Analysis & Opinions - Wall Street Journal

The Model for a Saudi Reformer

| July 17, 2018

Mohammed bin Salman, the young crown prince, has much in common with his legendary grandfather.

As Mohammed bin Salman begins his second year as crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, it becomes clearer that his role model is his paternal grandfather, Abdul Aziz al Saud. The uncanny similarity between these two young rulers, a century apart, offers clear clues to the country's direction today.

Born in 1875, Abdul Aziz was under 30 when he conquered Riyadh and began to subdue and unite the fractious Saudi tribes. Three decades later, in 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was declared. Abdul Aziz then leveraged his primitive kingdom's newfound oil wealth to make it a pivotal power before his death in 1953.

His grandson, 32, seeks a similar transformation. Addicted to oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has become a somnolent and spoiled society, with a squabbling royal family of some 7,000 princes. Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, hopes to transform his country into a modern, self-reliant nation -- while retaining his grandfather's iron grip on power. The question on every Saudi's lips is: Can he succeed?

A hard look at the parallels between MBS and his grandfather suggests he can. The crown prince shows every sign of equaling Abdul Aziz's ability to outmaneuver disgruntled royals, recalcitrant religious fanatics and meddlesome foreign powers -- not to mention today's skeptical populace, traumatized by new taxes, job scarcity, very slow economic growth, and slashed government subsidies for gas, electricity and water.

One trait the two leaders share is a visionary streak. Abdul Aziz knew that the shifting loyalties of nomadic Bedouins made it hard to create a stable nation. His novel idea was to persuade the nomads to live in agricultural villages, where he pledged to send them religious teachers -- who then preached loyalty to Allah ahead of tribal connections. This began to create a dependence on Abdul Aziz and his religious partners, loosening tribal ties.

The grandson's Vision 2030, unveiled at a televised press conference in 2016, is no less revolutionary. Saudis, long dependent on an oil-funded welfare state for jobs, education, cheap energy and more, now are being asked to take jobs in the private economy, where they actually must work and can be fired for nonperformance. So far slow economic growth has crippled job creation.

Another common trait is ruthlessness. In 1911, Abdul Aziz's opponents, including some of his own cousins, massed an army to challenge his hold on Riyadh. In response he forced the surrender of the rebellious village of Laila. Displaying his flair for the dramatic, he granted the village's leaders a 24-hour stay of execution while his men built a platform outside the town gate. At dawn he took his seat and presided over the beheading of 18 of the 19 condemned men. He abruptly pardoned the final man, ordering him to tell all he met of the vengeance of Abdul Aziz. It was classic Abdul Aziz: offering opponents a choice between destruction or submission.

MBS showed his own taste for drama last year by rounding up at least 300 princes, ministers and businessmen on charges of corruption. Men accustomed to carrying several cellphones and living in guarded privacy were jailed in Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton, forced to keep open their room doors, and denied contact with anyone other than interrogators. The government claims that the shakedown netted $100 billion of ill-gotten money from the prisoners. Even after being released their humiliation continues, since many are required to wear tracking devices and can't leave the country.

Selected Saudis continue to be arrested quietly and held without charges; others have their bank accounts frozen by the government. Last week the kingdom's best-known businessman, Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, was photographed embracing MBS, who is his cousin and his recent Ritz jailer. It was a visible sign of the crown prince's dominance. His message in all this echoes that of his grandfather: destruction or submission.

MBS also matches his grandfather's reputation for charisma. Abdul Aziz was said by one of his biographers to have a smile "irresistibly all absorbing, which swept listeners up with him, blinding their judgment." Now the crown prince's informality and charm have made him popular among young Saudis and foreigners alike.

Both leaders faced down their kingdom's religious fanatics. In 1929, Abdul Aziz crushed the fanatical Ikhwan, a Bedouin army that had helped him win numerous battles, because it refused to halt raids into neighboring British protectorates that he didn't want to antagonize. MBS has stood up to the religious elite to impose breathtaking social changes, including letting women drive and allowing concerts and cinemas. At a recent showing of "Incredibles 2" in Riyadh, I saw Saudi men, women and children happily mixing and munching large boxes of popcorn, trays of nachos and supersize colas -- a scene that would have been incredible only a few months ago.

MBS is not his grandfather in every way. Abdul Aziz had a reputation for always being cool and calculating, plotting his moves patiently. By contrast, the crown prince has developed a reputation, at least among his critics, for being rash and impulsive -- such as in his confrontations with Qatar and Yemen. Admirers argue, however, that such moves are cleverly planned for domestic as well as international effect. In addition, Abdul Aziz had a hardscrabble upbringing and a reputation for simple living, whereas MBS has purchased a $500 million yacht, a French chateau and a $450 million painting by da Vinci.

In a country with no history or pretense of democracy, the royal family intrigue and tribal kinship have been a constant. Saudi rulers mostly have wrangled the factions with a blend of wisdom, manipulation, brutality and blandishments. The crown prince, whose maternal grandfather murdered Abdul Aziz's brother during one rivalry, is well placed to understand how to use that same formula to stay on top.

Saudi society clearly has changed over the past half-century. Still, it retains indelible traces of its past. MBS will have to manage angry uncles and cousins, as well as an internet-informed young populace. Yet if history is a guide, he seems likely to navigate successfully and, like his grandfather, retain firm control of one of the world's only remaining absolute monarchies.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen.“The Model for a Saudi Reformer.” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2018.

The Author