Middle East

Saudi crown prince is playing with fire

Mohammed bin Salman, in the guise of much-needed economic reforms, is also taking the risk of creating yet another war by going out of his way to antagonise Iran

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 November, 2017, 12:58am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:29am

Saudi Arabia’s young heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is giving his country the economic and social shake-up that it needs. He is in a rush to put his progressive reforms in place so that the nation can quickly surmount its challenges. But as welcome as moves like plans for a futuristic city, diversifying the economy and empowering women are, his autocratic methods and nationalism centred on an anti-Iranian streak give cause for concern. His new-found enemies at home and abroad boost the dangers for a region already riven by conflict.

Salman, popularly known as MBS, is just 32, a marked departure for a nation long ruled by elderly kings out of touch with the people they have governed. His father, King Salman, is 81 and in poor health; his decision to bypass the usual line of succession with his appointment of MBS earlier this year seemed a masterstroke. Most of the population is under the age of 35 and 12 per cent are unemployed. Although Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest oil exporter, low global prices for the commodity have forced officials to dip into foreign reserves to keep the nation afloat, endangering stability. Complicating matters are widespread corruption and the power of ultra-conservative Muslim clerics.

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The prince has used a drive against corruption as a cover to fight off rivals, arresting scores of members of the royal family, government ministers, business executives and intellectuals. His rush to consolidate power has been achieved not through the rule of law, but the absolute power of the monarchy. That is cold comfort for the foreign investors he seeks to attract and Saudis given hope by his promises. Perhaps most worrying, though, has been his push to make Saudi Arabia the dominant power in the Middle East by focusing efforts against its biggest rival, Iran. That has led to an ill-fated military venture in neighbouring Yemen that has led to thousands of civilian deaths, a campaign against Qatar and political interference in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned during a visit to Saudi Arabia, pressure over his government’s coalition with the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah suspected of being behind his decision.

Salman’s drive to isolate Iran sits well with Israel and US President Donald Trump, but Arab countries are understandably uneasy. The civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the terrorism of Muslim extremist groups such as Islamic State, the Kurdish independence push and political uncertainty in Iraq and Libya are enough instability. The prince’s strategy to modernise his country by diversifying its economy and creating jobs is much-needed. But the prince risks creating yet another war by going out of his way to antagonise Iran and its allies.