MBS loses support in Saudi Arabia

Oil price, Yemen war and the Iran conflict : That's how much Corona puts the prince in distress

A cosmopolitan country that, as a global center of high technology, has overcome its dependence on oil: When today's Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented his “Vision 2030” for the kingdom in April 2016, he set himself ambitious goals.

Four years later, the results are sobering. Instead of preparing for a digital future, MBS, as the heir to the throne is called, is grappling with dramatic budget problems due to the drop in oil prices and the corona pandemic. His symbolic policy to improve the human rights situation and plans to buy the British football club Newcastle United are overshadowed by the brutal persecution of his opponents.

In terms of foreign policy, the 34-year-old instigated crises and wars that he cannot get under control again.

The oil desatser

Even for wealthy Saudi Arabia, “Vision 2030” goes beyond any financial framework. The planned construction of the new technology city “Neom” on the Red Sea alone could cost 500 billion dollars. The money is to be raised, among other things, through the IPO of the state oil company Aramco, the richest corporation in the world.

But mega-investments are out of the question for the time being. The global economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus caused the demand for oil to collapse - precisely at a time when MBS was fighting a price war with Russia, which also angered its partner USA.

This is a catastrophe for the Saudi public finances. The kingdom needs an oil price of around $ 85 a barrel (159 liters) for a balanced budget - but it's currently at $ 23. In addition, there is a loss of income due to the foreclosure measures due to Corona, which prevent Mecca pilgrims from traveling to Saudi Arabia. According to Finance Minister Mohammed al Jadaan, the country will have to borrow up to $ 58 billion this year.

A vision of power

According to the timetable for the implementation of the “Vision 2030”, the arch-conservative kingdom should be in the process of consolidating the reforms that have been initiated this year. Instead, the International Monetary Fund expects the Saudi economy to shrink by 2.3 percent this year. The state has less to distribute, the core support of MBS in the young population - around 60 percent of Saudis are under 30 - must continue to wait for the promised reforms.

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One year after the reform program was presented at the luxury hotel Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, it became clear that the “Vision 2030” under bin Salman also has darker downsides. The then newly appointed Crown Prince had several hundred members of the ruling family and business people locked up in that very hotel on charges of corruption.

The five-star internments primarily served to break any resistance to the heir apparent to power. This made MBS unpopular in the royal clan. A few weeks ago he was forced to imprison his own uncle on suspicion of a coup.

In 2018, the prince also demonstrated that he is literally walking over dead bodies in the pursuit of alleged enemies. A Saudi killer squad killed the regime-critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, while in Saudi Arabia itself, anti-government bloggers and women's rights activists disappeared in prisons.

At the same time, however, the prince made headlines around the world with social reforms. For example, he allowed women to drive, opened cinemas and concert halls, and deprived the religious police of making arrests. Most recently, under his leadership, the country abolished corporal punishment and the death penalty for minors.

But: liberalization and repression go hand in hand. Mohammed bin Salman wants certain reforms that fit his vision and increase his popularity with the young Saudis. But he is strictly against a free civil society that could call his autocracy into question.

Duped in the Middle East

In the region too, the often impetuous prince comes up against his power-political limits. This becomes particularly clear in the Yemen War. Five years ago, MBS forged an alliance and launched a major military offensive against the Houthi militias. Supported primarily by the Saudi air force, the advance of the Shiite insurgents was to be stopped and the de facto overthrown government around President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi was to be brought back into office.

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The operation was christened “Storm of Resolve”. The prince then promised his patriotic people a quick victory. But nothing came of it. The Houthis - supported by Iran - are expanding their influence, even attacking the Gulf monarchy directly with drones and rockets. This doesn't exactly contribute to the reputation of the heir to the throne, who sees himself as the supreme protector of his people.

The war also caused great damage to the royal family's reputation. The intervention in Yemen cost the lives of thousands of civilians, turned millions into refugees and starving, and turned the poor house of the Arab world into a landscape of rubble.

It has long been clear to bin Salman that the war cannot be won by military means and that the intervention failed. But simply withdrawing is out of the question for him. The loss of face would be too great. Especially since this would mean leaving the field to the archenemy Iran - and that even in the “backyard” of the Saudis.

Tehran knows how to show off its Saudi opponents in the struggle for influence in the Middle East with great skill. Yemen shows how much the power of the Saudi royal house threatens to wane in the region, while the mullahs seem to be showing off more and more.

This loss of power does not go unnoticed. Qatar, for example, relentlessly shows the weakness of the Gulf monarchy. The small emirate was supposed to be brought into line three years ago in order to dissuade it from its independent foreign policy course. To achieve this, the Saudis closed the borders with their neighbors in June 2017 and, together with other Arab states, imposed a blockade on the emirate.

The Qataris under their ruler Tamin bin Hamad al Thani were supposed to meet more than a dozen demands. Among other things, Saudi Arabia urged that support for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood end, that Al Jazeera and a Turkish military base be closed, and that relations with Iran be reduced to a minimum.

Only: Qatar is not even thinking of bowing to the will of Riyadh, the country despite being successful in its supposedly superior neighbor. For Mohammed bin Salman this is a serious setback. One that shows the prince his limits.

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