The ‘I alone can fix it’ men who lead Saudi Arabia (and the United States)

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 13, 2017

Donald Trump and the then Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, in March 2017 at the White House

A pundit said on the radio the other day that Donald Trump sees himself in Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salam. What he meant was the ambition and the audacity. He might also have said an overweening self-confidence, one that allows placement at the heart of every story, as the sole, possibly the only player.

More than a year ago, Mr Trump accepted his Republican Party’s nomination with a speech that declared “I alone can fix it”, by which he meant he was the only person in a country of 323 million to be qualified and able to deal with its multiple problems. In his speech, Mr Trump sought no help nor advice from anyone else – not experts, nor public policy wonks, community activists or fellow politicians. More recently, Mr Trump rejected criticism of US State Department vacancies with the following logic: I’m the only one who matters in foreign policy, not America’s diplomats or anyone else.

The Saudi Crown Prince, who’s known in the English-speaking world by his initials, MBS, is one step ahead of Mr Trump. He is not saying “I alone can fix it” but doing it. He has presented himself as Saudi Arabia’s only dreamer, only do-er. This is not dreadful, but unusual to say the least, in Saudi Arabia. From its founding in 1932, and well before that too, the Saudi ruler has always tried to forge consensus within the sprawling royal family. That was considered politic.

MBS, Saudi Arabia’s “I alone can fix it” guy, appears to want little to do with old-fashioned consensus-building. Old-fashioned because it stands to reason he must be accreting a new group around him, people who will be bound to him – by consensus, by principle, for reasons of profit, politics or fear.

Meanwhile, in the past two-and-a-half years, he has opened up several campaigns that require offensive and defensive capacity on different fronts.

  • There is the war in Yemen.
  • The bad blood with Qatar.
  • Over the past week, there’s been a new push on Lebanon and an threat of direct action against Iranian aggression.

Then, there are the other massive initiatives to which MBS has put his name.

  • Vision 2030 or a Beyond Oil future for the world’s biggest oil-producer.
  • Mixed-gender life in Saudi Arabia.
  • A new embrace of entertainment opportunities in the kingdom.
  • A new tolerance of women in the public space.
  • A push to attract tourists, investors and visitors of different faiths.

These are all ambitious plans. Success or failure will fall in the column of their sole author and promoter.