The Najdi Bedouins are not known for their humor. Their Wahhabi literalism does not allow for light talk. Their dour looks and furrowed foreheads betray their inner thoughts, limited as they are. Into this mix you throw in a clown prince and you get a clumsy mess that even Inspector Clouseau would not be able to match.
This is what is going on in “Saudi” Arabia, especially since Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) became crown prince in June 2017. With King Salman suffering from dementia, MbS is the de facto ruler of the medieval kingdom.
He has his finger in every Saudi pie. In addition to being the crown prince, meaning he will succeed his father to the throne, he is also the country’s defence minister, economic czar, head of Aramco, head of security, and his father’s court secretary. MbS also directs the Kingdom’s foreign policy.
And yes, he controls the Kingdom’s media both at home and abroad and is trying to acquire foreign media outlets as well. Despite this, he has not been able to sweep Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October under the rug. Khashoggi’s murder story refuses to die. Turkish President Recep Erdogan has made sure it does not. Even the United Nations has pointed the finger at MbS.
Is there anything that he does not control in the Kingdom? With so much power in his grubby hands, it would be reasonable to assume that he would have smooth sailing. Not so. Being the king’s son does not automatically confer intelligence or qualification to rule. There are numerous fault lines and competing interests in the Kingdom, even if he has managed to clamp down on them for now.
Whatever MbS touches turns to dust. Take the country’s oil wealth. Saudi Arabia has been described as America’s gas (petrol) station. Washington determines the price of oil and “Saudi” Arabia obeys, like a slave. Much of the Kingdom’s oil income is spent on buying weapons from the Americans to wage endless wars, and to finance the ruling family’s rapacious lifestyle.
As soon as Bin Salman was appointed defence minister when his father became king in January 2015, he launched the disastrous war against dirt-poor Yemen in March. It is still raging but has achieved few of the military or geo-strategic objectives. Instead, it has inflicted massive suffering on civilians where 22 million of the 24 million Yemenis are on the verge of starvation. More than a million children are afflicted by cholera — “the worst epidemic in history” — according to the UN.
Bin Salman’s other misadventures against Islamic Iran and tiny Qatar have been equally disastrous. The takfiri project — signature mark of the Bani Saud — is also on the rocks as Syrian forces backed by their allies have defeated the terrorist outfit. Perhaps MbS can claim some success in turning the Kingdom into a Zionist colony. It was already subservient to the US. At the same time, he is scurrying to hire mercenaries to protect the teetering kingdom even while being one of the largest importers of weapons in the world.
It is to the Saudi economy that we need to turn our attention to see where it is heading. The Saudis’ days of checkbook diplomacy are over. Oil income has sharply declined since 2014 eating into the regime’s reserves. One-third have been wiped out by budget deficits. At this rate, the Kingdom’s reserves that totaled $750 billion before the oil price crash will disappear in six years.
Bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” is already stumbling and is not likely to materialize into anything significant. He continues to harp on it but what else can he do? Similarly, the idea of floating Aramco on the international stock market has fallen apart. It was abandoned last September without offering any explanation.
On December 18, 2018, the king announced a 7% increase in state spending for the 2019 budget to spur the sluggish economy. Spending is projected to rise to 1.106 trillion riyals ($295 billion), from last year’s total of 1.030 trillion riyals ($275 billion). The economy shrank last year.
With government the biggest employer and most Saudis being bone lazy, the jobless rate has hit a record high of 30% among the youth (youth comprise 51% of the Saudi population). Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers (700,000 last year) have been dismissed and have left the Kingdom. They were not paid wages for many months for doing dirty menial work. The regime also imposed hefty visa fees on these poor workers making it impossible for them to continue to work in the Kingdom.
The Saudis are simply not ready or capable of doing the work the expatriates did. They cannot even boil an egg much less change a light bulb. The masakin from Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh did these chores in the past. Now they have been expelled from the Kingdom. Pity the poor Saudis, if they deserve any!
Far from addressing the deep structural faults in the Saudi economy, the regime — or more accurately Bin Salman — has embarked on gimmicks to divert people’s attention. One is the opening of cinemas; the other is holding open-air concerts where Saudi men and women indulge in vulgar behavior. There also plans to open a holiday resort on the Red Sea coast where “everything” will be allowed: gambling, drinking, and of course, the oldest of all professions: prostitution. Welcome to Bin Salman’s moderate, modern “Saudi” Arabia!
Another way to look at the troubled economy is that at the beginning of 2018, the regime imposed a 5% value-added-tax. This indirect method of taxation did not sit well with most Saudis who were used to subsidized services all their life. Fuel subsidies are being eliminated, adding to public angst.
Aware that people cannot be hoodwinked by gimmicks, the regime has embarked on the wholesale arrest of ‘ulama’. Even the mildest form of criticism is not tolerated. Hundreds of leading ‘ulama’ have been arrested and thrown in jail.
Similarly, members of the “royal” family were arrested in early November 2018 for a shakedown at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. Some of them were badly tortured and then forced to sign papers that they would not leave the Kingdom or divulge any information about their mistreatment.
Making too many enemies is never a good idea. Bin Salman is digging his own grave. Many informed observers have opined that he may not be able to succeed his father to the throne, and even if he does, his chances of survival are slim.
Few would shed any tears to the see the back of this horrible man from the desert.