If the events unfolding in Riyadh are any indication of what Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) will be like as a king, we are in for a bumpy ride for years ahead.
The shake-up of the decades-old Saudi power consensus, as well as the presumably forced resignation of Saad Hariri in Riyadh, all mean that MBS seeks recognition of his authority both domestically and internationally.
Some commentators have dubbed him “the Vladimir Putin of the Middle East” referring to his bold moves in changing the power equilibrium in the Kingdom and bringing down Saudi “oligarchs”.
The Russia-Saudi rapprochement of recent months arguably became possible precisely because Russian President Vladimir Putin and MBS speak the same language. Both prefer to use hard power to resolve issues domestically and internationally and both see the world in black and white.
Since MBS was empowered by his father, King Salman, in early 2015, Saudi foreign policy has been undergoing a Russia-style transformation embracing a full-on offensive character. The Yemen war, the Qatar blockade and, finally, Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in recent Lebanese developments all seem to have been borrowed out of Putin’s playbook.
The Russian president is arguably the politician who brought realpolitik back into fashion, with his military campaign in Syria and a series of hybrid involvements in former Soviet republics. In the region where the power balance is increasingly changing, Saudi Arabia sees the need to stay alert and pro-active, which is why Putin’s revisionist policies strongly resonate with the leadership in Riyadh.
If MBS is using Putin’s strategy as a guidebook, he is doing it all wrong.
While Putin and MBS have a similar approach to foreign policy, they have different starting points. With his leadership facing no serious challengers at home, Putin can afford a long-term strategy of carrot and stick. For Mohammed bin Salman, foreign policy is, to a large extent, dictated by the need to cement his power domestically as soon as possible.
Russian and Saudi politics are similar in that leadership cults play an enormous role in nation building. Power projection domestically and globally is a factor that determines the acceptance and legitimacy of the leader. Putin spent years carefully building his public image (to the point where his approval rating has been above 80 percent for years now), while his assertive foreign policy, whether one likes it or not, made Russia a country whose opinion cannot be dismissed. It increasingly looks that MBS is set to establish a similar footing for his rule which will likely last for decades.
There is no doubt that both Putin and MBS are products of the very power system that they have tried to rein in. Putin rose from Russia’s unruly power vertical of the 1990s; he sought to take control of it throughout the 2000s, battling the unruly business oligarchy, and succeeded. Likewise, MBS has been a beneficiary of the royal consensus system of rule; his father, King Salman, took to the Saudi throne, patiently waiting for his turn.
The process of taking over a huge family-based apparatus (incidentally, Russia’s oligarchic system was, at some point, also called “the family”) has only just started for the Saudi crown prince, but we can already see what it has led to in Russia, years after that fight was fought. Oligarchs were either coopted into the political system or exiled, while corruption permeated all spheres of life even deeper.
However, if MBS is using Putin’s strategy as a guidebook, he is doing it all wrong. By forcibly eliminating influential family members from the power equation, the young prince is dismantling the system of consensus rule, something that has allowed Saudi Arabia to maintain a careful balance and keep the Kingdom together for decades. What MBS is, in fact, looking to do is to install a governing system based on his uncontested power, which is a page out of Putin’s playbook, but, unlike the Russian president, the Saudi crown prince is ruining an equilibrium that helped the Kingdom maintain stability.
Instead of creating a class of royal elites unconditionally loyal to the monarch, MBS risks alienating those who see themselves as having the legitimate right to a chunk of the power pie in the Kingdom. The crown prince, an aspiring patriarch of sorts who no longer views other descendants of Ibn Saud as equals, is creating an enormous class of royalty that will feel disadvantaged and thus united in their rejection of the new status quo.
This rejection, however, is brewing deep inside the elites and won’t show until it transforms into dissent. This explains why the MBS-led shake-up in Riyadh was indiscriminate in who it was targeting, disproportionate to the stated goals, and was probably aimed at preventing dissent from appearing rather than targeting any dissident specifically.
This marks the key difference between MBS and Putin. The Russian president has a good sense of underlying domestic power dynamics and easily reigns over them. He created a political system in which branches of “the family” are pitted against each other and he acts as a referee between them.
In this power structure, individual political clans all seek proximity to the leader and compete for Putin’s attention and favour. Thus, the power players remain focused on their squabbles and would not challenge the top because once this power pyramid crumbles, it will bring down everyone, including the dissenters.
MBS is looking to establish a very different system, by essentially equally weakening all other branches of the House of Saud to maintain his power over them. This set-up, however, does not guarantee the same level of stability and perhaps will not be able to maintain the same longevity of the regime.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.