Saudi Crown Prince Shifts Into High Gear on Multiple Fronts
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is simultaneously speed dating and playing on multiple diplomatic, religious, and economic chessboards.
The latest feather in his crown, his appointment as Saudi prime minister, aims to ensure that he can continue to act with as little collateral damage as possible.
The appointment shields him from legal proceedings in the United States, France, and potentially elsewhere, including the International Criminal Court in the Hague, in which plaintiffs assert that MBS was responsible for the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
As a head of government, MBS now enjoys sovereign immunity, a status he could not claim as heir-apparent.
While the legal maneuver is certain to succeed, it is unlikely to significantly improve his image, which is tarnished by the killing and his domestic crackdown on dissent that in recent weeks produced outlandish sentences of decades in prison for little more than a tweet.
Reputational issues have not stopped MBS from shifting into high gear as he pushes ahead with efforts to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy; replace regional competitors like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the center of gravity at the intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe; demonstrate his diplomatic clout and relevance beyond oil to the international community; and position himself and the kingdom as the beacon of a moderate, albeit an autocratic, form of Islam.
MBS’ multi-pronged dash has produced mixed results.
In his latest foray onto the international stage, he sought to display his diplomatic skills and relevance to the international community by securing the release by Russia of 10 foreign nationals captured while fighting for Ukraine. The foreigners’ release was part of a Ukrainian-Russian prisoner swap negotiated by Turkey.
Although Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al Saud rejected as “very cynical” assertions that MBS was seeking to shore up his image by associating himself with the swap, it seems likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin was happy to give him a helping hand.
In a similar vein, people close to MBS see mileage in asserting that the crown prince’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving and enhancement of women’s rights and professional opportunities is what inspired women-led protests in Iran.
By contrast, the crown prince’s economic diversification efforts appear to be producing more unambiguous results. For example, the Saudi industry and mineral resources ministry issued over 500 industrial licenses in the first six months of this year, primarily in the food, steel, and chemicals sectors.
More controversial are plans for a beach in Neom, scheduled to open next year, that envision a wine bar, a separate cocktail bar, and a bar for “champagne and desserts” in a country that bans alcohol.
The plans seem out of sync with religious sentiment among a significant segment of Gulf youth, if a recent opinion poll is to be believed,
In his latest move, MBS launched a $38 billion “National Gaming and Esports Strategy” to make Saudi Arabia an e-sports leader by 2030. The budget includes $13 billion for the acquisition of “a leading game publisher.” The kingdom has already invested in Capcom, Nexon, Nintendo, ESL Gaming, SNK, and Embracer Group.
In addition, Saudi music entertainment company MDLBEAST saw a business opportunity in the 2022 Qatar World Cup that would also help project the once secretive kingdom as a forward-looking modern state. MDLBEAST has invited 56 top international and regional performers to entertain soccer fans on a custom-built stage in Doha during the 28 days of the tournament.
On an even grander scale, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of the world’s more notorious human rights violators, together with Greece, are considering bidding to host the 2030 World Cup — a move that sounds like an invitation to a perfect public relations fiasco, if Qatar’s experience is an indicator. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s endeavor to bankroll Liv Golf, a challenger to PGA Tour, has turned into a public relations fiasco amid allegations that the kingdom was seeking to launder its reputation.
The Muslim World League, the crown prince’s primary vehicle to garner religious soft power and propagate an autocratic version of Islam that is socially liberal but demands absolute obedience to the ruler, achieved a public relations coup when it forged an unlikely alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama. Nahdlatul Ulama is arguably the world’s only mass movement propagating a genuinely moderate and pluralistic form of Islam.
But the limits of Saudi tolerance were evident last month when authorities arrested a pilgrim to Mecca for dedicating his pilgrimage to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, a non-Muslim who had just died.
Nahdlatul Ulama believes that engagement creates an opportunity to persuade the Arab world to embrace a more genuine and holistic vision of moderate Islam rather than one that is self-serving. That may be a long shot, but it also may be a way of launching Saudi Arabia on a path that would help it repair its badly tarnished image. That is if MBS pairs genuine religious moderation and pluralism with a rollback of domestic repression and greater political pluralism. So far, that appears to be one thing the crown prince is unwilling to consider.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.