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Saudi Ambitions: Is MBS A New Nasser For The Middle East?

Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS, is positioning the Saudi kingdom to be a global force of diplomacy in a way that challenges a longstanding alliance with Washington. But does the young prince have a singular vision for the interests of both his nation and the world?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sitting with hands crossed

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on April 14, 2023

Pierre Haski


PARIS — In the Lebanese daily L'Orient-le-Jour, which has no particular attachment to the Saudi government, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's Crown Prince, was recently described as a man "who is taking on an importance that no Arab leader has had since Nasser."

That's right: this is the very same Mohamed bin Salman who had been considered an international pariah for ordering the sordid murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

So what has "MBS," as he calls himself, done to be compared to the greatest Arab nationalist leader of the 20th century, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died in 1970? The Crown Prince has taken advantage of the shockwaves of the war in Ukraine to emancipate himself from any oversight, and to develop a diplomacy which, it must be admitted, is hard to keep up with.

Saudi Arabia thus embodies those mid-level powers that defy all the codes of international alliances, and do as they please – for better or for worse.

It should be remembered that for nearly seven decades, Saudi Arabia lived under the protection of the U.S. umbrella, and that the alliance, forged in 1945 between Franklin Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud, seemed immutable.

Assad to Zelensky

Today, Saudi Arabia is renewing diplomatic relations with Iran under the supervision of China, a newcomer to diplomatic mediation in the Middle East. The kingdom reinstated Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League at the recent summit in Jeddah, and forced its Arab colleagues hand by inviting Ukrainian President Zelensky to speak at the same summit. This week, Saudi Arabia also received a visit from the Russian Interior Minister, a man placed on the U.S. sanction list.

This is geopolitical "polyamory," contrary to the previous exclusivity of power blocs.

Jeddah is also the location for negotiations between the two military factions fighting in Sudan, mediation organized in close cooperation with the United States.

This 360-degree effort illustrates what the political scientist Bertrand Badie calls geopolitical "polyamory", contrary to the previous exclusivity of power blocs.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman sits facing Syrian President Bashar in front of their national flags.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the sideline of the 32nd Arab Summit, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on May 19, 2023

Saudi Press Agency / ZUMA

Spiraling chaos

The Wahhabi kingdom's coffers are full thanks to last year's surge in energy prices, giving it free rein to do as it pleases. The young prince, at just 37 years old, got off to a bad start in his quasi-reign when his father, King Salman, handed him the reins of power in 2015. He launched into the senseless war in Yemen, then into the equally ill-advised blockade of Qatar, and got tangled up in the disastrous Khashoggi affair.

MBS has now committed billions of dollars to an authoritarian modernization of his kingdom, placing it at the center of the Middle Eastern diplomatic scene. He stands with the Russians when it suits his oil business, with the West by extending an invitation to Zelensky, and with the Chinese when it comes to business.

At a time of spiraling geopolitical chaos, this is daring to say the least. The risk, of course, is that the Saudi Prince winds up lost among shifting alliances, never able to find the driving purpose of all his diplomacy.

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