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Feature Article
2019-10-24

The Evolving Foreign Policy Of MbS: Pragmatism Or Chaos?

The elevation of Prince Faysal bin Farhan to Foreign Minister, one among many young, Western-educated careerists to rise to prominence under the de facto governance of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), underscores the rapidity of change within Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, secretive talks with Israel, and an official visit by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, complicate the narrative of the Kingdom reaching out to the West in the face of an Iranian threat. Is a co-ordinated strategy in place, or is the confusion a hint of disfunction within the royal family?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The new Foreign Minister, Faysal bin Farhan, though benefitting from his royal lineage (even if he is not from the main line of succession), would seem an ideal choice for the position. Foreign born, he speaks impeccable German and English, is well-educated and has considerable experience in diplomacy. After serving in various capacities as a businessman and entrepreneur, he entered government and soon made a big enough impression that he was sent to Washington, where he worked under the king's son, Khalid, the then Ambassador to the U.S. Faysal then became (briefly) an Ambassador himself, representing the Kingdom in Germany since February 2019. As such, he typifies the new breed of royal coming to the fore under MbS - young, Westernized, and technocratic. Whereas in previous decades it was enough to be the son of a king, or perhaps nephew (King Saud's sons held important portfolios before they were out of their teens), the demands of modern government, and the exigency of having everything in place to meet the self-imposed targets of the crown prince's Vision 2030 project, mean the net has been cast wider. A royal seems to still be the preferred choice of appointment, judging from recent changes, but the bluest of blood is no longer a prime consideration.

The royals are exploiting talent where they can find it (commoners if need be; the previous Foreign Minister being an example), even if it is true that the king's direct offspring have pride of place. Khalid bin Salman served in a key ambassadorship, despite having little relevant experience, and another son, Abd al-Aziz, is now Minister of Energy (although he was eminently qualified, being Deputy Oil Minister before that). Rima bint Bandar is the new U.S. Ambassador, despite her father's less illustrious lineage (the offspring of a concubine, in contrast to the higher-born mothers of his siblings), although his successful career was no hindrance to her profile, either. Merit is being rewarded, both a recognition that royal birth is not enough in a more complex age, and a nod to the fact that a more educated population will not stand for unfettered royal patronage in 2019.

There is more to it than competence, however, when the new appointments are a reflection of MbS himself. Salman's input is largely unknown; his health is uncertain, but whether such decisions are rubber-stamped, and can be considered more in the context of the crown prince's own designs, or whether he is pushing back against a son who many of the royals deem to be out of control, and therefore should be seen more from the perspective of the king's attempts to rein in MbS, or even put the brakes on his too-rushed agenda (Abd al-Aziz at Energy might be thought of as a counterweight to the crown prince, given that he has been critical of reforms, and outside of that patronage circle), is in fact critical. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the nation is being fashioned in MbS' own image. The king may be asserting his authority in some respects, or have his concerns over the recklessness and bad decisions of the son, but the influence of the crown prince is outsize - never before has an heir held so much power, or determined the country's overall direction. Even Abdallah, when he was acting as de facto ruler during Fahd's incapacitation, was careful not to rock the boat too much. Major change had to wait until he himself held power, and even then his relative boldness looks meek when compared to the upheaval now taking shape.

Aside from the major threads of technocratic experience, age and competence, another commonality among the recent crop of ambitious royals is an outlook that can be fairly characterized as Western. Though some (including MbS himself) were not educated abroad, they are intimately familiar with Western ways and have a fairly deep understanding of what motivates policy in the U.S. and Europe. Like MbS, they seem focused on appealing to that audience.

Related articles: New Face At The Top: Cleanup Or Counterweight?
Royal Dalliance and Soft Power: Changing Mores or Sidelined Princes?
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Past Feature Articles
New Face At The Top: Cleanup Or Counterweight?

Unprecedented attacks on the Kingdom's oil infrastructure have focussed attention on the leadership's failure to defend even the most critical facilities, despite overseeing the third-largest military budget in the world. Will royal patience finally wear out with crown prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman?

Royal Dalliance and Soft Power: Changing Mores or Sidelined Princes?

With the crown prince rumored to be dating American actress Lindsay Lohan, a similar affair from the past comes to mind, involving his predecessor and uncle, the late King Fahd. At the time, royal family opposition destroyed any chance of an enduring relationship; given Muhammad bin Salman's pre-eminent position within the family today, would the same dynamic hold?

Clerics and Confidantes: Royal Crackdown or Seismic Shift?

Shaykh Salman al-Awda, one of the most high-profile religious figures in the Kingdom, faces the death penalty for his perceived opposition to official government policy. Is his case unique, and the severity of his actions such that he represents a genuine challenge to power, or does he represent a shift in dynamic of the Al Saud's partnership with the religious establishment?

da Vinci and the Plumber: Royal Exceptions or the Rule?

Separate news events involving the crown prince and his sister highlight the often un-Islamic behavior of the royal family. Is this part of a long-standing pattern, or have the senior royals embarked on a dangerous and cynical new course?

Muhammad bin Salman and the Great Unknowns: A Closer Understanding or Distant Conceit?

Three big uncertainties surround the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, and his leadership role - what, if any, influence does his father, King Salman, have over domestic family politics; does the larger family, especially its senior members, still retain any influence over succession; and to what extent is a larger framework in place to govern executive decision making. The answers to these questions, however, are likely to be remain unanswered as events on the ground overtake a complete understanding of the unfolding dynamic.

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