Recent Events Highlight: Saudi Arabia’s Self-Perceived Strength

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, more popularly known by the acronym MBS, once again asserted his confident worldview this past week, in two seemingly simple, and apparently contradictory, gestures. Yet, anyone who has been following MBS’ rise to dominance in both Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East over the past decade knows that MBS is a figure who is full of contradictions.

Firstly, he oversaw the release of the ‘freethinking’ Saudi blogger Raif Badawi after 10 years in prison. While it appears that Mr. Badawi may not be able to leave the desert kingdom and reunite with his immediate family in Canada for another 10 years due to a travel ban handed down with his sentence, the release of the popular humanistic author of 1000 Lashesand Because I Say What I Think, is a boon for human rights activists worldwide.

Secondly, he promptly executed 81 people in a single day. They were all beheaded in what the Associated Press described as ‘the largest known mass execution carried out in the kingdom in its modern history.’ Their crimes allegedly ranged from ‘killings to belonging to militant groups.’ Whether or not you believe in the death penalty, this was undoubtedly a bane for human rights activists worldwide.

Since his sudden rise to power in the mid-2010’s, MBS has been, for all intents and purposes, ruthless in achieving his aims. In 2016 he launched ‘Vision 2030,’ a concerted attempt to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy by gradually opening up to tourism, as well as ween the OPEC-founding nation off its ‘cash-crop’ depency on oil. This was followed in 2017 by a palace coup where he led a systematic purge of the pre-existing Saudi Arabian power structure (including the arrest of members of his own family). Lastly, in 2017-2018 MBS finally determined that women should be given the right to drive in accordance with Islamic Sharia law, rectifying a sore point of dispute between Saudi Arabia and the global community of nations.

This aggressive domestic policy has been coupled with a uniquely independent, and taboo-shattering, foreign policy.

Sick of Iran’s competing aspirations for regional hegemony, desire for worldwide Shia Islamic revolution, and relentless drive for nuclear weapons, MBS orchestrated a 34 state Islamic and African anti-terror alliance (which notably didn’t include Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan).

To shore up his military credentials, MBS-led Saudi troops headed a nine-country intervention force in Yemen in early 2015, committed to propping up the beleaguered government there in its ongoing fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Concurrently, MBS lent credence to his diplomatic credentials by apparently giving the green light to the US-negotiated Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain (which have since expanded to include Morocco and Sudan) in 2020. While continuing to affirm that ‘Palestinian statehood is the best way to achieve peace in the Middle East in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative/Two-State Solution,’ MBS has demonstrated hitherto unforeseen flexibility towards Israel’s acceptance in the region in allowing Israeli commercial flights to the UAE and Bahrain to overfly Saudi airspace. He has also indicated that Saudi Arabia and Israel may come to a separate agreement at some point if the Israeli-Palestinian impasse continues.

As of this writing all signs indicate that MBS will remain a key player in the region in the years ahead.

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About the Author
Freeman Poritz is currently traveling long-term and observing Israel from afar.
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