Think Tanks examine the Risks of Saudi Arabia MBS
Tactics Institute is pleased to have supported a collaborative event entitled “Saudi Arabia and
the Global Ambitions of the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al Saud”, coordinated by The
Washington Institute for Defense and Security. The discussion was held in Blacksburg, Virginia
as part of a collaborative project between the Political Science department of Virginia Tech,
Tactics Institute, and the Washington Institute for Defense and Security. The event centered on
the rise to power of the crown prince, and the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s place and future in
the global community.
Opening remarks of the event were made by Laura Belmonte, Dean of the College of Liberal
Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. Introductory comments were made by Dr. Yannis
Stivachtis, followed by some remarks from Mr. Tom Freebairn of the Washington Institute for
Defense and Security.
The first speaker was Dr. Bettina Koch, a professor of political science specializing in the history
of Islamic political thought and comparative political studies. She offered contextualization of
Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s rise, and explored reforms and changes which had been
produced under his supervision. She highlighted the contrast of his kind and gregarious public
image with the ruthlessness and brutality which characterize his political style. She painted the
picture of a modern and internationally minded young leader operating in incredibly brutal and
Second to speak was Dr. Aaron Brantly, an associate professor of political science and specialist
in Russian foreign policy and security. He spoke on the importance of energy politics to the
prominence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and how the current Ukraine crisis gives Riyadh
special leverage globally. The complexity of supply networks which benefit Saudi Arabia’s ability
to arbitrate disputes between the United States and Russia, as well as rivals in OPEC was
discussed at length.
The third speaker, Dr. Paul Avey is an associate professor of political science and expert in
nuclear politics and US foreign policy. His speech centered on the ramifications of the rise of
the crown prince on US-Saudi relations. He described how his antagonisms, including most
importantly the killing of Jamal Khashoggi had developed a rift between Washington and
Riyadh. He imagined that future US-Saudi relations would be strained, but likely still functional
given certain necessities of the partnership on both sides.
Mr. Robert Hodges, assistant director of Virginia Tech’s Center for European Union,
Transatlantic, and Trans-European Space Studies (CEUTTSS) spoke next, on the topic of Saudi
Arabia’s relationship to China. Mr. Hodges offered first a developed picture of the metrics of
Saudi Arabia’s internal stability, including reliance on the oil industry and balancing support
from western nations such as the US. He described bin Salman’s emerging vision of an
international Saudi Arabia, including some comments on the proposed “smart-city” of Neom.
He spoke about the potential developments in Sino-Saudi relationships, and how current ties
reflect convenience rather than a truly strategic partnership. He predicted that any true pivot to
China on Saudi Arabia’s behalf was immediately unlikely and would reflect a massive shift in the
global political arrangement.
The final speaker was Dr. Yannis Stivachtis, Jean Monet chair at Virginias Tech, director of
CEUTTSS, and an expert on European and Mediterranean international relations. He offered a
well-developed and in-depth picture of the evolution of European Union foreign policymaking.
He further connected this process to Saudi Arabia, and the necessity of developing a coherent
European policy towards the kingdom. He spoke of the need to be practical in engaging with
authoritarian states such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to induce change through positive
reinforcement. Dr. Stivachtis built upon the emerging interests of Saudi Arabia in Europe, and
how investment projects and religious politics may lend the kingdom a larger footprint on the
Overall, the discourse described a variety of key facets of Saudi Arabia’s international image
and interaction. Current affairs and history were explored to contextualize the politics of the
kingdom, and the beliefs of Mohammad bin Salman al Saud. Tactics Institute was honored to
help coordinate and support this event and looks forward to developing upon this valuable
partnership with Virginia Tech in the future. We thank all those who participated and helped
make this event possible.