Crown Prine Mohammed bin Salman. (U.S. Department of State)
If Saudi Arabia is seen as a country that can sanction others, it starts to look more like a great power. The very fact that these sanctions are costly is what makes them such a compelling Veblen good. According to this logic, it does not matter whether they work: Most sanctions fail anyway. What makes them successful is that Mohammed has demonstrated that he can impose them in the first place.
As explanations for Mohammed bin Salman’s erratic bungling go, this isn’t bad, but I’m not sure I buy that this is adding to the prestige of the kingdom or the crown prince. Far from making Saudi Arabia seem “more like a great power,” it makes the kingdom look like an insecure, petty authoritarian regime that can’t take even the mildest criticism from an otherwise friendly government. Breaking diplomatic ties over a minor rebuke conveys weakness and demonstrates poor judgment, and that feeds into growing perception that Mohammed bin Salman has no idea what he’s doing.
The deterrence explanation makes a little more sense, but in order for other states to be deterred from criticizing Saudi abuses they would have to believe that Riyadh would act against them in the same heavy-handed way. It’s simply not sustainable for the kingdom to pick multiple high-profile fights with its trading partners. As long as the kingdom remains repressive and responsible for numerous war crimes in Yemen, there will always be abuses for Western governments to criticize, and the Saudis can’t cut ties with every government that calls them out. The attempted intimidation doesn’t appear to be working on Canada, and it is unlikely to work on other states.
It makes more sense that “this is all about Mohammed.” The crown prince has been consolidating power and isn’t tolerating any dissent from any quarter, and so he is lashing out at foreign critics as harshly and clumsily as he has against domestic activists. The problem here is that the crown prince’s overreaction to foreign criticism just calls more attention to the intensifying repression that he desperately needs outsiders to ignore. A huge part of the crown prince’s extensive foreign trip was to make investors and political leaders buy into the idea that he represents a “new” and better Saudi Arabia, but that can’t work when he is having innocent people arbitrarily arrested and presides over the creation of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Mohammed bin Salman has earned a reputation for being reckless and not thinking through the consequences of his actions. The quarrel with Canada isn’t that important by itself, but it confirms the destructive pattern that we have seen from him over the last three years and especially in the last year since he became crown prince. The pattern that has emerged is one of rash, heavy-handed behavior guided by terrible judgment, and that bodes ill for the future of Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole.