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The Chastened Kingdom

Can Saudi Arabia Recover From Four Years of Hubris?

MBS at a summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 2019 Hamad l Mohammed / Reuters

On December 1, Saudi Arabia officially assumed the presidency of the G-20. The task of leading the high-profile economic forum, which rotates annually among member countries, is usually more a matter of form than of substance. But for Saudi Arabia—the group’s only Arab member—the stakes are high. 

Riyadh takes the helm at a time of great uncertainty. The kingdom’s image has taken a hit following a litany of domestic and international crises, from a ruinous military intervention in Yemen to a stalled pressure campaign against Qatar to the widely publicized 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The reputation and internal legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, have suffered as a result. Foreign investment, which the Saudis need to reform their oil-dependent economy, has lagged. 

Eager to repair its image, the Saudi government is attempting a major course correction by the time world leaders gather in Riyadh for the annual G-20 summit in November of next year. Signs of the coming shift are already apparent. For the first time in years, Riyadh appears open to the possibility of a peace settlement in Yemen and a reconciliation with Qatar—both steps that would significantly reshape the Gulf’s political landscape and which seemed out of the question until recently. Neither conflict would allow of a quick fix—any lasting settlements would require time and long-term commitment to succeed—but Riyadh’s conciliatory moves nonetheless augur well for the region. 

ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK

The year ahead is particularly important for MBS, who is first in line to become king. Since his father’s ascension to the throne in January 2015 and his official appointment as crown prince in June 2017, MBS has consolidated power like few Saudi leaders before him. He marginalized would-be rivals in the royal family and gradually but often unceremoniously replaced an older cohort of long-serving ministers and technocrats with younger cadres loyal to him. In late 2017, he ordered the detention of many of

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