The 32-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, is the youngest defense minister in the world and now the first in line to the throne. He also heads the Economic Affairs and Development Council, which manages the economic affairs of the country.
MbS’s rapid appearance at the forefront of Saudi politics indicates that the country has been undergoing considerable political and economic changes as it transitions from family- to one-man-rule. MbS’s transformations have grabbed the media’s attention and shifted it from Syria and Iraq to Saudi Arabia. His ambitions to reform the economy and provide greater freedom, especially to women, are mingled with a more antagonistic foreign policy that has resulted in a destructive war in Yemen and a tense relationship with Qatar. The aspirations of MbS seem to be already prophesied by George Orwell in his masterpiece Animal Farm.
MbS’s story resembles that of George Orwell’s tour de force Animal Farm: One night, all the animals at Mr. Jones’ Manor Farm assembled to listen to the old major describe a dream he had about a world where all animals live free from the tyranny of their human masters. The old major dies soon after the assembly, but the animals — after being inspired by his philosophy of Animalism — plot an uprising against Jones. Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, play significant roles in the planning of the revolt. When Jones forgets to feed the animals, they revolt against him and chase him off of the farm.
The rebellion enjoyed early success: All the animals worked together, completed the harvest and agreed to meet every Sunday to discuss the farm’s policies. The pigs, thanks to their intelligence and wisdom, are selected to supervise the farm. However, Napoleon, one of the pigs, proves to be a power-hungry leader who steals the cows’ milk to feed himself and the other pigs. He also leans heavily on Squealer, a pig capable of persuading other animals that pigs are always honorable and correct in their decisions.
MbS: The New Napoleon?
Mohammed bin Salman has been very strategic when it comes to dealing with the media. In his myriad meetings and press conferences, he has deployed an array of “Squealers.” Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, and Mamdouh AlMuhaini, the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya’s digital platforms, are two good examples of MbS’s Squealers.
Recently, Friedman penned an article that flatters the new Saudi prince. He begins by claiming, “I never thought I’d live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you read that right. Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style.”
He continues to lavish praise, telling of his surprise at hearing Western classical music live in the kingdom, along with contemporary American country music. He also favorably compares MbS’s “top-down” leadership style to the messy “bottom-up” approaches adopted in many of the 2011 Arab uprisings. According to Friedman, if MbS’s ambitious reform plan succeeds, “it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success — but only a fool would not root for it.”
With almost the same language but different glowing rhetoric, Mamdouh AlMuhaini flatters the new prince and lays the blame for Saudi Arabia’s plight on Qatar’s media outlets. He recounts a heated exchange between himself and an American student who equated his Saudi identity with terrorism. He then poses the rhetorical question, “What will happen if I meet him now? What will he object on in such an angry manner? Women have been allowed to drive, cinemas will open soon, the orchestra played its music, tolerant ideas prospered and extremists were silenced. He will be just like media outlets that are hostile to Saudi Arabia – confused now that they have run out of cards to play and which until a few months ago they had successfully used to win the game from the first round.”
Friedman’s and AlMuhaini’s optimism seems naïve given the atrocities MbS has carried out in the region – especially in Yemen and Qatar.
Yes, there is hope that there might be some internal reform, such as allowing women to drive and attend soccer matches, along with reopening cinemas across the kingdom. But Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen – destroying hospitals and schools and carrying out indiscriminate attacks on civilians – is unacceptable. Likewise, MbS’s aggressiveness in engaging with Iran bodes ill for stability in the Middle East. And to add insult to injury, MbS has not yet allowed the reopening of humanitarian aid corridors into Yemen – which will certainly leave thousands of people in a dire situation. A U.N. source in Yemen told the Guardian: “We have submitted the request to bring in aid, as we have every day, but there has been nothing. At this stage, we do not know the reason for the delay.”
MbS’ blockade of Qatar and attempts to bully it into silence has failed miserably. Indeed, these efforts appear to have backfired, pushing Qatar in the arms of Iran, Turkey and other regional powers. MbS’s poorly-conceived anti-Qatari policy has actually resulted in the construction of a stronger strategic Iran-Qatar-Turkey axis, which may serve to weaken his own regional ambitions in the near future.
MbS continues to follow the well-worn path of Orwell’s Napoleon. His internal policy and his regional ambitions are incoherent, considering that he continues to arrest prominent Saudi women activists, to maintain the blockade of Qatar, and to pursue a destructive war in Yemen.