Reading tea leaves in Saudi politics is hazardous. That makes Moscow’s jubilation over the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the next in line to the throne rather intriguing.
The Crown Prince whom King Salman dismissed, Mohammed bin Nayef, had held the post of Saudi Arabia’s interior minister continuously since 2012 and had years of experience in intelligence work. MbN used to be regarded as the most pro-American of the Saudi leadership. In February, Mike Pompeo made his first overseas tour as CIA chief to Riyadh to confer the George Tenet Medal on MbN in recognition of his “excellent intelligence performance in the domain of counter-terrorism and his unbound contribution to realise world security and peace”. (Al Jazeera)
Now, just four months later, King Salman has dismissed MbN and replaced him with his trusted son. Strange, isn’t it?
The Russian state news agency TASS carried a report within hours of MbS’s appointment, quoting expert opinion, that the new Crown Prince may be “ready to reach compromises concerning complex regional issues — the crises in Syria and Yemen.” The TASS report praised MbS’ “political farsightedness by building trust-based dialogue with the Russian authorities, particularly with President Vladimir Putin”, which has taken the Saudi-Russian relations to “an unprecedented high in the past years”, and leading to a partnership that “opens the door to resolving conflicts in the Middle East.”
Indeed, MbS is a familiar figure for the Kremlin. He visited Russia four times during the past 2-year period to meet with Putin. A Moscow analyst at the Russian new agency Sputnik wrote on Wednesday:
The fact that Mohammed bin Salman is slated to be Saudi Arabia’s next King – provided of course that no “black swan” event removes him from that position first – is wildly good news for Russia and China because of the very productive working relationships that each of them has established with the new Crown Prince… they understand just how positively transformational a figure he’s poised to be … Russia and China are poised to see their own interests promoted if Mohammed bin Salman becomes the next Saudi King.
What explains such high expectations? The short answer is – oil. Saudi-Russian energy cooperation has phenomenally transformed the Russian-Saudi relationship. The OPEC decision to cut oil production has been a joint Saudi-Russian initiative aimed at balancing supply and demand in the oil market to keep price stable at around $50 per barrel.
But then, this congruence of interests also means countering the US’ rapidly growing profile as energy exporter. The US shale industry is in a position to boost production to leverage oil price by creating glut in oil supply. Therefore, Saudi Arabia and Russia hope to strengthen the oil cartel. Do not rule out Russia becoming an OPEC member. This oil cooperation strategy might assume a strategic dimension if an integration can be brought about between OPEC and the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, the grand design being that a mega cartel can block any disruptive role by the US in the world market.
This is a high stakes game, considering the complex backdrop of the proposed IPO of Aramco, which is expected early next year. MbS hopes that the IPO will provide the first injections of capital into a massive sovereign wealth fund that could provide the underpinning for his ambitious project known as Vision 2030, the long-term development project through which he hopes to transform Saudi Arabia into a diversified and efficient economy and to modernise the country.
Unsurprisingly, MbS’ evaluation of the IPO at $2 trillion is being contested by Western analysts. A Reuters report on Thursday estimated that if the oil price stays where it is now, at around $50 per barrel, Aramco would be worth only less than $1.1 trillion. Evidently, western pressure is building up to keep oil price low so that MbS is compelled to sell Aramco shares at discounted price.
Meanwhile, Trump administration is canvassing to secure the Aramco IPO, the biggest in history, for the New York stock exchange. But Saudi Arabia is non-committal because of the unease over the US laws that allow victims of 9/11 attacks to sue the Saudi government. All in all, Saudi Arabia’s (read MbS’) strategic autonomy is under severe challenge. (See the commentary by Oil Price titled Why Is Saudi Arabia Desperate For Higher Oil Prices?)
Therefore, eyebrows will be raised that the US State Department chose to come out with a suo moto statement on Tuesday coinciding with the royal decree on MbS’ appointment as Crown Prince, which cast aspersions on the Saudi stance in the standoff with Qatar (which of course carries MbS’s imprimatur.) The state department spokesperson Heather Nauert hinted at the US “having to step in in some sort of formal mediation role”, and went on to make a surprisingly pointed reference to Saudi Arabia’s past involvement in terrorism – “whether it is through terror financing or other means” – and for not doing enough to fight terrorism.
The Russian analysts’ prognosis is that given MbS’ gravitation toward multi-polarity in oil politics, he may run into strong headwinds in his bid to succeed his father. Control of the world oil market was a strategic theme of the Cold War and it cannot be otherwise in a New Cold War.
The US strategists maintained since the mid-forties that to maintain “substantial control of the world” through control of Middle Eastern oil ought to be “one of the greatest material prizes in world history” – to quote from a 1945 memorandum from State Department to President Harry Truman. Simply put, surge of Saudi nationalism is the last thing Washington wants when it hopes to go for a big-time kill in the privatization of Aramco. The point is, Aramco is a state within the state of Saudi Arabia.