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Mohammed Bin Salman's personality is catching up with him

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Posted: Aug 23, 2018 6:29 PM
Updated: Aug 23, 2018 6:29 PM

Donald Trump isn't the only leader falling foul of his own hubris. His friend, Saudi Arabia's ambitious ruler-in-waiting Mohammed Bin Salman, is also finding that his rhetoric is catching up with him.

Allies have lionized MBS as a modernizer, breaking with the desert Kingdom's extremely conservative roots. Skeptics have been silenced by his far-reaching reforms, including allowing women to drive.

Mohammed bin Salman

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But in recent weeks his image has taken a tarnishing -- dulled by his own hand.

Reports indicate that the two trillion dollar IPO of the Saudi oil behemoth, Saudi Aramco, may be delayed or even canceled -- raising questions about how wise a financial idea it was initially.

It raises bigger questions, too: has he overreached and, more fundamentally, what sort of leader is he?

Until this moment he seemed just the sort of forward-looking ruler friends like Trump, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel could do business with, albeit against a background drumbeat of criticism from their electorates.

For any of MBS' perceived failings -- like the grinding war over his southern border in Yemen with its predictable dire toll of death and misery -- his stated desire to disengage and deliver a diversified, oil-free future for Saudis at home, Vision 2030, was a seductive narrative.

It kept a shine on international relations and greased the skids on massive controversial arms sales, some of which are killing Yemen's civilians.

So it seems strange with all that at stake, MBS is stepping out of what has become a carefully honed international image of well-intentioned reformer.

Everything started to go pear-shaped when Saudi Arabia found itself in a bust-up with Canada over slights about its Human Rights record.

In the space of a few hours, Saudi expelled Canada's ambassador to Riyadh, banned new business deals and recalled many Saudi students studying in Canada.

It smacked of Saudi's all-or-nothing approach to dealing with tiny Gulf state Qatar. A year into that dispute, MBS' allies -- the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt -- are still entrenched, refusing anything but a climbdown by Qatar's Emir.

On this, the world mostly looked the other way, presuming that given time, they'd dig their way out of their differences. Instead, MBS doubled down, pushing allies to pick a side.

And herein lies the danger of corrosion: like a drunken night out relived the next morning, every excruciating flaw in the thrill of the night before becomes magnified and impossible to ignore.

MBS' apparently Midas-like touch to sell an image -- against all probability, given Saudi Arabia's spotty reform record -- of being able to fix his Kingdom's woes risks losing its allure if his character flaws can't be overlooked.

Into sharp focus come reports this week that a young, female human rights activist arrested a few years ago will likely go to trial, where a guilty verdict could lead to the death penalty.

For MBS' allies, all his foibles and slips become accumulative. It's not hard to imagine cabinets bandying around the question of what is the political price at home for blindly following MBS' vision?

But if his recent retaliation against Canada has reopened questions about his youthful ambition, his temperament and his ability to deliver on his aims, then perhaps the latest revelation that funding for his grand reform plans may be under threat could really shake his hold on the Saudi narrative and the confidence of friends.

MBS rattled investor confidence last year, arresting several hundred senior royals and businessmen, accusing them of corruption. After being incarcerated in a luxury hotel, most were released early this year, albeit with lighter wallets.

A Saudi banker I met in Switzerland around that time told me few Saudis he knew were investing in their country.

Saudi officials are saying it was always their plan to time the Aramco IPO when it best suited their needs, a function of many factors including oil markets.

Former US President George W. Bush found out in 2005 that surges in patriotism only last so long.

His failure to grapple with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in a timely and effective fashion opened the flood gates to criticism over his handling of the Iraq war and the emergence of what was to become ISIS.

That facts and sentiment about Iraq had been pent up, building a critical mass behind post-9/11 patriotic barriers. But once confidence in Bush's abilities had been questioned all bets were off.

He didn't fail and fall, but was damaged.

MBS could be on a similar threshold. Latitude for all the good he might do for Saudis could become hamstrung if the political price of keeping him as a friend looks too steep.

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