Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is facing problems on multiple fronts, many of his own doing, which has left the kingdom in a weakened state.
It would not be an understatement to suggest that Saudi Arabia is facing its most tumultuous time in decades. The war in Yemen, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, growing tensions with Iran and, most recently, the downing of half Saudi Arabia’s oil output has seen the kingdom rocked by crises, many of its own doing.
The rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia, in no small part due to US backing, has upended decades of cautious internal social change in the kingdom.
The young, impulsive would-be king has been keen to promote the likes of Nicky Minaj, DJ Tiesto and Mariah Carey in a drive to appeal to the West and liberalise the conservative kingdom under Vision 2030.
"MBS’s qibla [direction of prayer for Muslims] is not really Mecca, it's the West,” said Dr Usaama al-Azami, a British academic and a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Oxford University in reference to the ideological disposition of the reforms.
A recent promotional tourism video by a group closely linked with the Saudi state extolling the virtues of “our beloved Crown Prince” is indicative of how MBS wants his kingdom to be seen.
Supporters of the crown prince have lionised him as a daring reformer in a kingdom steeped in conservatism: “Arab Spring, Saudi style” one columnist notoriously said prematurely.
If some conservative Islamic scholars were imprisoned for not seemingly toeing the line, the international response has been non-existent.
MBS’s sceptics, on the other hand, were muted by his move to lift the ban on women driving, the opening of cinemas and the arrival of Western-style music festivals.
The crown prince’s honeymoon period, however, ended prematurely and dramatically on October 1, 2018, with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
However, before the untimely murder, dismemberment and disposal of Khashoggi’s body in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul there were warning signs that MBS wasn’t what those in the West hoped he would be: a progressive moderniser.
The ulema [Islamic scholars] are in the same situation as anyone in Saudi Arabia who doesn't scrupulously toe MBS' line. The ulema are effectively working under a police state,” al-Azami told TRT World.
MBS’s uncompromising top-down reforms may have endeared him to some in the West. Still, the orientalist notion that “only despotism works in Muslim societies” ignores the damage it does to the fabric of those societies and the polarising splits it exposes.
The Saudi kingdom, since its creation in 1932, was built on a careful consensus between Islamic scholars, the Saud family and society at large. Consecutive monarchs followed a gradualist approach to the socio-economic development of the country.
MBS’s Vision 2030 project, on the other hand, envisioned dramatic economic and social changes to Saudi society, itself a marked departure from the incremental change that the kingdom was accustomed to.
“It's worth remembering that over time, especially under Western media influence, there has been a massive Westernisation and, one could argue, secularisation of Middle Eastern cultures. Saudi Arabia has been no different in this regard, even though it has maintained certain outward Islamic practices,” said al-Azami.
Satellite television and more recently, the internet have been only one part of this radical transformation.
The Saudi state has, for decades, been sending students abroad to study in Western universities. In recent years the kingdom, through its multi-billion ‘Two Holy Mosques Scholarship Program’ is sponsoring as many as 200,000 students to study abroad per year.
The 34-year-old crown prince is banking on the fact that with more than two-thirds of the country's population under the age of 30 that his reforms could resonate.
A struggle of identity
Saudi Arabia emerged as a fledgeling kingdom from the ruins of the Ottoman state. Like other Middle Eastern states, Saudi Arabia has had to contend with a failure to find a “form of structural stability in achieving success in the long term”, said Dr Yakoob Ahmed a Middle Eastern and Ottoman historian at Istanbul University.
“Saudi Arabia is unique because it invested most of its identity based on its Islamic past. One of the ways in legitimising a monarchy, especially with the two holy cities within the boundaries of that nation-state is to emphasise Islam as the main identity,” Ahmed told TRT World.
When the Saudi monarchs adopted the title ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’, a title previously held by the Ottoman caliphs, it was not only a direct challenge to Ottoman legitimacy but also a means of ensuring and establishing their own.
“Military dictatorships have come and gone [in the Middle East] the concern for them is how do you sustain the monarchy and give it a history and a tradition? As a result, they have placed an emphasis on Islam and the state's identity of being Islamic, which also gives them legitimacy over the two holy mosques,” added Dr Ahmed.
The young prince, however, is attempting to pivot Saudi Arabia towards a new pillar of legitimacy.
"The current global order predicated on nation-states, which is underwritten by US military supremacy, allows someone like MBS to tear up older religiously grounded norms and reconfigure the nature of the Saudi state. Thus, as a modern monarch, he is now claiming a nationalist basis for his legitimacy, with Islam increasingly fading into the background,” said al-Azami.
For MBS, whether he realises it or not, the founding tradition between the beginnings of the Saudi state and the drive for the current reforms could result in a deep schism in society and the nation.
“I think it's premature to assume that Saudi Arabia will collapse, I think we have underestimated the social shifts in Saudi society. But what is clear is that there is a group of people that subscribe to the need of liberalisation and there is a group of people that believe in the doubling down of the religious identity,” said Ahmed.
How these tensions manifest themselves has already become apparent in the arrests of scholars. Whereas the arrest of female activists has also been an indication that MBS might not be aiming for democratisation as much as an authoritarian centralisation of power.
A fraught future
Regional volatility and partial international isolation could further endanger the kingdom seeking to move away from the conservative balance of power it previously held.
Earlier this year, the US Congress voted against further weapons sales to Saudi Arabia over its handling of the Yemen war, a stinging rebuke to a kingdom that has often got its way in the West by opening its cheque book. Germany still has an arms embargo in place against Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi’s murder.
The UAE, which until recently was standing shoulder to shoulder with MBS on tackling the impact of the Arab Spring, has abandoned its erstwhile ally in the Yemeni war which has become an existential issue for the kingdom.
More recently, the Saudi inability to protect its oil assets against an alleged Houthi attack is an indication that the country which has spent hundreds of billions on buying weapons from the West seems to be incapable of defending its borders.
Saudi fragility stands in marked contrast to Iran's regional hegemony. Faced with crippling sanctions, it has ensured through its backing of Houthi rebels that Saudi Arabia is bogged down in an unwinnable war with its southern neighbour.
“The Saudis are in a difficult situation, on the one hand, they are trying to appeal to the superpowers by showing they are part of the so-called civilised order while at the same time they're trying to appeal to Muslims that they are responsible custodians of the two holy cities. Something has to give here because those two positions are in tension with each other,” explained Yakoob.
A senior Islamic scholar and jurist, formerly the head of the Supreme Judicial Council of Saudia Arabia and student of Abd al Aziz ibn Baz, a well known and influential Saudi cleric, spoke to TRT World on the condition of anonymity and was equally critical about MBS’s role as future custodian of the two holy mosques.
“Even if we say that MBS is not responsible for the killing of Khashoggi, which is difficult to believe, there are many people and their positions within the royal court who question the credibility of Saudi Arabia as the host for millions of Muslims who visit it for their religious duties.”
The young, ruthless and petulant would-be king has over the last few years displayed a reckless callousness towards opponents, unlike past Saudi rulers. This has led some to ask whether it is wise to allow one single individual to control such an important site for Muslims.
Khashoggi’s murder proved to be a crucial turning point for the crown prince and his ambitions. He has become a toxic figure. Reviled for the brutal nature of Khashoggi’s death and the human toll in the war against Yemen - his reforms are increasingly viewed as cynical attempts to appease a Western audience.
Muslims around the world have come to view Saudi overtures to Israel and the Saudi-funded counter-revolutions across the Arab Spring movements as incompatible with the title of the custodians of the two holy mosques.
“MBS has overreached in his hubristic assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and in the process of that happening he has been forced to retreat on various fronts...and is now in a much more weakened position,” said al-Azami.
Far from making Saudi Arabia more resilient, MBS may have unwittingly endangered his own future.