Notwithstanding his self-projection as a moderate Saudi, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, has already established a personal long list of failures within only one and a half year of his rise to power. Starting from his adventures in Yemen, where Saudia has been blamed, rather held responsible, many times by the UNO for creating a worst humanitarian crisis to his coercive diplomacy vis-à-vis Qatar, MBS’ failures look startling, and the prospects of his long and stable rule dwindling. And, just when the mysterious disappearance of a Saudi journalist in Istanbul was biting him, MBS ended up facing a diplomatic disaster when he failed to clinch a deal with Kuwait on the disputed oil fields. The failure to clinch this deal means that Saudia’s relations with Kuwait, a tiny but rich neighbour state of Saudi Arabia, would remain frosty, maintaining the same trajectory that their bi-lateral relations had taken after Kuwait’s refusal to partake in MBS’ Yemen campaign and its decision to maintain diplomatic relations with Qatar as against Saudi boycott.
The failure to reach this deal has already sent shock-waves in Saudi Arabia, leading its high officials to beat war drums once again. For instance, Saudi Emir Khalid Bin Abdullah Al-Saudi tweeted after the failure to reach this deal that “Kuwait needs [a] new ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ to purge it from the dirt of [the Muslim] Brotherhood and the supporters of Hamads [the Qatari ruling family].” Operation Decisive Storm refers to the on-going disastrous military campaign of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, implying that the Saudi failure in defeating the Houthis hasn’t been enough for them to realise the limitations of their (military) power and influence.
Even a much more startling illustration of this limitation came from no one else but the US president Trump who reminded the Saudis recently that without the US help, they wouldn’t be able to survive. Trump’s criticism had come as part of the embarrassing pressure from him on Saudia to lower oil prices and prevent a global shortfall. MBS wanted to pacify the US by re-opening the disputed oil fields, which would have increased oil production and allowed Saudia to lower prices, but he failed in doing that. And, although he has kept silence ever since his meeting, which has been described as a “total failure”, with the Kuwaiti emir, reports have suggested that he is already planning to simply annex these fields and present Kuwait with a fait accompli.
Certainly, such a step would further the already existing fault-lines in the Gulf and the Middle East. But the big question for MBS is that if he takes such an action, will he have the support of its chief geo-political guarantor, the United States?
Given the on-going diplomatic spat between Saudia and the US, which has only received another sparkle after the disappearance of Saudi journalist, it is unlikely that the US would allow or support yet another Saudi adventure.
The US president Trump, quite contrary to Saudi expectations, has vowed ‘severe punishment’ if Saudis are found tied to Khashoggi murder case. While this may or not happen, what Trump’s mood suggests is that Saudi Arabia is in its bad-book. This incident has added a big spark to the fire that MBS’ rise has put Saudi Arabia in.
Importantly enough, all of this is happening at a time when the three-day Future Investment Initiative, known as “Davos in the Desert,” that is scheduled to start in Riyadh in just two weeks and is set to project MBS as a great modernizer of Saudi Arabia. These incidents have already begun to send shockwaves to Riyadh with Richard Branson, who suspended talks with the Saudi Public Investment Fund over a possible stake in his space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, said that Saudia’s involvement, if proven true, “would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government.”
Already, the New York Times, CNN, Uber Technologies and even the Financial Times have withdrawn from the Future Investment Initiative. On the other hand, a bipartisan group of 22 senators in the US have demanded from the US president to invoke Global Magnitsky Act, which requires the president to investigate and determine if a foreign person is responsible for an extrajudicial killing, torture or other gross violation of internationally recognised human rights.
Hence, the question: would MBS’ rise to power meet a disastrous fall before making him the actual king? There is hardly any gainsaying that US and other countries wouldn’t want to block sale of arms to Saudia and they wouldn’t want to see Saudi Arabia stopping its investment in the US, but MBS’ magnificent fall from grace has led to a dramatic change in opinion of how the US should see its relations with Riyadh under the control of MBS.
For the US, the boy-king they had helped install in the Kingdom has backfired massively, becoming an unnecessary nuisance. While Saudi Arabia is doing all it can to isolate MBS from this murder of Khashoggi, Turkey’s deliberate leakage of audio and video proofs of his last tragic moments has already sealed the fate of Saudi involvement in this crime.
Therefore, the big question is: will the US president still continue to support MBS, the boy-king, even after his involvement has almost been proved, or the backlash and anti-Saudia mood within the US would lead to subtle change of policy in the White House, leading to a quite replacement of MBS with some ‘sober’ Saudi, particularly the one who would be extremely mindful of such reckless acts? However, if MBS stays in power and White House continues to ‘bless ‘ him, his recklessness might turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of disaster for Saudi Arabia as has already been the case, for the boy-king wouldn’t be able to put a leash on his reckless actions and the US and other Saudi allies might not have enough ‘soberness’ to bear him as a King for life-time.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.