The strongman of Saudi Arabia is revolutionizing his country. Visionary for some, despot for others, the crown prince should, barring major surprises, play a leading role on the regional scene for the next 50 years.
It is a family painting of which only a vague memory remains today. 2007, in the south of France: strong men of the Saudi royal family and officials pose under a blazing sun. Knowingly abandoning their dishdachas and their traditional head coverings, these dignitaries have chosen to opt for a relaxed, Western-style summer dress. The elders were placed on chairs in front of the young guard. On the far right of the photo is a young man in a white polo shirt, looking like a playboy. Mohammad ben Salmane (MBS) was, at the time, only a nephew of King Abdallah, son of the founder of the Saudi kingdom, King Abdelaziz. Nothing allows us to guess the devouring ambition of the young man, who does not even appear (yet) in the order of succession. Nothing suggests either of the immense hullabaloo that he will cause in record time within the House of Saud.
Ten years later, the situation is cruel for all these lords of Arabia, pretenders to the crown, regulars of the court, advisers to the emir or treasurers – often unscrupulous – of the kingdom. The young man, very clean on himself, was not content to overtake all his elders in the race for power, but he also took care to humiliate them by challenging them what they held dearest: their status, and therefore their natural right to benefit from innumerable privileges. The crown prince, the kingdom's new strongman, did not hesitate to arrest or remove hundreds of people on November 4, including emirs and governors, among the most powerful and richest men in the country, starting by the multi-billionaire al-Walid ben Talal, and the head of the powerful national guard, son of the late King Abdallah, Prince Metab, in a vast movement of purges under the pretext of fighting corruption. Latest episode of a Saudi Game of Thrones where the main character of the plot seems ready to do anything to satisfy his thirst for absolute power in a country that has been governed since its creation by the principle of consensus between members of the establishment. political and religious.
Mohammad bin Salman is scary. Solicited by L'Orient-Le Jour, politicians, businessmen or diplomats who had the opportunity to meet the young emir prefer to remain silent. Even off, almost no one wants to risk compromising their relations with the man who already seems to be the most powerful leader in the Arab world. “I have never seen this. They are terrified as if it were Voldemort”, comments a wise observer of the region.
It must be said that MBS is not at its first attempt. In less than three years, he ousted his rivals, launched a war against Yemen, initiated the blockade against Qatar, challenged the control of the Wahhabi clergy, launched a societal revolution, however small- her (women's right to drive, right to entertainment, etc.), and above all, he tried to wipe out everything that had until then been considered the great pillars of the kingdom. The man is said to be impulsive and angry. Fiery and determined. Go to war and bold. And he embodies the empowerment of the new generation in a country that is undergoing profound changes.
When his father, Salman, came to the throne in 2015, he was 79 and had Alzheimer's disease. The Saudi system of succession being adelphic as with the Ptolemies, that is to say transmitted between brothers by order of primogeniture, the coronation of the 25th son of King Abdelaziz is in the order of things, even if many believe that his reign can only be temporary given his state of health. Nothing seems able to disturb the sacrosanct principle of continuity in the kingdom of Saud.
Cutting short all rumours, King Salman immediately appoints the youngest of his brothers, Moqren, as his heir. A first twist will however arise very quickly in the race for the succession. Three months after his appointment, Moqren was relieved of his duties as crown prince and replaced by a major figure in the clan, Mohammad ben Nayef, known as MBN, nephew of the current king and first grandson of Ibn Saud to aspire to the throne. . Behind the scenes, his young cousin MBS, a disappointed aspirant, relegated to the place of the eternal second, is far from being satisfied with his positions as second heir to the kingdom and second deputy Prime Minister. Aged 29, he is the youngest prince to obtain the defense portfolio. “He is the favorite son of the king's favorite wife, which says a little about his intention,” an Arab diplomatic source, who requested anonymity, reminded OLJ. MBS's father had fallen madly in love with his mother, Fahda bint Falah bin Sultane al-Hithalayn, who was from an influential tribe in Arabia. Like an Olympias pushing her son Alexander (future the Great), the king's third wife is probably no stranger to her son's meteoric rise. After a latent suspense of more than a year, the monarch raises the curtain on the number one intrigue of the palace, by choosing his successor among the "Mohamaddeine", in other words the two Mohammads, as crown prince. MBS has just dismissed in less than two years his greatest rival, the man of confidence of the Americans, the prestigious Minister of the Interior who has made the fight against terrorism the security priority of the kingdom.
"What surprises me the most is that he managed, in a fairly short period of time, to get rid of Mohammad ben Nayef", confides the Arab diplomat. In a gesture breaking brutally with the tradition of the kingdom, King Salman designates MBS as his successor by a decree on June 21, 2017. His father suffering, the young prince is no longer content to whisper in his ear what he thinks be the best for the kingdom, but takes initiative himself. “He's a real viceroy. It is he who exercises the royal prerogatives and he has the army at his side, which is an essential pillar of his power,” notes the diplomat. A photo of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently meeting King Salman had the Twittersphere laughing: “You know you're a has-been when you meet Salman and not his son. »
MBS has neither the brilliant academic background nor the career of some of his elders, but he has managed to obtain one of the most coveted assets of the kingdom: the support of the Americans. Holder of a law degree from King Saud University, the young emir is not very comfortable in the language of Shakespeare, but it matters little to him. In March 2017, three months before the news of his appointment, he flew to Washington to meet Donald Trump. “The new US president, eager to break with his predecessor, and Prince Mohammad, an ambitious young leader seeking to gain influence in his kingdom, see each other as a crucial ally on a range of pressing issues. “, writes the New York Times. Bet won for Mohammad of Arabia. His youth and his reforming spirit, cruelly breaking with the image defended until then by his predecessors, seduce the Americans. But not only. It also appears to be a good economic partner. "He was well received in the United States by Trump, because he would have promised in particular to invest in military research, a sector which is sorely lacking in funds", continues the Arab diplomat.
Within the royal family, on the other hand, we take a dim view of the growing ambitions of the dolphin, who succeeded in dismissing his rival, who was nevertheless experienced in the exercise of power. He is criticized in particular for his ardor and his lack of experience which pushed him, in 2015, to wage a war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels supported by Iran, his main enemy, from which he still has not disentangled. "He finds it difficult to accept that his war cannot be won," said the Arab diplomat.
Despite a wind of protest within the kingdom's elite, the stubborn young man is in a hurry to carry out the vision he has of his country, which he considers too conservative, too slow. “He is obsessed with change and he works there full time”, described for The OLJ Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, who has met him on several occasions. “He is very intelligent and has a very deep knowledge of his country. He is a very charismatic, very energetic personality,” continues the researcher. MBS's appearances on television sets or his interviews granted to Western media have helped to break the austere and old-fashioned image that sticks to the skin of the Saudi monarchs, more statues of the Commander than real Lorenzaccio. His patter and self-assurance quickly skyrocketed his popularity. “He is a very gifted politician. When you're with him, it's a bit like with Bill Clinton, he makes you feel like you're the center of the universe,” says Bernard Haykel.
In order to be able to impose his reform project, Mohammad ben Salman is convinced that he must first dust off the different layers of power. The religious police will be one of the first to pay the price. "It is said that he would have ordered to close a shopping center by leaving the police there so that they are beaten up by his men", says a regular in the kingdom. The dolphin would, moreover, have no sympathy for the al-Sheikh, the guardians of the Wahhabi temple. “He shoots at everything that moves on the side of the Islamists, like that of the Sahwa”, specifies the Arab diplomat. In October, the young crown prince even goes so far as to hold an unprecedented speech. “What happened in the last thirty years is not Saudi Arabia. The time has now come to get rid of it,” MBS told the world. "He wants to advocate a moderate Islam", decrypts Bernard Haykel. Even if it means revisionism about the religious history of the kingdom, to decry the Brotherhood movements and the supporters of the Iranian model more than the propagation of Wahhabi discourse. As if to transform his kingdom into a disproportionate version of the United Arab Emirates, led by the man he considers his model, Mohammad ben Zayed.
"I've never seen him drink alcohol, he doesn't drink. He is a very pious person, whom I saw praying. But it is not a relentless. He has plenty of friends who are not Muslims and he wants an opening to the West. He loves the United States, he loves American and Western culture,” continues the Lebanese-American researcher. And America pays him back. “He has forged excellent ties with the Americans. He is said to be a personal friend of Jared Kuschner, who incidentally was in Riyadh incognito a few weeks ago. They would have stayed to discuss until 4 am, ”says the Arab diplomatic source.
Knowing his kingdom weakened as the oil reserves are depleted, MBS knows that he must carry out an emergency socio-economic transition. He then develops a plan that the consulting firm McKinsey has prepared for him, and which would have cost him a veritable small fortune. "Vision 2030" appears to be a bold project. "He has a huge fear for the future of his country, because of its dependence on oil", specifies Bernard Haykel. He must quickly get the country out of this dependence on black gold by diversifying the economy, liberalizing the market, but also by attracting tourists and making the kingdom a mecca for entertainment in the Gulf, like of the United Arab Emirates. “He told me about Neom, and seems very excited. He told me a lot about the United States and his admiration for Silicon Valley, and the culture of entrepreneurship here,” says the researcher. Neom, the pharaonic project of MBS, plans to erect a futuristic city on the shores of the Red Sea, for the modest sum of 500 billion dollars. A few dozen islands, veritable luxury seaside resorts, where Sharia would not be applied, should see the light of day. However, a historic transformation of the country cannot work without an evolution on the societal level. The recent authorization to drive granted to women goes in this direction. Just like the authorization to organize music concerts. MBS has the youth behind him in a country where 75% of the inhabitants are under 30 years old.
The dolphin wants to leave a big mark in history. The man is in a hurry, even if it means overturning the table, to revolutionize his kingdom. To make it a modern and attractive power, independent of its oil resources, and capable of claiming regional hegemonic status and of curbing Iranian influence. However, such an attitude can only strengthen the determination of its enemies to prevent it. And there are many of them: the Iranians and their proxies, whose influence he swears to stem, the Islamist movements and the jihadist movements, the rivals within the palace, etc.
After the purge, MBS was compared by several Anglo-Saxon newspapers to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, both of whom fought against the oligarchies of their countries in their quest for a monopoly of power. “He cut off all the heads. He created a vacuum around him, ”sums up the diplomat. "He needs to be an autocrat in order to be able to change the country," said Bernard Haykel. Other, more flattering comparisons may soon emerge. But the crown prince currently looks more like an adventurous conqueror than a monarch with a certain strategic genius.
As rumors of his father's possible upcoming abdication grow louder, MBS is certainly gearing up to rule the kingdom for the next fifty years. A long enough time to see if the dolphin's wings will withstand the storms that still shake the Middle East. Long enough also to provide a clearer answer to the question on which the future of the kingdom and the region largely depends now: is MBS a visionary or a despot? Or just both?
Source: © Mohammad ben Salmane, the dolphin in too much of a hurry – Caroline HAYEK