Gambler of Riyadh
From sportswashing to megacities: what is MBS up to? Paul Demarty investigates the grandiose Vision 2030
For the left, Mohammed bin-Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is on one level a fairly straightforward character.
His infamies, after all, seem concordant with Saudi Arabia’s pseudo-medievalism, eccentric body politic and reactionary global role. He took the bloody methods of the security services on tour to the consulate in Istanbul, to the great misfortune of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist assassinated in 2018. He sponsored jihadist lunatics from one end of the Middle East to the other, and to that added a war of his very own - against the Houthis in Yemen, whose death toll makes the Ukraine war look like a teddy bears’ picnic.
Yet, in important respects, he departs from the pattern of his various predecessors. The signs are everywhere - from the man’s own relentless self-promotion, via the profligate sportswashing and similar ‘soft power’ initiatives, to the bizarre megaprojects. The problem for the house of Saud has long been: what to do with all the money? (Leaving aside other matters like how to avoid being assassinated by angry Islamists, how to prevent terrorist sieges in Mecca, and so on.) They have been squirrelling it away in the famous Public Investment Fund (PIF) for half a century, but one cannot just bury banknotes under the Ka’bah. It has to be, precisely, invested. MBS has found his plan - developmentalist ‘modernisation’ by brute force.
The overall scheme goes by the name of Saudi Vision 2030 (a future-dated ‘vision’ seems to be a must-have accessory for a dictator in the region - Egypt and Kuwait have their own, while UAE Vision 2021 just recently concluded). The main economic objective is an obvious enough one - somehow reduce the Saudi dependence on oil revenues and related industry, increasing the productivity of Saudi workers and reducing dependence on superexploited migrant labour under the notorious kafala system.
The problem is exactly what to diversify into. There is tourism, of course, and the related matter of pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina. That is not likely to move the needle, however (and presumably there are already as many people making the hajj pilgrimage as there will ever be). There remain the two major options of ‘services’ - competing with Dubai and the like as an offshore financial hub, in effect - and industry. MBS is playing the field here, but the industrial policy is more eye-catching. What better regime could there be, after all, to spearhead the world’s green energy transition than the one that so ably fed our appetite for fossil fuels all these years?
The Saudis operate one of the largest solar farms in the world - it is, after all, famously sunny around there. They are investing in ‘green hydrogen’ (hydrogen is typically extracted from fossil fuels today). They are bending over backwards to attract foreign investment. The huge showpiece is the projected megacity of Neom, to be built from scratch at the top of the Red Sea. There is little about this initiative that seems remotely feasible, but there is a green hue to all its various proposed parts. The Line - a bizarre ‘linear city’ consisting of two 110-mile-long buildings either side of a central avenue - is planned to be car-free and powered entirely by renewables.
One could call this greenwashing, of course, but that might be to miss the point. What if MBS is serious about all this? What reason do we have to suppose he is not? The crown prince is an immensely wealthy man, with an obviously bloated ego and what from the outside seems like a firm grip on the country. He would not be the first inheritor of a sleepy absolutist regime to try to jolt things to life. Despite endless delays, Neom is, after all, being built, or parts of it at least - the total cost is expected to top $500 billion. If China can build cities out of nothing, he reasons, why not us? If the west can design electric vehicles and renewable power sources, why not us?
One might even detect grander ambitions behind the sportswashing. The charge of sportswashing, after all, is that a regime is using investments in sports teams and sponsorships to generate good PR. Is this all the Saudis are up to? In recent times, they have purchased a premiership football club, seduced the ageing football legends Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to play in the Saudi league, summoned a golf tour out of nothing, and won the privilege of hosting the 2029 Asian Winter Games, of all things. As a PR exercise, this is hardly cost-efficient; so why assume that is the point? Both the International Federation of Association Football (Fifa) and the International Olympic Committee are based in Switzerland - but why should they be based there? What is so special about that country? Could they perhaps be … induced to up sticks to somewhere else? Could competitors be set up, just as the Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf has humiliated the Professional Golfers’ Association?
Sport, George Orwell famously said, is war without weapons. Indeed, that is the main advantage to Fifa, the IOC and the like of being based in Switzerland: it is a neutral ground for hashing out deals between bigger players. MBS seems, also, to fancy the Saudis’ chances of playing a similar role, at least within the region. As with all the other initiatives, this is a mixed bag, to say the least. Many of the diplomatic ‘successes’ of recent years amount to walking back failed acts of aggression: Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was invited to visit Riyadh, but only after the Saudis’ playthings in Syria failed to topple him after a decade of vicious sectarian warfare. The Chinese brokered a peace deal between the Saudis and Iran, but only after the Saudis failed to defeat the Houthis, who enjoy limited material support from the Islamic Republic.
The latest such initiative is the so-called Ukraine ‘peace talks’. They are not to be taken seriously as a plan for peace - after all, one of the belligerents is missing altogether. The proposal to be discussed is that of Volodymyr Zelensky - that is, the return of every inch of Ukrainian territory - which, regardless of the rights and wrongs, is not ever going to be acceptable to Vladimir Putin. Nonetheless, it offers an opportunity to MBS to broker another kind of ‘peace’ - between the US and the wider, ‘non-aligned’ world, whose enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause has never been more than tepid.
Among those countries, though it is a long-standing US ally, you could count Saudi Arabia. Saudi-American relations are at a low ebb. The regime notably snubbed requests to increase production to get oil prices under control after the west imposed sanctions on Russia: not only did this keep oil and gas prices high and cause massive inflation in the US, but it made it economically viable for Russian oil and gas to be laundered in countries like India and resold at a mark-up to the west. The Saudis have close ties with the US state, in spite of the present frostiness - but they can also do business with China, and have direct influence in Europe.
So could Saudi Arabia end up an attractive place to broker deals of this kind - a Switzerland of the sands? We suppose it has as much chance as any other wealthy regional power in the world. Yet it only works as part of a package. MBS can play at global statecraft only if his domestic affairs are in order, which means that Saudi society is politically stable and insulated economically from any severe shocks. In short, the Vision 2030 stuff has to actually work.
The reasons for scepticism here are legion. MBS plans to house nine million people in The Line. Who? Why would they move there? To work in the industries that do not exist yet, presumably. There is a bootstrapping problem here. Economic development is not a matter of plonking down a power plant and drawing some industrial and residential zones next to it. That is the incumbent advantage of existing industrial cities: there is stuff already there: plus skilled workers and infrastructure to support it.
For all these things, the Saudis are incredibly dependent on international supply chains. That is all the more true of their plans for clean tech - the rare earth metals needed for batteries and the like are available only through imports, while the manufacture of silicon chips is enormously concentrated in east Asia and already a flashpoint in the brewing great-power conflict between China and the US. Playing diplomatic footsie with all of them may work for a time - at least while everyone needs Saudi oil. But it could quite as easily backfire.
The geopolitics matter here too. MBS is gambling on US weakness. The idea is spreading that the unipolar era is coming to an end - it is even circulating in the US state core itself. The signs of relative decline are indeed obvious, not the least of which is the inability of the US to corral countries like Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis the Ukraine crisis. There is also a decline in foreign reserves held in dollars relative to other currencies. Yet decline should not be confused with an end to hegemony. The Saudis would not be able to carry on warfare for more than a few weeks without US operational support, and this is true of a great number of US allies. The US military is not dependent on Saudi oil, though US strategy demands control of Middle Eastern oil in relation to its great-power rivals.
In short, the ‘multipolar’ hype is overblown. The success of MBS’s economic initiatives depends on staying in the good graces of the US - and not only that success. The Americans have underhand ways of getting what they want. In the game of thrones, you win or you die. MBS will want to stay on the right side of the door to the embassy basement.
In fact, there is the real possibility that all of this will fail quietly. The diplomatic heft of the regime will remain regional; the football and golf investments will not transcend the level of sportswashing; and the economy will not be diversified. The kafala system will continue to grind through people. The whole point, beyond providing some insulation from fuel price fluctuations, is that the world is transitioning away from carbon. But is it really? One has almost to admire MBS for actually trying to do his part here, in his strange, grandiose way. Alas, we predict that there will be a thriving market for the Saudi kingdom’s most plentiful export for some time yet - until either political revolution or ‘climate socialism’ finally ends the party. And, until such a time, there will always be the temptation to fall back on the old ways, and leave Neom to turn into ruins in the desert.
There is a final aspect to MBS’s ‘modernisation’ - the loosening of some religious restrictions on daily life, especially the daily lives of women. The sheer modesty of some of these changes (finally allowing women to drive; putting on the first pop concert in decades - for bellicose country singer Toby Keith of all people) has caused a great deal of mockery, especially of those journalists and others who help MBS launder his reputation abroad - most notoriously Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.
But the mistake of Friedman and others was not to take MBS at his word: that he was a moderniser or a reformer of some kind. It was to imagine that such modernisation entailed the advance of democratic rights. The death of Khashoggi was a wake-up call for the western media, even if the idea that it would seriously affect US-Saudi relations was always a mirage. But even a more serious attack on clerical power need not entail liberalisation of the political regime (just add the clericalists to the list of people to be chopped up in basements … )
This link between capitalist economic development and wider social progress was always a lie, but perhaps never more obviously than today, when the true source of democratic concessions - the political movement of the working class - is so much in abeyance even in its old heartlands, never mind in such a sociologically bizarre country as Saudi Arabia. Neom is not the city of the future - but perhaps the Saudis are the state of the future, as ‘liberal democracy’ erodes both as an institutional form and as a legitimating ideology, to be replaced with ‘strongmen’ who ‘get things done’.