Saudi Arabia: A Game of Thrones

King Salman's arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, 2015. (Public Domain).

At Sciences Po, it’s not often that students have a chance to interact with their professors outside of the carefully timed cours magistraux. Professors tend to go through their lesson plan, answer a few questions, and then be on their way home faster than you can blink. That’s why it’s a privilege when we can get an interview with one of our elusive professors, to ask them about their various opinions on current affairs.

Professor Stéphane Lacroix teaches the “States and Societies in the Arab World” course at Sciences Po, Menton, contributing to our campus his speciality in the history, politics, and foreign policy of the MENA region. His work “Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia” (2011) was awarded book of the year on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel. We recently spoke with him regarding current events in Saudi Arabia.

Le Zadig:
On June 21, Mohammed bin Salman, aged 31 and son of ailing King Salman, became Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, replacing Mohammed bin Nayef, aged 57, of another branch of the royal family. Mohammed bin Nayef was relieved from all of his duties and rumours have it that he was placed under house arrest. Mohammed bin Salman was already Deputy Crown Prince, Defense Minister, and Secretary of the Royal Court since 2015 and has been described as the ‘real’ power behind the throne of King Salman.
Professor Lacroix, could you please contextualize this development? What does it mean for the nature of the regime?

Prof. Lacroix:
What happened last June is the continuation of what started in 2015. The stage was already set for this to happen in 2015. The main question since 2015 was when that was going to happen? From the decisions that were taken in the wake of King Salman’s accession to the throne, we knew that this plan was on the rails. The plan is the following: The Saudi monarchy had traditionally been built on a power balance between the different factions of the royal family. That started in the wake of the death of King Abdulaziz in 1953, when he decided to transmit power to his sons — all of his sons — and that they should govern together and share power. That power sharing agreement was present in the very structure of the Saudi state, where each of the biggest factions controlled the biggest ministries. Basically the state was like a cake which they divided among themselves. And the monarchy was ruled through a family council, in which all the different branches of the royal family were represented. Of course, some branches are more influential than others. But still, there was an attempt to create some kind of collective form of governance. This system was meant not to function forever. Biologically, there was a moment when the sons of King Abdulaziz — the 40 princes who were there when he died and to which he transmitted power — were going to die. The main challenge was: How do you transform that system of collective governance to include a much bigger number of individuals?

(Vimeo, Sciences Po)

Now, it would not just be the sons of King Abdulaziz, but all the grandsons, who are in the hundreds. Now you have a much bigger number of individuals. That was a big headache during the last 10, 15 years, as the number of sons of King Abdulaziz became smaller and smaller. The question of change of generation was the biggest one among the discussions of Saudi specialists: what’s going to happen next? King Salman is the last strong man of that first generation, he is the last influential son of King Abdulaziz. So when he came to power, he decided to invent a new system. He decided that, now that he had a chance to do so, he would choose his successor among his sons, which is something completely unheard of in Saudi Arabia, where — again — governance was collective and the persons who held the title of King were brothers since 1953. So this notion that the son would inherit the throne is completely new in the context, and since 1953 it has not happened before.

So King Salman decided to promote his own son, which meant to exclude all the other competing branches from the structure of power. That was what started to happen in the spring of 2015 when Prince Muqrin was removed from the position of Crown Prince. Prince Muqrin was from the same generation as King Salman, but he’s a ‘weak’ prince. He was someone with very little support within the Saudi royal family. Therefore, it was quite easy to remove him, because he didn’t have enough support within the family. Same for the branch of King Faisal: The sons of Faisal were all sidelined. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs which was held by Saud al-Faisal was now passed to a commoner, Adel al-Jubeir. He’s not a royal. Basically all the different branches who held power at some point now lost everything they had. The only person who couldn’t be removed during spring 2015 was Mohammed bin Nayef. Mohammed bin Nayef was Deputy Crown Prince, so when Muqrin was removed [from the position of Crown Prince] he became Crown Prince — in order to make space for Mohammed bin Salman to become Deputy Crown Prince. But it was not as easy to remove Mohammed bin Nayef, because he is a man with very strong support within the country, within the family and abroad. He is a man who the Americans — especially — trust, because he has been in charge of counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia since the mid-2000s and credited with significant success. And he’s a man with great connections and a lot of trust among the international community, especially among the Americans. So it was not as easy to remove him as it was to remove Prince Muqrin or to exclude the other branches. This is why they waited for two years. And during those two years, the big question was: When were they going to remove Mohammed bin Nayef? And how were they going to do it?

During those two years, the big question was: When were they going to remove Mohammed bin Nayef? And how were they going to do it?

Le Zadig: If we continue in this logic, do you expect King Salman to abdicate before his death, perhaps as early as the coming months? Is that a possibility?

Prof. Lacroix:
It is, but it doesn’t really matter. Because since 2015, Mohammed bin Salman has been the strongman in the country. He is the one who controls the most important institutions. He controls the [Ministry of] Defense, he controls the economy … Now it’s even better, because the only obstacle in his way was Mohammed bin Nayef. Now, that obstacle has been removed. And King Salman completely trusts his son. Mohammed bin Salman is his favorite son whom he chose to be his successor. So at the moment, practically, Mohammed bin Salman rules the country. King Salman has completely transferred his responsibilities to his son. So, in the end, whether Mohammed bin Salman officially becomes King in one month or in two years, it doesn’t really change anything. The structure of power in Saudi Arabia has radically changed. Maybe to continue on your first question, the nature of the regime — what it is now? It’s a one man show. And this is completely new. Until now, Saudi Arabia was a very unique regime in the sense that all these different circles of power coexisted and competed. But it was never an autocracy, if you take the literal meaning of autocracy, that is: There is one autocrat. What we are seeing right now is an increasing centralization of power within the hands of one man. And an increasing personalization of rule around that man: Mohammed bin Salman. Those are completely new dynamics in the system.

The nature of the regime — what it is now? It’s a one man show.

Le Zadig:
Do you think there is no contender to Mohammed bin Salman left? For example Mutaib bin Abdullah, the Minister of National Guard. He was a person that, a few years ago, some people said King Abdullah was propping up to be in the new generation to take over. And he’s still Minister of the National Guard. Do you think he matters at all?

Prof. Lacroix:
He does matter a little bit, but the problem with the Abdullah faction is that they have very few allies — contrary to Mohammed bin Nayef, who had a lot of allies within the family. In the world of politics you need to make alliances. Mohammed bin Nayef was a man who was able to make alliances with different factions. Mutaib bin Abdullah is completely isolated. His father doesn’t have full brothers to begin with. So he comes from a branch that is one of the smallest branches, because — again — Abdullah didn’t have natural allies within the system. And now that his father is gone, Mutaib bin Abdullah is quite isolated. He matters, because he controls an important body, which is the National Guard. The National Guard is an important body within the system. But Mutaib bin Abdullah, in a sense, probably knows that he has no political future. He has no chance of claiming the title of King for himself. So what he is doing, probably, is that he is allying with whoever is the strongest, in exchange for keeping his own little fiefdom, which is the National Guard, which — you are right — is an exception. He is the only one among the old guard who has not been removed. But it has to do with the nature of the National Guard.

The National Guard is the tribal army of the Kingdom. People are recruited along tribal lines and this notion of tribal loyalty matters in the National Guard. These men in the National Guard have had a loyalty to the branch of Abdullah since the beginning. Abdullah headed the National Guard since the 1960s. And now he transmitted power to his son. By the way, Abdullah came on his mother’s side from one of the biggest tribes of the north of Saudi Arabia, the Shammar. So this also gave him some strong tribal lineage. All of these reasons make removing Mutaib difficult, because — again — this notion of personal and tribal loyalty matters in the National Guard. But at the same time, Mutaib cannot be a contender. He knows it. And he decided to pledge allegiance to the new strongman, in exchange for getting — probably — the guarantee that he will not be removed from where he is. But again, it would be difficult to remove him.

The reason why Mohammed bin Salman decided to remove Mohammed bin Nayef now is because of Trump.

Le Zadig:
Neither King Salman nor Mohammed bin Salman attended the G20 summit in Hamburg, officially because they were busy with the ‘Qatar Crisis’. Instead, former Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf had been sent to represent Saudi Arabia. Rumours have it that King Salman and Mohammed bin Salam were — or possibly still are — afraid of the very real possibility of a coup in their country. Do you think this is a realistic possibility?

Prof. Lacroix:
I think it’s possible. I do think it’s possible, for the reasons I gave you: Mohammed bin Nayef has ties. He has international support. And he has good relations especially with the United States. Let me explain that. The reason why Mohammed bin Salman decided to remove Mohammed bin Nayef now is because of Trump. Because one of the biggest obstacles to removing Mohammed bin Nayef is the support that Mohammed bin Nayef had within the U.S. administration. But when Trump came to power, Mohammed bin Salman really tried his best to establish a personal connection to Trump. You know, Trump, in a sense functions like a Gulf leader. He doesn’t care about institutions. He cares about persons, personal links and connections. So what the Saudis around Mohammed bin Salman did, was try to create that personal connection to Trump. They did it especially through Mohammed bin Zayed [Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi] in the Emirates, who himself has personal connections to Trump and has had those for a while. So they received Trump for the Riyadh Summit, treated him like a king, with a huge portrait of him and all these things that Trump loves. He was received with all the honors of — not just a king — even an emperor! So Trump was really, really happy with the way he was received. He left Riyadh ecstatic. And this is why they decided to move against Mohammed bin Nayef now. Because they knew, or at least they believed, that they had Trump’s support. At the same time, it’s not as easy, because we see that Trump’s support doesn’t mean the U.S. administration’s support. This is not the first time we witness contradicting positions between Trump and his administration. This has been very obvious with the Qatar Crisis, where you see a clear rift between Trump on the one hand, and the Pentagon and the State Department on the other hand.

The reason for the Qatar Crisis is the same, it’s also Trump. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates decided to go after Qatar, because they believed, now, that they had seduced Trump, Trump would support them in their crusade against Qatar. But again, on both subjects — on the Qatar Crisis and on the succession — there certainly is much more scepticism in the Pentagon and in the State Department. Mohammed bin Nayef probably still has a lot of contacts over there. Mohammed bin Nayef — again — is a man with support inside the country, support in the Royal Family and support outside the country. That is the reason they put him under house arrest. And he could perfectly try to engineer some kind of counter-coup. I think it’s not a very big possibility, but it’s possible. Because for all the reasons I mentioned, he could potentially do it if he tried. He could gather enough support to try it at least. And you have to keep in mind the Qatar Crisis when thinking about this scenario. One of the things that they accuse Mohammed bin Nayef of is being an ally of Tamim [Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar]. They used the Qatar Crisis also to accuse Mohammed bin Nayef. I am not sure what kind of links he has to Qatar, by the way. But now, you would obviously imagine that Qatar and Turkey would have an interest in pushing for him to replace Mohammed bin Salman. So, now you can see how all of this could play out. Which is why Mohamed bin Salman is right to be scared and to remain in the country for the moment.

King Salman with President Donald Trump, 2017. Public Domain.
President Donald Trump and King Salman talk together during ceremonies, Saturday, May 20, 2017, at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo Shealah Craighead, Public Domain)

Le Zadig:
Let’s talk about religion and religious institutions. In 2016, the Saudi government issued a regulation significantly limiting the power of the ‘Mutaween’, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as ‘Religious Police’. The Mutaween are forbidden to “arrest or chase people, ask their ID’s or follow them”. Instead, they are “expected to uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness” and report “to official authorities any suspected crimes instead”. Only the latter institutions can now take action against crimes. How do you think did the Wahhabi clerical establishment receive these news? How were their reactions?

Prof. Lacroix:
This was absolutely huge. This was a huge change. Because within the system of Saudi Arabia, the religious police, Hai’at al-Amr bil-m‘aruf wa al-nahiy ‘an al-munkir, was a central element of the pact between the ‘ulama and the princes. It was the arm of the ‘ulama, which they used to enforce their hegemony over society. Now they have been deprived of that arm. This is one of the biggest blows to the alliance between the ‘ulama and the princes. Much bigger than anything before. The ‘ulama have, in private, been outraged; the politicised ‘ulama, the Sahwa types, have made their outrage public on Twitter. A number of big Sahwa figures tweeted against the decision saying it was scandalous. It is true that the balance of power has already shifted in favor of the princes for a while. The ‘ulama now are much weaker than they used to be. So their ability to stand up to the princes today is certainly much less than it ever was. And the ‘ulama, the official ones, have kind of interiorized the idea that you cannot criticize the princes in public. This quietist attitude is very central to the ethos of the official ‘ulama in Saudi Arabia. So, even when they are angry in private, they wouldn’t manifest that anger in public. But there is certainly anger in private. And — again — by the way, keeping in mind this ‘Mohammed bin Nayef counter-coup scenario’, he probably would be able to find some support among those ‘ulama factions. Because he, and the Nayef branch of the family, historically have good relations with the religious establishment. So — again — the official ‘ulama have not spoken, because they don’t speak on those issues, they have interiorized this rule of quietism, but there is the sentiment that, somehow, this represents a breach to the agreement with the Princes. The Sahwa figures, those who expressed themselves on Twitter, most of them were either silenced or arrested. So what you’ve had also in Saudi Arabia with the rise of Mohammed bin Salman is a much more systematic attempt to silence any form of public dissent. This was not the case before. There was always a space for public dissent in Saudi Arabia. The social networks were places in which you would easily see relatively popular figures tweeting their scepticism about governmental decisions. This would happen before. Since 2015, however, this has really become much more difficult for all of these politicized religious figures. For some, the government has forced them to close their Twitter accounts, Awad al-Qarni is one of those big figures who had their Twitter accounts closed. Others, like Abdulaziz al-Tarifi or Ibrahim al-Sikran, are now in jail, because of things they tweeted against the government, and especially in the wake of that decision [concerning the religious police]. As part of the whole change that is happening in Saudi Arabia since the last two years, there is really an attempt to domesticate the religious establishment completely, to put religion under control of the Princes, to withdraw the autonomy that the ‘ulama used to have and at the same time to silence any voices that are against that evolution.

You know, Trump, in a sense functions like a Gulf leader.

Le Zadig:
Other reforms recently introduced entertainment events such as concerts or even comedy shows in the Kingdom. Mohammed bin Salman openly supports these reforms and is probably the driving force behind them. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Mohammed bin Salman is also planning to reform the education sector, traditionally a bastion of conservatism and profoundly shaped by Muslim brotherhood ideologues since the 1960s, many of whom immigrated from Egypt during Nasserite times. How do you perceive the reaction from the Wahhabi clerical establishment and the Sahwa? How do you expect their behavior towards the regime to be in the future, especially concerning the education sector, if there will be a major reform, basically, an attempt to secularize education?

Prof. Lacroix:
They are not going to secularize education. I think Mohammed bin Salman clearly has a liberal vision when it comes to society. But, of course, the Kingdom is based on religion and they don’t want to abandon that, because it is too important for them. But truly, he is someone who is willing to change social norms to an extent that has never happened before. In the Arab World we have had many of those. In a sense, he is the typical authoritarian modernizer. He is very authoritarian in a way, he is very autocratic in a way, but he also thinks that he has an enlightened vision that he wants to impose on society. Maybe it is too early to say that, he is too young and we don’t know yet, but maybe we can compare him to this kind of authoritarian modernizer in the sense of Bourguiba in Tunisia. Someone who is very authoritarian politically, but who, in terms of social norms, is willing to impose a more liberal vision of society. I don’t want to go too far in this comparison; I think he is much more conservative than Bourguiba was. And the standards of what is considered liberal in Saudi Arabia are very different from the standards of Tunisia. But you see what he is doing. And that appeals very much the West, in a sense. He knows that by promoting that kind of liberal social vision, he is also gaining support among certain segments in the West, which, at the same time, would forgive him for his authoritarian political tendencies. Just like the West used to forgive Bourguiba and Ben Ali for being authoritarian, because, at the same time, they were seen as liberals by Western standards. So he is playing that game as well.

What he is doing in the entertainment authority is also part of that same plan that started with the weakening of the religious police. That’s part of the same vision. It’s also a big change, it’s a huge change in Saudi Arabia, there are dozens of concerts and festivals organized, which rarely happened before. But it is happening in a very top-down way. The state doesn’t want people to start organizing themselves. So it’s all very centralized, it’s all very statist in a way. It’s the state that organizes entertainment for you. It’s not up to you to organize things. So, at the same time, it’s also a very statist vision, it’s not the kind of liberal society that we would imagine of course. But at the same time, it’s true that it is a huge change. Now, people have all kinds of entertainment events organized.

But it is happening in a very top-down way. The state doesn’t want people to start organizing themselves.

What is very bright, very smart, in what Mohammed bin Salman has been doing, is that, on entertainment and social issues, he is trying to promote his views by using an economic discourse, not a religious one. Mohammed bin Salman has never appeared on TV saying: “I’m a religious reformer, I want to reform the religious discourse, I’m against Wahhabism.” He has never said any of this. What he says, and that’s much smarter in a way, is:

“Economically, we need to do this. Because we are on the verge of an economic crisis. The rentier model is not functioning any more, so we need to change our economic model, and we need to generate income through other ways. Which means, one: entertainment, because we lose a lot of money, because Saudis go for entertainment abroad. So we need to be able to generate our own entertainment industry, not to lose that money. And, two: women’s work. We need to put women to work. Because it’s an economic issue, not a religious one.”

This is quite smart, actually. And I think, at least in this part of his program, he has quite a bit of support among Saudi youth. I think the Saudi youth especially likes that part of the program. Saudi youth today is probably much more liberal than it was in the nineties. There are still a lot of conservatives. It’s still very divided. But the liberal youth is probably stronger today than it ever was. It has to do with all the changes that came with globalization, also with the number of students who studied abroad. So there is an expectation for this, on part of the youth. And that is precisely what he is trying to do. He is trying to appeal to those expectations. He is trying to gain support from that part of the youth. So he has support for this. And he knows it. The Sahwa today is weaker than it was 20 years ago. And the government has made it clear that it will use repression against any religious figure or movement that stands in its way. Mohammed bin Salman has been very clear; as I said, there has been quite a number of people who have been jailed over those issues, recently. So they cannot do anything against this on their own.

But, going back to the idea we discussed at the beginning, the possibility of an MbN [Mohammed bin Nayef] counter-coup ― many of the conservatives would probably welcome an MbN counter-coup. So those are segments that MbN could try to rally around him. But the Sahwa, I think, today and on its own, cannot do much.

Le Zadig:
That would have been my next question. In your scholarship, you argue that the jama’at islamiyya constitute the only cohesive and well-entrenched social mobilizing structure in the Kingdom. Throughout modern history, they fluctuated between support, accommodation and dissidence against the regime. Given the current developments, do you expect them to tend more towards dissidence in the close future?

Prof. Lacroix:
The political mentality of the jama’at is quite close to the Muslim Brotherhood. They are not revolutionary. They would rather protect themselves than to take the risks of fighting a fight which they would lose. So, each of the jama’at knows, that if they go fight for this on their own, they lose. But if the context changes, if the political opportunity structure changes, then they would probably join. Especially what happened in the nineties, when they supported the contestation and lost, it kind of gave them a lesson. And, as I said, they are weaker today than they were in the nineties. They still remain the most organized part of Saudi society. That statement is still true. But their reach today is less than it was in the nineties, and for the moment they are really trying to protect themselves. Because they know that the trend is against them. When the government in Saudi Arabia declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization in 2014, if you look at the statement declaring the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization, in the text in Arabic it actually says: “The Muslim Brotherhood and all organizations that resemble them…” And this, I understood, and the jama’at in Saudi Arabia understood to mean them. So they know they have a Sword of Damocles over their heads. They know that, if the government decides to go after them, it will say: “You are terrorists!”. So, I think, for the moment, they are trying to be discrete and to preserve what they can preserve. They are not going for a fight.

The jama’at know they have a Sword of Damocles over their heads.

Le Zadig:
Considering that Saudi Arabia, in connection with the ‘Qatar Crisis’, excluded Sheikh Qaradawi from the World Muslim League, and considering the other developments we are seeing, do you think we are witnessing a total rupture of the Saudi regime from political Islam? In the past, at least for some periods of time, the regime was, on the contrary, flirting with political Islam, isn’t that correct?

Prof. Lacroix:
The break took place gradually. The first episode is in the nineties. Until the nineties, the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime were best friends. The Muslim Brotherhood was in Saudi Arabia, the regime supported all kind of Islamist movements abroad. With the nineties, the Gulf Crisis, the Sahwa opposition in Saudi Arabia and the stance of the Muslim Brotherhood on the invasion of Kuwait, all of this convinced the Saudis that the Brotherhood are not necessarily their friends. So you started to see distrust growing from the nineties. In the 2000s you have statements like that of Prince Nayef, who was the Minister of Interior [at that time], who in 2002 goes on record saying that the Muslim Brotherhood are the source of all the problems in Saudi Arabia. Already in 2002. It has been a long time since.

But in the 2000s, at the same time, there is also a strategy to accommodate those groups again. Now, the regime doesn’t trust them anymore. But it tries to find some kind of coexistence, you could say. The Sahwa comes out of jail, the regime gives them a space, in return they have to stick to non-political issues. When it comes to the relation of the Saudi regime with the Muslim Brotherhood abroad it is the same thing: The regime maintains relations with the Brotherhood abroad, but not as close as they used to be before the nineties. And then comes 2011 ― and the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in different countries. This really convinces the regime that they need to go after the Brotherhood, at the same time as the Emirates decide to do the same thing. So, in 2013, the Saudi regime, together with the Emirates, are key to the overthrowing of Morsi [in Egypt]. In the months preceding the overthrow of Morsi, they are very much part of that coalition that forms against Morsi, and they offer support to the Egyptian Army. And in 2014 the Saudis decide to classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. However, while they do that, in 2015, they still maintain a pragmatic relationship with some Muslim Brotherhood branches. At the beginning, this was seen as a change that happened when King Salman came to power.

King Abdullah, in the last years of his reign, was very anti-Muslim Brotherhood. When King Salman comes to power, at the beginning, there was a small shift, in which, for instance in Yemen, the Saudis cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood against the Houthis. In Syria, they maintained a functional relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Although, theoretically, those groups are “terrorists” ― by their own rules. And in 2015, you start to have a small rapprochement again between Qatar and the Saudis. All of this because the rhetoric then is that Iran is the enemy par excellence and what is needed is a common front. But now, it seems that the relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood is down again with the current crisis. But, in retrospective, the nineties is the big shift. It was when the relationship of trust became a relationship of distrust. The Saudis kept on maintaining ad hoc relationships with the Brothers, but with no trust as there existed before, and then, in 2014, they officially classified them as terrorists. Although, in 2015 and 2016, we still see them maintaining certain relationships locally. Today, it seems that the relationship is broken. But they may need the Brotherhood again in the future, by the way. The Saudis are slightly more pragmatic than the Emirates when it comes to this. The Emirates are anti-Muslim Brotherhood completely ― in Yemen for instance: their whole policies are directed at trying to undermine Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood there. It’s not the case for the Saudis. At least they have shown at certain moments an ability to be more pragmatic. Although at the moment it seems that there is a break. But we have to see what happens next. Mohammed bin Salman is probably a change there as well, because one of the reasons why the Saudis were pragmatic, was that they were divided. A regime like the Saudi regime had so many different factions, that, in a sense, you always have a relationship to a whole range of different actors. That’s because the Royal Family itself is made out of factions that have different relationships with and preferences for different actors. The centralization of power today is probably changing a lot of this as well. It’s difficult to predict what will happen next, but this is one of the things where we could probably see significant changes.

Le Zadig: But we already see significant shifts in foreign policy, don’t we?

Prof. Lacroix: Yes, we can already see them: Yemen, Qatar, this is a much more aggressive type of foreign policy. Decisions to blockade their neighbor or to invade their other neighbor: very aggressive, quick and impulsive decisions. It’s not just about them being aggressive, it’s also about them making blunt decisions.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Sunday, May 21, 2017, to participate in the inauguration of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead, Public Domain)

Le Zadig: Let us finish with a more open and speculative question. Where do you see Saudi Arabia in 2030? Mohammed bin Salman’s flagship project is the so-called Vision 2030 that attempts to transform the Saudi economy and society. Now, can you elaborate an alternative Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia?

Prof. Lacroix:
One scenario is that Saudi Arabia manages its transformation, economically. Because in the end, what matters most here is the economics. One scenario is that it somehow manages to implement its vision economically and Saudi Arabia manages to create a functioning post-oil model. I don’t think this is easy. Not in those twelve, thirteen years until 2030.

The second scenario is that the Saudis manage to implement some of those measures, but not completely, because some of them are very difficult to implement to begin with and full of unrealistic wishful thinking. So they manage to create some kind of slightly hybrid economy that still depends on oil, but much less than before, but which is enough to keep them going. 2030 is not that far, and the Saudis have plenty of money reserves. If they can manage to save money, and if they can manage to implement at least part of the Vision, and make at least part of their economy more productive and less dependent on the rent, they would manage to get to 2030 without suffering a major economic crisis. That’s probably the most probable scenario. I think the Vision is not going to be implemented as it is, because it’s too ambitious. And there are certain major problems with some of the “neo-liberal” measures in the Vision―remember that it was drafted by McKinsey, and that it was once compared in an interview with Mohammed bin Salman to Margaret Thatcher’s! But if some parts of the vision are smartly implemented, we will have a Saudi Arabia that is probably poorer than today, but still manageable. The demographics are the key reason to this, there is a structural issue there. It’s not just about constructing a productive economy, but given population growth, you would need now to start generating a huge amount of jobs, and it’s very, very unlikely that you can do this by 2030. But if the question is, can you avoid a major socio-economic crisis by 2030? I think it’s still possible.

But there is also a theory, which you hear in Saudi Arabia, which says that, basically, the Vision is just Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘campaign argument’. It says that he is just using this discourse to get to power and once he’s there and controls everything, he doesn’t need the campaign argument any more. A bit like our politicians in the West, they always campaign on big things and once they get elected, they don’t make much of their promises. So what I have said before only can come true if he is serious about it. The worst case scenario here is that he is not serious about it, and once he gets there he just forgets that he actually needs to make changes.

The second big question for 2030 is much more difficult, because it’s about regional politics. Where would Saudi Arabia be by then in terms of regional politics? And this is much more unpredictable, I think. I still believe that the regional Cold War that’s very much there in the Middle East today will not turn into an open war. I don’t think it will. I don’t think the Iranians or the Saudis would want that. But it could always get out of hand. And this would be dramatic, obviously, for the Saudis ― and for everyone probably, by the way. So there is always a possibility that things could go wrong. I don’t think they would, because I think that in the end, as I said, the actors on each side know that there is a difference between what you say and what you do. On both sides, you need to speak very aggressively of your neighbor, because there is a lot of anti-Iranian sentiment in Saudi Arabia, just like there is a lot of anti-Saudi sentiment in Iran. But at the same time, I think the leaders in all of these countries don’t want a war. Now, there’s a Trump factor added to that, which adds uncertainty and unpredictability. Unpredictability basically is Donald Trump’s middle name. So, in the end, it’s still very difficult to imagine what kind of regional politics we will have in 2030. I think Saudi Arabia can manage reasonably well its economic transformation, at least partly, and we can at least avoid a major crisis. That’s what I can say. But I don’t think any of the great plans that have been presented can be implemented as they were presented.

Le Zadig: And if you had to assign a probability to the Mohammed bin Nayef counter-coup scenario, what would you say?

Prof. Lacroix:
It’s low. 10%. Within the last two years, Mohammed bin Salman has been very active, trying to quell this dissent, trying to co-opt people within the family, through threats or incentives. He has been very active. Not making alliances in the old sense, but making people pay allegiance to him. If he had done that two years ago [remove Mohammed bin Nayef], it would have been very fragile. But now he has been there for two years, he has been able to solidify part of his base. And I think, it wouldn’t be as easy today [to stage a counter-coup], and they know it. Mohammed bin Nayef and his supporters know it. There is one thing that shows you that it is not as easy today. When, in 2015, [Prince] Muqrin was removed from the line of succession and Mohammed bin Salman was appointed Deputy Crown Prince, the Allegiance Council, which is an institutionalized Family Council―this is the transformation that [King] Abdullah made in 2007 when he basically transformed the Family Council into the Allegiance Council ―and so, the Allegiance Council in 2015 was completely divided. Rumors, but pretty much confirmed rumors, say that 20 of the princes ― that is about half of the princes ― left the room in fury, because they disagreed over the changes. And Prince Talal, the father of Al-Waleed bin Talal, tweeted in 2015 something like: “No obedience to those who break the rules.” That was a message directed at Salman and Mohammed bin Salman.

This time, when, on June 21, 2017, Mohammed bin Salman removed Mohammed bin Nayef, the Allegiance Council all voted in favor except three. There were three people who didn’t vote in favor. But that was 3 out of 34 who attended. And no one from the Royal Family tweeted or made statements. So you could really see that it’s not so much that all the princes in the Royal Family agree, but there is a sense of resignation. There is a sense that you can’t go backwards. It’s a fight you can’t win. Which is why princes would rather pay allegiance to avoid being in trouble. But this gives me a sense that, although there is a lot of support for Mohammed bin Nayef, it might probably not be enough for a counter-coup. The question is: how many of those who support Mohammed bin Nayef in private, would be ready to take the risk of openly siding with them if they risk a counter-coup attempt? And I don’t think there is that many of them. So this is why the scenario is a very low probability scenario. 5 – 10% , not more…

Le Zadig: Well, I think we can end the interview on this note. Thank you very much, Professor Lacroix, for this complex, but quite comprehensive analysis and all the explanations. On behalf of the entire team of Le Zadig, I wish you all the best for your future!

Interview by Rouven Stubbe. July 14, 2017

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