Thursday, 23rd April 2020

Coronavirus and oil crisis present MBS with unprecedented tests

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has worked hard to remove any possibility of political opposition emerging from within Al-Saud ranks over the past five years. This campaign has involved several bouts of locking up senior family members, with the clear backing of his father King Salman, most notably in November 2017 but most recently in March when Princes Ahmed Bin Abdelaziz and Mohammed Bin Nayef were moved from house arrest to prison (GSN 1,099/11,048 Special report/1). Some arms of the state have been reined back, including the mutawa religious police who used to patrol the streets but are now confined to their offices (GSN 1,060/5). But there is no public space for political discussion or concerted protest. The Riyadh authorities will be grateful that the political scene at least looks stable at a time when the kingdom is challenged by the potentially very damaging confluence of collapsing oil prices and the economy being forced into a coma as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns.

Yet even in this oppressive atmosphere, there are still signs of opposition. The authorities were quick to introduce a curfew in the Shia-majority Qatif governorate in Eastern Province in early March, at the start of the outbreak. In an area with a large Shia community, this was prompted by well-founded fears about people returning from Iran carrying the virus; nine of the first 10 declared cases in the kingdom were from people who had recently visited Iran. However, the arrests may also have been informed by concerns about the potential for the healthcare crisis to prompt opposition in a region which has seen persistent waves of protest.

More recently, there have been protests by local tribesmen in the north-west against forced deportations and evictions to make way for the crown prince’s futuristic city, Neom. MBS and several of his ministers have retreated to the region in a bid to steer clear of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is thought to have infected as many as 150 members of the royal family.

In the Neom region, a local man, Abdul Rahim Al-Huwaiti, was killed on 13 April in a clash with security forces. The incident followed shortly after Al-Huwaiti posted several videos on Twitter protesting about land confiscations; he had refused compensation to move out of his home to make way for the mega-development. Following the shooting, about 20 fellow members of the local Huwaitat tribe protested at his death in the village of Al-Khurayabah. The last time the Huwaitat tribe had such prominence in the worldwide media was their appearance in the film Lawrence of Arabia, in which they demonstrated a tendentious loyalty to the Hashemites, who historically have had suzerainty over the area. 
Yemen’s Houthi Political Council member Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti wasted no time in paying his condolences to the Huwaiti tribe, via a Twitter message posted on 15 April. Al-Bukhaiti took the opportunity to urge the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula to unite and rise up against MBS and the Al-Saud dynasty.

After the protests, further anti-Saud voices emerged online. A Twitter account with the handle #The martyr_Abd al-Rahim_ Al-Hwaiti declared “Al-Huwaitat stand with their martyr, in honour and joy, and challenge his killers. We ask God to take revenge on those who killed him, on those who helped them or were satisfied with their actions, and to accelerate the demise of Ibn Saud’s rule.”

Neom stands at the centre of the ambitious reform drive MBS launched in April 2016. Four years on, the aim of diversifying the Saudi economy away from its reliance on oil and gas is now more vital than ever, but the chances of it happening in an orderly way are becoming more remote. The economic reforms rely on massive inflows of investment and expertise from abroad, but Saudi Arabia was already struggling to attract foreign direct investment before the Covid-19 pandemic happened (GSN 1,098/10). Barring a radical change the chances of that changing anytime soon look vanishingly small.

The authorities will be grateful they managed to sell shares in Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco) in December, before the pandemic hit; such a sale would be impossible in an era when the price of oil for US delivery recently dipped below zero. However, the government will also be mindful that large numbers of the Saudi public were convinced to buy shares and will now be nursing unexpected losses; the shares frequently traded at below SR30 in March, against the IPO price of SR32.

The economic and social challenges are only likely to increase. In an unusually frank stateement, health minister Dr Tawfiq Bin Fawzan Al-Rabiah on 7 April warned that the kingdom could see up to 200,000 Covid-19 cases. As of 21 April, there had been 10,484 confirmed cases and 103 deaths , according to the World Health Organisation. Al-Rabiah’s statement suggests Saudi Arabia may only be at the beginning of the crisis. The financial cost of dealing with the crisis and trying to prop up the economy are impossible to know at this stage, but whatever solutions are deemed applicable seem certain to eat into the kingdom’s financial reserves.

The crisis is leading Riyadh to take extraordinary measures The Al-Saud regime’s legitimacy rests on a religious foundation, so the decision to bar prayers in the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina during Ramadan is historic. Only employees of the General Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques’ Affairs will be allowed to pray there. At a time when his political power is unmatched, MBS is seeing his economic vision undermined (perhaps fatally) and the religious underpinning of his family’s rule severely tested. Despite his unmatched strength within the Saudi body politic, the young man now universally known as MBS would have good reason to feel more vulnerable than ever.

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Coronavirus and oil crisis present MBS with unprecedented tests

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has worked hard to remove any possibility of political opposition emerging from within Al-Saud ranks over the past five years. This campaign has involved several bouts of locking up senior family members, with the clear backing of his father King Salman, most notably in November 2017 but most recently in March when Princes Ahmed Bin Abdelaziz and Mohammed Bin Nayef were moved from house arrest to prison.

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