Mohammed bin Salman, defence minister, deputy prime minister, crown prince and designated successor to the king, currently finds himself in a complicated situation.
On the one hand, there is the unfavourable geopolitical starting position, with the great rival Iran, which has been able to expand its positions in a number of Arab states in the region, favoured by the general chaos of civil wars and anarchy. In addition, Turkey has long since taken the title of champion of the Muslims from the Saudis, so that de facto alliances with Israel are now supposed to guarantee the security of the kingdom. The problems on the oil market add to the difficulties.
On top of these general complications, however, there are also the young prince’s personal failures. Already forced out of Syria and Iraq, he also lost many sympathies in Lebanon with the kidnapping of the then (and now again acting) Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The rigorous measures to consolidate his power internally may also have made him many enemies within the ruling family, and the murder of Kashoggi within society. However, the war in Yemen, which he initiated in 2015, had the worst impact.
Even after almost six years, he had not managed to achieve significant dominance in the country, and even the protection of its own oil and gas infrastructure, which is vital for survival, cannot be guaranteed.
While Trump has still been a great supporter of this policy, the first weeks under the new president Joe Biden already point in a different direction.
This was first evident in Biden’s stance on the Yemen war. He called the conflict a strategic and humanitarian disaster and stopped all aid to Saudi Arabia for its attacks on the country. This concerns both the supply of weapons and logistical support.
The big bang, however, came with the publication of the CIA report on the murder of Jamal Kashoggi. Still withheld by the Trump administration, it suggests that Mohammad bin Salman was directly responsible for the journalist’s killing and may have caused considerable damage to the royal family and to him personally.
So what does the country’s future look like?
The alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia has been a fixture in Middle Eastern politics for decades and will not dissolve so easily. But the energy self-sufficiency of the USA, the rise of renewable energies and the foreseeable decoupling of the petrodollar as a global currency reserve undermine the meaningfulness of this alliance from the perspective of the USA. In addition, the emerging regional powers of Turkey and Iran will become increasingly important, which the USA cannot simply ignore.
The rapprochement between Israel and a number of Arab states, in which Saudi Arabia plays a decisive role in the background, testifies to the royal house’s desperate search for allies in the region. The country’s policy is likely to take on an increasingly defensive character in the future and concentrate on defending its vital interests.
With the offensive strategy that MBS has pursued in recent years, the state can no longer pursue meaningful geopolitics. It will have to adjust its tactics in this regard if other princes are not to guide the country’s destiny instead of him.