Opinion

A Brash Young Prince is Shaking Up the Middle East—and None Too Soon

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Posted: May 22, 2018 12:01 AM
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A Brash Young Prince is Shaking Up the Middle East—and None Too Soon

With the April 30 revelations by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program, just days before President Donald Trump must make key decisions about the future of the Iran nuclear deal, regional developments are moving into hyperdrive. In a riveting presentation that lasted barely 17 minutes, Netanyahu laid out in documents, sketches and photos the contents of Iran’s secret nuclear archives obtained by Israel. His bottom line: “Iran lied.”

This follows by only a day of revelations that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often called ‘MbS’) had made astonishingly harsh statements about the Palestinians in a March 2018 closed-door meeting with leaders of U.S. Jewish organizations in New York. As reported by various outlets including The Hill and the Times of Israel, MbS spoke in unusually direct language, criticizing Palestinian leadership for rejecting peace proposals and telling them to “agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining.” 

This was hardly the first time MbS has shaken things up. His rapid ascent to become first-in-line to the Saudi throne drew attention in 2015, when his father, King Salman, pushed aside his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef and elevated MbS, his favorite son, to Crown Prince. Only 29 years old at the time, he quickly asserted himself—and none too soon for a sclerotic Saudi royal regime that was facing existential threats on both economic and geo-strategic fronts. MbS realized that unless Saudi Arabia diversified its economy away from sole dependence on extractive industry, attracted foreign investment, and enlisted the professional skills of the female half of the Saudi population, within decades the Kingdom would collapse. Vision 2030 and MbS’ early April 2018 U.S. tour are two direct results. Possibly even more critical for the survival of the country and royal family is the literally existential threat from the Iranian regime.

It was likely the Iran threat even more than the economic challenge that propelled MbS to take on Iran’s Houthi proxies directly in Yemen and indirectly by way of the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, which joined Iran and Turkey in a hostile axis aimed at the Kingdom as well others in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). But that was hardly all. Within five months of his inauguration as U.S. President in January 2017, Donald Trump was in Riyadh, addressing the assembled ‘mob bosses’ of the Sunni world. Brought there by the authority of King Salman and some efficient behind-the-scenes arrangements between Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and MbS, at least some in the gathering nevertheless shared with them the urgency of gaining the support of the new U.S. administration to help save their pampered existence from an aggressively nuclearizing and expanding Iranian regime.

To his credit, President Trump quickly realized that what threatens the Saudi Kingdom likewise threatens U.S. national security interests in the region, including the very existence of the State of Israel. So, when he appeared before that assembly in Riyadh in May 2017, Trump offered some diplomatic niceties, did the sword dance with the King, agreed to co-sponsor a Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology—but then pivoted. Now, he spoke as capo de tutti capi and every Sunni tyrant in the room understood that. The president used direct, hard language directed at the entire group but meant especially for the Saudis to demand action against “barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life” and a “wicked ideology.” He didn’t have to name the Islamic doctrine, law and scripture that give inspiration to Islamic terrorists, but everyone in the room knew what he meant. He assigned responsibility directly to them, saying “the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children .” 

And he made some demands in return for U.S. help: this was the “Drive them out!” part of the speech, which wording, of course, comes directly from the Qur’an. “Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land. DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH ,” Trump bellowed. No U.S. president had ever spoken to the Muslim world in such terms.

But they heard him—and they listened—and MbS responded with action no one ever expected to see from a Saudi prince. He cracked down on Wahhabi clerics and the authority of the religious police, and launched a frontal assault against some of the Kingdom’s leading business tycoons, a dozen senior princes and the head of the National Guard, who were arrested and held at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton to be presented with the purported evidence of their misdeeds, as Dexter Filkins put it in a lengthy profile on MbS published in the April 9, 2018, issue of The New Yorker. Yes, he was consolidating power for himself but also mounting an anti-corruption campaign. The boldness of his move served multiple purposes. He would be ruthless but also send a signal abroad that Saudi Arabia would be a place to do business. The March 2018 multi-city tour of the U.S. seeking investment was one of the follow-ups.

Which brings us back to the sharp shift in the Saudi-Israeli relationship—and an even sharper shift in the Saudi attitude toward the Palestinians, as noted above. Under MbS’ leadership, in late 2017, the Kingdom presented a plan for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more favorable to the Israelis than anything that had preceded it. While not quite saying that the Jewish people have the right to a nation state in their ancestral homeland, MbS did allow that “the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” This is progress. The Saudis know they need the Americans and Israelis on their side against Iran and are willing to offer up something for that. Not yet willing to come completely clean on decades of Saudi support for al-Qa’eda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a rogue’s gallery of jihadis across the world, MbS blamed the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca for Riyadh’s “bargain” with its Wahhabi establishment in an early April 2018 interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, telling him he wasn’t “familiar” with the term “Wahhabism.” Then, he quickly returned to vilifying Iran, saying that he believes “the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good,” because he’s “trying to conquer the world.”

There’s no question that MbS is shaking things up across the region. This affects U.S. regional policy too. The Kingdom and other GCC members know they cannot take on Iran by themselves and are alarmed at what may happen if they don’t have help. To the extent that MbS and the rest of Saudi rulers are willing to end support for both dawah and jihad, improve human rights inside the country and align regional foreign policy with U.S. national security objectives, they should be encouraged and supported. No one expects the Kingdom to become a Western-style liberal democracy overnight, but as long as there is steady progress in that general direction, and MbS continues to help check Iranian aggression, back Israel’s right to exist and lead internal reform both economic and social, he deserves the chance to succeed.