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The Saudi game of thrones: Crown Prince Mohammed’s power grab

The 32-year-old is determined to shake up the deeply conservative kingdom.

Since his father ascended the throne in Saudi Arabia in 2015, Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS, as he is widely known), has been in a hurry to shake up the deeply conservative kingdom. The 32-year-old crown prince has promised women the right to drive, curbed the influence of the religious police, detained hard-line clerics and moved to wean the economy off oil.

But the extent of his ambition and power only became apparent on 4 November. Just hours after the infirm King Salman launched a new anti-corruption commission headed by his son, news channels announced the arrest of dozens of members of the kingdom’s political and business elite, including 11 royals. Among those held at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the flamboyant billionaire whose past and present investments include Twitter, Apple and News Corp.

Saudi national television described the events as “Black Saturday for corruption and the corrupt”, a message that plays to the two-thirds of the 31 million Saudis aged under 30. High-level graft is endemic, inequality is vast – Prince Mohammed himself bought a €500m yacht last year – and austerity policies implemented after the oil price collapse have created discontent.

The crown prince’s dramatic purge went beyond corruption, however. As part of a simultaneous cabinet reshuffle, he removed Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the Sandhurst-trained head of the country’s powerful national guard. Prince Mohammed now controls all three arms of the security services – the military, the national guard and internal security – which have traditionally been divided among different branches of the House of Saud. Already the country’s de facto ruler, the crown prince has consolidated power to an extent few previous leaders have.

“Is he becoming a despot or does he genuinely realise that if the kingdom does not turn now it is going to hit an iceberg?” said Michael Stephens, Middle East research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “It’s only in five or ten years that we’ll be able to look back and say: this is the man who saved the country.”

Born in 1985 to King Salman’s third wife, Prince Mohammed was long considered a favoured son. After studying law at King Saud University he worked in the private sector before being appointed special adviser to his father, who was governor of Riyadh province at the time. In January 2015, Salman became king aged 79 following the death of his half-brother King Abdullah. Next in line to the throne was Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister and crown prince – but he had a rival in his young cousin, Prince Mohammed.

MBS had a reputation for hard work but also brashness. He was appointed as defence minister, and quickly assumed wider responsibilities. He insisted that the country needed major economic and social reforms to prosper in the 21st century, and announced plans to diversify the economy by breaking up state monopolies, encouraging private enterprise and creating jobs. Most significantly, MBS promoted a deal to sell a 5 per cent stake in the state oil company Saudi Aramco next year. This will create the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund.

At the same time, the millennial prince, who is married with three children, has loosened Saudi Arabia’s strict moral codes and diminished the role of conservative clerics in shaping policy. For too long the kingdom has exported Wahhabism, its hardline version of Islam, which has fuelled intolerance and inspired terror groups such as al-Qaeda. At an investment conference in October, Prince Mohammed said the country needed a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world”.

MBS is seeking to expand Saudi Arabia’s global influence, visiting the US, China and Russia – and to counter the ambitions of Iran. In 2015, after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels forced Yemen’s president into exile, MBS agreed that Saudi Arabia should lead a military intervention by Sunni states. Riyadh has since been accused of bombing civilians and creating a humanitarian crisis. Yemen’s rebels, meanwhile, fired a ballistic missile at the Saudi capital, for which Prince Mohammed blamed the influence of Iran.

His status as heir apparent was confirmed in June when he was appointed crown prince in place of his cousin. Some experts believe he will soon take over from his 81-year-old father. “It [the arrests] seems to be the final piece in securing MBS’s succession and allowing the king to abdicate,” said Victoria Mackay, of political consultancy VLM Advisory.

The religious establishment is uneasy at the social changes and there is a precedent for violence: in 1979, insurgents who accused the House of Saud of not being Islamic enough seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. And other royals have much to lose in the corruption crackdown. “Different branches of the family could launch a counter-coup,” I was told by a Middle East expert who knows Saudi Arabia well. “This is a dangerous time.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia