In just five years in power, Mohammed bin Salman has racked up an impressive record of blunders, failures and outright atrocities
By Kelly McParland
Crises like the one we’re facing now are a good time to evaluate leadership. Some people shine, while other fade. Some are total disasters. On the world stage, a few reputations have been enhanced by this pandemic, while others have been exposed to the censure they rightly deserve. On any list of the world’s least competent national figures, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman must be given serious consideration.
In just five years as a political power — his dad, the king, began loading him up with senior portfolios in 2015 — MbS, as he is known, has racked up an impressive record of blunders, failures and outright atrocities. His timing is bad and his judgment is atrocious. He also seems to have suffered from a long bout of bad luck, which any seasoned observer will tell you is fatal for a politician.
His latest debacle was an ill-advised decision to play oil-price chicken with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which succeeded in slashing prices just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing demand to plummet as the Saudis were flooding the market.
The result: on Monday, U.S. oil prices fell below zero for the first time in history. U.S. President Donald Trump, who was once a great pal of MbS, had to launch an emergency rescue operation for America’s oil and gas industry, just days after finally brokering an agreement to end Riyadh’s ruinous spat with Moscow.
Saudi Arabia has weathered previous oil crises and will probably survive this one, but the cost has been enormous. As of Tuesday, according to Bloomberg News, Saudi oil fetched about a quarter of what the country needs to balance its budget.
If that had been Prince Salman’s only boo-boo, it might be understandable. Everyone guesses wrong sometimes, and others have underestimated Vladimir Putin at their own peril. And MbS didn’t start off as accident prone. In his first months, he got good reviews for his plans to reform some of the kingdom’s more archaic restrictions, such as its ban on women driving cars.
The good reviews didn’t last long, however. In 2017, he started rounding up senior Saudi figures, including his relatives, and locking them in a luxury hotel until they coughed up huge fines for fortunes that MbS, as head of an anti-corruption committee, said had been illicitly obtained. If the aim was to win approval as a stickler for law and order, it ran aground when he was identified as the power behind the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist working in the U.S. who was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, then seized, strangled and dismembered by a team that was flown in for the occasion.
Khashoggi’s murder took place at the same time Riyadh was escalating a war with neighbouring Yemen that has produced one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. Despite its vastly greater wealth, technology and resources, and a military budget bigger than Russia’s, Saudi forces couldn’t best Iranian-backed rebels who seized control of large parts of the country. By the time the Saudis used the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to call a unilateral ceasefire, Yemen had been transformed into a battered killing field with tens of thousands dead, cholera sweeping the country and 80 per cent of the population dependent on humanitarian aid. Militarily, nothing has been gained.
Meanwhile, the prince’s ambitious plans to transform the economy have been mostly talk and pricey dreams. A glossy proposal known as Vision 2030 promised a “groundbreaking agenda … built on three pillars — a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation.” Consultants were hired to plan a $500-billion megacity in the desert, complete with flying cars, a beach with glow-in-the-dark sand and a giant artificial moon. To raise cash, MbS pushed to list shares in Saudi Aramco, the giant state-owned oil company. Hoping for $100 billion, the eventual offering fell about $75 billion short, and had to settle for listing on a Saudi exchange, rather than New York or London. Recently, he’s taken again to arresting fellow Saudi royals, reportedly on suspicion of planning a coup. His early efforts on behalf of women stalled when he cracked down on female activists. A trio of British parliamentarians who looked into the arrests said that women were subject to sleep deprivation, assaults and solitary confinement.
It takes some doing to be elevated to the de facto ruler of the world’s greatest oil power and, in a few short years, force the country into financial crisis, while simultaneously waging a ruinous war and earning a reputation as a ruthless killer. But the crown prince has managed it.