Thursday, 5th September 2019

MBS era rollercoaster ride of reformist highs and murderous lows

The entertainment revolution promised by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS)’s Vision 2030 will bring the world’s fastest rollercoaster and other attractions to the huge Qiddiya entertainment city, when it opens in 2023. Meanwhile, mesures to lift travel restrictions on women have been welcomed, while the kingdom’s latest reshuffle has been widely interpreted as accelerating moves to list Saudi Arabian Oil Company on local and international stock markets – which will underline Aramco’s status as the world’s biggest oil exporter and further integrate the kingdom into the global economy. All these developments are driven by MBS, supported by key allies including Public Investment Fund chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who has taken over from another favourite, Khalid Al-Falih, as Aramco chairman.

Energy minister Al-Falih’s apparently diminished standing comes after criticism that he has been hesitant in enacting reforms across his sprawling empire. No one ever said the conservative kingdom with its deeply-rooted habits could be reformed overnight or even within a few years – foreign criticism may often be asking for far too much. MBS has undoubtedly been a vector of change, promising reforms that seem essential to meet the demands of a young, increasingly well-educated population. GSN’s soundings in the kingdom consistently show strong support for MBS from among a key constituency: younger generation Saudis.

In an major new paper for The Asian Institute for Policy Studies, Saudi Arabia in 2030: The Emergence of a New Leadership,, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies senior fellow Joseph Kéchichian puts up a thoughtful defence of the current leadership, while asking whether “Saudis will voluntarily abide by the country’s new economic model and whether they will accept whatever permutations are introduced without making stringent political demands that, truth be told, is what preoccupies many observers.” Kéchichian robustly – and rightly – argues that greater understanding is needed of Saudi society and motivations, in “an absolute monarchy that cherishes traditions and aims to retain its age-old and amply tested norms that preserved society and ensured its security throughout time”. He makes a strong argument that MBS (a “crass acronym” Kéchichian rejects) “will eventually succeed his father”. He sees MBS as “an aspiring moderniser who intends to gradually transform his society and place it on a different, and hopefully, more egalitarian footing, even if his chief faults are inexperience and obsessive staff members.”

Journalistic, diplomatic and other reports of the Al-Saud’s imminent collapse – an outlook GSN has never shared – surged following the 2 October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. MBS and particularly King Salman Bin Abdelaziz seem to have steadied the ship since then, despite criticism abroad that has put arms acquisitions – but seemingly few other deals – in question. However, the Khashoggi enquiries (GSN 1,083/14) still hang over Riyadh, and with them questions about what Kéchichian calls MBS’s most “obsessive staff members”.

These include the crown prince’s chief propagandist, Saud Bin Abdullah Al-Qahtani, who was implicated in Khashoggi’s murder, after which he was moved from the high-profile Royal Court into MBS’s Private Office. With over 1m Twitter followers, the now notorious Al-Qahtani was the subject of widely repeated but wholly confirmed rumours about his apparent demise as GSN went to press. Al-Qahtani has continued to play a prominent role in cyber offensive operations in the past year, which have been investigated – and acted on – by Facebook, as well as by Bellingcat and other investigative groups. Operations similar to, but separate from, even larger UAE campaigns have been revealed, which appear to have been mounted using government resources, with aid from US firms including BGR Group, Smith Gambrell & Russell LLP and Squire Patton Boggs. Experts observe that the Ministry of Culture and Information and other departments have put out requests for proposals seeking technical and expert support to deliver this type of programme. 

Al-Qahtani held formal positions within the Royal Court well before MBS’s rise to prominence (as a royal adviser with ministerial rank and head of the centres of Media Monitoring & Analysisand as Studies & Media Affairs). His duties in the MBS era have gone well beyond his formal titles; sources say Al-Qahtani has a central role in procureing spyware, malware and tools to mount operations against opponents and critics. The US State Departmente ‘designated’ him for his alleged role in the Khashoggi killing, although he is not among the 11 suspects being tried in Riyadh (in proceedings observed only by diplomats prepared not to report them).

GSN will return to Al-Qahtani. Monarchs traditionally use and then discard useful advisors when they reach their sell-by dates. MBS may well do the same; it is a ruler’s prerogative. And viewed from the kingdom nearly a year after Jamal Khashoggi’s death, the Salman/MBS axis seems firmly entrenched in their rule.

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