Thousands of students are packing up and searching for new schools in another country. Hospitals here will have to cover for hundreds of medical students. Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia was declared persona non grata. New business deals are frozen. And Saudi investment funds have given orders to sell off Canadian assets, according to reports, “no matter the cost.”
The trigger was a tweet. But where did the sudden, sweeping reaction – one of the most rapid, hair-trigger escalations in the annals of modern diplomacy – come from?
The answer is Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, a son of King Salman and his third wife, has vowed to transform the kingdom, proposing reforms that would alter its economy and its society – and he has already transformed its foreign policy.
He is a reformer. He is also a represser. Under MBS, as he’s widely known, Saudi Arabia has famously allowed women to drive, and access health services and education without constant consent from their male guardians. But the Saudis have also arrested women’s rights activists in a crackdown.
To Western eyes, that’s a halting contradiction. In the logic of the Saudi Crown Prince, ruling a kingdom named for his family, they appear to go together. MBS has laid out plans for major economic and social reforms, but not political reforms that share royal power. And he is also keen to ensure that social change does not appear to be the result of political activism. Or foreign criticism.
“It’s important to understand that Saudis are not citizens. They’re subjects,” said David Chatterson, a former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “What’s most important for the House of Saud is that they have control. Reform is not going to be delivered by demand. It’s going to be driven by the decisions of the royal family, and MBS.”
The Saudis once dealt with the outside world the way they governed, cautiously and conservatively. Since King Salman came to the throne in 2015, and since Mohammed bin Salman’s rapid rise as the prince who wields his father’s power, Saudi Arabia has prosecuted a horrific and seemingly stalemated war in Yemen, led a blockade of neighbour Qatar, and browbeaten visiting Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri into resigning – a resignation he later rescinded.
Now, the kingdom has launched a sudden wave of vitriol at Canada to ensure that Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government felt its displeasure.
There have been debates about whether Canada is merely a convenient example that allows Saudi Arabia to warn other countries not to criticize its human-rights failings, or whether Mr. Trudeau’s government exacerbated years of neglected relations with indelicate Twitter diplomacy – including a tweet in Arabic that offended Saudi sensibilities by appearing to demand that arrested activists be released immediately.
Yet there’s no doubt that the unprecedented response had to be directed by MBS, the next-generation royal who has centralized power in a way no Saudi leader ever has. And there’s no doubt the blistering Saudi blasts at Canada would not have occurred five years ago.
“This could only happen under Mohammed bin Salman,” Mr. Chatterson said.
“Saudi Arabia is a very traditional, very conservative society that fundamentally arose out of Bedouins in the desert,” he said. “MBS kind of overthrew everything when his father became king. For Saudi Arabia, he’s incredibly brash.”
The power of the 70 per cent
As the dispute with Canada demonstrated, he is now a leader who can reach around the world. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which backs the Saudis as regional rivals to a common adversary, Iran, has given MBS wide latitude for his foreign-policy adventures. In a multipolar world, where Mr. Trump’s United States shows little interest in bolstering a Western alliance over issues such as human rights, MBS is emboldened to push back middle powers like Canada. Mr. Trump did not complain. Neither did the European Union. And MBS, now 32 years old, could conceivably rule Saudi Arabia for 50 years.
He has so far acted as though a young leader who is not used to being opposed and does not accept it. He has brushed aside rivals, consolidated power and arrested activists. Reforms are to come from MBS.
When Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive in June, authorities contacted activists to warn them to keep quiet, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy: “They were told, ‘Don’t take credit for this.’”
MBS, Mr. Ulrichsen said, “is not a democrat. He’s not a political reformer. He’s an economic and social reformer.”
His reforms are nonetheless sweeping by Saudi standards. The Vision 2030 plan that MBS laid out in 2016, when he was deputy crown prince, calls for diversifying the Saudi economy to break its dependence on oil. It foresees a future where the country will be less able to rely on revenue from high oil prices to distribute benefits, and well-paid public-service jobs, to Saudis.
The implications are vast. It means opening the economy and making the finances of firms more transparent to attract a variety of international investments. One symbol is a planned initial public offering of shares in Aramco, the Saudi national oil company – the valuation of which, according to the Saudis, approaches $2-trillion, twice the size of Apple Inc. But that would also disturb the elites, including thousands of royal princes and worthies, who skim riches from Saudi’s inbred business world.
The plan to open Saudi Arabia to tourism and entertainment implies a long-term loosening of conservative cultural rules. In April, the country opened its first cinema in more than 35 years. The powers of the Saudi religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, have been trimmed. He has expressed a distaste for “guardianship” laws for women.
They are changes driven by demographics. Seventy per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 30. They grew up in a connected world. They are the ones who feel left out of Saudi Arabia’s elite-controlled economy.
“He’s certainly making a pitch to the 70 per cent of Saudis that are his age or younger, and if he really wants to rule successfully for the next 50 years – as he could do – he’s got to win them onside,” Mr. Ulrichsen said. “He’s also got to produce and deliver results. That will be the test of Vision 2030, whether he can create jobs and economic prospects for the huge number of young Saudis that have felt that the system wasn’t working for them.”
There is a gap between MBS’s promises and actual reforms. There is also the risk of reaction from disrupted elites and royals, the conservative clerics who have long been allied with royal rule, and what Mr. Ulrichsen calls a “large minority” of socially conservative Saudis.
The risk taker
Until now, the Saudi royal family was risk averse. Modernization, including the introduction of television, in the 1960s and 70s, caused a backlash, Mr. Ulrichsen said, and the royal family was scarred when extremists seized its Grand Mosque in 1979. The monarchy has since passed among brothers who remember those events, the sons of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz. But MBS is from the next generation.
He is a risk taker. He moved briskly to gain power– and has wielded it audaciously. As a young man, he remained at home to study law and stayed close to his father, serving as an adviser to Salman when the latter was governor of Riyadh, and later crown prince. When Salman became king, he named favourite son MBS as defence minister, then later deputy crown prince, and finally crown prince. But MBS didn’t just receive rank. He moved to consolidate power.
The most stunning move was the anti-corruption campaign decreed by the king but carried out by MBS, in which senior royal princes and major business tycoons were delivered to Riyadh’s five-star Ritz-Carlton last November and browbeaten until they agreed to repay billions in allegedly embezzled funds. It also served as a purge of power rivals. The three arms of Saudi security, the defence ministry, interior ministry and national guard – previously dispersed among separate branches of the royal family – were brought under MBS' control.
He has made Saudi foreign policy more impetuous. As defence minister, he launched a war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents that was a stark, interventionist step in his country’s proxy war with regional rival Iran. A Saudi-led coalition in Yemen now appears locked in a bloody conflict with no end in sight that the United Nations has described as the worst humanitarian disaster on Earth. The sudden move to blockade Qatar on the grounds it was too close to Iran has also dragged on without sign of a decisive Saudi gain. Now, a sudden escalation with Canada.
It’s likely MBS is emboldened by strong support from Mr. Trump, whose administration sees him as a bold reformer and an ally against Iran and has at least given a yellow light to Saudi foreign ventures – and certainly raised no public objection to recent Saudi blasts at Canada. But his big moves have been unpredictable and, to many, ill-advised.
“They all seem to fit into a pattern of decision-making,” Mr. Ulrichsen said. “It’s abrupt. It’s unpredictable. And it doesn’t necessarily have a Plan B to fall back on.”
MBS does portray himself as a populist and many young Saudis supported his corruption purge, for example, Mr. Ulrichsen said. He has tried to create a new Saudi nationalism, and bloodying Canada’s nose can be portrayed as standing up to meddling foreigners. It might intimidate others, notably European nations, into keeping mum about human rights. But the sudden, arbitrary slashing of business and education ties can also undermine the idea behind Vision 2030 – that Saudi Arabia is a stable, predictable place to invest. And it drew media attention to the arrests of activists, and newspaper editorials calling for Western nations to back up Canada’s criticism.
The Saudi royal family’s desire to push back foreign criticism of its rights record didn’t start with MBS. In 2015, before MBS had consolidated power, Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom sparked Saudi ire by criticizing the sentence of 1,000 lashes for Raif Badawi – who, along with his sister, Samar Badawi, was among the activists defended by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland last week – as “medieval.” Sweden cancelled a defence sale; Saudi Arabia stopped processing visas for Swedish nationals.
The Saudis were still living with the aftershocks of the Arab Spring, and feared that other countries would follow Sweden’s criticism, Swedish Middle East analyst Bitte Hammargren said in an e-mail. The spat was defused, although precisely how remains unclear. The Swedish king contacted the Saudi king, and there was an exchange of letters – Saudi media portrayed them as a Swedish apology, while the Swedish Prime Minister insisted they merely spoke of a misunderstanding.
This time, the Saudi reaction was far bigger. The spat with Canada might not be smoothed over as quickly as that with the Swedes. The difference is MBS. He is in charge now, he has taken risks on change at home, and is driven to retain control. And he moves impetuously.
Mr. Chatterson thinks his blast at Canada was a “tantrum,” not a calculated strategy, because it is likely to damage the Saudis’ international reputation. But he is convinced MBS will be out to avoid showing weakness – as he has in past misadventures. “He never backs down,” he said. “If anything, he doubles down.”