PARIS—What Donald Trump refused to do—rein in the ruthless crown prince of Saudi Arabia—the coronavirus pandemic seems to be accomplishing, at least in the short term. But the prince also exploits it for his own ends.
Since 34-year-old Mohammed bin Salman started appropriating power from his enfeebled father, King Salman, five years ago, he has sought fame as a visionary reformer but gained infamy as a tyrant waging a fruitless war, jailing and torturing potential rivals, and employing the sycophant who butchered (not too strong a word) Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Still, MBS, as he’s known, got a pass from Trump in exchange for promised billions in arms deals.
But the pandemic is not so kind. It has afflicted at least 20 senior members of the Saudi royal family, including the governor of Riyadh, according to a senior prince and another well-connected Saudi contacted by The Daily Beast. There are widespread concerns among health workers and epidemiologists that it will spread through the much less privileged parts of Saudi society, including a large population of laborers and servants brought in from other countries.
This comes on top of multiple calamities created or made worse by MBS. But over the last few days he has moved to try resolve some of his self-inflicted messes, while continuing to crack down on anyone in the kingdom who might question his authority.
One of MBS’s recent rash acts was to start a punishing oil price war when Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to limit production. The oil market plunged to levels not seen in years, dragging down world equity markets (and sending a psycho-political shockwave into the Dow-Jones-addicted White House). But on Thursday, the Saudi-led Organization for the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia agreed to major production cuts. There are still some issues to be worked out, but MBS is no longer racing toward the abyss.
The war in Yemen is more complicated, but there, too, we’ve seen a change of course.
When MBS entered that conflict in 2015 he thought he could win in a matter of weeks with his vast arsenal of American weaponry, but the war has since become a suppurating wound on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. His Houthi adversaries there have taken to launching Iranian-built missiles at targets as far away as Riyadh, and hit the enormous Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq last September with devastating effect.
But the greatest risk comes from a biological threat that is hard to control anywhere, and may be impossible to contain in Yemen. That only one case of COVID-19 has been reported from there—on Saturday, April 10—is no consolation.
Since 2018 the United Nations has identified Yemen as the scene of Earth’s greatest humanitarian crisis, with some 80 percent of the population in need of assistance, hundreds of thousands of malnourished children, and a rampant cholera epidemic that has infected more than 1 million people. Such conditions make effective monitoring of the COVID-19 pandemic extremely difficult or impossible.
A Saudi military spokesman announced in an official statement Wednesday that the Saudi-led coalition would begin a two-week ceasefire on Thursday so all parties could “discuss proposals, steps, and mechanisms for sustainable ceasefire” and “for a comprehensive political solution in Yemen.”
This comes after United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called last month for a global cessation of hostilities during the fight against the novel coronavirus. The world faces “a common enemy— COVID-19,” which doesn’t care “about nationality or ethnicity, faction or faith,” he said. Guterres welcomed the Saudi ceasefire: “This can help to advance efforts towards peace as well as the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The New York Times reported on Wednesday under the headline “Coronavirus Invades Saudi Inner Sanctum” that one of the kingdom’s best hospitals has been preparing to prioritize VIPs with the disease.
“As many as 150 royals in the kingdom are now believed to have contracted the virus, including members of its lesser branches, according to a person close to the family,” the Times reported. The story went on to say the governor of Riyadh, Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, was in intensive care, that the king has retreated to an island, and MBS is holed up in the environs of his planned city of the future, Neom.
But Saudis contacted by The Daily Beast, including a senior member of the royal family, dispute these details.
One who has close connections with several Saudi princes reports, “I know many individuals having had it, but it seems that the figure in itself is somewhat arbitrary. Bearing in mind that there are over 15,000 royals it is indeed possible, although I’m just not sure where they got the number from. It was widely known that the governor had it.”
One of the kingdom’s most senior princes told The Daily Beast on Friday that “20 members of the family have been diagnosed with corona. They are in different towns. The King Faisal Specialist Hospital is not reserved for the family. It treats all Saudi citizens. The NYT is off base on this one.” He added that the king is in Riyadh, “and the governor of Riyadh left the hospital three days ago.”
But whatever the precise number of royal casualties, there is no question MBS has been forced to take the coronavirus threat to his kingdom, and to his rule, very seriously.
Within its borders, the Saudi government acted more quickly than most regimes around the world to limit the advance of the disease, and there are good reasons for that.
Another coronavirus epidemic, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), was first spotted in the kingdom in 2012 and may have originated in camels, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It eventually spread to other countries, including the United States, but much less widely than COVID-19 because it was much more deadly, and therefore easier to spot. All told, as of January the World Health Organization counted 866 deaths worldwide from MERS, mostly in Saudi Arabia. In fact, cases continue to erupt there, and of those infected in the kingdom, the death rate is more than 37 percent.
So when Saudi and global health officials saw COVID-19 on the Asian horizon at the beginning of this year, they were quick to act, and MBS dictated radical measures. For the moment, the Saudi government has notified the World Health Organization officially about 3,651 confirmed COVID-19 infections and 47 deaths in what are identified as “clusters of cases,” a rubric that suggests they are, or can be, contained.
The exercise of absolute power does have its uses in such circumstances, but it has not been pretty. MBS has used it to serve his regional and domestic agendas. In Iran, on the other side of the Gulf, the COVID-19 epidemic was raging, but largely under-reported, before the first case was recorded in Saudi Arabia. So MBS was quick to blame illicit travel to Iran as the source of the disease. On March 8, after 11 cases were recorded in al-Qatif in the largely Shiite Eastern Province, where the Saudi rulers are always on the lookout for Iranian subversion, MBS quarantined the whole city.
Yasmine Farouk, writing for the Carnegie Foundation, notes that “an official statement accused Iran of ‘direct responsibility’ for the spread of the virus, while commentators in the media and online also accused Saudi Arabia’s foes, Qatar and Turkey, of deliberately mismanaging the crisis.”
MBS, unlike any of his predecessors, has hobbled the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment. As a result he was able to close the grand mosques at Mecca and Medina while canceling the lesser year-round pilgrimages (umrah) and leaving open the possibility that the huge annual pilgrimage, the Hajj, which has a fixed date on the religious calendar and is scheduled for July this year, will be postponed.
But MBS also took advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the pandemic last month to move against the most eligible challengers to his rule, former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and MBS's uncle,Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, who is his king's full brother. Both were arrested for allegedly plotting a coup, a charge many analysts find implausible. “There is no evidence of any plot,” according to The Economist.
So, is MBS a changed man? Certainly not. But he has shown that he can adapt to the changing circumstances imposed by a global pandemic—while exploiting them for his own ends.