Bin Salman is someone who wants to disrupt the status quo quickly
"What is clear is that Muhammad bin Salman and his government have taken a view of not being constrained by history in engaging with the world."11 September 2020 14:32
Putera Mahkota Arab Saudi Pangeran Muhammad bin Salman. (Al-Arabiya/Supplied)
In the last three years, after the appoinment of Prince Muhammad bin Salman as the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has changed quickly. Through the 2030 Vision, Bin Salman has liberalised his country.
In the context of economy, Bin Salman cut the subsidies for energy, conducted privatization, and open its economy for foreign investors. In the term of social and culture, Bin Salman gave more freedom for women to enjoy, like driving a car, riding a bike, watching sport games in stadiums, etc.
Even the liberalization also imposed on the interpretation of Islam. Today there is sharia police patrolling every day on streets and public spaces to force men for praying on time, to make sure the segregation between male and female in public areas are preserved.
What we are seeing today in Saudi are boys and girls can sing and dance together while they are watching music concert, they can also chat and sit on the same table in restaurants and cafes.
"I'd say that he (Bin Salman) has taken a strong position about a more liberal observation of Islam than the ultraconservative interpretation in the past. That's controversial, for sure," said Bradley Hope, co-author of the newly released book about Bin Salman title Blood and Oil, in an exclusive interview with Faisal Assegaf from Albalad.co via WhatsApp earlier this week.
Bin Salman has also taken aggressive approach in the context of foreign policies, such as on the issue of Iran, military involvement in Yemen and Libya.
How bad Bin Salman for the entire of Al Saud family and for the future of Saudi Arabia?
At the time that King Salman ascended to the throne, Saudi Arabia was in trouble. The country has long moved along at a glacial pace of change and it was not longer sustainable. Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), who later became the crown prince, completely upended the slow way of developing his country, which was incredibly important. He has done more to change the country in five years than many previous kings did in their entire reign.
However, MBS's quite decisive and sometimes reckless approach to things is unnerving for all of us who are watching from afar and for many Saudis. It's far too early to make a judgment on the things he has started. For the ruling family itself, many members probably feel short-changed. MBS has stripped many of them of assets that were the proceeds of corruption, imprisoned anyone who has tried to contest his authority and generally made it harder to have the same unbelievable benefits royal family members had in the past.
There are some senior royals, like Prince Ahmad bin Andul Aziz and former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, challenge his position. How big the chance for Bin Salman to be the next king?
Early on in 2015, it seemed like a strong possibility that Muhammad bin Nayif (MBN) would become the king. He was King Salman's first crown prince, second in line to the throne. Over time, Muhammed bin Salman undermined him and eventually bumped him out of the line of succession and MBS became the heir apparent.
Since then, MBN has had a very low profile and it seems hard to imagine he has a path to becoming the king unless something terrible and dramatic happens in the kingdom. For now, MBS is set to become the king next and I believe that is very likely.
People like Ahmad bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud have standing to take a role, but as characters they have never shown much interest in ruling Saudi Arabia. It's more likely that others who oppose MBS would like to empower them as rivals because the king of Saudi Arabia after the death of the country's founder has always been one of his sons. Ahmad is one of the last of those sons.
Is there any assasination attempts against Bin Salman? If so, can you explain about that?
I have heard about supposed assassination attempts over the years, but I've never found concrete information about it. It seems obvious that Muhammad bin Salman has enemies, whether from branches of his own family that have seen their power and access to money cut back or from some of the family members of Islamic leaders who have been detained or had their positions taken away from them. MBS is protected by very loyal soldiers and takes a lot of security precautions.
Bin Salman's hard actions against critical princes has caused enmity and hatred towards him. Do you think there will be a Saudi prince bravely to kill Bin Salman?
I really have no way of answering this question.
Some analysts predict Bin Salman will be the king by the end of this year. Do you think it will happen or do you have another assumption?
I think it's fair to presume he will someday become the king but the timing is very unclear. King Salman had surgery recently, but appears to have recovered well and has been able to participate in cabinet meetings and other government affairs. In the Saudi Arabian line of succession, the crown prince is the "king-in-waiting," meaning he will rise to that position upon the death of the king.
What factors will make Salman become the king and otherwise what factors will fail him?
During this time, Bin Salman has taken aggresive actions and sometimes unpredictable. Do you think he will follow the path of UAE to normalise relations with Israel after he was sworn in as the king?
I think Saudi Arabia has already taken steps towards normalization, but I think full establishment of diplomatic relations could still be some way off. What is clear is that Muhammad bin Salman and his government have taken a view of not being constrained by history in engaging with the world.
With the UAE already taking the big step, it feels natural that someday Saudi Arabia will follow suit. But there's no reason for Saudi Arabia to do it without getting something out of the bargain, so that gives the kingdom a lot of leverage with the US government and Israel for when that day finally comes.
Do you think the internal conflict within Al-Saud family will be manageable or uncontrollably?
The conflict within the Al-Saud family was getting out of control just before King Abdullah died. MBS and King Salman have brought the family under control, even if ruthlessly at times. I think MBS is focusing his efforts on his age cohort, encouraging more princes to step up and be involved with government service. He pioneered a kind of internship program for royals that treats them as normal, would-be officials. The idea is to find members of the family well disposed toward working in the government.
Who is the most influenced person for Bin Salman?
It seems clear that King Salman is Muhammed bin Salman's greatest influence. Beyond that, he seems to be fascinated by successful from the business world like Steve Jobs. He has been interested in business since his teenage years and he has tried to bring that approach to running the country.
He has given more freedom for Saudi women but at the same time he has detained activists, clerics, tycoons, and princes viewed as opponents or against his policies. What do you think about that paradox?
I think it makes sense if you understand that Saudi Arabia is one of the last absolute monarchies on earth. All power is with the throne and all decision-making comes from the King and royal family as a whole.
For that to work, most Saudi people have to stick with the social contract -- i.e. the King and royal family are generous with their subjects, providing high quality education and healthcare, for instance, but low or no taxes. In exchange, citizens are expected to be loyal and respectful to their rulers.
Some of the activists were quiet vocal and incisive -- and some made what I think of as a mistake of perceptions. For example, they might be talking to like-minded citizens in Qatar -- which is in a protracted, heated dispute with Saudi Arabia for more than three years.
The Saudi security establishment sees that as a kind of treachery because their conspiring with their enemy. The activists might have seen it as something totally acceptable, but they didn't think about how it might look from above.
MBS clearly believes women should have the right to drive, but he doesn't seem to believe that women should have protested for it to win the right. In the Saudi context, the way you get the rulers to do things is you come to them and make your case in a private consultation and then the ruler decides based on the merits whether to make a change.
Another thing to remember is the royal family doesn't want to start a precedent of protesting. Today, they might protest for the right to drive. But what if next they want greater representative government or they disagree with his economic transformation plans -- he wouldn't want to start taking orders from the street, so to speak.
Turkey, CIA, and UN special raporteur concluded that Bin Salman ordered to kill Jamal Khashoggi. Do you believe about that? If so, why did he think Khashoggi should be killed even brutally?
I believe MBS created a sort of secret unit to undertake sensitive missions like capturing princes that were criticizing the regime or spying on rivals trying to undermine his power. And this group that killed Khashoggi is at least partly made up of members of that team.
MBS created the team, so he's responsible. Whether he ordered the team to "take care of" the Khashoggi problem or spelled out that he wanted him killed, it would inform us more about his character, but I doubt we'll ever know the answer to that question. Either way, he's responsible and he's paying a price internationally for years to come.
During Bin Salman era, Saudi's foreign policy has change more aggressive like war in Yemen and blatant enmity against Iran. Why did Bin Salman take those steps?
I think Muhammad bin Salman is someone who wants to disrupt the status quo quickly. The old way of doing things in Saudi Arabia was to take decades to make changes and let allies like the U.S. set the agenda in the region; MBS decided that Saudi Arabia should be a leader on its own and not simply take orders from other countries on what to do next. He's taken that approach in economics and foreign affairs.
Deutsche inteligence agency has warned since 2015 that Bin Salman will create an unstable situation in the region. In the context of his foreign policies, do you think he will continue to be like that?
I can't really speak to how they came to that conclusion. Undoubtedly he is setting a new agenda for the region and a lot of the old style of negotiating with Saudi Arabia no longer works. So the regional dynamics have shifted irrevocably. Change is destabilizing, but not necessarily weakening in the medium term.
Can you elaborate about Bin Salman's lavish lifestyle?
We know he went on a kind of spending spree in his early years in power, which probably coincided with the first time he had access to serious money. He has been wealthy his whole life, but it was only when his father became the King that he entered the superwealthy level. He bought a giant yacht, a chateau in France and threw a big party in the Maldives. Since then, he hasn't been seen splashing out in the same way. He has been more focused on his legacy.
According to you, during his three years as a crown prince, he has tarnished Saudi image among muslim countries?
No I wouldn't say that. I'd say that he has taken a strong position about a more liberal observation of Islam than the ultraconservative interpretation in the past. That's controversial, for sure. He has also been more liberal about society in Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, his brusque use of power has probably made some other countries in the region look much weaker and embarrassed some leaders (like Saad Hariri, for instance). Some people in some Muslim countries might think he is going the wrong way, but I'm not an expert on those perspectives.