Mr. Un­pre­dictable


He’s a re­pres­sor. He’s a re­former. In pick­ing a fight with Canada, Saudi Ara­bia’s crown prince is keep­ing the world guess­ing

Thou­sands of stu­dents are pack­ing up and search­ing for new schools in an­other coun­try. Hos­pi­tals here will have to cover for hun­dreds of med­i­cal stu­dents. Canada’s am­bas­sador to Saudi Ara­bia was de­clared per­sona non grata. New busi­ness deals are frozen. And Saudi in­vest­ment funds have given or­ders to sell off Cana­dian as­sets, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, “no mat­ter the cost.”

The trig­ger was a tweet. But where did the sud­den, sweep­ing re­ac­tion – one of the most rapid, hair-trig­ger es­ca­la­tions in the an­nals of mod­ern diplo­macy – come from?

The an­swer is Mo­hammed bin Sal­man. Saudi Ara­bia’s Crown Prince, a son of King Sal­man and his third wife, has vowed to trans­form the king­dom, propos­ing re­forms that would al­ter its econ­omy and its so­ci­ety – and he has al­ready trans­formed its for­eign pol­icy.

He is a re­former. He is also a re­presser. Un­der MBS, as he’s widely known, Saudi Ara­bia has fa­mously al­lowed women to drive, and ac­cess health ser­vices and ed­u­ca­tion with­out con­stant con­sent from their male guardians. But the Saudis have also ar­rested women’s rights ac­tivists in a crack­down.

To Western eyes, that’s a halt­ing con­tra­dic­tion. In the logic of the Saudi Crown Prince, rul­ing a king­dom named for his fam­ily, they ap­pear to go to­gether. MBS has laid out plans for ma­jor eco­nomic and so­cial re­forms, but not po­lit­i­cal re­forms that share royal power. And he is also keen to en­sure that so­cial change does not ap­pear to be the re­sult of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism. Or for­eign crit­i­cism.

“It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand that Saudis are not cit­i­zens. They’re subjects,” said David Chat­ter­son, a for­mer Cana­dian am­bas­sador to Saudi Ara­bia. “What’s most im­por­tant for the House of Saud is that they have con­trol. Re­form is not go­ing to be de­liv­ered by de­mand. It’s go­ing to be driven by the de­ci­sions of the royal fam­ily, and MBS.”

The Saudis once dealt with the out­side world the way they gov­erned, cau­tiously and con­ser­va­tively. Since King Sal­man came to the throne in 2015, and since Mo­hammed bin Sal­man’s rapid rise as the prince who wields his fa­ther’s power, Saudi Ara­bia has pros­e­cuted a hor­rific and seem­ingly stale­mated war in Yemen, led a block­ade of neigh­bour Qatar, and brow­beaten vis­it­ing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri into re­sign­ing – a res­ig­na­tion he later re­scinded.

Now, the king­dom has launched a sud­den wave of vit­riol at Canada to en­sure that Justin Trudeau’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment felt its dis­plea­sure.

There have been de­bates about whether Canada is merely a con­ve­nient ex­am­ple that al­lows Saudi Ara­bia to warn other coun­tries not to crit­i­cize its hu­man-rights fail­ings, or whether Mr. Trudeau’s gov­ern­ment ex­ac­er­bated years of ne­glected re­la­tions with in­del­i­cate Twit­ter diplo­macy – in­clud­ing a tweet in Ara­bic that of­fended Saudi sen­si­bil­i­ties by ap­pear­ing to de­mand that ar­rested ac­tivists be re­leased

Yet there’s no doubt that the un­prece­dented re­sponse had to be di­rected by MBS, the nextgen­er­a­tion royal who has cen­tral­ized power in a way no Saudi leader ever has. And there’s no doubt the blis­ter­ing Saudi blasts at Canada would not have oc­curred five years ago.

“This could only hap­pen un­der Mo­hammed bin Sal­man,” Mr. Chat­ter­son said.

“Saudi Ara­bia is a very tra­di­tional, very con­ser­va­tive so­ci­ety that fun­da­men­tally arose out of Be­douins in the desert,” he said. “MBS kind of over­threw ev­ery­thing when his fa­ther be­came king. For Saudi Ara­bia, he’s in­cred­i­bly brash.” As the dis­pute with Canada demon­strated, he is now a leader who can reach around the world. U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, which backs the Saudis as re­gional rivals to a com­mon ad­ver­sary, Iran, has given MBS wide lat­i­tude for his for­eign-pol­icy ad­ven­tures. In a mul­ti­po­lar world, where Mr. Trump’s United States shows lit­tle in­ter­est in bol­ster­ing a Western al­liance over is­sues such as hu­man rights, MBS is em­bold­ened to push back mid­dle pow­ers like Canada. Mr. Trump did not com­plain. Nei­ther did the Euro­pean Union. And MBS, now 32 years old, could con­ceiv­ably rule Saudi Ara­bia for 50 years.

He has so far acted as though he is a young leader who is not used to be­ing op­posed and does not ac­cept it. He has brushed aside rivals, con­sol­i­dated power and ar­rested ac­tivists. Re­forms are to come from MBS.

When Saudi Ara­bia al­lowed women to drive in June, au­thor­i­ties con­tacted ac­tivists to warn them to keep quiet, said Kris­tian Coates Ul­rich­sen, fel­low for the Mid­dle East at Rice Univer­sity’s Baker In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy: “They were told, ‘Don’t take credit for this.’ ”

MBS, Mr. Ul­rich­sen said, “is not a demo­crat. He’s not a po­lit­i­cal re­former. He’s an eco­nomic and so­cial re­former.”

His re­forms are nonethe­less sweep­ing by Saudi stan­dards. The Vi­sion 2030 plan that MBS laid out in 2016, when he was deputy crown prince, calls for di­ver­si­fy­ing the Saudi econ­omy to break its de­pen­dence on oil. It fore­sees a fu­ture where the coun­try will be less able to rely on rev­enue from high oil prices to dis­trib­ute ben­e­fits, and well-paid pub­lic-ser­vice jobs, to Saudis.

The im­pli­ca­tions are vast. It means open­ing the econ­omy and mak­ing the fi­nances of firms more trans­par­ent to at­tract a va­ri­ety of in­ter­na­tional in­vest­ments. One sym­bol is a planned ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing of shares in Aramco, the Saudi na­tional oil com­pany – the val­u­a­tion of which, ac­cord­ing to the Saudis, ap­proaches $2tril­lion, twice the size of Ap­ple Inc. But that would also dis­turb the elites, in­clud­ing thou­sands of royal princes and wor­thies, who skim riches from Saudi’s in­bred busi­ness world.

The plan to open Saudi Ara­bia to tourism and en­ter­tain­ment im­plies a long-term loos­en­ing of con­ser­va­tive cul­tural rules. In April, the coun­try opened its first cinema in more than 35 years. The pow­ers of the Saudi re­li­gious po­lice, the Com­mit­tee for the Pro­mo­tion of Virtue and Pre­ven­tion of Vice, have been trimmed. He has ex­pressed a dis­taste for “guardian­ship” laws for women.

They are changes driven by de­mo­graph­ics. Sev­enty per cent of Saudi Ara­bia’s pop­u­la­tion is un­der 30. They grew up in a con­nected world. They are the ones who feel left out of Saudi Ara­bia’s elite-con­trolled econ­omy.

“He’s cer­tainly mak­ing a pitch to the 70 per cent of Saudis that are his age or younger, and if he re­ally wants to rule suc­cess­fully for the next 50 years – as he could do – he’s got to win them on­side,” Mr. Ul­rich­sen said. “He’s also got to pro­duce and de­liver re­sults. That will be the test of Vi­sion 2030, whether he can cre­ate jobs and eco­nomic prospects for the huge num­ber of young Saudis that have felt that the sys­tem wasn’t work­ing for them.”

There is a gap be­tween MBS’s prom­ises and ac­tual re­forms. There is also the risk of re­ac­tion from dis­rupted elites and roy­als, the con­ser­va­tive cler­ics who have long been al­lied with royal rule, and what Mr. Ul­rich­sen calls a “large mi­nor­ity” of so­cially con­ser­va­tive Saudis.

[Mo­hammed bin Sal­man] has so far acted as though a young leader who is not used to be­ing op­posed and does not ac­cept it.

Un­til now, the Saudi royal fam­ily was risk averse. Mod­ern­iza­tion, in­clud­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of tele­vi­sion, in the 1960s and 70s, caused a back­lash, Mr. Ul­rich­sen said, and the royal fam­ily was scarred when ex­trem­ists seized its Grand Mosque in 1979. The monar­chy has since passed among broth­ers who re­mem­ber those events, the sons of the king­dom’s founder, Ab­du­laziz. But MBS is from the next gen­er­a­tion.

He is a risk taker. He moved briskly to gain power– and has wielded it au­da­ciously. As a young man, he re­mained at home to study law and stayed close to his fa­ther, serv­ing as an ad­viser to Sal­man when the lat­ter was gov­er­nor of Riyadh, and later crown prince. When Sal­man be­came king, he named favourite son MBS as de­fence minister, then later deputy crown prince, and fi­nally crown prince. But MBS didn’t just re­ceive rank. He moved to con­sol­i­date power.

The most stun­ning move was the anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign de­creed by the king but car­ried out by MBS, in which se­nior royal princes and ma­jor busi­ness ty­coons were de­liv­ered to Riyadh’s five-star Ritz-Carl­ton last Novem­ber and brow­beaten un­til they agreed to re­pay bil­lions in al­legedly em­bez­zled funds. It also served as a purge of power rivals. The three arms of Saudi se­cu­rity, the de­fence min­istry, in­te­rior min­istry and na­tional guard – pre­vi­ously dis­persed among sep­a­rate branches of the royal fam­ily – were brought un­der MBS’ con­trol.

He has made Saudi for­eign pol­icy more im-


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