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The ascension of a young prince
When King Abdullah died in January 2015, his half-brother Salman, who was also one of the many sons of Ibn Saud, succeeded him. King Salman followed family tradition by appointing his half-brother Muqrin as crown prince.
That lasted for three months before Salman made it clear that he would be the last of his brothers to take the throne. Seeking to hand the kingdom over to the next generation, Salman made Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, his nephew, crown prince in 2015.
The dominance of the new generation was confirmed by another appointment – of the king’s own son, Muhammad bin Salman, as minister of Defence. Muhammad was 35 years old (born 1980). Crucially, Muhammad also became head of a new government body, the Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA) that was charged with overseeing the socio-economic development of the country.
In 2016, Prince Muhammad unveiled the first details of a new national plan, the Vision 2030. The objective was to shift Saudi Arabia from dependence on oil by diversifying the economy, expanding non-oil international trade, and developing the public service sectors from health care to education. Social life would be liberalised and tourism would be opened up.
In June 2017, having given his son all these levers of power, the king consolidated his authority by making him heir to the throne and prime minister. Muhammad bin Salman (widely known as MBS) now had virtually unfettered powers to bring about change, although his father was still king.
Diversifying the economy
Already a long-term policy of the government for decades, diversifying the economy was very urgent. The oil economy was in trouble. Several years before the new reign began, oil prices had been falling rapidly. At the same time, the oil sector made up 40 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Saudi Arabia, 90 per cent of government revenue, and 85 per cent of exports.
Immediately on coming to the throne, King Salman ordered a $29.3 billion public spending programme. It included lavish payments of two months’ bonus salary to all Saudi state employees, a bonus payment for welfare recipients and a series of subsidies. It was a populist (and popular) move, but it exposed the budget to debt.
The oil price started to improve in 2017 and world oil consumption picked up, but very slowly. Between 2011 and 2021, it increased by only 0.8 per cent per year. In relative terms, the share of Saudi oil worldwide decreased. Saudi oil exports as a share of the world total declined by an average of 0.5 per cent yearly over the same period and by 2021, its share of world exports had fallen to 11.5 per cent. The Saudi GDP did not fall, but it did not increase greatly either.
On becoming prime minister, Muhammad bin Salman proposed that Saudi Arabia would seek investments from global financial markets and also invest outside the country through a sovereign wealth fund. Such a fund, as he hoped, would take over more than ten percent of the investment capacity worldwide. These measures would help Saudi Arabia abandon its dependence on oil.
Furthermore, MBS sought to bolster domestic markets by increasing consumption through consumerism and services. The objective was to encourage debt-fueled consumption and reduce Saudi citizens’ expectations of the state. The new leadership wanted to create an economy driven by the provision of services, US-style consumerism, and a stripped-down state intent on reducing its spending, selling off assets, and weathering a decline in global oil demand.
Modernisation and repression under Muhammad bin Salman
After King Salman came to power, he tried to redefine Wahhabism as a religious tradition concerned with personal piety, instead of playing a political role. This posed a challenge to him, because Wahhabism has always legitimised the Saudi state, even while some religious scholars and their fatwas encouraged people to join terror groups.
At the same time, Salman’s government rounded up Islamic fundamentalists and suspected terrorists. It also restricted the powers of the religious police, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Muhammad bin Salman, meanwhile, had become the de-facto ruler of the country, with his father, King Salman, operating on the sidelines. Bin Salman has a law degree from King Saud University and his knowledge of Islamic law allowed him to make coherent arguments justifying his claim to represent “moderate Islam,” that combines economic progress with greater personal rights.
Nevertheless, his move to control religious discourse can also be understood as part of his centralization of power. Furthermore, while the government introduced liberalisation reforms, it was criticised for its continuous repression. This contradicted the image of the liberalisation and modernisation of Saudi Arabia.
In April 2016, new regulations banned the religious police from taking on the duties of the regular police and from arresting suspected criminals. However, they would carry on enforcing strict sexual segregation, stopping the sale and consumption of alcohol, and enforcing social restrictions such as the ban on women driving cars.
High-profile cases of repression repeatedly hurt the image of Saudi Arabia as a forward-looking country.
In November 2017, authorities arrested over two hundred of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful people – princes, businessmen and ministers, accusing them of corruption. Many of them were detained in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, where some were reportedly beaten and tortured, which the government denied.
After they had been stripped of their wealth, according to Saudi official sources, around $107 billion was returned to the Saudi treasury. While Saudi authorities viewed the arrests as part of an anti-corruption drive set up by King Salman, human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch raised concerns over the mass arbitrary arrests. They argued the detentions fitted a pattern of human rights violations against peaceful advocates and dissidents in the preceding years.
While the government in September 2017 allowed Saudi women to drive, it targeted activists who had campaigned for the same cause. In May 2018, Loujain al-Hathloul, a leader of the women’s campaign against the driving ban, and several fellow activists were arrested on unspecified charges.
Official statements in state-run news outlets called them traitors, claiming they had made contact with “foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric.” Al-Hathloul was released in February 2021 after 1,001 days in custody, during which she was reportedly tortured. Despite her release, she was banned from leaving the country.
The Khashoggi Affair
Another issue that harmed the Kingdom’s image happened further afield, but sent shockwaves throughout the world. On 2 October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and government-critic, disappeared while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The following day, the Saudi government said he disappeared after leaving the consulate building, but Turkish officials said they believed he was still inside. It later became clear that a Saudi security squad had killed him inside the consulate and allegedly dismembered his body.
Eventually, Saudi authorities admitted that Khashoggi had been killed by renegade officials, some of whom were arrested in Saudi Arabia. Both the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a United Nations (UN) investigator said that Muhammad bin Salman had ordered the killing. In September 2019, Bin Salman denied that, but agreed he ultimately bore “full responsibility” for what happened because he was one of the country’s leaders.
In December that year, eight officials were found guilty and five were sentenced to death, the latter of whom saw their death sentences reduced to a twenty-year prison sentence. Despite that, the investigation into the killing and prosecution of the perpetrators by Saudi Arabia and Turkiye has been criticised. While MBS himself was initially sidelined as a result of international outrage, critics have argued that MBS has been able to evade prosecution as the alleged mastermind of the killing.
The Saudi government has also been criticised for the online targeting of activists, including women. Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund acquired a major indirect stake in Twitter and billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal also owned a substantial stake (more than 5 per cent). One of MBS’s senior aides was alleged to have infiltrated the social network, recruited and paid its employees to find Saudi dissidents who mocked or criticised the regime in their country.
In August 2022, a Saudi female student at Leeds University in Britain was arrested on her return home and sentenced to 34 years in prison for retweeting dissidents and activists calling for reforms in Saudi Arabia.
According to an August 2023 report of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), Saudi authorities have continued to systematically target (women) activists and journalists, curtailing free speech and imprisoning them for their activism in what the GCHR describes as “unfair trials that fail to meet international standards.”
Saudi Arabia has reportedly been using Israeli-made Pegasus spy software, among other spyware and surveillance systems, to hack into the phones of reporters (including Jamal Khashoggi of The Washington Post and Ben Hubbard of the New York Times), journalists at the Al Jazeera television network in Qatar and dissidents in Britain and Canada.
In an interview with Fox News in September 2023, Muhammad bin Salman said he was “ashamed” of the crackdown on dissent and claimed his country had been changing laws. However, he said he is unable to change or intervene in “bad laws”, which he blames for the harsh sentences.
Relations with Israel
While Saudi Arabia and Israel have never held official diplomatic ties, developing some relationship between the two proved to be important to both governments.
Links between Israel and Saudi Arabia became apparent in 2016 after Egypt ceded to Saudi Arabia two small islands on the Strait of Tiran (at the entry of the Gulf of Aqaba). This waterway controls the entry to Eilat, Israel’s southern port. The Israeli government quietly ratified the deal, which was necessary because the issue was governed by the Camp David agreement.
It was also part of Saudi Arabia and Israel covertly improving their bilateral relations in the face of their common enemy at the time: Iran. With the same motives, in 2017, the Israeli foreign ministry told Israeli diplomats overseas to back the Saudi intervention in Yemen.
Likewise, the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu publicly defended Muhammad bin Salman after the killing of Khashoggi, stating “it is very important for the stability of the region and the world that Saudi Arabia remains stable.” Netanyahu reportedly urged the US administration to maintain its strong security relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Further signs of (covert) cooperation appeared when in March 2018, planes taking off from Israel were allowed to enter Saudi airspace for the first time.
Encouraging the slow thaw between Israel and Saudi Arabia was among the reasons US President Joe Biden changed his position regarding the murder of Khashoggi, from sidelining MBS to resetting relations. In July 2022, Biden visited Saudi Arabia and, despite repeating his disgust at the murder of the journalist, he met Bin Salman himself.
By July 2023, Israeli President Isaac Herzog was publicly praising the United States’s efforts to broker formal diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, following a declaration by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Saudi-Israeli normalisation was a “real national security interest” for Washington.
Formal diplomatic relations have not followed as of October 2023, but a common economic policy has emerged with Bin Salman’s proposals for a smart city in an economic zone known as NEOM, planned to stretch between Saudi Arabia, the Straits of Tiran and Eilat, with a linear city specialising in smart manufacturing, biotechnology, and energy.
In addition, work has reportedly started on a land corridor project that would create a direct link between both countries, facilitating trade between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and with the other Gulf states.
Since Saudi Arabia has long conditioned normalisation of ties with Israel on a resolution of the issue of Palestine based on its Arab Peace Initiative, it demanded that concessions will be given to the Palestinians in any agreement. However, with the extreme rightwing government in Israel in place, this seemed unlikely.
The attacks by Israel on Gaza from 7 October 2023 onwards, including airstrikes, targeting civilians, depriving them of essentials and forcing them to evacuate parts of the Gaza Strip, enraged the Arab world.
Huge protests in the Arab streets showed that the Palestinian issue was still central to the hearts and minds of Arabs, freezing any efforts towards normalisation with Israel for the time being.
Blockade of Qatar
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt and a few other nations, cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. The Saudis in particular objected to Qatari support for Islamist groups in the region, and al-Jazeera’s coverage of Saudi and Egyptian affairs.
The Saudi-led bloc of countries also accused Qatar of supporting terrorism, as part of the increased role of Qatar in the region. Between 2017 and 2021, Qatar suffered a land, sea and air blockade, severely disrupting trade as well as travel between Qatar and the other countries.
War in Yemen
Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen had begun just before King Salman came to the throne. Yet, the Kingdom intervened more decisively when Muhammad bin Salman, as his father’s defence minister, set up a loose coalition of Gulf States to restore the Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power and force the Houthis to withdraw their forces from Sanaa. In addition, the coalition would fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which controlled a mini-state around Mukalla on the southern coast in the Hadhramaut.
The AQAP threat had been largely overcome by the end of 2016. However, the Houthis remained a threat despite a partial blockade on Yemen which the Saudi government said was needed to stop Iran from smuggling missiles to the Houthis, something the Iranian government denied. From 2017 onwards, the Houthis had been firing a large number of missiles deep into Saudi Arabia, as well as carrying out drone attacks against Saudi targets.
In 2020 there was a truce, but it did not lead to a cease-fire and violence continued. An attack on Aden airport killed over twenty people but not the target, the cabinet of a newly-formed Yemeni government. Riyadh blamed the Houthis.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were very bad for most of the 2010s. The war in Yemen was only one factor in this. In the war in Syria, Saudi Arabia backed rebel groups, while Iran firmly backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi fears of Iran’s nuclear programme put it firmly on the side of Israel and the United States. In 2016, Saudi Arabia and Iran openly clashed after the execution in Saudi Arabia of Nimr al-Nimr on charges of ‘terrorism’.
Bilateral ties were finally restored after Chinese-led secret talks in Beijing. The news did not please the Israeli right-wing government. Naftali Bennett, the former Israeli prime minister, called it a “serious and dangerous” development and a “fatal blow to the effort to create a regional alliance” against the Islamic Republic.
One test of the new government led by the de-facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman was its ability to confront the COVID epidemic. The government acted with firmness. In March 2020, it suspended all domestic and international travel and a series of curfews and lockdowns were placed on several administrative levels.
There was also a temporary suspension of entry for Muslims wanting to perform the Umrah pilgrimage and Friday prayers at the two great mosques in Mecca and Medina were suspended for a time.
The number of daily confirmed cases shrunk dramatically and by the middle of the year, most curfews had been lifted, except in Mecca itself. Mortality was high, increasing rapidly until mid-2020, followed by a rapid decline in the second half of the year and a second wave in mid-2021.
Full control over the virus was taken from October 2021 onwards. However, a spike in cases was seen in January-February 2022, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.