Model, Politics

Four Narratives on Mohammed Bin Salman

[10 minute read]

Since June 21st of this year, Mohammed bin Salman (often known by his initials, MBS) has been the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. This required what was assuredly not a palace coup, because changes of government or succession are never coups, merely “similar to coups”, “coup-like”, “coup-esque”, or “coupLite™” [1]. As crown prince, MBS has championed a loosening of religious restrictions on women and entertainment, a decrease in reliance on oil for state revenues, and a harder line with Qatar and Iran.

Media coverage has been, uh, split. Here’s an editorial in The Washington Post comparing MBS to Putin, while an editorial in The New York Times fawningly declares “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last” [2]. Given that there’s so much difference in opinion on MBS, I thought it might be useful to collect and summarize some of the common narratives, before giving my own perspective on the man.

MBS as the Enlightened Despot

Historical Archetype: Frederick the Great.
Proponents: Al Arabiya [3], optimistic western journalists.
Don’t talk to them about: The war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, the increased stifling of dissent.

Exemplified by the fawning column above, this school of thought holds that MBS is a dynamic young leader who will reform the Saudi economy, end its dependence on oil, overhaul its institutions, end corruption, and “restore” a more moderate form of Islam.

They point to several initiatives that back this up. There’s the Vision 2030 plan that aims to spur entrepreneurship and reduce corruption. There’s much needed educational reforms. There’s the decision to allow women to drive and view sports games. There’s the lifting of bans on entertainment. For some of them, the ambiguous clamp-down on “corruption” is even further evidence that MBS is very serious about his reforms.

To supporters, MBS has achieved much in very little time, which they take to be clear evidence of a strong work ethic and a keen intelligence. His current crop of reforms gives them clear hope that clerical power can be shattered and Saudi Arabia can one day become a functioning, modern, democracy.

MBS as a character in Game of Thrones

Historical Archetype: Richard Nixon
Proponents: Cynical western journalists, Al Jazeera
Don’t talk to them about: How real-life politics is never actually as interesting or well planned as Game of Thrones.

Cersei Lannister’s quotable warning, that “when you play a game of thrones you win or you die” might imply that MBS is on somewhat shaky ground. Proponents of the first view might dispute that and proponents of the next rejoice in it. Proponents of this view point out that so far, MBS seems to be winning.

By isolating Qatar and launching a war in Yemen, he has checked Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula. Whether or not it’s valid, his corruption crackdown has sidelined many potential sources of competition (and will probably net much needed liquid cash for the state coffers; it is ironic that Saudi state now turns to sources of liquidity other than the literal liquid that made it so rich). His conflict with Qatar might yet result in the shutdown of Al Jazeera, the most popular TV channel in the Arabic speaking world and long a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabian autocracy.

People who view the conflict through this lens either aren’t particularly concerned with right or wrong (e.g. westerners who just want to get their realpolitik fix) or think that the very fact that MBS might be engaging in HBO worthy realpolitik proves he is guilty of a grave crime (e.g. Al Jazeera, westerners worrying that the region might become even more unstable).

MBS as an overreaching tyrant

Historical Archetype: Joseph II (epitaph: “Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook.”)
Proponents: Arab spring activists and their allies
Don’t talk to them about: How much better MBS is than any plausible alternative.

Saudi Arabia is a rentier state with an unusual relationship with its population. Saudi state revenues are not derived from taxation (which almost invariably results in calls for responsible government), but instead from oil money. This money is distributed back to citizens via cushy government jobs. In Saudi Arabia, two-thirds of citizen employment is in the public sector. The private sector is almost wholly the purview of expats, who (if I’m reading the latest official Saudi employment report right) hold 75% of the non-governmental jobs [4].

With oil set to become obsolete in the next fifty years, Saudi Arabia is in a very bad position. The only thing that can save it is a diversified economy, but the path there isn’t smooth. Overarching reform of an economy is difficult and normally relies on extensive, society-wide consultation. Proponents of this theory see MBS as intent on centralizing power so that he can achieve this transformation single-handedly.

They note that the reversal of the ban on women driving has been paired with intense pressure on the very activists who originally agitated for its removal, pressure to say nothing and to avoid celebrations. They also note that the anti-corruption sweep conveniently removes many people who could have stood in MBS’s way as he embarks on his reforms and expropriates their wealth for the state [5]. They note that independent economists and other civil society figures – just the sort of people who could have provided (and did provide) nuanced feedback on Vision 2030 – have found themselves suddenly detained on MBS’s orders.

Proponents of this theory believe that MBS is trying to modernize Saudi Arabia, but that he is doomed to fail in his attempts without building a (possibly democratic) consensus around the direction of the kingdom. They believe that Saudi Arabia cannot have the civil society necessary for reform until the government stops viewing rights as something it gives the citizens (and that they must be grateful for), but as an inherent human birthright.

If you believe this, you’ll most likely see MBS as moving the kingdom further from this ideal. And you might see the invasion and ongoing war in Yemen as the sort of cluster-fuck we can expect from MBS’s too-rapid attempts to accumulate and use power.

My View

I would first like to note that one advantage of caricaturing other views then providing a synthesis is that you get to appear reasonable and nuanced by comparison. I’m going to claim that as my reward for going through the work to post this, but please do remember that other people have nuanced views too. I got where I am by reading or listening to them!

My overarching concern with respect to Saudi Arabia is checking the spread of Wahhabi fundamentalism. Saudi Arabia has been exporting this world-wide, with disastrous effects. Wahhabism may not be the official ideology of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh), but it is inextricably tied to their barbarism. Or rather, their barbarity is inextricably tied to and influenced by Wahhabism. It is incredibly easy to find articles by authors, Muslim or not, (many by academics) marking the connection between Wahhabism and terrorism.

The takfiri impulses of Wahhabism [6] underlie the takfiri doctrine so beloved of Daesh. Of course, the vast, vast majority of Wahhabis engage in neither terrorism, nor public executions of (by Canadian standards) innocent people. But insofar as those things do happen in the Sunni world, Wahhabi men are unusually likely to be the perpetrators. It is tempting to go further, to claim that conservatives are wrong – that there is no Islamic terrorism problem, merely a Wahhabi terrorism problem [7] – but this would be false.

(There is terrorism conducted by Shia Muslims and by other Sunni sects and to call terrorism a solely Wahhabi problem makes it sound like there are no peaceful Wahhabis. A much more accurate (and universal, as this is true across almost all religions and populations) single cause would be masculinity, as almost all terrorists are men.)

Still, the fact that so much terrorism can be traced back to a close western ally [8] is disquieting and breeds some amount of distrust of the west in some parts of the Islamic world (remember always that Muslim are the primary victims of Islamic terrorism; few have better reasons to despise Islamic terrorism than the terrorists’ co-religionists and most-frequent victims).

Beyond terrorist groups like Daesh, Wahhabism fuels sectarian conflicts, strips rights from women, makes life even more dangerous for queer people in Muslim countries, and leads to the arrest and persecution of atheists. I am in a general a staunch liberal and I believe that most religions can coexist peacefully and many represent paths towards human flourishing. I do not believe this about Wahhabism. It stifles flourishing and breeds misery wherever it lands. It must be stopped.

The fact that Wahhabism at home is a problem for MBS (the Wahhabi clergy is an alternative, non-royal power centre that he can’t directly control) could give me some hope that he might stop supporting Wahhabism. Certainly he has made statements to that effect. But it is very unclear if he has any real interest in ending Saudi Arabia $100 billion-dollar effort to export Wahhabism abroad. I would be unsurprised if he deals with the domestic problems inherent in displacing the clergy (i.e. they might not want to be displaced without a messy fight) by sending the most reticent and troublesome members abroad, where they won’t mess up his own plans.

There’s the added wrinkle of Iran. MBS clearly hates Iran and Wahhabism considers Iranian Shiites heretical by default. MBS could easily hold onto Wahhabism abroad simply for its usefulness in checking Iranian influence.

Second to this concern is my concern for the human rights of Yemenis. MBS launched a war that has been marked by use of cluster munitions and flagrant disregard for civilian casualties. MBS instigated this war and was defense minister for much of its duration. Its existence and his utter failure to hold his troops to humanitarian standards is a major black mark against him.

Finally, I care about human rights inside Saudi Arabia. It seems clear that in general, the human rights situation inside the country will improve with MBS in power. There really doesn’t exist a plausible power centre that is more likely to make the average Saudi freer. That said, MBS has detained activists and presided over the death sentence of peaceful protestors.

The average Saudi who does not rock the boat may see her life improve. But the activists who have struggled for human rights will probably not be able to enjoy them themselves.

What this means is that MBS is better than almost all plausible replacements (in the short-term), but he is by no means a good leader, or a morally upstanding individual. In the long term, he might stunt the very civil society that Saudi Arabia needs to become a society that accepts and promotes human flourishing [9]. And if he fails in his quest to modernize Saudi society, we’re much more likely to see unrest, repression, and a far worse regime than we are to see democratic change.

In the long run, we’re all dead. But before that, Saudi Arabia may be in for some very uncomfortable changes.


[1] As near as I can tell, the change was retroactively made all proper with the Allegiance Council, as soon as the fait was truly accompli. Reports that they approved it beforehand seem to come only from sources with a very vested interest in that being true. ^

[2] There’s something deeply disturbing about a major news organization comparing a change in which unelected despot will lead a brutal dictatorship with a movement that earnestly strove for democratic change. ^

[3] A note on news outlets linked to throughout this post: Al Arabiya is owned by Saudi Arabia and therefore tends to view everything Saudi Arabia does in the best possible light. Al Jazeera is owned by Qatar (which is currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia) and tends to view the kingdom in the worst possible light. The Arab Tyrants Manual Podcast that informed my own views here is produced by Iyad El-Baghdadi, who was arrested for his Arab Spring reporting by The United Arab Emirates (a close ally of Saudi Arabia) and later exiled. This has somewhat soured his already dim view on Arab dictatorships. ^

[4] Foreigners make up about 53% of the total labour force and almost all of them work in the private sector. Saudis holding private jobs are ~15.5% of the labour force based on these numbers. If we divide 15.5% by 53% plus 15.5%, we get 22% of private jobs held by Saudis. I think for purposes of this comparison, Saudi Aramco, the state oil giant, counts as the public sector.

Remember also that Saudi Arabia has a truly dismal adult labour force participation rate, a side of effect of their deeply misogynistic public policy. ^

[5] Furthermore, they point out that it is basically impossible to tell if a Saudi royal is corrupt or not, because there is no clear boundary between the personal fortune of the Saud dynasty and the state coffers. Clearing up this particular ambiguity seems low on the priority list of a man who just bought a half-billion dollar yacht.

(If you’re not too lazy to click on a footnote, but are too lazy to click on a link, it was MBS. MBS bought the giant yacht. Spoilers.) ^

[6] I’ve long held the belief that Wahhabism is dangerous. When talking about this with my Muslim friends, I was often hesitant and apologetic. I needn’t have been. Their vehemence in criticism of Wahhabism often outstripped mine. That was because they had all of my reasons to dislike Wahhabism, plus the unique danger takfir presented to them.

Takfir is the idea that Wahhabis (or their ideological descendants) may deem other Muslims to be infidels if they do not follow Wahhabism’s austere commandments. This often leads to the execution or lynching of more moderate Muslims at the hands of takfiris. As you may have guessed, most North American Muslims could be called takfir by Wahhabis or others of their ilk.

Remember: there are Quranic rules of conduct (oft broken, but still existing) that govern how ISIL may treat Christians or Jews. With those they declare takfir, there are no such niceties. Daesh ecstatically executes Muslims they deem takfir.

Takfir is one of the many reasons that it is easy to find articles by Muslim authors decrying Wahhabism. Many Muslims legitimately fear a form of Islam that would happily deem them heretical and execute them. ^

[7] It is commonly reported that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi men, brought up on Wahhabism. The link between Wahhabism, takfir, and terrorism is another reason it is common to find non-Wahhabi Muslims opposed to Wahhabism. Here’s a sampling of English language reporting on Daesh from Muslim countries. Indeed, in many sources I’ve read, the word takfiri was exclusively followed by “terrorist” or “terrorists”. ^

[8] It remains baffling and disgusting that politicians like Donald Trump, Teresa May, and Justin Trudeau can claim to oppose terrorism, while also maintaining incredibly close relationships with Saudi Arabia, which was described in a leaked diplomatic cable as “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”. ^

[9] To create a civil society, Saudi Arabia would need to lift restrictions on the press, give activists some official power, and devolve more power to elected municipalities. Civil society is the corona of pressure groups, advisors, and influencers that exist around a government and allow people to build common knowledge about their desires. Civil society helps you understand just how popular or unpopular a government policy is and gives you a lever to pull if you want to influence it.

A functioning civil society protects a government from its own mistakes (by making an outcry possible before any deed is irreversibly done) and helps ensure that the government is responsible to the will of the people.

That MBS is working hard to prevent civil society shows that he has no desire for feedback and believes he knows better than literally everyone else in the country who is not already his sycophant. I see few ways this could end well. ^

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