the book. Meanwhile, Saudi's standing with the rest of the world has plummeted, as traditional allies watch with horror the crushing of dissent at home and the ongoing normalization of one-man rule. MbS has seemingly not cared; his desire to shake things up has led to tensions with everyone from Canada to Pakistan, and there is no abatement in his continuing campaign to eliminate his rivals. But numerous quandaries threaten to derail his ambitions.

Trump senior advisor Jared Kushner has been working on a so-called "Mid-East peace deal" for years now, and his proposals (which seemed, to the Palestinians, to amount to little more than cash for silence) seemed dead in the water, so the announcement that both the U.A.E. and Bahrain intended to normalize ties with Israel was a bombshell. In practice, Bahrain had never been so opposed (it was an open secret that they had been quietly working towards that goal for decades), but the small nation is considered something of a "client-state" to Saudi, such is the influence their larger neighbor exerts. Saudi had effectively bailed out Bahrain after the Arab Spring uprisings, and the Shi'a population was thereafter firmly shut out, all but ensuring the safety of the Al Khalifa ruling family's position there. The thinking, therefore, is that Bahrain would hardly have taken the monumental step of recognizing Israel without Saudi tacit approval.

The question then, is whether Saudi will be next in line. Indeed, there are signs this is in the offing. Approval was granted to Israeli airlines for flyover rights, and MbS had been scheduled to travel secretly to Washington to meet with Trump (the trip was cancelled at the last minute when word of the visit leaked, and the Saudis feared protests and bad publicity). Getting the Kingdom on board with a "peace deal" would be a huge diplomatic victory for Trump on the eve of the presidential election, and MbS may be keen to help out in Trump's quest for another term in office. Another trip is planned, although no one realistically expects a sudden change in policy vis-a-vis Israel. King Salman made a point of stating that a just and lasting solution must be found for the Palestinians, implying there would be no sudden volte-face. Previously, too, he has come out forcefully on the subject of Palestine, when his son (the crown prince) indicated in an interview that the Israelis "deserved" a state. Officially, Saudi is firmly on the side of Palestinian statehood, using the framework of the late King Abdallah's two-state solution, and it is unthinkable that Salman would oversee a diplomatic breakthrough without significant concessions. Much, though, depends on the extent to which he retains command of policy decisions.

Related articles: An Unpredictable Prince: Realpolitik Or Royal Politics?
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Past Feature Articles
An Unpredictable Prince: Realpolitik Or Royal Politics?

The juxtaposition of two events over the past month throws into focus the challenges faced by Saudi Arabia as the country nears the end of an era. First, the aging king was hospitalised; then news broke that his son and heir was alleged to have sent a hit squad to Canada in pursuit of a settling of scores. The timing of the announcements highlights the fragility of the current structure, wherein the monarch drifts towards the periphery, and policy depends on the whims and hidden motives of the crown prince.

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Royal Family Domestic Politics in the Modern Era: Co-optation, Rebellion and Dissent (Part I)

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MbS and a Surfeit of Crises: Balancing Act or the End of Disruption?

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