The Saudi Mohammed ben Salmane, between reforms and repression

Pop concerts and dissidents behind bars. Powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has just consolidated his power, has rocked a lackluster Saudi Arabia with sweeping reforms while brutally suppressing opposition. But he remains an essential interlocutor internationally.

At 37, the man nicknamed MBS, should become the youngest of the Saudi dynasty to accede to the throne after the death of his father, King Salman, aged and weakened. Since his appointment as crown prince in 2017, he has de facto led this regional oil power.

On Tuesday, he was named “Prime Minister” by decision of his father, King Salman. A new function that comes to establish the authority of a leader who has become omnipresent in Saudi Arabia, analysts say.

Tall, with a full beard, a deep voice and often all smiles, Prince Mohammed, reputed to be a fan of fast food and video games, is committed to modernizing the Saudi economy, which is too dependent on oil.

At the same time, he strives to lighten the weight of the most rigorous religious. The morality police, who once terrorized young people, have been sidelined.

“We want to live a normal life,” he said in 2017 to entrepreneurs in Riyadh. “All we are doing is going back to what we were, a moderate Islam, open to all religions and to the world.”

Hailed for these reforms, MBS is however criticized because of the repression carried out against dissidents in religious, political, intellectual, economic circles and even within the royal family.

– “Sometimes impulsive” –

“He’s an intellectual machine and a strategist,” said a Western official on condition of anonymity. He is “sometimes impulsive” and, when he talks about his projects, “he gets fired up”.

This man in a hurry with incipient baldness is married to only one woman, unlike many other Saudi princes, and father of three boys and two girls.

He claims to work 16 hours a day and claims to have been brought up strictly. Close to his father, he studied in his country without going abroad, unlike the Saudi elite.

Combining various leading functions, MBS is sometimes nicknamed “Monsieur Fait-tout” by diplomats.

A protester wearing a mask of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, October 10, 2018, in Washington (AFP/Archives – Jim WATSON)

In November 2017, in the name of the “anti-corruption” fight, some 200 personalities including princes and businessmen were arrested during an unprecedented purge.

Roundups also target religious and intellectuals but also human rights activists, including known feminists. In February 2020, he even had rivals among princes arrested.

Internationally, Riyadh has adopted since its appointment as heir to the throne a more offensive policy against its regional rivals, Iran and Qatar in the lead. But, to reduce tensions, a dialogue with Iran has started and the crisis with Doha has been resolved.

When he was Minister of Defense, he supervised from 2015 the coalition led by Riyadh in Yemen to militarily help the power against the Houthi rebels supported by Iran.

– Tarnished image –

MBS has managed to gain “extraordinary power and influence in a very short time”, notes Frederic Wehrey, Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Foundation, based in Washington.

On the home front and as part of social reforms, it eases restrictions on women, allowing them to drive and obtain passports without the permission of their male “guardian”. He trivializes international sporting and cultural events in front of a mixed audience.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and King Salman bin Abdelazziz, November 20, 2019, not far from Riyadh (Saudi Royal Palace/AFP/Archives - Bandar AL-JALOUD)
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and King Salman bin Abdelazziz, November 20, 2019, not far from Riyadh (Saudi Royal Palace/AFP/Archives – Bandar AL-JALOUD)

His image as a reformer will nevertheless be tarnished worldwide by the assassination in October 2018 of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of power, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Despite years of disgrace, he is making a strong comeback on the international scene: MBS receives French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of 2021 and in 2022 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who had personally accused the “highest levels of the Saudi government” of ordering the assassination of Khashoggi.

After promising to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and declassifying a report concluding that MBS had “validated” the assassination, US President Joe Biden came to Saudi Arabia last July to meet the crown prince.


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