In October 2017, MBS declared his aim to transform Saudi Arabia into a country of moderate Islam, writes EMERITUS PROFESSOR SULEMAN DANGOR.
MUHAMMAD bin Salman (MBS), after graduating from college with a law degree, spent several years in the private sector working as a consultant for the Experts Commission. In 2009, at the age of 24, he entered politics as a special advisor to his father, Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, who was governor of Riyadh Province at the time.
MBS served as secretary-general of the Riyadh Competitive Council, special advisor to the chairman of the board for the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives, and a member of the board of trustees for Albir Society in the Riyadh region. In 2013, MBS was appointed governor of the Eastern Province and, in 2014, as state minister. It is alleged that in 2014 MBS had disclosed to his cousin, the interior minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, plans to kill King Abdullah to pave the way for his father to take the throne.
In April 2015, King Salman appointed his nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef, as crown prince and his son MBS as deputy crown prince. MBS then took over as minister of defence and secretary general of the Royal Court. His first move as minister of defence was to mobilise a pan-GCC coalition to intervene in the Saudi war against Yemen.
In March 2015, he began leading a coalition of countries against the Houthis of Yemen. Later that year, MBS announced an anti-terrorist military alliance of Islamic countries called Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). Coalition airstrikes during the intervention resulted in thousands of civilians killed or injured, prompting accusations of war crimes.
MBS became highly critical of Qatar for its strong relations with Turkey and Iran, and housing members of the Muslim Brotherhood. When Qatar refused to comply with his demands, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar in June 2017, suspending air and shipping routes with the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, which is home to the region’s biggest US military base.
MBS was appointed crown prince on June 21, 2017, making him likely heir to the throne. On the day he became crown prince, US President Donald Trump called him to congratulate him, and the two agreed to close cooperation on security and economic issues, and discussed the need to cease all support for terrorism, the diplomatic dispute with Qatar, and securing peace between the Zionist state and the Palestinians. It is reported that MBS and Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi had offered to support Trump’s presidential campaign.
MBS defended the Trump administration’s travel ban for nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries. Trump’s son-in-law, Gerald Kushner, offered US support for MBS in the succession process and after MBS became crown prince, Trump is reported to have said, ‘We’ve put our man on top.’ The Trump administration also firmly supported him during the global backlash following the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.
In November 2017, MBS ordered around 200 wealthy businessmen and princes to be placed under house arrest in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel. This was followed by the arrest of the Saudi prince and billionaire Al-Waleed bin Talal as well as over 40 princes and government ministers on corruption and money laundering charges. MBS also fired Mutaib bin Abdullah, head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, Adel Fakeih, the minister of Economy and Planning, and Admiral Abdullah bin Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Sultan, the commander of the Saudi Armed Forces. It is widely believed that MBS resorted to the arrests in a move to consolidate his power. Another possible motive was that the purge was part of his move towards his reform agenda.
In November 2017, MBS forced the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, to resign when he visited Saudi Arabia. MBS believed that Hariri was ‘captured’ by Iran-backed Hizbollah, which is a major political force in Lebanon. Hariri was eventually released, went back to Lebanon and then annulled his resignation.
In December 2017, MBS criticised the United States’ decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Zionist state. In 2018, he pledged his support for a Jewish homeland of Israel, and in 2019 he condemned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex the Jordan Valley. MBS has now become one of the Zionist state’s closest allies in the region.
In 2016, MBS introduced what he termed Vision 2030, which plans to reform Saudi Arabia’s economy towards a more diversified and privatised structure. In an effort to boost the tourism industry, in November 2017, MBS announced that Saudi Arabia would start issuing tourist visas for foreigners. In 2019, the Saudi cabinet approved a new residency scheme for foreigners which will enable expatriates to permanently reside, own property and invest in the kingdom.
In October 2017, MBS declared his aim to transform Saudi Arabia into a country of ‘moderate Islam’ that is open to all religions and to the world. He distanced himself from the Wahhabi shuyukh’s approach of social and gender relationships.
Saudi Arabia’s first public concert by a female singer was held in December 2017, and a sports stadium in Jeddah became the first in the kingdom to admit women in January 2018. In April 2018, the first public cinema opened in Saudi Arabia with plans to build more than 2 000 cinemas by 2030.
On March 6, 2020, Muhammad bin Nayef, his half-brother Nawwaf bin Nayef and King Salman’s brother Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz were arrested and charged with treason on the grounds that they were trying to overthrow MBS. This was clearly to eliminate any ‘threat’ they might pose to MBS.
On April 26, 2020, Saudi Arabia abolished flogging as a punishment in the country, stating that the decision was ‘an extension of the human rights reforms introduced under the direction of King Salman and the direct supervision of bin Salman’.
Despite the so-called reforms, under MBS, Saudi Arabia has become a repressive authoritarian regime. Human rights activists and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia routinely face abuse and torture by the regime. Critics, journalists and former insiders are tortured and killed. The case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist of The Washington Post , raised serious concerns about the abuse of human rights by the Saudi regime. MBS justifies the mass arrests of human rights activists as being necessary for enacting reforms in Saudi Arabia.
In response to foreign criticism and women’s rights activism, MBS has introduced modest reforms to improve women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, including the following: lifting the ban on female drivers, allowing women above the age of 21 to obtain passports and travel abroad without needing the permission of their male guardians, making it legal for women to open their own businesses without a male’s permission, authorising mothers to retain immediate custody of their children after divorce without having to file any lawsuits.
In February 2019, MBS defended China’s so-called Xinjiang re-education camps for Uyghurs, saying, ‘China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremisation work for its national security.’ Miqdaad Versi, spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, called bin Salman’s remarks ‘disgusting’ and a defence of ‘the use of concentration camps against Uyghur Muslims’.
Al-Jabri has called bin Salman ‘a psychopath, killer … with infinite resources, who poses a threat to his people, to the Americans and to the planet’. Many believe that MBS constitutes the greatest threat to Saudi Arabia’s economy and Islamic values.