Mohammed bin Salman’s Political Precarity Persists, Despite Perceived Successes

The paths of US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) crossed briefly on July 15 and 16 when Biden stopped in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for the final leg of his first visit to the Middle East since taking office in January 2021. Although Biden famously declared during a 2019 Democratic presidential campaign rally that he saw “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” he arrived in the kingdom at a time when he is beset by domestic political and economic challenges ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections. The difference between MBS and Biden’s respective political futures following their recent meeting could hardly be starker. While the odds of Biden being a one-term president grow stronger by the month, MBS left the Jeddah Security and Development Summit between the GCC+3 group and the US with a spring in his step after apparently having his standing—if not his image—in world capitals restored.

For the crown prince, who turns 37 on August 31, the past six months have marked his return to both the regional and international stage, a position that seemed for a time to have slipped away from him in the maelstrom of outrage that followed the killing of Jamal Khashoggi—reportedly ordered by MBS—inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. In December 2021, MBS visited neighboring Gulf capitals in advance of the annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, which he then hosted in Saudi Arabia a week later. And in June 2022 he traveled to Egypt, Jordan, and, most notably, to Turkey on a regional tour that was laden with significance. Both of these trips, and especially the latter with its stop in Ankara only weeks after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had made a visit to Saudi Arabia, seemed designed to portray MBS as a figure of regional importance, as had his presence front and center at a January 2021 “reconciliation” summit that ended the long-running intra-GCC rift over Qatar. But despite MBS’s recent successes, it remains to be seen if he will return to strongarm political tactics, or if his actions both domestically and on the global and regional stage will remain more temperate.

Domestic Primacy and International Influence

The sight of Biden making the trip to Jeddah at the height of summer to meet a man he once vowed to make a “pariah” was a statement of cold pragmatic intent that certainly was not lost on his host. While the photo of Biden fist-bumping MBS is the one that made headlines, another image from the Jeddah summit was more significant. The image depicts the bilateral Saudi-US working-group meeting, with the crown prince seated at the center of the Saudi delegation, directly opposite Biden. Despite having spent the first 18 months of his presidency insisting that he would only deal with his counterpart, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, in the end Biden had little choice but to bow to the inevitable and recognize MBS as his peer. In doing so, Biden provided the crown prince with the photo that definitively signaled the end of any lingering post-Khashoggi political isolation directed at MBS.

The concern for observers and analysts of Saudi policymaking is how the crown prince will choose to reassert himself both regionally and domestically, and whether or not he and those in his close circle have absorbed any lessons from previous missteps.

A feeling of security on the domestic front has allowed MBS to be more active regionally. Just over five years since he ousted his cousin, former Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, from the position of crown prince in June 2017, MBS enjoys control over all the levers of Saudi security, economic, and energy policymaking, and has sidelined potential familial rivals in the Al Saud dynasty. Meanwhile, the surge in oil prices that followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 have poured substantial gains into the Saudi treasury at a rate of up to $1 billion a day, and have made the kingdom a destination for western leaders seeking assistance in bringing down energy prices and mitigating the pressures of inflation and cost-of-living increases.

The crown prince may feel that he is free from international constraints now that the economic and geopolitical fallout from both the Russian invasion and a growing global recession has altered the perceived balance of power in favor of energy-producing states such as Saudi Arabia. An early sign that MBS felt less constrained came in advance of then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s March 2022 trip to Riyadh, just days after Saudi authorities executed 81 people in the largest mass execution in the kingdom’s modern history. The Saudi government then proceeded to execute three more individuals on the day of Johnson’s visit. Johnson ultimately left Riyadh (and Abu Dhabi, where he also traveled) empty-handed, having failed to secure Saudi and Emirati commitments to increase oil production, which Johnson had hoped might bring down prices. Biden also departed Jeddah without a meaningful Saudi pledge to break free of OPEC+ quotas, obtaining only a promise to increase Saudi capacity—rather than production—to 13 million barrels a day by 2027.

The concern for observers and analysts of Saudi policymaking is how the crown prince will choose to reassert himself both regionally and domestically, and whether or not he and those in his close circle have absorbed any lessons from the previous missteps that have dogged him for years. There may be the temptation in Riyadh to cast minds back to a “halcyon” period in 2017 and early 2018 when MBS was feted by western business leaders, and by some celebrities and journalists, especially during his month-long procession around major US cities in March and April 2018. That period came to a shuddering halt after the horrific killing of Khashoggi, which US intelligence agencies have concluded was approved by the crown prince. But in truth, warning signs about MBS’s character were already flashing red.

Recklessness Breeds Uncertainty

Even as MBS was being hailed as the poster child for economic and social—though not political—reform in Saudi Arabia, he was earning a reputation for acting impulsively and recklessly both domestically and regionally. Within two months of becoming Defense Minister in March 2015, he ordered Saudi-led forces into Yemen in hopes of a quick and decisive military intervention that has proved to be anything but. Then, in June 2017, shortly before he supplanted Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince, he embroiled Saudi Arabia in a four-nation blockade of Qatar that ultimately took three and a half years to resolve with almost no discernible gains for the Saudis or the three other blockading states: Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt. Five months after beginning the Qatar blockade, MBS detained much of the Saudi business elite, including members of his own family, in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, a move that has been described as both a “purge” and a “shakedown.” At the same time, Saudi authorities detained then Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during a visit to the kingdom, precipitating a diplomatic standoff that was ultimately resolved by French President Emmanuel Macron. A bad-tempered diplomatic spat with Canada in August 2018 offered even further evidence that MBS’s policymaking decisions were becoming more abrupt and unpredictable in the runup to the Khashoggi killing.

During the fallout from the Khashoggi affair there was intense scrutiny on the character of MBS, as well as his close circle of advisors.

During the fallout from the Khashoggi affair there was intense scrutiny on the character of MBS, as well as his close circle of advisors, including Saud al-Qahtani, then head of the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Royal Court. Al-Qahtani was directly implicated in overseeing Khashoggi’s gruesome killing and dismemberment and was one of 17 Saudis sanctioned by the US Treasury in 2018 for his role in the murder. In the furor that followed, al-Qahtani was eased out of his role in the royal court, but was later cleared by a Saudi investigation into Khashoggi’s death, and has reportedly been edging his way back into a position of influence within the court, which has raised some concern.

Other echoes from the past continue to raise issues for MBS. Ongoing court cases in the US filed by Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and by Saad al-Jabri, a senior Ministry of Interior employee who worked alongside Mohammed bin Nayef, have kept the spotlight on pressure tactics deployed by the Saudi authorities against those perceived to be enemies of the crown prince. The al-Jabri case has made headlines due to its allegations that the Saudi authorities maintained a rapid intervention force known as the Tiger Squad to pursue and capture Saudi dissidents, regardless of where in the world they might be. And apparently, an operation against al-Jabri was foiled in Canada shortly after Khashoggi’s killing. Meanwhile, just days after Biden returned from Saudi Arabia, a federal trial of a former Twitter employee began in California, with the defendant standing accused of misusing his access to user data to gather and pass information on perceived political dissidents to Saudi officials close to the crown prince.

Reformed, but for How Long?

With MBS again riding the crest of a wave of influence (if not popularity), observers will watch closely for any sign that he feels empowered to test the norms of power in ways that resemble his prior rejection of any limits on his decision-making. It is also worth following the ability of those around him, including his far more senior and vastly more experienced older half brother, Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman, to constrain MBS’s urge to act unconventionally. Recent reporting on Neom, the futuristic city that is one of the “giga projects” announced by MBS to great fanfare, does little to suggest that Saudi decision-making has gained any newfound appreciation for the value of moderation. Other patterns of investment, such as in the controversial breakaway LIV Golf Tour, indicate an ongoing enthusiasm for disruptive challenges to the status quo, using the kingdom’s financial leverage as muscle.

With MBS again riding the crest of a wave of influence (if not popularity), observers will watch closely for any sign that he feels empowered to test the norms of power in ways that resemble his prior rejection of any limits on his decision-making.

Some limitations on MBS’s freedom to maneuver remain, however, at least until he succeeds his 86-year-old father as king of Saudi Arabia. The crown prince’s father remains the final source of decision-making authority, and while King Salman appears to have delegated much, if not nearly all, day-to-day policymaking to his son, some issues—notably full political normalization with Israel—are unlikely to happen during his lifetime. MBS has also appeared hesitant about traveling to Europe and North America, perhaps out of concern for any potential legal jeopardy arising from court cases lodged against him, although that hesitancy may now be receding with trips to Greece and France. He was a notable no-show at two major global events that took place in Europe in 2021: the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Rome and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow. To be sure, it will be interesting to see whether a US court decides to grant MBS sovereign immunity in Hatice Cengiz’s case against him. The judge has asked the Biden Administration whether it believes he should be granted that request, and the administration recently asked for a 60-day extension beyond the August 1 deadline to decide the matter.

The real test of whether MBS is a truly “changed” leader may only become fully apparent once domestic or international circumstances alter, i.e., when he becomes king of Saudi Arabia or if the Biden Administration is replaced by another highly unconventional US presidency, and perhaps even a return of Donald Trump, replete with an inner circle that remains close to MBS. With global politics currently roiled by the actions of authoritarian leaders who ride roughshod over international norms, a permissive environment for just the type of strongarm decision-making that marked MBS’s rise to power remains very much in place. Tracking how Saudi Arabia engages with the US over the remaining two years of Biden’s term in office and beyond may provide clues about the next phase of Saudi foreign policy in a global context that could hardly be more different from the reassertion of diplomacy that accompanied Joe Biden’s first months in office in 2021.