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The real reason the knives are out for Mohammed bin Salman

In the six weeks before Khashoggi’s disappearance, MBS not only managed to anger the U.S. military-industrial complex but the world’s most powerful bankers.

by Whitney Webb

Part 3 - MBS – the “reformer” who wasn’t

Though the media has long spun Vision 2030 as MBS’ “ambitious” plan to wean the Saudi economy off its dependency on oil, the plan itself is actually a free-for-all for private interests and involves the neoliberalization of Saudi state-owned assets. Among its pillars are the opening of Saudi financial markets to Wall Street and the privatization of essentially everything in the Gulf Kingdom, including healthcare and, of course, Aramco.

The fact that Vision 2030 was essentially a neoliberal wish-list should not come as a big surprise, however, given that it was based off a 2015 report authored by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the U.S.-based consulting firm McKinsey & Company — the “most prestigious” consulting firm in the world, known for its “neoliberal solutions to real-world problems”.

According to a report published last year in Foreign Policy, “McKinsey has cultivated a generation of young Arab princelings enamored with Western-style economic reforms, and with thoroughly mixed results.” However, this was especially true of Saudi Arabia, where MBS cultivated even closer ties with the firm and has relied on it, not just for the blueprint of Vision 2030 but also for choosing his new cabinet following his rise to the position of Crown Prince as well as a list of prominent Saudi dissidents who were later repressed.

In addition, McKinsey’s influence goes far beyond the firm itself, as its past employees or “alumni” go on to serve powerful positions in the corporate world or in government. Though the extent of McKinsey’s influence in helping MBS rise to become crown prince is unknown, it is certainly a possibility that the firm had used its influence to “grease the wheels” in order to give near-ultimate authority to one of these “young Arab princelings,” who would embrace neoliberal reforms that older generations would not.

Vision 2030 certainly seemed to win MBS the affection of the international elite across the board — and it seemed that the new Crown Prince enjoyed the limelight, at least for a while. However, it seems reality began to set in for MBS, and he has consequently spent the past several months looking for a way to indefinitely delay the plan’s implementation.

This first became clear earlier this year following speculation in July that the Saudi Aramco Initial Public Offering (IPO) — i.e., the beginning of the partial privatization of the Saudi state oil company through the selling of shares — may not materialize after all. Then, it was announced in late August that the entire IPO would be shelved. Bloomberg called this “the most significant reversal in Prince Mohammed’s plans” and added: “Rather than marking a watershed in one of the most ambitious economic projects in history, it [the shelving of the Aramco IPO] now highlights the unpredictability of the country under a young leader who has centralized political power in his own hands since becoming de facto ruler a little over a year ago.

As a result, what would have been the biggest IPO in history was called off overnight. The move was surely a disappointment to Trump, who had personally lobbied MBS to list Aramco on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), as doing so would have awarded the NYSE with the largest stock market listing ever. However, it was a much, much bigger disappointment for the behemoth financial institutions that had worked frantically to secure their roles in the deal — Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and CitiGroup, among others — as the shelving of the IPO meant that all their work on the deal would now go without compensation, as banks are typically only paid when such deals are finalized. In other words, MBS’ decision to put the IPO indefinitely on hold meant that the most powerful, politically-connected banks had essentially been forced to work for free.

It seems that MBS sensed the animosity he had caused in some of the world’s most powerful financial institutions, given that, just a few weeks later, he offered Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and CitiGroup a prominent role in Aramco’s new plans to buy a majority stake in the Saudi petrochemical company Saudi Basic Industries Corp (Sabic). As part of that deal, Aramco has considered selling bonds in what could become the largest sale of corporate debt ever. However that Aramco-Sabic deal, valued at $70 billion, is still significantly less than the $100 billion that the Aramco IPO was set to generate.

More importantly, the deal shows that MBS got cold feet in his privatization plans, as having a state-owned company (Aramco) buy a majority stake in a private Saudi company (Sabic) is the complete opposite of what MBS had promised in the months prior to his rise to become Saudi crown prince. Indeed, as Bloomberg noted at the time: “The [Aramco] bond sale would give Saudi Arabia some of the financial payoff of an IPO, though without having to share ownership with international investors — or revealing information the kingdom would rather keep private.

Thus, it seems that it was the privatization of Aramco that had MBS spooked.

Far beyond the cancellation of the IPO itself — MBS has endangered other parts of the plan that these powerful financial interests had been counting on for well over a year. That includes Vision 2030’s plan to increase the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) — which is managed by a group of HSBC and Bank of America directors and a CitiGroup investment banking alumnus — from its current $230 billion in assets to a massive $2 trillion. The dramatic increase in the fund’s size would make the PIF the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Without that injection of cash into the PIF from the Aramco IPO, media reports have warned of a “ripple effect” on the U.S. economy, including massive U.S. tech companies like Uber, given that the PIF has invested heavily in such companies.

Evidence has since emerged that MBS knows that these powerful banks are still angry despite his efforts to placate them. On October 5, just a few days after Khashoggi’s murder, MBS promised a new Aramco IPO within a few years, this time valued at $2 trillion. However, media reports on that announcement made it clear that Goldman Sachs, CitiGroup and the like weren’t convinced.

Indeed, with the entire privatization effort now in doubt, so too is the estimated $6 trillion in direct investments from powerful interests that had been planned to fund the privatization schemes that comprise the entirety of Vision 2030. That figure could certainly explain why so much pressure has been levied against MBS as of late over Khashoggi. Indeed, given that the Saudis had butchered another dissident writer in 1979 in their Lebanese consulate without the same outrage that has resulted from Khashoggi’s murder, it is safe to say that the establishment’s outrage over this latest extrajudicial killing is motivated less by “human rights” than by trillions of dollars of capital.

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