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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Mohamed Bin Salman: External Pressures and Internal Challenges

Mohamed Bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) attends a session at the annual Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 26, 2021. Fayez Nureldine / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

Saudi Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Salman, is trying to present himself properly this time after he succeeded in dismantling the international labyrinth in which he found himself years ago. All of that came as a result of ending the political blackmail he was subjected to from traditional allies of Saudi Arabia over the murder of the late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

In his attempt to turn the pages of this controversial incident that brought him massive regional and international backlashes, in addition to the problems of the war in Yemen, the Saudi crown prince looks forward to establishing himself as a significant player regionally and internationally, taking advantage of what can be considered a favourable moment at present.

The “actual ruler” of the Kingdom knows with certainty the role of his country and the position to which they must aspire. That is regardless of the interests of other parties, even if they are the United States.

Relations with the United States

Unofficial accounts point out the MBS’s anger at Biden’s administration and that the time has come for revenge. The young prince realises, like others, that the U.S. presidency is not in its best condition and that the time may have come to change the entire equation.

According to WSJ, the prince was wearing shorts at his seaside palace when he shouted at Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser: “The U.S. could forget about its request to boost oil production.”

As the story goes, the prince sought a relaxed tone for his first meeting with Sullivan last September. Nevertheless, he ended up shouting at his guest after he mentioned the murder of Khashoggi. The prince told Sullivan he never wanted to discuss the matter again.

The story seems in line with the fact that the prince has not spoken to Biden since the latter assumed the office, especially with reports that MBS was angry after Biden declassified last year an intelligence report that concluded that MBS ordered the killing.

However, it seems that he had a change of heart. In 2016, he described Saudi Arabia’s partnership with the U.S. as “huge” and considered that “oil is only a small part of it.”

Biden intends to nominate Michael Ratney for the post of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Saudi Arabia amid rifts between Washington and its traditional ally in the Gulf.

Referring to Biden’s attempt to improve relations, the statement issued by the White House mentions that Ratney, a veteran U.S. diplomat who previously worked in Baghdad, Beirut and Casablanca, speaks Arabic and French.

Ratney recently served as Chargé d’Affaires ad interim at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and the U.S. Special Envoy for Syria and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Qatar.

According to analysts, the United States is trying to persuade Saudi Arabia, the largest oil exporter, to produce more crude oil to make up for potential losses in Russian supplies after Moscow came under Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

According to a U.S. viewpoint, “Ratney would serve as Biden’s envoy to the Kingdom at a precarious time for U.S.-Saudi affairs.”

U.S.-Saudi relations have also remained complicated due to what Washington describes as the Kingdom’s violations of human rights, especially the killing of Khashoggi. Last year, Biden had pledged to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for Khashoggi’s killing after U.S. officials concluded that the crown prince himself ordered his killing.

However, last month, the White House called a WSJ report about Bin Salman’s refusal to speak with Biden about the U.S. ban on Russian oil imports “inaccurate.”

Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at The Washington Institute, says Prince Mohamed bin Salman is said to be “resentful that President Biden is not prepared to have a one-on-one meeting with him, either in person or by phone.”

Although the telephone diplomacy will likely heighten in the next few days to convince MBS to make concessions, Henderson does not see that the prospects are currently unfavourable for any concession from the Saudis.

In parallel, some are betting that “the end of the Ukrainian war is linked to the improvement in relations between the crown prince and President Biden,” with “the White House’s recommendation to improve relations with the Riyadh government, and to realise the importance of the Kingdom and the Gulf states in maintaining the stability of the economies of the United States and the world.”

On the other hand, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador in London and Washington, advised the U.S. that it should laugh with the Kingdom, not scowl.

Faisal draws attention to the arrows shot by American politicians of all political persuasions at the Kingdom to criticise and demean it, pointing out that recent American comments about the Kingdom and its crown prince by so-called experts and even politicians were deliberately negative.

He said: “We are not schoolchildren who accept such chastisement or reward. We have resisted the mockery of American media and politicians. For so long, we have withstood jibes at us from American media and politicians; it is only fair that you withstand our comedic jibes at you. I say to American media and other so-called experts: Laugh at the humour.”

Faisal refers to the show aired on the Saudi MBC mocking Biden as he forgets the context and falls asleep during a press conference with his vice-president, Kamala Harris. The sketch has been watched millions of times and sparked comments from social media users.

Turkish transformation

Mohamed Bin Salman
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) performs an umrah pilgrimage in the Saudi holy city of Mecca early on April 29, 2022. Erdogan has met with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince to “develop” relations in his first visit since the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. AFP

The Turkish Ministry of Justice did not object to the request to transfer the trial case of those accused of the Khashoggi crime to Saudi Arabia. The Directorate of Foreign Relations and the European Union of the ministry informed the Public Prosecution Office in Istanbul of its opinion regarding the transfer of the case to the Saudi authorities, at the request of Istanbul’s 11th High Criminal Court, which is responsible for examining the Khashoggi murder case.

This was followed by the announcement of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu that there are important steps in order to be able to normalise ties with Saudi Arabia.

Reuters quoted a senior Turkish official saying that Turkey’s decision to transfer the case of Khashoggi’s murder to Saudi Arabia was not a political one.

The Turkish transformation is based on Turkey’s need for economic support as it faces rising inflation exacerbated by the rise in energy prices after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Yemen war

Many years have passed since the war in Yemen to make the Saudi crown prince looks forward to the presence of new Yemeni leadership, ensuring the establishment of a new page in Yemen and its transition from war to peace and development.

In this context, Mohamed bin Salman did not miss the opportunity to express Saudi Arabia’s keenness to ensure that Yemen enjoys security and stability.

While Saudi Arabia is looking to get out of a costly war that has put it in a military stalemate for years and strained Washington’s relations with its Gulf allies, it is believed in some Yemeni power circles that the decision to launch Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen was “a prelude to show MBS on the front line of events as a man of war and a military leader who can manage the battle and win it, which means strengthening his influence inside Saudi Arabia at the expense of his opponents.

The statistics are frightening. The war killed more than 377,000 people, directly or indirectly, and displaced about 4 million from their homes. According to Oxfam, 24,000 raids launched since the start of the coalition’s operations have damaged 40 per cent of housing in various Yemeni cities.

However, according to Amnesty International, the conflict in Yemen “shows no real signs of abating as it enters its sixth year, and civilians from across the country and generations continue to bear the brunt of military hostilities and unlawful practices of state and non-state armed groups alike.”

According to Reuters, “the Saudis also have demands before meeting any American requests. Foremost of which is the Yemen file and the recognition of the crown prince as the de facto ruler of the Kingdom.”

It is no longer a secret that the strong relations between Riyadh and Washington have been shaken not only by the Khashoggi incident but also by the end of American support for offensive operations in Riyadh’s costly war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

Another source said: “Mohamed bin Salman’s only card is the oil policy to pressure the Americans to give him what he wants: recognition and weapons for the war in Yemen.”

In an interview for The Atlantic, the crown prince hinted that other countries, such as China, are ready to be on the scene if relations with Washington deteriorated. “Where is the potential in the world today? It’s in Saudi Arabia. And if you want to miss it, I believe other people in the East are going to be super happy.” he said.

Relations with Russia and China

The Saudi crown prince is taking advantage of his growing friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the ruling authorities in China to offset U.S. pressure, even if it is in terms of “the Kingdom’s support for efforts that lead to a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine and achieve security and stability.”

An official statement said that the crown prince received a phone call from Putin. They discussed bilateral relations that could unite the two countries and ways to enhance them in various fields in order to achieve the interests of the two friendly countries and their citizens.

The call coincided with another call from Chinese President Xi Jinping, which caught the attention of many, who considered it evidence of Saudi Arabia’s international weight at all levels.

Internal transformations

Massive transformations have taken place inside Saudi Arabia over the past years. Much of what was forbidden has become allowed, and the norms of society have changed rapidly and significantly, especially in the key relationship between the state, art, women and human rights.

This vast development took place at the behest of the crown prince, who dreams of a new kingdom, expressed in his vision for the future of Saudi Arabia in 2030.

The Saudi crown prince does not seem worried about his country’s future, as he believes it is promising, pointing to his desire to transform Aramco from an oil-producing company into a global industrial conglomerate operating around the world and to transform the Public Investment Fund into the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.

Mohamed Bin Salman pledged to give the Saudi army “the best possible machinery and equipment. We plan to manufacture half of our military needs within the Kingdom to create more job opportunities for citizens and keep more resources in our country.”

Prince Mohamed does not lack the imagination to aspire to a new kingdom, but his ambition has not yet been completed; he is waiting to be crowned king of the country.

But his enormous powers are currently diffuse without an internal threat, at least within the royal family, after he has gradually disposed of his rivals and has effectively become the ruler who manages the day-to-day affairs of the Kingdom.

The House of Saud publicly united around Mohamed Bin Salman post his ascension by royal order in 2017, after his father, the king, relieved Prince Muhammad bin Nayef from his Crown Prince and Minister of Interior positions.