Wednesday 16 October 2019

MBS - from promising reformer to tainted heir to Saudi crown


Backer: US President Donald Trump has been a close supporter of Crown Prince Mohammed. Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters
Backer: US President Donald Trump has been a close supporter of Crown Prince Mohammed. Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters

Analysis: Raf Sanchez

Exactly a year ago, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was on top of the world.

Or more specifically, he was on stage at the first 'Davos in the Desert' investment summit in Riyadh, happily discussing his plans for a $500bn (€439bn) new Saudi mega city.

Western politicians and international business leaders flocked to hear the young prince describe his vision of a reformed Saudi economy and of a gentler society freed from the grip of hardline clerics.

Today, Crown Prince Mohammed is at the centre of an international storm over allegations he ordered Jamal Khashoggi's murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The global elites who raced to Riyadh last year are nowhere to be seen this year. The conference hall at the Ritz-Carlton hotel remains packed but few of the attendees are from major US or European firms.

The fall from international favour is the latest dramatic turn in the life of the 33-year-old heir, who has gone in a few short years from an unknown royal to one of the Middle East's most powerful men.

Widely known by his initials 'MBS', Crown Prince Mohammed is one of the younger sons of current monarch King Salman and a favourite among his 13 children. He has been groomed for leadership since King Salman took the throne in 2015 and, unlike many of his siblings, was educated in Saudi Arabia not the West.

He was appointed defence minister at the age 29 but his authority has spread to almost all corners of the Saudi government, earning him the nickname "Mr Everything" from some foreign diplomats.

His 82-year-old father is declining mentally and has handed his son broad powers over the economy. MBS has also been a driving force behind Saudi Arabia's more aggressive foreign policy, including its disastrous bombing campaign in Yemen and efforts to isolate Qatar.

Last year, King Salman re- ordered the Saudi line of succession and shifted the direction of the kingdom's future. He removed the serving crown prince, his 58-year-old nephew Mohammed bin Nayaf, and gave the title to MBS.

In the 17 months since, Crown Prince Mohammed has moved with unbridled aggression at home and abroad, smashing what had been a slow-moving Saudi governing system based on consensus among the elite. He pushed through social reforms such as allowing women to drive and re-opening cinemas, although he has done little to ease the guardianship laws which severely restrict the rights of female Saudis.

In November last year, he announced an "anti-corruption" drive which saw Saudi police arrest many of his fellow princes and some of the kingdom's leading business figures. Analysts saw it as an effort to consolidate power and crush potential rivals.

At the same time, MBS summoned Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, and effectively imprisoned him in Saudi Arabia and ordered him to resign in protest at Iran's influence in Lebanon. Mr Hariri was eventually freed and resumed his post after the intervention of France and others.

All the while, Saudi Arabia continued its bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. While human rights groups criticised the level of civilian casualties and a blockade that has fuelled famine, MBS has retained the backing of the US and UK. His support from Donald Trump, the US president, and close relationship with Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, has insulated him from opponents.

One of the questions of the Khashoggi crisis is whether the White House will rethink its trust in a man it sees as a reformer, a reliable opponent of Iran, and a potential linchpin of a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

Even if the White House stands by him, his international reputation has certainly been tarnished. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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