Saudi Arabia’s Perilous Pivot
But even if MBS succeeds in shoring up his power and endearing himself to the people in the short term, it has become clear that he intends to rule as an authoritarian despot when he succeeds his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. This would be a radical departure from the Kingdom’s tradition of power-sharing among princes within a highly decentralized system.
MBS’s hardnosed political style also has international implications. For starters, he has taken an increasingly tough line against Iran and that country’s regional ambitions, thus exacerbating the Sunni-Shia divide. MBS’s approach – which includes ill-informed statements comparing the Iranian regime to Nazi Germany – has the support of other Sunni countries such as Egypt and Jordan, and from US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But it hardly bodes well for the region’s stability.
Moreover, MBS’s military intervention in Yemen has been a failure, and his decision to impose an embargo on Qatar – a small but wealthy Gulf country that challenges Saudi hegemony – has backfired. Similarly, his attempt late last year to depose Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri ended in a fiasco.
It is hard to say where Saudi Arabia may be heading. The country certainly needs comprehensive reforms. But the jury is still out on whether MBS’s approach is the right one. If he succeeds, he will emerge with a reputation as a reformer. Yet he clearly is not interested in establishing representative institutions or strengthening the rule of law, so his country will have become a personal dictatorship.
Alternatively, MBS’s authoritarian tendencies and embarrassing foreign-policy failures might provoke internal opposition, both from the traditional elites he has vowed to decimate, and from the sizeable Shia minority in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, whose members may look to Iran as a protector.
And, on the international front, MBS’s escalation with Iran could spin out of his control. Despite its recent weapons purchases from the US, Saudi Arabia would still be outmatched in a military confrontation with Iran. If such a confrontation does take place, one must hope that it will not lead to a wider regional war.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.