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Imagine you are bin Salman
The dilemma of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in Gaza
Imagine you are Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
Your people have lived on oil revenues for almost a century. Many of your subjects even struggle to understand the concept of taxes. “The government taking money from me, instead of giving? How come?.”
But the times are changing.
The US doesn’t need your oil anymore. America is now a net exporter of oil and gas. And more importantly, Americans have grown tired of wars in the Middle East.
The world will still run on black gold for decades to come, but the call for decarbonization has come to stay. New energy technologies are emerging, and the era of oil is reaching its twilight.
The country that carries your family name cannot run on the mana from the underground forever.
So what do you do?
Luckily, your predecessors were smart enough to foresee this scenario. Saudi Arabia has a sovereign fund, the Public Investment Fund, which has close to $780 billion in assets.
Also, the Saudis have learned a few tricks. You know about finance, commodities, energy, and logistics. Some of the best ports in the world are on Saudi soil. Let’s make the country a global industrial and logistics hub.
With that kind of money, you can become the world’s banker.
You have cash in an era where private investors in the West began to be more weary of putting their dollars in companies that seem only to make money, asking them for “money to make money.”
Let’s flow the world with cash in real estate, cryptocurrencies, Meta, NFTs, fin-techs, AI, and video games.
You are thinking about building a new futuristic city called the Line.
Maybe it can be space exploration. Renewable energies? Yes of course. What about buying the American Open or European first-division clubs?
Money is not an issue, so your imagination is the only limit.
The geopolitical market is more open than ever. The end of the US hegemony means that you need to take care of your own security problems.
But that also means that there are more other countries to do business with. The Chinese need oil. What is even better, is that you can work with both Beijing and Washington. And also with the Indians, Europeans, Africans, and Russians.
Things close to home don’t look that well. Beijing has helped to broke some talks with Teheran. But you are not entirely sure that this will work in the long term.
What about Israel? You certainly do not like the Jews. But you don’t like the Iranians either. And that’s one thing you have in common with Israel. They are the only ones that could one day nuke Iran.
Israel has been around for seventy years. Egypt and Jordan have already accepted its existence. Many other Arab countries have come to terms with them.
The Americans are not as important as they used to be, sure. But they still matter more than most other countries. A normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia will make them happy – and indeed, we will take something out of it.
Maybe it is time to move on.
What about the Palestinians? They are your Arab brothers, and you should stand up for them.
But what does being Arab mean after a century where every country has gone separate ways? The times when your grandfather rode along Lawerence of Arabia are long gone. Now we are Jordans, Egyptians, Syrians, Lybians, Algerians, Saudis…
Pan-Arabism was a cause of militarist secular nationalist and proto-communist. Never the cause of the House of Saud, anyway.
Still, your family are the sacred guardians of la Mecca. Siding with the Israelites can infuriate the Islamic world. And you want to be seen as a good Muslim.
Nonetheless, you have been trying to downplay the influence of Islamic Orthodoxy in your country. You have pushed for laws that for the West still look far from sufficient but have generated enough internal strife for many to understand that times are changing.
For a monarch, Islamists are like the patriots that Emperor Frederic II feared: “Patriots for me today, patriots against me tomorrow.”
You don’t need your people thinking about holy wars and funding groups that could get you into trouble with America and Europe.
One needs to watch out for popular sentiments on such sensitive issues. But you are a true sovereign for a reason. You don’t let popular whims decide for you. You, and only you, call the shots.
So that’s it.
It won’t be easy. It won’t be soon. But the decision has been made. It is clearly in the best interest of Saudi Arabia and your family to find a way to normalize relations with Israel.
Let’s make history.
You are gonna be Arabia’s Deng Xiaoping.
You wake up one Saturday.
One of your officials rushes with troubling news from Israel.
Hamas launched an attack—a thousand civilians were killed and kidnapped. Hamas is also documenting and sharing gruesome images of their actions.
As expected, inflamed rhetoric comes from the other side. Israel seems eager to level Gaza. Thousands of civilians are going to die.
Your subjects are furious. Arabs and Muslims are protesting in the streets around the world. Maybe not in your country because you don’t let dirty things such as protests happen under your rule, but you know what’s the feeling of your people.
Everything that you have been building seems to be threatened.
You know that Hamas is Iran's proxy, and one goal of this attack is to derail your conversations with Israel. Once the Israel offensive began, you cannot be seen as supporting the massacre of innocent Arabs.
The Americans are knocking at your door. Maybe Saudi Arabia is not as dependent on the US as in the past, but you still need to operate in a global capital structure ruled mainly by the dollar.
China is not going to help here, and China cannot replace the West. China is a vital oil buyer, but none is interested in buying a Chinese football club.
You face the only question that really matters again.
What do you do?
You play the game.
Conversations with Israel must be halted. Support for the Palestinians must be shown.
You present yourself as a voice for dialogue, de-escalation, and diplomacy.
International pundits are talking about a regional war. Some even envision a holy war between the West and the Islamic world.
You laugh at them.
You are not getting involved in a regional conflict to save the proxy of your main geopolitical rival. You are already fighting a war against Iran-backed guerrillas in Yemen; it would be foolish to enter a war on their side.
Once you have talked the script, you begin to take action to save what matters.
First, you tell your people to shut up.
Second, you deal with the Americans.
Not with Blinken, though. You can smell weakness.
You want to take the initiative here. If every other Arab leader is showing an angry face to him, you don’t even let him see yours.
You send the message. You only want to talk to the boss. You get Biden on the phone to talk things out.
Then you can say what everyone knew you had to do:
After the war, talks of normalization of relations with Israel will resume.
Third, you keep making money.
You bring 5000 delegates for Riyadh’s Future Investment Initiative conference at the vast and ultra-modern-looking King Abdulaziz Conference Center.
Some say that the war between Israel and Hamas has cast a shadow over the “Davos in the Desert.”
Really? You have the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol, and hundreds of CEOs, politicians, investors, entrepreneurs, and tech gurus. The world is discussing war, but you are making them talk about business.
You try to convince them how good you are for business. Saudi Arabia is open to investment, and Saudi Arabia can play a key role in bringing the desired stability that now seems lacking in the region.
Is the trick gonna work? None knows, but you need to make your move.
You are Mohammed bin Salman. A prime Minister, a prince, a stateman, a diplomat, and overall, you are a businessman.
And you are in the only business that matters, the business of power.