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Fri 27 Dec 2019 03:01 AM

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Opinion: will the real Saudi crown prince please stand up?

Is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a reformer or a reactionary? The answer may be both, says Bloomberg's Bobby Ghosh

Opinion: will the real Saudi crown prince please stand up?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a reformer or a reactionary? The answer, maddening to those who love him as much as to those who don't, is that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler might just be both those things.

In a year when he was under especially close international scrutiny, thanks to the late-2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the prince — arguably the Middle East’s most important figure — gave free rein to both sides of his public persona, presiding over both reform and repression. It did nothing to alter the impression of MBS, as he is commonly known, as a man who wants to have his cake as well as eat it.

The duality was on display in his interview with PBS’s Frontline, when he both acknowledged and averted responsibility for Khashoggi’s killing: It had happened “under my watch,” he allowed, but then sought to deflect blame by saying he couldn’t know what all 3 million government officials were doing at any given time.

A Saudi investigation, followed by opaque court proceedings, led to sentences being handed down this week — but nobody was persuaded that justice had been done.

There was an air of equivocation, too, in MBS’s program of social reforms, where two steps forward in some areas — such as the relaxation of guardianship laws for women and regulations requiring gender-specific entrances in restaurants — were accompanied by a step back in others. The arrest of intellectuals in late November echoed last year’s shocking detention of women’s rights activists, just weeks before the prince lifted a ban on women driving.

So Saudis can revel in such previously proscribed enjoyments as rock concerts, but actually asking for freedoms remains a precarious proposition.

In the country’s other major story of the year, the prince was on the receiving end of mixed messages. The initial public offering of Saudi Aramco was the marquee project of MBS’s Vision 2030 plan, and he invested a great deal of personal prestige in achieving a $2 trillion valuation on the kingdom’s cash cow.

Although he had been persuaded by a battery of international bankers that this target was attainable, foreign investors mustered only lukewarm enthusiasm. In the end, Aramco had to shrink the size of its offering, even as it leaned on the kingdom’s richest citizens to get close to the prince’s target.

If there was one area in which MBS demonstrated a change in behaviour, it was in the realm of foreign policy, and even there, it was as much about what he didn’t do as what he did — the virtue of omission more than of commission. Saudi Arabia did not reprise its 2018 diplomatic contretemps with Canada, or its 2017 row with Germany.

Both of those spats were the product of Saudi overreaction to mild criticism. This year, MBS reacted with reassuring caution to a far greater provocation - Iran’s attack on Saudi oil installations, which cut the kingdom’s output by half. It might be that MBS was held back from an aggressive retaliation by uncertainty over whether the US, his main ally, would join another war in the Middle East — or the certainty that the Islamic Republic would.

Cold political reality may also explain efforts to end one of MBS’s earlier follies, the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen; in its fifth year, the assault has yielded nothing by embarrassment for the prince. At year’s end, there was hope that the blockade on Qatar, another of the prince’s missteps, might be walked back. Perhaps MBS has finally realised that the smaller kingdom cannot be bullied into submission. 

Realism is a sign of maturity; the region as a whole will benefit from more of it in 2020. MBS’s biggest foreign-policy challenge in the new year will be to reckon with a belligerent Iran. His spine may be stiffened by the deployment of more US military personnel to “assure and enhance the defense of Saudi Arabia,” but he must know that President Donald Trump will have little appetite for a new war in an election year.

A diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran is hard to imagine, but Riyadh might settle for a tense standoff, so long as there are no more attacks on its oil installations or shipping.

At home, it is time for the prince to go back to the economic basics of his Vision 2030 plan: to make the kingdom less reliant on oil revenue, and wean its people away from government employment and generous subsidies. Next year’s budget is, typical of MBS’s year, a mixed bag - the promise of spending curbs and a widening deficit.

Which MBS will we get in 2020? Chances are, both.