A pilgrim prays during the annual hajj pilgrimage amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mina, Saudi Arabia, August 2020
Saudi Press Agency / Via Reuters

For the Middle East’s oil exporters, COVID-19 has been a triple whammy. Fuel prices have cratered, compounding the agonies of a global shutdown and a deadly viral outbreak. According to the International Monetary Fund, the crisis is the worst the Middle East has faced in the modern era. But for Saudi Arabia’s 34-year-old crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman—whose sensational ambition and ruthless methods have made him known to millions worldwide by his initials, MBS—the pandemic has been especially catastrophic.

In April 2016, MBS unveiled what he called “Vision 2030,” a strategy for diversifying the Saudi economy over the 14 years to follow. MBS declared that by 2020 the kingdom would be able to “live without oil.” The Saudi government laid out the plan in greater detail over the months that followed, marking 2020 as the year by which the kingdom would eliminate the budget deficit, raise non-oil

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  • F. GREGORY GAUSE III is head of the International Affairs Department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and an affiliate of the Bush School’s Albritton Center for Grand Strategy.
  • More By F. Gregory Gause III