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One last shot at the Saudi crown prince?

One last shot at the Saudi crown prince?

Saudis got bad news this week: Their taxes are going up and the housing allowance the state provides for government employees will be cut. (Most Saudis work for the government.) The need for belt-tightening is obvious. Oil prices are less than half what they were a year ago, despite a new Saudi production cut meant to prop them up, and the coronavirus is having a big impact on the kingdom's economy. The state has ordered a full lockdown across the kingdom from May 23-27 at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

This is also bad news for Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler. His father, 84-year old King Salman, remains on the throne, but it's MBS who controls the kingdom's foreign and domestic policy. And it's MBS who bears responsibility when things go wrong.

The 34-year-old crown prince is known for three things: expensive foreign-policy failures, bold social reforms, and the iron fist he uses to defend both.

His mistakes abroad include a costly war in Yemen without positive result, a failure to contain Iran's regional influence, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the continuing damage it inflicts on the kingdom's reputation, and an oil price war with Russia that he had to abandon.

His domestic policy centers on his bold vision for the kingdom's future. To boost long-term economic potential, MBS has angered social conservatives by allowing women to drive, to move more freely in society and to join crowds that were once limited to men. He has also welcomed foreign cultural and sporting events into the country.

His iron fist has earned him many enemies. Since his father named him crown prince in 2017, MBS has ordered the detention (and public humiliation) of some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the kingdom, some of them princes. In March, he upped the ante by moving against his cousin and former crown prince, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, and Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, the king's brother. These latest moves show two things: that the Crown Prince can still take bold action to try to further consolidate his authority over the royal family — and that he still feels he needs to.

Saudi Arabia is not in imminent economic danger, despite the austerity measures. Its wealth funds still hold more than $300 billion, and it can raise tens of billions more by selling shares in state-owned oil company Aramco. The Crown Prince himself still has his supporters, which include those who like his social reforms, especially young people, and those who hope to profit from the economic opportunities they create.

But this is still a crucial moment for the kingdom and its crown prince. The impact of the pandemic and low oil prices raise longer-term questions about the crown prince's grand economic plans and the future of Saudi prosperity. Some of his rivals within the family, especially those who fear that he will transform the kingdom in ways they hate, now face a sobering question:

Are they running out of chances to prevent this impetuous young man from becoming king?

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When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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Over the weekend, some 40,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across Russia braved subzero temperatures to turn out in the streets in support of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. More than 3,000 protesters were arrested, and Navalny called on his followers to prepare for more action in the coming weeks.

But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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Angry farmers take Indian fort: In a major and violent escalation of ongoing protests over new agriculture laws, thousands of Indian farmers broke through police barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on Tuesday. At least one protester died in the chaos, while the government shut down internet service in parts of the capital. Farmers and the government are still deadlocked over the new laws, which liberalize agriculture markets in ways that farmers fear will undercut their livelihoods. The government has offered to suspend implementation for 18 months, but the farmers unions are pushing for a complete repeal. Given that some 60 percent of India's population works in agriculture, the standoff has become a major political test for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.


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