Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is facing some existential problems. He's losing the war in Yemen, the coronavirus has forced him to scale back visits by millions to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and the plummeting price of oil on the back of a supply war with Russian President Vladimir Putin are together shaking the most fundamental underpinnings of his leadership — not to mention threatening a global recession.
So what does he do? He takes a leaf out of President Donald Trump’s playbook by getting rid of some of his most (allegedly) troublesome opponents.
So what does he do? He takes a leaf out of President Donald Trump's playbook by getting rid of some of his most (allegedly) troublesome opponents. Instead of a simple purge, however, the crown prince, known by his initials, MBS, took the far more dramatic step of arresting his cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef; his uncle, Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, as well as one of Nayef's brothers and one of Abdelaziz's sons. The first two have been charged with treason, which carries the death penalty. The crown prince was already in hot water for allegedly ordering the execution-style slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But with this escalation, the Saudi leader is pushing the boundaries once again to see what exactly he can get away with.
All these issues have been brewing for some time. The crown prince has given no quarter in five years of war in Yemen, which has turned very much into a proxy war with Iran — each power supporting opposing factions for control of this strategic corner of the Arabian peninsula.
The Saudis have long been watching anxiously as demand for oil ratcheted down and new energy sources, particularly from the United States, have come online. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, demand for oil has plunged even further.
To hold prices in line, the Saudis called an emergency meeting last week of the OPEC oil cartel to lower production quotas. Russia balked at OPEC's demand, led by Saudi Arabia, to cut 1.5 million barrels a day in output and stabilize prices at $40 a barrel. Putin has no problem with low oil prices, since Russia's cost of production is under $20 a barrel. But he would like to see America's fracking efforts — an already costly proposition to — become uneconomical.
Without a deal, Saudi Arabia said it would sell oil to China for a discount and potentially raise its own output by as much as 2 million barrels a day — moves that would result in flooding the market with oversupply. Oil prices around the world plummeted more than 25 percent Monday to $31 a barrel. Since oil still underpins the Saudi economy, accounting for 50 percent of its GDP and some 70 percent of its export earnings, this is a serious gamble for the crown prince, who has pledged to modernize and diversify his country's financial future.
And then along came the coronavirus. Here the crown prince has been forced to make some of the toughest decisions of his career. The one that has already sent shock waves through the Islamic world was his decision to suspend the year-round umrah pilgrimage in which as many as 20 million faithful — most from Saudi Arabia itself — take part every year. This has also raised the question of whether the annual hajj pilgrimage, which attracts millions Muslims more from every corner of the globe, would be allowed at the end of July.
Throughout, criticism of the crown prince has quietly been mounting at home. He wants desperately to succeed his father on the throne; King Salman is now 84 and said to be frail. Still, the day after the arrest of the four princes stunned the kingdom, the king was shown in photos released by the royal palace to be in good health, receiving foreign ambassadors and reading state documents. Perhaps the king is anxious to remain in power to welcome world leaders to the G-20 summit in Riyadh in November.
What has allowed the crown prince such a free hand? Certainly he has benefited from the unalloyed support of his father, who seems to accept his son's overt power grabs. Unanimity is vital since the next king is not chosen until the previous one has died. The crown prince clearly wants nothing left to chance.
But he also has innumerable enablers — world leaders and business leaders alike — who have repeatedly failed to confront the leader. Amazon's Jeff Bezos was photographed beaming next to him not long before the crown prince was revealed to have ordered the disastrous hacking of Bezos' cellphone.
Trump is a particularly bad offender. Trump has never fully accepted the conclusions of his own intelligence system that the crown prince personally ordered the savage murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi. Not surprisingly, Trump said nothing about the arrest of the four senior royals this past weekend.
But the crown prince's manipulations — and Trump's inaction — have a price. In the early morning hours on Tuesday, the prince and Trump talked on the phone, according to a White House official. Hours later, the Saudi prince flooded the oil market, hammering world stock, bond and currency markets.
This price war, of course, has implications for Trump's own re-election in November — especially if it threatens the American oil industry, which employs some 9.8 million American workers and is projected to add as many as 1 million more U.S. fracking jobs in the next five years.
The crown prince and Trump are currently facing a very similar set of challenges: The coronavirus threatening Americans at home and Muslims in Mecca and Medina; oil price and supply disruptions affecting the economies of both nations; unresolved and increasingly expensive wars respectively in Afghanistan and Yemen.
Perhaps now is the time to begin to break that circle of dependency before an impending crisis becomes a real crisis.