The strong man of Saudi Arabia is revolutionizing his country. A visionary for some, a despot for others, the Crown Prince should, unless there is a major surprise, play a leading role on the regional scene for the next 50 years.
It is a family picture of which there remains today only a vague memory. 2007, in the south of France: strong men of the Saudi royal family and officials pose in a blazing sun. Knowingly abandoning their dichdachas and their traditional headgear, these dignitaries opted for a casual Western-style summer outfit. The elders were placed on chairs in front of the young guard. On the far right of the picture is a young man in a white polo, playing like a playboy. Mohammad ben Salmane (MBS) was, at the time, only a nephew of King Abdullah, son of the founder of the Saudi kingdom, King Abdelaziz. Nothing allows us to guess then the devouring ambition of the young man, who does not even appear (still) in the order of succession. Nothing suggests either the immense charivari that it will cause in record time within the House of Saud.
Ten years later, the report is cruel to all those lords of Arabia, pretenders to the crown, regulars of the court, advisers of the Emir or argentiers - often unscrupulous - of the kingdom. The young man, very clean about him, did not just go over all his elders in the race to power, but he took the additional care to humiliate them by challenging them what they had the most expensive: their status, and therefore their natural right to benefit from innumerable privileges. The crown prince, the kingdom's new strongman, did not hesitate to stop or dismiss on November 4 hundreds of people, including emirs and governors, among the most powerful and wealthy men in the country, to begin by multi-billionaire al-Walid bin Talal, and the head of the powerful National Guard, son of the late King Abdallah, Prince Metab, in a vast purge of purges under the pretext of fighting corruption. The latest episode of a Saudi Game of Thrones where the main character of the plot seems ready for anything to quench his thirst for absolute power in a country that has been ruled since its creation by the principle of consensus among members of the establishment political and religious.
Mohammad ben Salman is scary. Solicited by L'Orient-Le Jour, politicians, businessmen or diplomats who had the opportunity to meet the young emir prefer to remain silent. Even when it's off, hardly anyone wants to risk compromising his relations with the one who already seems to be the most powerful leader in the Arab world. "I never saw that. They are terrified as if it were Voldemort, "says a wise observer of the region.
It must be said that MBS is not at its first attempt. In less than three years, he dismissed his rivals, launched a war against Yemen, initiated the blockade against Qatar, questioned the Wahhabi clergy's control, launched a societal revolution, no matter how small. she (right of women to drive, right to entertainment ...), and above all, he tried to make a clean sweep of everything that was considered until then as the great pillars of the kingdom. It is said that man is impulsive and angry. Fiery and determined. Go to war and daring. And it embodies the takeover of the new generation in a country that is undergoing profound changes.
When his father, Salman, came to the throne in 2015, he was 79 years old and had Alzheimer's disease. Since the Saudi succession system is adelphic, as in the case of the Ptolemies, that is to say, it is transmitted between brothers by order of primogeniture, the coronation of the 25th son of King Abdelaziz is in the order of things, although many believe that his reign can only be transitory given his state of health. Nothing seems to be able to disturb the sacrosanct principle of continuity in the kingdom of the Saud.
Cutting short all rumors, King Salman immediately designates the youngest of his brothers, Moqren, as his heir. A first blow of theater will however arise very quickly in the race to the succession. Three months after his appointment, Moqren is relieved of his duties as crown prince and replaced by a major figure of the clan, Mohammad ben Nayef, said MBN, nephew of the current king and first grandson of Ibn Saud to aspire to the throne . Behind the scenes, his young cousin MBS, a disappointed aspirant, relegated to the place of the eternal second, is far from satisfied with his positions as the second heir to the kingdom and second vice-prime minister. At the age of 29, he is the youngest prince to win the defense portfolio. "This is the favorite son of the king's favorite wife, which says a little about his intention," OLJ reminds an Arab diplomatic source who requires anonymity. MBS's father had fallen madly in love with his mother, Fahda bent Falah ben Sultan al-Hithalayn, from an influential Arab tribe. Like an Olympias pushing his son Alexander (future Great), the third wife of the king is probably no stranger to the meteoric rise of his son. After a latent suspense of more than a year, the monarch raises the curtain on the plot number one of the palace, choosing his successor among the "Mohamaddeine", ie the two Mohammad, as Crown Prince. MBS has just dismissed in less than two years his greatest rival, the American man of confidence, the prestigious Minister of the Interior who has made the fight against terrorism the security priority of the kingdom.
"What surprises me most is that he managed, within a short time, to get rid of Mohammad ben Nayef," says the Arab diplomat. In a gesture breaking abruptly with the tradition of the kingdom, King Salman designate MBS as his successor by a decree on June 21, 2017. His father suffering, the young prince is no longer content to whisper in his ear what he thinks to be the best for the kingdom, but takes initiatives himself. "He's a real viceroy. It is he who exercises the royal prerogatives and he has the army at his side, which is an essential pillar of his power, "says the diplomat. A photo of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently met King Salman, made the twittosphere laugh: "You know you've been when you meet Salman and not his son. "
MBS has neither the brilliant academic background nor the careers of some of its elders, but it has been able to obtain one of the most coveted assets of the kingdom: the support of the Americans. With a law degree from King Saud University, the young emir is not very comfortable with Shakespeare's language, but he does not care. In March 2017, three months before the news of his appointment, he flew to Washington to meet Donald Trump. "The new American president, eager to break with his predecessor, and Prince Mohammad, an ambitious young leader seeking to gain influence in his kingdom, see each other as a crucial ally on a series of pressing issues. The New York Times wrote. Bet won for Mohammad of Arabia. His youth and his reforming spirit, cruelly breaking with the image defended until then by his predecessors, seduce the Americans. But not only. He also appears as a good economic partner. "He was well received in the United States by Trump, because he would have promised to invest in military research, a sector that is sorely lacking funds," said the Arab diplomat.
In the royal family, however, we see a dim view of the growing ambitions of the dolphin, who managed to remove his rival, however broken to the exercise of power. He is criticized in particular for his passion and lack of experience that led him, in 2015, to wage a war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels backed by Iran, his main enemy, from which he still has not dépêtré. "He has trouble accepting that his war can not be won," said the Arab diplomat.
Despite a protest wind within the elite of the kingdom, the young man, stubborn, is in a hurry to carry out the vision he has of his country, which he considers too conservative, too slow. "He's obsessed with change and he's working full time," LJO Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, who met with him on a number of occasions, said. "He is very intelligent and has a very deep knowledge of his country. He is a very charismatic personality, very energetic ", continues the researcher. The appearances of MBS on television sets or his interviews given to the Western media allowed to break the austere and old-fashioned image that stick to the skin of the Saudi monarchs, more statues of the Commander than real Lorenzaccio. His patter and confidence quickly raised his popularity. "He is a very talented politician. When you're with him, it's a bit like Bill Clinton, it makes you feel that you are the center of the universe, "says Bernard Haykel.
In order to be able to impose his reform project, Mohammad ben Salmane is convinced that he must first dust off the different strata of power. The religious police will be one of the first to pay the price. "It is said that he ordered to close a shopping center by leaving the police to be beaten by his men," says a regular of the kingdom. The dolphin would not have any sympathy for the al-Sheikh, the guards of the Wahhabi temple. "It shoots everything that moves on the side of Islamists, as that of the Sahwa," says the Arab diplomat. In October, the young Crown Prince goes so far as to hold an unprecedented speech. "What has happened in the last thirty years is not Saudi Arabia. Now is the time to get rid of it, "says MBS to the world. "He wants to advocate a moderate Islam," decrypts Bernard Haykel. Left to do revisionism about the religious history of the kingdom, to decry more brother movements and supporters of the Iranian model than the spread of Wahhabi discourses. As if to transform his kingdom into a disproportionate version of the United Arab Emirates, led by the one he sees as his model, Mohammad ben Zayed.
"I've never seen him drink alcohol, he does not drink. He is a very pious person, whom I saw praying. But it's not a hard one. He has many friends who are not Muslims and he wants an opening on the West. He loves the United States, he loves American and Western culture, "says the Lebanese-American researcher. And America does it well. "He has developed excellent ties with the Americans. He is said to be a personal friend of Jared Kuschner, who was also in Riyadh incognito a few weeks ago. They would have remained to discuss until 4am, "says the Arab diplomatic source.
Knowing its weakened kingdom as oil reserves are depleted, MBS knows it needs to make an emergency socio-economic transition. He then developed a plan that the consulting firm McKinsey prepared for him, and which would have cost him a real small fortune. "Vision 2030" appears as a bold project. "He has a huge fear for the future of his country, because of his dependence on oil," said Bernard Haykel. He must quickly get the country out of this dependence on the black gold by diversifying the economy, liberalizing the market, but also by attracting tourists and making the kingdom a hotbed of entertainment in the Gulf, just like United Arab Emirates. "He told me about Neom, and seems very excited. He told me a lot about the US and his admiration for Silicon Valley, and the entrepreneurial culture here, "says the researcher. Neom, the pharaonic project of MBS, plans to erect on the shores of the Red Sea a futuristic city, for the modest sum of 500 billion dollars. A few dozen islands, real luxury resorts, where sharia law would not be applied, should see the light of day. However, a historic transformation of the country can not work without a societal evolution. The recent driving license granted to women goes in this direction. Just like the authorization to organize music concerts. MBS has the youth behind it in a country where 75% of the population is under 30 years old.
The dolphin wants to leave a big trace in history. The man is in a hurry, even to overthrow the table, to revolutionize his kingdom. To make it a modern and attractive power, independent of its oil resources, and able to claim regional hegemonic status and to stem the Iranian influence. Such an attitude can only strengthen the determination of its enemies to prevent it. And there are many: the Iranians and their proxy, which he swears to stem the influence, Islamist movements and jihadist movements, rivals within the palace, etc.
After the purge, MBS was compared by several Anglo-Saxon newspapers to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who both fought against the oligarchies of their countries in their quest for a monopoly of power. "He cut off all heads. He made a void around him, "summarizes the diplomat. "He needs to be an autocrat to be able to change the country," said Bernard Haykel. Other comparisons, more flattering, may soon see the light of day. But the crown prince looks for the moment more like an adventurist conqueror than a monarch with a certain strategic genius.
While rumors of a possible next abdication of his father are becoming increasingly insistent, MBS is certainly preparing to govern the kingdom for the next fifty years. A long enough time to see if the dolphin's wings will withstand the storms that still agitate the Middle East. Long enough also to provide a clearer answer to the question of which the future of the kingdom and the region is now largely dependent: is MBS a visionary or a despot? Or just both?