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?

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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