This week, Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MBS, is on his not-quite-state visit to Britain. A parade down the Mall and a state banquet could only be afforded to his father, old King Salman, who made MBS crown prince last June and has given him unprecedented latitude to liberalise Saudi society, lock up his enemies and light fireworks abroad. MBS arrived in London on Wednesday fresh from visiting one friend, Egypt’s General Sisi, and will go on to see another, Donald Trump, on 19 March. Theresa May’s aim will be to show that Britain can thrive outside the EU, but she should think twice before co-opting this new strongman who reputedly encourages his courtiers to call him Iskander — the name by which Middle Easterners know Alexander the Great.
MBS is an exacting prince, as was shown last November when he locked up much of the country’s business elite in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh and amid allegations of corruption recovered billions of dollars. He has wrested control of public morals from the conservative sheikhs, introduced VAT, cut petrol subsidies, dismantled rules concerning gender segregation and invested some of the country’s sovereign wealth in Uber, the Hollywood movie industry and Neom, a planned $500 billion megacity on the Red Sea described in the literature as ‘an aspirational society that heralds the future of human civilisation’. All the while he is fighting a bloody war in Yemen and diplomatically squeezing the governments of Qatar and Lebanon — though he is being embarrassed in these regional endeavours by Iran.
Jared Kushner and David Petraeus are fans of the restless prince. So is Boris Johnson. In a recent interview with Al Arabiya, the Saudi TV channel whose owner, Waleed al-Ibrahim, was among those arrested in November, the Foreign Secretary lauded the ‘very exciting period of change’ inaugurated by MBS. The words ‘arms’ and ‘deal’ did not pass Boris’s lips, nor did he mention the British-made Typhoon jets and Paveway IV bombs doing such a sterling service in Yemen. Instead he stressed his admiration for MBS’s gender policies — under which women will be allowed to drive — and his plans to ‘replenish the aquifers’.
Boris, Kushner and the others are not the first westerners to go gaga over an eastern arm-twister. From Muhammad Ali Pasha, Egypt’s reformer for most of the first half of the 19th century (he ended the plague, smashed the power of the Muslim clerics and built canals with Pharaonic disregard for the lives of his workers), to Iran’s Reza Shah (1925-1941) who introduced western legal codes and banned the hijab, nothing warms the western ego like emulation.
The trouble is, Mohammad bin Salman’s campaign is even more piecemeal and impetuous than those earlier examples. And it is unmediated by the checks and balances that widen ownership and generate consensus around modern reform projects, whether they happen in a formal democracy or not.
As for the 32-year-old princeling, a tad paunchy, his teeth often bared in a smile as dazzling as the taps at the Ritz-Carlton, MBS is an old-fashioned despot whose power comes from his limitless brief and the fact he has demolished the old consensual form of Saudi royal politics (each branch of the family had a share of power, including perks and peculation), and replaced it with himself. For all the triumphalist PR, MBS is in Britain to save his plan. Barring an implausible long-term rise in oil prices, the kingdom desperately needs foreign investment if it isn’t to burn off its reserves in welfare spending and plunge into a financial crisis. The economy contracted 0.7 per cent last year, while the population grew at 2 per cent. Unemployment continues to rise, in part because of MBS’s success in getting women into the jobs market. And while the prince is the man with ideas, he may also be an impediment to their implementation. Nothing scares asset managers more than asset grabs.
Institutional accountability would moderate the stripling’s excesses, but away from dinner at Windsor Castle and dutiful parley with Mrs May at No. 10, the one place where he might actually learn something, the Houses of Parliament, he won’t be visiting. That would mean passing the statue of Cromwell and the rowdier supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament Square; their vocal opposition to civilian casualties in Yemen and executions in Riyadh could be embarrassing. Indeed, MBS’s contact with ordinary Britons is likely to be so fleeting, he might as easily have asked Sophia the robot, an android that was recently awarded Saudi citizenship, to represent him. Ms Robot is to be one of the first inhabitants of Neom.
MBS’s hosts hope that while he is in London he will ratify a pending order for some 48 more Typhoons. They would also like him to announce that the planned flotation of Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, will happen on the London Stock Exchange, though New York also has a strong claim. Beyond all this, the trip will be about Iran. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and the United States agree that the Islamic Republic should be destabilised so it cannot range malignantly over the Arab world. They cheered the Iranians who protested in January against the sick economy, and the Emiratis have been staunching the flow of dollars into the country, weakening the riyal.
Neither Mrs May nor Boris had a personal hand in the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. They are more hawkish than their respective predecessors. That Iran is light years ahead of Saudi Arabia in political culture and technological know-how; that its Shia co-religionists across the region have for years been the victims of Sunni fundamentalism of the Saudi variety; these are unimportant details when set against MBS’s trillions.
Towards the end of the Obama presidency, it looked as though America would favour a power balance in the Middle East — as the then president put it, the Saudis and Iranians should ‘share the neighbourhood and institute some sort of cold peace’. Unless Iran and Saudi Arabia tolerate each other’s regional aspirations there will of course be no stability, but Trump, MBS and Benjamin Netanyahu have killed the idea.
The US’s policy towards Saudi Arabia was summed up by Philip Gordon, Obama’s former regional point-man: ‘Buy more American weapons, announce investments in the US, pledge to fight Islamic extremism, and, in return, we will give you unconditional support — for your confrontation with Iran, war in Yemen, isolation of Qatar, and whatever domestic practices you see fit.’
Now Europe seems powerless to stop the nuclear deal it so carefully put together from unravelling. This will probably happen in May, when Trump, required to extend his waiver of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, declines to do so. That will leave the Europeans to protect the shreds of the deal, which won’t amount to much given that pledges of big investment in the Islamic Republic — the West’s side of the bargain — haven’t been kept. The question for Britain is whether we should edge away from the European posture of neutrality in the Saudi-Iranian conflict and adopt Trump’s policy as our own. It would be the sexier path, to bet on the Saudi enlightenment and make money, but it would also be pusillanimous, cynical and heedless of history.
Britain’s policy-makers and businessmen were mesmerised by the last Shah of Iran (Reza’s son Mohammad Reza) in his oil-fuelled and increasingly unhinged final phase. Boris and Kushner love MBS for the same reasons: he buys stuff and is bringing his country into the modern world. But the Shah’s project went to cinders and MBS’s might too. Don’t hug too tight.