The Cavalier Portrait of an Authoritarian
[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast December, a comical yet disturbing video mysteriously emerged on a YouTube channel named the “Saudi Strike Force.” Equipped with sentimental, dramatic music meant to spur feelings of patriotism, the CGI-animated video portrays a hypothetical war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It follows a series of military confrontations between the two nations’ militaries and culminates with a predicted Saudi victory over Iran in which the Iranian people greet the foreign Saudis as liberators. The animation concludes with a scene of cheering Iranian masses, carrying images of Saudi Arabian King Salman and, more importantly, portraits of his son and heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
This cartoon was likely produced to promote the portrait of the Crown Prince as a mastermind strategist, naturally suited to lead the nation into war. There is little doubt that bin Salman commissioned the video, or had at least encouraged its development, given that several government-sponsored organizations promoted it on their front pages. It is no coincidence that the video includes scenes in which the Crown Prince serves at the head of a military command room, single-handedly giving orders on technical military movements. The use of such scenes fall perfectly in line with a number of recent actions by the Prince to shore up his public image as the natural defender of the Saudi people.
The Crown Prince must have realized that a steady hold on power hinged upon the image of himself as champion of the youth. Reforms sanctioned by bin Salman since his rise to power include affording women the right to drive, permitting the development of movie theaters, and curtailing the powers of the country’s religious police. These freedoms signal a dramatic break from Saudi Arabia’s tradition of social oppression, but they have been a long time coming. 70% of the population is under the age of 30, and, having grown up with exposure to social media and the internet, the Saudi youth are relatively more educated and more politically savvy than previous generations. For bin Salman to grant freedoms extremely popular among the youth is not the mark of a wise and caring prince, but a maneuver made out of sheer political necessity. The Saudi youth, by all accounts, have become frustrated with the stifling conservatism enforced by the nation’s religious police and laws. By finally relaxing restrictions, bin Salman has captured the support of Saudi Arabia’s largest demographic and has convinced many young people that he has their best interest at heart.
While the reforms put into place since the Crown Prince’s rise represent a tremendous step forward by Saudi Arabian standards, it is important to remember that bin Salman will only continue to embark on these ambitious social program insofar as they are good for his interests. The real question is what will happen when the interests of young Saudis no longer align with his interests as the unchecked leader of the Saudi state.
According to Dr. Ali Alyami, founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and a native of Saudi Arabia, there are signs that some young Saudi people are realizing bin Salman’s true motives. “The fear is overwhelming,” he said to me by phone, citing his sources within the country. “People are afraid. They really don’t know who’s getting arrested next, or for what reasons.” For example, on November 4th, 2017, bin Salman ordered the arrest of 11 princes and a number of ultra-wealthy, influential businessmen on charges of corruption. Dr. Alyami described their imprisonment in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton as a means for bin Salman to eliminate any potential challenges to his rule.
It is plain that no one was able to object to bin Salman as he disregarded the rights of the wealthiest and most powerful men of the nation, and it is all the more obvious that no one will dare defend the poorest of Saudis when he inevitably comes marching their way. Many Saudi citizens seem to have understood the message of the Crown Prince’s power move: his authority will not be deterred even by one’s riches or social status. Thus, as Dr. Alyami put it, “Saudi Arabia is a kingdom of fear,” and those who matter least to bin Salman’s interests should be most afraid.
Among the most vulnerable of these Saudi people are Shiites, religious minorities who predominantly live in the Eastern province. Since his elevation to de facto ruler of the kingdom, Crown Prince bin Salman has done little to challenge longstanding discriminatory practices towards Shiites, who suffer disproportionate inequalities in Saudi society. In fact, he has escalated sectarian tensions by way of his interaction with Iran, the regional Shiite power. In a recent interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, he pointed to “the events of 1979,” the year of the Iranian Revolution, as the critical point beyond which the Saudi kingdom embraced an oppressive religious culture. To people familiar with the region, such statements carry obvious implications. Bin Salman’s mentions of Iran are dog-whistles intended to marginalize Shiites in general. By suggesting that Iran is to blame for Saudi’s deep dive into religious conservatism, he implicates Shiites as bearing responsibility for the shift as well.
What bin Salman failed to mention was the fact that it was his own family that had empowered fundamentalists within Saudi Arabia as a means of preserving their secure hold on the monarchy. Following the 1979 takeover of Mecca by Wahhabi fundamentalists, the Saudi royal family purposely decided to steer the country towards conservatism to eliminate any threat to their rule. While it is unclear whether the Crown Prince was either unaware of this historical fact or intentionally omitting it in the 60 Minutes interview, both possibilities reflect poorly upon him and to the detriment of his image as a wise, well-intentioned prince. The troubling fact of the matter is that neither the interviewer nor any media outlets that covered the interview provided context on Saudi Arabian history to his statements on religious conservatism.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen is perhaps the most devastating consequence of bin Salman’s reckless emphasis on Iran as Saudi Arabia’s natural enemy. In the same 60 Minutes interview, the Crown Prince criticized the Houthis, a group allegedly supported by Iran, for “using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community.” Again, bin Salman left out any mention of Saudi-launched missiles that led to the deaths of thousands of Yemenis, and of the Saudi-led blockade that led to a million cholera cases and millions more without access to healthcare and clean water. He seems to be unperturbed even by the fact that upwards of 18 million Yemeni people lost their livelihoods because of an unnecessary war wrought by his hands. His apparent inability to recognize the catastrophic results of his war in Yemen reflects the sheer vanity of his position as sole arbiter in his kingdom, and it reveals just how little he cares for anything besides his image and hold on power.
“I know what it’s all about. I understand the underpinnings of the system and the mindset of these royals,” says Dr. Alyami. “The only item on their agenda is their supremacy. And they will do anything. They will sell the country to maintain power. They will do anything.” Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has made clear his desire to rule Saudi Arabia unopposed for the foreseeable future. At 32, he is a remarkably young authoritarian in a kingdom where rulers have historically been graying old men. Given the audacity of youth, it should be clear that this man will do anything to preserve at all costs his moment in the sun.