Opinion Column

Risk-taking Saudi prince gambling with stability

By Gwynne Dyer, Special to Postmedia Network

Prince Mohammed Bin Salman al-Saud. (Mohammed Bin Salman al-Saud's Office/Handout)

Prince Mohammed Bin Salman al-Saud. (Mohammed Bin Salman al-Saud's Office/Handout)

By the end of 2015 the BND, the German foreign intelligence service, had grown so concerned that it warned the government about Saudi Arabia's new deputy crown prince and defence minister, 30-year-old Muhammad bin Salman.

"The previous cautious diplomatic stance of older leading members of the royal family," it wrote, "is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention."

Prince Muhammad had been defence minister for just one year, but he had already launched a major military intervention in the civil war in Yemen and committed Saudi Arabia to open support for the rebels in the Syrian civil war. He had also taken the bold decision to let oil production rip and the oil price crash.

No wonder the BND characterized Prince Muhammad as "a political gambler who is destabilizing the Arab world through proxy wars."

Not just a gambler, but one who was betting on the wrong horses.

The first bet to fail was his intervention in the Yemeni civil war, with an aerial bombing campaign that has killed at least 10,000 Yemenis (around half of them civilians) and cost Saudi Arabia billions of dollars.

Prince Muhammad bin Salman sold the war as a short intervention that would defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen and put Saudi Arabia's own choice for the presidency, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, back in power. It's turned into a long war of attrition.

Then the deputy crown prince's second big bet, an open commitment to support the Syrian rebels, failed when the Syrian army, with Russian and Iranian help, reconquered eastern Aleppo in December. Not one of Syria's big cities is now under rebel control, and Saudi Arabia will have to live with a vengeful Assad regime.

MBS's biggest gamble was his plan to restore the Saudi kingdom's dominance in global oil markets by driving the new competition, the American fracking producers, into bankruptcy.

He reckoned the frackers were high-cost producers who would go broke if the price of oil stayed low enough for long enough. So Saudi Arabia kept its own oil production high and persuaded its partners in the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) to do the same.

The American frackers shut down their less-profitable operations temporarily and some smaller players went bankrupt, but the survivors are ready to ramp up production as soon as the oil price improves. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been burning through $100 billion a year to keep services and subsidies going.

Last November the prince admitted defeat. Saudi Arabia and its OPEC partners agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels a day, and Russia and Kazakhstan chipped in with another half-million barrels. The oil price is up to $55 per barrel, Saudi Arabia's cash flow has improved, and the political stresses have eased off.

But the prince is not a fool. He should have known interventions in Yemen rarely succeed, the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war meant Assad was likely to win, and the American frackers could wait him out. In fact, he probably did know.

The problem is that bin Salman is in a hurry to produce results. His prominence at such an early age owes everything to the support of his father, King Salman. The king is 81 and in poor health, and his son is not his obvious successor. Normally the successor to the Saudi throne is not the current king's son, but a senior prince chosen by his peers. The current crown prince is 57-year-old Muhammad bin Nayef.

So Muhammad bin Salman must prove his worth quickly. That's why he was open to such gambles: one big success could do the trick. He is probably still up for another roll of the dice.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London, England.