Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) has just pulled off a major publicity stunt as part of his plans to diversify the Saudi economy while launching a simultaneous western aimed PR campaign aimed at changing American and European conceptions about the Wahhabi Kingdom. Today is the first day that female Saudi citizens will be able to legally drive cars in the country. While this represents something of a minor blow to the clerical establishment by de-facto leader MBS, its long term value is in securing a regional insurance policy against NATO backed regime change on an allied state.
Before continuing further, it may seem contradictory to suggest that Washington would ever seek to foment regime change in Riyadh. After all, Saudi Arabia remains America’s closest Arab ally. While true that MBS has no desire to change positive relations between the US-and Saudi Arabia which have in fact blossomed in the first years of Donald Trump’s presidency, what MBS does intend to do is diversify Saudi Arabia’s international partnerships with an emphasis on both China and Russia.
MBS is well aware that most leaders in Washington – both elected politicians and especially the un-elected deep state organisations, would prefer to preserve the old status quo of a predicable Saudi petro-economy where an unbroken cycle of Saudi Arabia selling oil to the US and others is followed by Saudi Arabia buying up expensive weapons and luxury goods from the US, continues without anything arising to alter or compete with this cycle.
MBS of course has other ideas as he seeks to diversify the economy away from this predictable cycle, particularly in an age where the value of oil is under threat from new or improved alternative energy sources ranging from shale oil and natural gas, to renewable energy and increasingly cost effective nuclear power. As part of his Vision 2030 scheme to diversify the economy, MBS intends to build a new mega-city to be called NEOM on the Gulf of Aqaba. Likewise, Saudi Arabia is seeking re-development of its existing major cities with the construction of new cinemas (the first since cinema was banned in 1979) and so-called Halal Gambling facilities. Recently Saudi Arabia also held a female fashion show, albeit with drones carrying skimpy dresses without a human female in sight.
Of course, western involvement in projects like NEOM will be sought and given, but so too will involvement from China and Russia. Against the media hype of Saudi Arabia’s close if not “too close” relations with major western powers, Riyadh is enjoying extremely good relations with China. China has just built a modern light railway in Mecca which will help to safely and comfortably transport religious pilgrims on the Hajj. Likewise, China continues to work on other major transport and infrastructure projects across Saudi Arabia.
Russo-Saudi relations are also blossoming with Russia in talks with Riyadh to build the country’s first nuclear power station while the Wahhabi Kingdom has also expressed interest in purchasing Russia’s S-400 missile defence system. For a United States which continues to operate under a zero-sum mentality, Saudi Arabia’s pivot towards a Sino-Russian partnership is a matter of concern.
What’s more is that MBS realises these concerns, as well as the fact that many other prominent Saudi royals who have a less imaginative view of a multipolar Saudi future could easily replace him in a US backed palace coup against his de-facto leadership which would otherwise be formally enshrined when his elderly father, King Salman either abdicates or dies.
Rumours have been rife on social media that in April of this year there was an attempted palace coup targeting MBS and his father. Riyadh’s official statement was that a child’s toy drone breached palace airspace, but the loud volley of machine gun fire which was recorded at the time suggests either an overreaction by palace security forces or that something far more sinister than a straying toy drone was causing trouble in the palace.
Rumours were compounded by the fact that MBS disappeared from public view beginning after the “drone incident”. While many pro-Iranian social media figures suggested that MBS had been killed, the Saudi Crown Price emerged appearing as healthy as ever when he sat beside Russian President Putin where he watched the Russian football team beat the Saudi squad in the opening match of the 2018 World Cup.
While Washington, New York and London have been more familiar places for Saudi leaders to visit than Moscow, the fact that MBS chose Moscow as the location of his proverbial coming out party was significant. The message was that MBS’s multipolar pivot had not been negatively effected by whatever may have happened in Riyadh in April.
In order to preserve good will from Saudi Arabia’s traditional western partners against the backdrop of his diversification of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical portfolio, Riyadh is engaging in a soft power barrage of news stories which seek to paint the country as a place where American social-liberals would not feel intimidated, confused or frightened.
Meetings with prominent Zionist advocates in New York, welcoming what MBS says is a return to “moderate Islam”, opening cinemas, holding fashion shows and now allowing for females to drive on Saudi streets, are all carefully calculated propaganda measures designed to appeal to American moderate and liberal sentiments. People should not be fooled into thinking that MBS’s social reforms are of any great consequence. When and if they are, it is only limited to areas of economic growth where it has been determined that loosening traditional social constraints would be beneficial to a more modern model of economic growth. While Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics are ideologues and while many western liberals are equally ideological in their thinking, MBS is a pragmatist and in so far as he is, he is also become a master of marketing.
The message is clear. At a diplomatic level, MBS is signalling the following to the US: “Replace me if you want, but you’ll never find a more pro-Tel Aviv Saudi leader even if you tried to invent one”. At a level of marketing, MBS is telling the American people: “I speak your language, I understand your concerns regarding Saudi Arabia’s relationship with both jihadism and social ultra-conservatism and we are making fun, feel-good liberal changes”. As western liberals have continually harped on the issue of Saudi female drivers, as if a rich Saudi woman’s inability to drive was somehow more important than speaking out against the massacre of Palestinians, the massacre of Kashmiris, the narco-terrorism of south east Asia, the starvation in Yemen, the fascist war on Donbass or the jihadist war against Syria – MBS went for the jugular and gave the western liberals what they wanted with his own version of a Trump like smile.
Thus, MBS has developed a keen sense of self preservation that if successful will allow him to pursue his relations with China, Russia and other Asian partners, while sending a firm message to the west that should they attempt to replace him with a less China and less Russia friendly leader – such a replacement might also be less pro-“Israel” and less willing to implement the kind of cosmetic reforms that make western liberals giddy with excitement.