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Meet the Kim Jong Un of the Persian Gulf

The authoritarian trend toward personalist regimes

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Oct. 24. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Nowadays it seems that every authoritarian ruler wants to be Kim Jong Un.

To be clear, no one wants to be the ruler of the barren wasteland that is North Korea. But it sure seems like authoritarian rulers across the world want the cult of personality and unfettered control over the levers of power that Kim has exercised for years. In the past few years many authoritarian rulers and wannabe authoritarian rulers have adapted parts of Kim’s playbook to their countries. Take President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey:

In China, Xi Jinping just completed a party congress designed to elevate him to Mao-like levels of power and adoration.  In Russia, Vladimir Putin has been building up a cult of personality for some time now, complete with feats of hockey strength and everything. President Trump is an elected leader. but the last week has illuminated just how much he wishes he was a despot unshackled by the rule of law. Authoritarian regimes are no longer institutionalizing their control; they are personalizing it. Everyone wants to be the Kim of their country.

Which brings us to Saudi Arabia.  Two years ago, it looked like the royal family was trying to institutionalize its line of succession. The past 48 hours suggest something very different. My Post colleague Kareen Fahim sums it up in his latest story:

They seemed untouchable. The head of a huge construction conglomerate. A prince who led Saudi Arabia’s elite national guard. A billionaire investor who was one of the richest people in the world.
But in one breathtaking stroke, the men were detained by the Saudi authorities in a purge that began Saturday night and swept up some of the most powerful and recognizable names in the country, including members of the Saudi royal family, cabinet ministers, titans of media and industry, and former officials. The detainees included Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a wealthy investor who owns major stakes in such companies as Twitter and Citigroup, according to an associate of his family.
On Sunday, Saudi officials cast the arrests as the first shot in a battle against the country’s notorious and deeply rooted corruption, and as part of a broader effort by the country’s young and ambitious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to refresh the stagnating Saudi state.
For others, though, the detentions seemed more like the continuation of a process that had been accelerating over the past two years: the ruthless consolidation of power by the crown prince before his father, King Salman, dies or abdicates the throne. That process — which included eliminating critics and rivals, but also elite figures who presided over independent power centers — amounted to a radical restructuring of the Saudi order, analysts said.

The anti-corruption drive is a classic move from the personalist handbook, one that Xi, Putin and Erdogan have all used as an excuse to consolidate power. Salman has been unafraid to take on other power centers within the kingdom, including religious conservatives.

It is certainly possible that Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, really does want to weed out corruption as part of implementing the ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 program. This is Vali Nasr’s interpretation of events:

Given how Iran turned out after the shah fell, that analogy is not at all comforting. Indeed, as the Financial Times’s David Gardner notes, crackdowns and arrests of high-profile Saudi princes do little to improve business certainty:

Including such a well-known figure in this clampdown [Prince Alwaleed bin Talal] will raise questions about the investment climate in Saudi Arabia, as Prince Mohammed pursues his much-trumpeted Vision 2030. This reform program aims to wean the kingdom off fast-depleting hydrocarbon revenue with income from private investment and the creation of what he hopes will become the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, built around the planned part-privatisation of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. The goals of MbS, as the crown prince is known, include quadrupling non-oil revenue by 2020 from just over $40bn in 2015, before nearly doubling it again by 2030.
Skeptics question if such targets are deliverable, dependent as they are on ending the social contract between the House of Saud and its subjects that trades cradle-to-grave welfare for political quiescence.

My Post colleague David Ignatius notes the parallels between MbS, Xi and Trump:

While accompanied by the rhetoric of reform, this weekend’s purge resembles the approach of authoritarian regimes such as China. President Xi Jinping has used a similar anti-corruption theme to replace a generation of party and military leaders and to alter the collective leadership style adopted by recent Chinese rulers.
MBS is emboldened by strong support from President Trump and his inner circle, who see him as a kindred disrupter of the status quo — at once a wealthy tycoon and a populist insurgent. It was probably no accident that last month, Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, made a personal visit to Riyadh. The two princes are said to have stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. several nights, swapping stories and planning strategy.

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would ordinarily be worried that Kushner, the MbS doppelganger in the White House, may start getting ideas. Indeed, the very fact that there exists a plausible parallel between MbS and Kushner is disturbing.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4 arrested royal family members and ministers as well as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire investor. (Video: Reuters)

Fortunately for America, Kushner cannot even fill out a form properly, much less organize anything more grandiose. And Trump exercises power far less effectively than, say, Robert Mueller. When Trump told U.S. armed service members in Japan that “no one — no dictator, no regime, and no nation — should underestimate, ever, American resolve,” I doubt that Kim Jong Un took him very seriously. I doubt that the authoritarians more loyal to the Trump regime, such as MbS, even noticed the rhetoric.

One does wonder about the long-term effect of this consolidation of power within authoritarian states. Kim, Xi, Putin, and now MbS have successfully purged all of their enemies. They have also raised doubts about how their countries will fare after they exit the political stage. This is problematic for Xi and Putin, who are getting on in years. Kim and Mohammed bin Salman, however, are in their early 30s. Their short-term consolidation could last a long time.