Biden's Saudi lesson: The only path runs through Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman faces an uphill battle in diversifying the Saudi economy away from its supreme dependence on oil. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - The Saudi Arabia that US President Joe Biden will visit this week is a country being actively reshaped by the whims and visions of one man: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

As the de facto ruler of the oil-rich monarchy, the 36-year-old prince has cast himself as a reformer, loosening some restrictions of ultra-conservative Islam by permitting women to drive and allowing once-forbidden cinemas and concerts.

But the crown prince's rule has also been defined by his institutionalisation of force - both to quash domestic dissent and to pursue a more muscular foreign policy.

Stepping beyond the old Saudi model of quietly cultivating influence with cash-driven diplomacy, Crown Prince Mohammed has bombed Yemen, moved aggressively to jail activists and critics and, according to the CIA, dispatched the hit squad that murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

It was because of these human rights concerns that Mr Biden vowed during his election campaign to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" and refused once in office to speak with Crown Prince Mohammed, seeking to punish him with isolation.

It did not work.

With Russia's invasion of Ukraine jacking up oil prices and Iran believed to be expanding its nuclear capabilities, Mr Biden suddenly needs Saudi Arabia's help - and must confront the reality that the only way to get it is through Crown Prince Mohammed, widely known as MBS.

"By the simple fact that MBS managed to hold onto his position domestically, he is the necessary interlocutor if you want to talk to Saudi Arabia," said Ms Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Regardless of the trip's outcome, the image of Mr Biden meeting the crown prince on his own turf will provide validation of the young royal's position at the helm of one of the most important countries in the Middle East and provide a boost to his vision for the kingdom and its more forceful place in the world.

Mr Biden's critics say that is dangerous, demonstrating that wealth and oil remain paramount in great power politics and putting the lie to Mr Biden's vow to pursue a foreign policy based on human rights.

How, they ask, will the United States discourage other autocrats from crushing their critics after overlooking Crown Prince Mohammed's abuses in the hope that he can bring down gas prices?

Scholars of the Middle East point out that the United States has a long history of doing business with autocrats, including every Saudi king, and that engagement could more effectively shape their behaviour than ostracism.

Perhaps, they argue, a closer US relationship can cultivate the good and discourage the bad in how Crown Prince Mohammed wields his tremendous wealth, power and ambition.

The crown prince appeared to come out of nowhere seven years ago when his elderly father, King Salman, assumed the throne and began delegating power to his favourite son.

But the crown prince showed that he was out for complete control and would do whatever it took to get it, including sidelining, locking up and draining the fortunes of his rivals within the royal family.

As he consolidated his power, he made it clear that he had big plans for Saudi Arabia: to shrug off the kingdom's past as a somnolent oil monarchy, ruled according to a hyper-conservative interpretation of Islam, that pursued its interests quietly, usually by disbursing huge quantities of cash.

Instead, he wanted the kingdom to claim a position as a global player, known not just for oil and Islam, but for a dynamic, diversified economy that produced its own weapons, invented new technologies and attracted tourists to swim along its beaches and visit its historical sites.

That vision remains a work in progress.

Social changes have galloped ahead much faster than most Saudis expected. After Crown Prince Mohammed deprived the once-feared religious police of the power to impose their version of moral austerity on people, women were granted the right to drive, restrictions on their dress were loosened, and a new government body tasked with launching an entertainment industry hosted concerts, pro wrestling events and monster truck rallies.

The crown prince faces an uphill battle in diversifying the Saudi economy away from its supreme dependence on oil.

But high global prices caused by the war in Ukraine have left him flush, enabling the kingdom's huge sovereign wealth fund to expand its investments abroad, including a new pro golf circuit.

The crown prince's critics accuse him of using such investments to distract from rights abuses at home and abroad.

Despite a ceasefire that has temporarily reduced the level of violence, the kingdom remains bogged down in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has fuelled one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

Political repression within Saudi Arabia has expanded, with activists, critics and clerics detained, barred from travelling abroad and prosecuted on charges that human rights groups say have been frequently trumped up.

Efforts to stifle criticism have reached beyond the kingdom's borders, most notably in the case of Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. An assessment by the CIA concluded that the crown prince had approved the operation. He has denied any foreknowledge of the plot.

In an opinion article in The Washington Post about his Saudi trip, Mr Biden did not mention Crown Prince Mohammed by name (but did mention Khashoggi) and said his goal was to discuss energy, regional security and Iran with Arab leaders, including from Saudi Arabia.

For their part, the Saudis announced that Mr Biden and the crown prince would hold "official talks." During them, Mr Biden is likely to find an assertive leader who knows he has something the United States needs and wants to receive something in return.

This could include progress on a more formal security guarantee or cooperation in realms beyond oil, said Ms Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The Saudis want to be treated as a US partner, and today US partners talk with the US not just about security and oil but also about technology, climate and energy," she said.

Even if the visit goes well, such cooperation takes time to develop. But for Crown Prince Mohammed, she said, just getting Mr Biden to Saudi Arabia amounted to "a triumph."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.