"I believe that the new Europe is the Middle East. Saudi Arabia in the next five years will be completely different, Bahrain will be completely different, Kuwait will be completely different. Even Qatar, with which we have a disagreement, will be completely different in five years. United Arab Emirates, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq... This is the Saudis' war, this is my war. And I don't want to leave this life unless the Middle East is developed." That's what Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman dared to predict in 2018. Location: The session of the Investment Initiative Conference held in Riyadh. Another conference that brought together the leaders of the region, another announcement that earned him a standing ovation.
Five years have passed, and the region has changed in its own way. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who sat at the conference to bin Salman's right, abandoned politics. His country descended into an unprecedented economic depression and signed an agreement with Israel regarding its maritime border. Syria (or what was left of it), which was not even mentioned by the prince at the time, returned to the Arab League. Just a week ago, Assad visited China, the rising power. In Oman, a new sultan, Haitham bin Tareq, succeeded his cousin. And finally, an earthquake: Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan normalized their relations with Israel to one degree or another. It was a time of changing of the guard in the region. Egypt and Syria sank into their existential problems, Iraqi democracy faltered, and the Arab Gulf took its primacy.
Saudi Arabia itself has changed, of course. Bin Salman managed to reconcile with Qatar, which hosted the World Cup under the cover of its corruption stunts. Overnight, the prince abandoned the dictates of surrender he had set on the eve of the 2017 boycott. Al Jazeera is operating as usual, and the dwarf emirate's ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran have not been severed for a moment. On the contrary, with Chinese mediation, Riyadh renewed diplomatic relations with Tehran last March. A product of distrust of Americans. Beijing, a source familiar with the matter said, wanted to achieve stability in the Gulf because of gas markets, which are needed for its astronomical energy needs.
Without shaking hands: Biden meets with bin Salman in Saudi Arabia Saudi TV // Archive photo
In the midst of these days, Saudi Arabia is making efforts to reach an arrangement with the Houthi militia in Yemen, which has led a regional coalition to the war since 2015. "The Saudis are more eager to get out of Yemen than the Emirates. They feel they can get the relationship they want with the Houthis," said a Financial Times source. And that gap has become a source of tension with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed. The man the prince looked up to.
At the same time, Riyadh is closer than ever to a normalization agreement with Israel, or at least a defense agreement with the United States, a deal that might provide it with civilian nuclear capabilities. The impression is that in the coming years, bin Salman, who gave his blessing to the Abraham Accords, will make his way to Jerusalem.
"His fate is tied to hers"
All the while, the flood of social reforms in Saudi Arabia continues. Women were allowed to drive and move around the public space without a veil. A new law required the approval of a special court for marriages under the age of 18 in order to stop the phenomenon of child marriage.
The younger generation began to express themselves more freely on social networks. So much so that people were arrested for tweeting and sent to lengthy prison terms. In the cinemas that reopened, the movie "Barbie" was released, and in the huge shows that were launched in the Land of Islam, young men and women dressed in Western clothing.
...., photo: Reuters
But there are those who are dissatisfied with the dizzying pace of change. The voice of the Saudi opposition, a significant part of which is based abroad, is becoming increasingly hostile to the prince.
"Once upon a time, the royal family was one of the pillars that guarded the country," said a former Saudi adviser turned activist against the crown prince. "But bin Salman weakened it. He chopped off her wings. He strategically weakened the security of the state, so that its fate was tied to his. If anything happens to him, the future of the kingdom will be shrouded in uncertainty."
According to the adviser, "There is widespread public opposition to bin Salman's changes in society – from holding crazy parties to buying soccer players at imaginary prices, arrests of clerics, social and academic activists, and harassment of their families. Every week, a new hashtag pops up on the Saudi network rejecting what bin Salman is doing.
"He has neutralized the religious establishment until they no longer condemn heresy or lewd words that we have seen in the kingdom. There are people who are surprised by the silence of the Council of Religious Scholars, but the scholars in this body are elected while pledging not to condemn the king or the crown prince – no matter what happens."
Among other things, the former adviser is referring to the tectonic change that has taken place in the Saudi government. The three senior positions – prime minister, defense minister and energy minister – are held by the king's sons. The crown prince as prime minister, and his brothers Khaled and Abdulaziz in the ministries of defense and energy. In fact, a pyramid was created at the top of which is the crown prince, which managed to subordinate the religious establishment, the old princes and the heads of the tribes.
Mohammed bin Salman (left) with his father as a child, photo: Arab networks
Bin Salman's people dismiss such claims online: "Let him continue barking, another traitor." They, too, have a branch to hang onto. After all, already during the reign of King Fahd, his brothers of the Sudyar Seven (sons of Hasa bint Ahmed al Sudairi) took over the key positions. And maybe therein lies the great change taking place these days. From a traditional and closed state, where disputes and struggles take place behind closed doors, the kingdom is becoming a modern and relatively open nation-state. Everything is on the table. It's harder to hide.
Isn't it the age?
On August 31, bin Salman celebrated 38 years. He is the son of Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan Al Khatlin, the third wife of his 87-year-old father. His mother comes from a Bedouin tribe called al-Ajman, one of the most important tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. He himself married at the age of 23, and had five children with his relative, Princess Sarah.
At the time of his birth, Salman was about 50 years old and had served for 20 years as governor of Riyadh Province. Historians speculate that Feda played a role in her son's promotion. After all, Muhammad, the sixth son, had five older brothers, ostensibly more senior. And here, fate played to him. Salman's eldest son and third son died of complications from heart problems at a relatively young age (47 and 43). His second son, Sultan, strove for a higher position than an ordinary ministerial position. In 1985, when Mohammed was just born, he became the first Arab astronaut. Now, at the age of 67, Sultan is content to act as an adviser to King Salman. Another brother, Abdulaziz, 63, is energy minister.
..., Photo: AFP
The obvious historical question is why MBS (as Mohammed bin Salman is known), and not SBS or ABS. After all, unlike other princes, who excelled in their studies and passed through prestigious universities around the world, bin Salman completed his law degree at the local university in Riyadh. His opponents make sure to mention this fact by claiming that he is trying to compensate for an inferiority complex. That he, the real estate man, is trying to prove to everyone his greatness.
"It's not the age," says a Saudi official, "Saudi Arabia is no longer the same kingdom as 30 years ago. In a while we will be 40 million people and we face dangers as a result of the changes in the world. The king understood this and chose a successor who could lead us. Allah has bestowed success and wisdom on this ambitious young man. He presented the vision of 2030 that anticipates the future of generations that will benefit from its results." This is, of course, the prince's grandiose plan, aimed at diversifying the kingdom's economy based mainly on oil. Its highlight are the real estate and tourism projects of the smart city of Neom and the archipelago of artificial islands in the Red Sea.
Beyond this vision, the kingdom had no small interest in bin Salman's rise. Dr. Yossi Mann, an expert on Saudi Arabia, a lecturer and senior researcher at Reichman and Bar-Ilan universities, believes that the country sought to avoid a rapid turnover of kings. Nonetheless, over the past two decades, Saudi Arabia has replaced two kings, Fahd and Abdullah. If King Salman does not last long, he will be the third. "The whole succession thing has instilled instability and shocks," says Dr. Mann, "and when you choose someone relatively young in their 30s, there's continuity in that."
"It also sends a message to young people in the kingdom. It already seems that bin Salman enjoys more support from the country's young people, and he does not necessarily rely on tribes or clerics. He sees himself as a kind of Elon Musk of the Middle East. However, the real black hole is the princes. People who ran security and intelligence just disappeared." Indeed, a former CIA official estimated in a media interview that 70 percent of Saudi Arabia's young population supports bin Salman, but at the same time he has become an "unpopular" figure among the veteran elite, partly because of the changes he seeks to bring about.
How connected the prince is to the younger generation can be learned from the following matter. In the sidelines of the Fox News interview, MBS confessed that in order to "decompress" and relax, he plays computer games. "Ever since I was a kid, I've loved it. It detaches me from reality...", he said, adding: "eSports (a branch of video game competitions; S.K.) is one of the most important things happening in the world. It's one of the fastest growing industries in the world. We have profits of 15% or 25% of it."
Imagine – the future leader of the Arab world, the ruler of the regional power, who will be the new king and guardian of Islam's two holy places, occasionally sits in a gamer's armchair, snacking on nachos, drinking Coke Zero and playing FIFA or GTA. The minds of fundamentalists explode.
Game of Thrones
Still, behind the scenes there was a completely different game. In 2017, bin Salman carried out a series of arrests of senior officials, including ten princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers. The official pretext: fighting corruption. One of them was Prince Walid al-Talal, one of Saudi Arabia's most colorful businessmen. The latter was behind the extravagant real estate project of the world's tallest tower in Jeddah, which was supposed to rise to more than 1,000 meters. It was part of the not-so-macho competition between the Saudis and Dubai's Burj Khalifa (828m).
Top right: Energy Minister Abdulaziz, the late King Abdullah and Prince Ahmed. Bottom right: Former Crown Prince bin Nayef, Mohammed bin Salman and his father the king, Photo: Reuters, AP, AFP, AP and Arab networks
Only recently has construction resumed on the project. Talal himself was released long ago from the house arrest imposed on him. On social media, he tours the deserts of Najd and the surrounding city of Neom and nonchalantly calls soccer star Neymar, who started playing for the Saudi soccer team Hilal.
Nonetheless, Talal is one of the sponsors of the team, which has become the flagship project in promoting Saudi sports. Those close to the prince reject the allegations of an attempt to whitewash the regime through the field. According to them, encouraging sports is intended to distance young people from religious fundamentalism, no less. Needless to say, the prince, who holds a small percentage stake in Company X (formerly Twitter), occasionally tries to praise the crown prince. Someone wanted to tame the businessman.
A year after the series of arrests, the world was shocked by the brutal murder of former Saudi adviser Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi came from a wealthy family close to the regime and edited and wrote for the Saudi press. In the 90s, for example, he served as editor-in-chief of Medina, a relatively conservative newspaper in the kingdom. It should be noted that most of the newspapers in the country are indirectly owned by the royal family through the Saudi research and marketing group SRMG. Over the years, he got into trouble for publishing "controversial" columns and left for the United States. There, on the Washington Post website, he wrote a series of articles that included scathing criticism of the royal family.
Thus, for example, in his article, the publicist pointed to the "Iron Curtain" imposed on most of the Arab world, the war in Yemen, which has become an economic and political burden on Saudi Arabia, and the arrest of women's rights activists. Khashoggi also served as the Muslim Brotherhood's advocate of integrity, claiming that the U.S. was "wrong about them." When he arrived at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to file his divorce papers, he was captured by the assassination squad, strangled to death and cut to pieces. In an interview with Fox News, bin Salman as usual shirked responsibility. "It was a mistake," he said, "the guilty were brought to justice, and you can see that nothing like this has happened in the last five years."
Football fans in Saudi Arabia, photo: Reuters
The extent to which bin Salman acknowledges the "mistake" can be seen from Saud al-Khatani's recent public appearance. A close associate of the prince was the main suspect in the execution of the assassination operation and escaped it flawlessly. Earlier this summer, he appeared online with an ear-to-ear smile at home in Jeddah. The Saudi opposition went wild, claiming that he had received special permission from the crown prince, who is no longer afraid of Western criticism.
Nearly five years after the assassination, it is worth wondering whether Khashoggi's assassination was not merely a reckless move designed to silence specific criticism of the government. It is quite possible that this was a broader and more calculated move: a brutal show of force by the crown prince designed to send a deterrent message to all his domestic competitors. A message that the landlord takes no prisoners. In contrast to King Abdullah's gentlemanly nature, who led significant reforms in dialogue, distributed "grants" and paid close attention to princes and tribal chiefs, bin Salman, who is the de facto ruler, wants a more autocratic model – one that does not take the views of his relatives into too much consideration. Nevertheless, many believe that this is the model that suits the new Saudi Arabia better, especially after the rivers of blood of the "Arab Spring."
Does he have a plan for significant political changes, or is the monarchy here to stay?
Dr. Mann: I don't think he has a reason. You see Kuwait, where they tried the model of constitutional monarchy, and it caused a lot of shocks and chaos in the country. Investors fled and its situation deteriorated. In general, since the Arab Spring, there has been less enthusiasm for the idea of democracy in the Arab world, because we see that countries that maintained the traditional model coped with the challenges better."
Apropos of challenges - on Tuesday a special guest visited Ramallah. It was Nayef bin Bandar Sudairi (another descendant of the branch), the new Saudi ambassador to the Palestinian Authority. He met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and received his letter of appointment from him. He stressed the need to open the American consulate to the Palestinians and the kingdom's commitment to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
At the same time, and with interesting timing, Tourism Minister Haim Katz landed in Saudi Arabia for the first public visit by a senior Israeli official to the kingdom's soil. The reason: a conference of the United Nations Tourism Organization. Both visits illustrated the gap in voices coming from Saudi Arabia regarding normalization. For example, in an interview with Fox News, bin Salman did not explicitly say that he was demanding the establishment of a Palestinian state. The prince contented himself with statements about improving the standard of living and "solving this part." On the other hand, diplomatic sources in the kingdom, such as the ambassador above, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farrakhan, and others, repeatedly emphasize the classic two-state position as a condition for establishing official relations.
Saudi Ambassador to the Palestinian Authority (center), Photo: AP
In this context, Dr. Mann notes that the Palestinian community in Saudi Arabia still has some influence. "Unlike other people, I think the Saudis do see importance in the Palestinian issue. Years ago, they recognized that Israel was a fait accompli, but they also understood that the Palestinians find it difficult to manage themselves. That is why they carried out the Saudi initiative. I think Saudi Arabia understands the complexity of establishing a state, and bin Salman is acting like an excellent trader. It is not certain that they will settle for something symbolic. They'll want something more concrete. Internally, this issue is very important to them. Therefore, there is a chance that we will see an agreement in parts, like a deal in which there is economic cooperation with Israel."
What are bin Salman's ambitions on the nuclear issue?
"Let's start with the innocent angle. Saudi Arabia has a large population, is a country with one of the highest per capita electricity consumption in the world because of the extreme heat and electricity subsidies. It aims to produce more nuclear energy at the same time that it can increase its oil and gas exports, but bin Salman also sees it as a regional power. He wants nuclear weapons because he envisions Israel and Iran, which are regional powers, and wants to be equal to them. In his vision, he wants to return the Middle East to what it once was, to the center of the world, with Saudi Arabia at its center. And when you think about it, as far as he is concerned, today the big war is in Europe, while in the Middle East, especially in the Arabian Gulf, they are engaged in development and regional agreements."
Get rid of competitors
Perhaps the most important turning point in Mohammed bin Salman's life has to do with the crown prince he deposed, Mohammed bin Nayef. His opponent was nearly three decades older than him and had held the powerful Interior Ministry for years. In Saudi Arabia, this is not only a matter of authorities, and this ministry is also responsible for internal security, with all that this entails.
In this context, bin Nayef was responsible for imprisoning and repressing thousands of dissidents. He enjoys the trust of U.S. government intelligence agencies in dealing with terrorism and survived several assassination attempts. In one, a terrorist who wanted to join the rehabilitation program met with him in his palace and blew himself up. Ben Nayef survived with a minor hand injury. In short, not exactly an innocent lamb that can be easily deposed. And yet, one night in the summer of 2017, the Saudi crown prince was summoned to a palace in Riyadh. A gun was held to his back, forcing him to give up the role to Mohammed bin Salman. In the following years, he and potential claimants to the throne were placed under prolonged house arrest.
Meanwhile, rumors circulated about King Salman's de facto replacement for his son. It is said, for example, that his appointment as prime minister deviated from the clause in the law that states that the king will serve in this position. Others dared to wonder if he planned to depose his father while he was still alive – a real drama in Saudi Arabia. Although Faisal deposed King Saud in a move supported by clerics and other power centers, even King Fahd, who suffered a stroke in 1997, remained in office until his death.
"Saudi Arabia has a large population, it is a country with high electricity consumption, so it aspires to produce more nuclear energy. But bin Salman also sees it as a superpower. He wants to be equal to Israel and Iran."
But even Saudi oppositionists have admitted that bin Salman's appointment as prime minister has to do with the possibility that he will one day visit the United States. "It seems that the crown prince has received American advice on the matter," one of them told a Lebanese newspaper, "especially in light of prosecution cases against him in the United States. Although the Biden administration may ask for immunity for him, the final decision rests with the court, which may not accept the administration's recommendation. In other words, King Salman can be referred to as head of state and say that the crown prince is not entitled to such immunity."
One of the prosecution cases is that of Saad al-Jabri. A close associate of bin Nayef fled to Canada and revealed that an assassination squad had attempted to assassinate him. In an interview with "60 Minutes," he lashed out at bin Salman: "I'm here to warn about a psychopath, a murderer in the Middle East, with endless resources, who poses a threat to his people, to Americans and to the world. A psychopath without empathy, who has no feelings, who never learns from experience. We witnessed the atrocities and crimes committed by the murderer."
In the same interview, al-Jabri recounted a meeting that allegedly took place in 2014. According to him, bin Salman had already sought to assassinate King Abdullah with a poison ring obtained from Russia, noting that he only needed to shake hands with him. Al-Jabri relied on a recording that allegedly documented the meeting. "This guy won't rest until he sees me dead," he said. Riyadh, on the other hand, claimed that the former official was fabricating information in order to cover up the corruption for which he was wanted.
Another figure who was neutralized is Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman's younger brother. The latter was one of the three most popular figures in the palace in the early 2000s, alongside future kings Abdullah and Salman. Despite this, it has been marginalized over the past decade. He later moved to London, and in a moment of misfortune, at a demonstration outside his home against the war in Yemen, blamed bin Salman. The guarantees he sought from the United States upon his return to the kingdom did not help him. He was arrested in due course along with Ben Nayef. Like him, he was accused of involvement in a coup attempt.
Khashoggi's murder and the purges at the Saudi palace sparked resentment and opposition in the West. At some point, bin Salman became almost persona non grata. In the midst of his 2020 campaign, Joe Biden promised to turn Saudi Arabia into a "pariah state." But the days passed and the wheel turned. Biden entered the White House, and oil prices skyrocketed. The leader of the free world had to travel all the way to Saudi Arabia to fist hands with the wayward prince. Oil prices did not change for the better. "It's a matter of economic consideration," Saudi Arabia said. And now the United States is considering a defense agreement with Riyadh on the eve of the presidential elections. Magnificent folding.
Who, then, is Mohammed bin Salman? Is he an "enlightened dictator" and a shrewd political merchant who aspires to revolutionize his country and lead the Middle East to a future of progress? Is he an uninhibited killer willing to override every basic norm and human value on the way to the throne? Or perhaps, like countless princes before him, he is a product of his life circumstances. A man who had been marked since childhood to realize a dream that was immeasurably larger. And in this dream not only he is a partner, but also the entire family circle that surrounds him - from his father the king, through his mother to his brother. The dream of molding the new Saudi Arabia in the image of bin Salman.
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