Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, better known by the acronym MBS, once again asserted his confident worldview last week in two seemingly simple and seemingly contradictory gestures. Yet anyone who has followed MBS’ rise to prominence in both Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East over the past decade knows that MBS is a figure full of contradictions.
First, he oversaw the release of “free-thinking” Saudi blogger Raif Badawi after 10 years in prison. Although it appears that Mr. Badawi will not be able to leave the desert kingdom and be reunited with his immediate family in Canada for another 10 years due to a travel ban imposed with his sentence, the release of the popular humanist author from 1000 lashes, and ‘Cause I say what I mean, is a bargain for human rights activists around the world.
Second, he quickly executed 81 people in a single day. They were all decapitated in what the Associated Press describes as “the largest known mass execution carried out in the kingdom in its modern history”. Their crimes reportedly ranged from “murders to membership in militant groups”. Whether or not you believe in the death penalty, this was undoubtedly a scourge for human rights activists around the world.
Since his sudden rise to power in the mid-2010s, MBS has been, for all intents and purposes, ruthless in achieving his goals. In 2016, he launched “Vision 2030”, a concerted attempt to diversify the Saudi economy by gradually opening up to tourism, as well as to lift the OPEC founding country from its “cash crop” dependence on oil. . It was followed in 2017 by a palace shot where he led a systematic purge of the pre-existing Saudi power structure (including the arrest of members of his own family). Finally, in 2017-2018, MBS finally determined that women should have the right to drive according to Islamic law. Sharia law, rectifying a sore point in the dispute between Saudi Arabia and the global community of nations.
This aggressive domestic policy has been accompanied by a particularly independent foreign policy which breaks taboos.
Sick of Iran’s competing aspirations for regional hegemony, a desire to Shiite Islamic Revolution and relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, MBS orchestrated an Islamic and African counter-terrorism alliance of 34 states (which notably did not include Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan).
To back up his military credentials, Saudi troops led by MBS led a nine-nation task force into Yemen in early 2015, committed to supporting the beleaguered government in its ongoing fight against Iran. Houthi rebels.
At the same time, MBS lent credence to his diplomatic credentials by apparently giving the green light to the US-brokered Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (which have since expanded to include Morocco and Sudan) in 2020. While continuing to assert that “the Palestinian state is the best way to achieve peace in the Middle East “in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative/Two-State Solution”, MBS showed a hitherto unforeseen flexibility in the face of Israel’s acceptance in the region by allowing Israeli commercial flights to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to fly over Saudi airspace. He also indicated that Saudi Arabia and Israel can make a separate agreement at some point if the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate continues.
As of this writing, all signs point to MBS remaining a key player in the region for years to come.
Freeman Poritz is currently traveling long term and observing Israel from afar.