What Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman could learn from Prince Andrew – and vice versa

Patrick Cockburn
AFP via Getty Images

Prince Andrew and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia have both had a bad week.

On the very same day that Prince Andrew was giving his disastrous interview explaining his relationship with the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the crown prince – often referred to as MbS – was hearing from international bankers about the failure of his bid to sell part of Aramco, the state oil company, for a high price on the international markets. The sale had been heralded as the moment when Saudi Arabia would use its oil wealth to exalt its status as a world power.

The two princes have many characteristics in common: both have a reputation for arrogance, ignoring expert advice and showing startlingly poor judgement in taking decisions. The result has been a dismally unsuccessful record for both men.

In the case of Prince Andrew, these failures have been on a limited scale thanks to his relative powerlessness beyond his immediate circle. But ever since his elderly father became king of Saudi Arabia in January 2015, MbS has been the effective ruler of his country.

And it is his performance in this role, his power enhanced by his appointment as crown prince in 2017, that explains in part why international investors baulked at buying even a small piece – only 1.5 per cent was on offer – of Aramco, the largest oil company in the world, at the high overall valuation of $2 trillion placed on it by the Saudis.

One factor fuelling their caution will be their perception that foreign investment in Saudi Arabia faces an enhanced political risk under MbS. His radical measures at home and abroad, so very different from traditional Saudi policies, have seldom succeeded and have sometimes ended in calamity.

These new departures introduced by MbS start in 2015 when, as defence minister, he launched a war in Yemen that was supposed to swiftly defeat the Houthi movement that held the capital Sanaa and much of the country.

Almost five years later, the Houthis are still there, but 100,000 Yemenis have been killed and 24 million of them – 80 per cent of the population – need humanitarian assistance. Lack of clean water sources, and the collapse of the medical system, both allegedly targeted by Saudi bombers, has led to 700,000 suspected cholera cases. The UN describes the food and health crisis in Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet.

At home, MbS had claimed that he would reform Saudi Arabia’s medieval and oppressive social norms, producing a more tolerant and freer society. But such modernisation as there has been, such as allowing women to drive, has turned out to be cosmetic, while repression has been all too real.

A planned expansion in the rights of women was well publicised abroad, but a Human Rights Watch report issued earlier this month, entitled The High Cost of Change: Repression Under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reforms, tells a different and much grimmer story, saying that “authorities had tortured four prominent Saudi women activists while in an unofficial detention centre, including by administering electric shocks, whipping the women on their thighs, forcible hugging and kissing and groping.”

As the price of their release, the activists were asked to sign a document and appear on television saying they had not been tortured.

Other reforms have followed the same pattern. In April 2016, MbS launched Vision 2030, an ambitious scheme to modernise the Saudi economy that attracted international plaudits. But the reality of the economic changes to be introduced became clear in November 2017 when leading businessmen and royal family members were confined, some being reportedly abused, as part of an alleged corruption inquiry in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.

A few are still detained, while others were only released after handing over part or all of their business interests.

For a long period, MbS was treated gently by foreign governments greedy for Saudi contracts and by the foreign media, which bought into a PR picture of MbS as breaking the bonds of an archaic society. President Trump made a triumphal visit to Riyadh soon after his election and frequently tweeted his approval of all that MbS was doing – including his incarceration of the businessmen.

In terms of publicity, all went well enough until 2 October 2018 when a Saudi death squad murdered the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The crime is now admitted by the Saudi authorities, though they deny that MbS knew about the killing in advance – something asserted to the contrary by US senators briefed by US intelligence.

The Khashoggi killing and the grisly dismemberment of his body released a flood of criticism from which MbS has yet to recover. The dead journalist had said the year before his assassination that the crown prince had “promised an embrace of social and economic reform … but all I see now is the recent wave of arrests”.

The tainting of Saudi Arabia’s reputation by the Khashoggi affair, and the torrent of criticism that followed, played a role in deterring foreign investors from buying into Aramco at the price the Saudis wanted.

But what really undermined Saudi Arabia’s reputation for stability was the surprise Iranian/Houthi drone and missile attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in September. As significant as the attack itself was Mr Trump’s refusal to retaliate against Iran. What had for so long seemed like a gold-plated US guarantee of Saudi security turned out to be nothing of the sort.

MbS is not going to be displaced because of these mistakes and miscalculations: when he was appointed heir to his father in 2017, the royal court purged and took over the entire Saudi security apparatus. On the other hand, the long list of self-destructive actions by the Saudi authorities in the last five years has left the country much less stable than it once appeared.

Prince Andrew’s take on the career of his fellow royal in Saudi Arabia would make interesting reading. Perhaps he looks on MbS’s absolute power and gigantic wealth with envy; he may even approve of the rigour with which his counterpart asserts his authority. This is not pure guesswork.

Andrew used to be a regular visitor to Saudi Arabia’s near neighbour and de facto protectorate, Bahrain, praising it as “as source of hope for many people in the world”. These kind words contrast with the report of an independent inquiry into the crushing of the Arab Spring protests there in 2011 which details 18 different torture techniques inflicted on detained protesters.

A British diplomat stationed in Bahrain at the time of a Prince Andrew visit later wrote that the thank-you letters he sent to his hosts after one visit to Bahrain – comparing the size of his plane to theirs – made for cringe-making reading.

In one significant respect, however, Prince Andrew is setting a good example for MbS by standing down from his public duties. Doubtless, the Saudi crown prince will be wondering, after the failures and fiascos of the last five years, if he should consider following the same path.

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