‘It was a storm in a teacup.’ This quote by the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to describe the Westland crisis is something that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would be very likely to say about his problems if asked. Despite being embroiled in the Jamal Khashoggi affair, an affair which caused furore worldwide and threatened his bid to remain the heir to the throne, Prince Mohammed appears to have now convinced world leaders to move on and many of them have. Though he was given an uncertain welcome in Argentina at the G-20 summit last year with many media headlines dubbing him a ‘pariah’, there is no doubt now that he is running the reins of power in Saudi Arabia. Prince Mohammed’s recently concluded US $20 billion deals with Pakistan, followed by what promises to be a successful visit to India and then China, shows as much.
Some would argue that this outcome was never in any doubt. Cameras showing a grinning Russian President Vladimir Putin high-fiving the prince at Buenos Aires along with a televised address that he had with President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka, suggested that the major powers were going to let bygones be bygones a long time ago. There are reasons for this. Apart from the close personal relationship Prince Mohammed was, and still is, believed to have with the US President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the other fact of the matter is that the world today is more reliant on Saudi Arabia than ever. With stiff US sanctions on Iran and now Venezuela, both oil producing nations, countries across the globe need a strong leader in the Kingdom who they can do business with.
This is why Prince Mohammed remains despite the many blots on his image. Criticism over his human rights record at home; Turkey’s continuous pressure to pin him down for his ‘direct role’ in the Khashoggi affair; criticism for the unrelenting war against Yemen where an estimated 80,000 children have died from malnutrition; has not had any impact on him till date.
Having said this there are caveats. Prince Mohammed seems to have realised after the ‘Khashoggi misadventure’ that there are boundaries he cannot cross. The testy exchange he had with French President Emmanuel Macron where the latter confessed that he ‘was worried’ suggested that the West, though tolerant of him, would not support him at all costs. It is a lesson that he would do well to take to heart for without Western, especially US support, his tenure is shaky. With many challengers and an ailing father, King Salman, the prince cannot take his position for granted anymore.
The other problem for Prince Mohammed is that while he is likely to stay the course, the Khashoggi affair has undone his bid to be seen as the ‘reformist’ prince who would steer Saudi Arabia on the path to modernity. His ‘soft power’ reforms such as relaxation of the norms for women driving, the reopening of cinema houses in the country and the allowing of music concerts are now being seen worldwide as ‘hollow optics.’ His announcements that his country would stop funding Wahhabi institutions outside Saudi Arabia, suggesting that the Kingdom was moving towards a moderate and modern state, is now being seen as a joke.
This fall in public image, especially with the Saudi youth, puts even more pressure on Prince Mohammed to successfully transition his country’s economy in Saudi Arabia’s post-oil era. The prince had already made some moves in this regard with the release of the ‘Vision 2030’ reform package last year which outlined just exactly what the Kingdom would do to maintain the standard of living of its citizens. Such a package has to please western powers and be palatable at home, a tall order at the best of times. And despite his reprieve, these are not the best of times for Prince Mohammed. He would only be too conscious of the uncertain state of affairs in West Asia today to know that he cannot take his citizens for granted. Plus, the fact that Iranians recently joyfully celebrated the 40th anniversary of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, another US-backed ruler, is a fact that would also not be lost on him.
Prince Mohammed is in the driver’s seat but it is a rocky road that he will have to navigate. World leaders may have forgiven him but people across the world aren’t willing to. The Crown Prince has faced massive protests in all countries he has visited so far. In an age of social media, such protests carry worldwide and are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Already, major countries are halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the Yemen issue suggesting that Prince Mohammed may find that oil and money may not be enough to solve his image problems and that he may have to do more. The problem for him is that while he needs to, he simply cannot afford to do so.