In Saudi Arabia, the virus crisis meets inept leadership

General view of Kaaba at the Grand Mosque which is almost empty of worshippers, after Saudi authority suspended umrah (Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) amid the fear of coronavirus outbreak, at Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia March 6, 2020. REUTERS/Ganoo Essa

Saudi Arabia is facing serious challenges from the coronavirus, testing a leadership that has been impulsive and exclusive. The monarchy has become more remote from even most of the royal family in the last five years. Now the monarchy’s response to the virus has been unprecedented. Attention should be focused particularly on the young man who makes the day-to-day decisions in the Royal Palace.

So far, the kingdom has reported publicly only a small number of confirmed cases of infection, but it’s neighborhood has been badly affected — especially Iran. Close neighbors including Bahrain and Kuwait have reported numerous cases.

The global economic downturn, led by China, has pushed the price of oil down significantly as demand has dropped precipitously. The Saudis are under pressure to cut production to stimulate growth, but that means less revenue for the kingdom. With an expensive war in Yemen that is heating up, as I recently wrote, the economy is stagnant.

More immediately, the king has taken the unprecedented step of shutting the holy cities in Mecca and Medina to pilgrims. At first this was only for foreigners but now the closing is applying to everyone. The kingdom normally encourages pilgrims all year, with often up to one million foreign pilgrims coming every month to make umrah, or the so-called lesser hajj. Late this week, the Saudis reopened the mosques after sterilization for limited visits, but not umrah.

The annual hajj itself brings two and a half million pilgrims from around the Islamic world. This year, the hajj will be in late July and early August. It is a major source of revenue for the kingdom. Already there are mounting questions about whether the hajj will happen this year.

King Salman, like his predecessors, puts much stock in being the custodian of the Holy Mosques. If the annual pilgrimage is canceled, it will have consequences for the legitimacy of the House of Saud, even if it makes public health sense to shut it down this year.

Much attention is focused on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as MBS). We knew virtually nothing about him when his father ascended the throne in 2015, not even his age. He is a deeply controversial figure. At first, MBS was widely lauded as a reformer who was transforming the Wahhabi kingdom into a more moderate country. But over time, the prince has been tainted by his war in Yemen and his role in ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Now we have the first comprehensive biography of the man who could rule his country for the next half-century.

A new book “MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman,” by Ben Hubbard, is an excellent account of the life and the background of the most consequential new figure in the Middle East in our time. A veteran reporter, Hubbard made numerous visits to the kingdom to research where the prince came from and how he took power. It’s a frightening picture.

The kingdom has been transformed into a nation gripped by fear. The crown prince has arrested and shaken down the cream of Saudi society; tortured women who spoke in favor of driving, because he can’t bear sharing the publicity of ending the women driving ban; and kidnapped and beat up the prime minister of Lebanon, just to name some of his violent actions. As journalist Jamal Khashoggi wrote before he was killed, the kingdom has changed in dark ways. The virus will only make it all the more dangerous.

MBS is the eldest son of his father’s second and favorite wife. Salman bin Abdul Aziz is one of the last surviving sons of the modern kingdom’s founder, known as Ibn Saud. For a half-century, Salman was governor of Riyadh, the capital which grew from a small desert town to a sprawling metropolis of almost eight million people. Since most of the royal family lives in the capital, Salman has all the dirt on their personal lives. Hubbard explains why MBS became the king’s favorite (because he was unfailingly loyal and available). He also recounts that MBS put his own mother under house arrest for three years, for reasons that remain mysterious.

Among the most disturbing aspects of the prince’s rise to power is that many prominent, self-styled Western experts on the region were entranced with him for years. They bought his slick Vision 2030, thinking it was a real roadmap for change even though it has no political dimension. It’s also unrealistic. The prince said in 2016 that by 2020, the country “will be able to live without oil” as the principle generator of national income.

Many ignored the prince’s signature foreign policy initiative: the war in Yemen. The war is a very much a one-man show ordered by MBS over the better judgement of many other princes, who worried it would become the quagmire it is today, costing the kingdom a fortune. It is also the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. Millions of Yemenis, especially children, are suffering from acute malnutrition. If the virus spreads to Yemen, it will be potentially devastating.

One of the best chapters in Hubbard’s book on MBS is about the war in Yemen. It includes exclusive reporting from a rare trip the author made to Sana’a in 2016. Many Yemenis blame America for the war since the planes, the bombs, and the pilots that have destroyed schools and targeted weddings are made in America or trained in America. Two U.S. presidents have given MBS the wherewithal to conduct a war that may border on genocide. The prince’s reckless behavior was on clear display right from the beginning of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen — called Operation Decisive Storm — but many in the West chose to ignore it.

President Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner is MBS’s American enabler in the White House. The Saudis have placed all their eggs in the Trump basket. They are going to face a serious crisis if the Democrats win in November. Former Vice President Biden has said MBS should be regarded as a “pariah” who should be “punished.”

The crown prince’s signature domestic goal is to build a super-modern computerized city along the Saudi coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, near the borders of Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. The NEOM project is central to the crown prince’s plan for the future of the kingdom. But in the Gulf, NEOM is nicknamed by the Saudi-watchers “Never Ever Opening, Man.” It may be a parable for the kingdom’s own future.