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America’s Gamble in Saudi Arabia

 5 min read / 

In June 2017, Mohammed bin Salman was named Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, next in line for the throne, currently occupied by his 83-year-old father, and more or less the acting executive of the kingdom. The past year has been a busy one for MBS, as he is commonly known, announcing plans to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil, lead a campaign to moderate Islamic teaching and thought within the region and to increase women’s rights within the kingdom. While there is truth to the label of reformer, there are two distinct interpretations of MBS’s plan, both domestically and regionally — the less rosy of which should give the West pause when considering his ascent.

Domestically speaking, bin Salman has sought to undertake a complete makeover of Saudi society, both economically and socially. In April 2016, then head of the Council for Economic Affairs, bin Salman announced “Vision 2030”: his plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy away from a dependence on oil, using massive investments into infrastructure, technology, and human capacity. From a social standpoint, MBS has worked to remove various restrictions on women’s rights, like the ability to drive without a male guardian, though many of his initiatives on this front have found little success. (Announced in September, the initial goal date of June 2018 is considered to be in jeopardy.) His domestic moves also include a sweeping crackdown last November on a number of princes and high-profile entrepreneurs under the justification of curtailing corruption, though a number of political rivals were also included in the round-up. To his credit, bin Salman will need to trim some of the fat from the bloated royal family and their expenditures in order to achieve the economic reforms he has in mind, though it is hard to not interpret some of his moves as consolidating his power within the kingdom. Other opposition figures were silenced in November last year, as arrests of over 20 journalists and activists led a crackdown on the freedom of expression within the kingdom.

Regionally, MBS’s plan has ranged from clumsy bullying to humanitarian crisis. It includes the ham-fisted resignation by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri while Hariri was still in Saudi Arabia, a move that led many internationally and in Lebanon to suspect that the resignation was announced at the behest of the Saudis in the hopes of igniting a groundswell against Hezbollah’s influence in the country. No such groundswell came. It also includes the less innocuous blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. Under the claim that Qatar has promoted terrorism in the region and has acted too friendly toward Iran, many countries (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) have severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and implemented an air, sea, and land blockade of the country. For its part, Qatar has increased relations with Iran as a result of the sanctions and appears poised to weather them. Bin Salman’s regional policy plan also includes the ongoing catastrophe in Yemen. In March 2015, just two months after being named Defense Minister, MBS and the Saudis launched Operation Decisive Storm. In the two years since, the Saudis have conducted over 16,000 air raids, and are estimated to be responsible for over 60 percent of the civilian casualties, as Yemen falls further into being one of the worst humanitarian disasters this side of World War II.

It is this last point that makes the US deferring to Mohammed bin Salman’s regional designs so problematic. The US is directly aiding and abetting the Saudi air campaigns in Yemen, both through supplying weapons and providing logistical support, including midflight refueling for Saudi fighter jets. The timing of the severing of diplomatic ties with Qatar seems more than coincidental, coming just a few weeks after Trump’s visit to Riyadh. By emboldening the Crown Prince, who is in possession of newly consolidated power within the Kingdom, the US is only increasing its chances of being responsible for the bill when bin Salman’s policies come crashing down.

Further adding to the problem, MBS is only 32 years old, and, barring health issues, will likely rule Saudi Arabia for the next 40–50 years. There is a possibility that things work out OK for bin Salman, both within the kingdom and in the Middle East. His economic reforms could do well, he could lead a renaissance in Islamic teaching within the kingdom, and he could oversee an era of unprecedented economic diversification and social opening and women’s rights.

What is also possible, and arguably more likely, is that bin Salman has removed just enough bureaucratic barriers to ensure his unchallenged rule. His religious reforms may meet stronger opposition than expected, and the monarchy will continue the tightrope act of balancing the religious establishment and groups pushing for an opening of society, never tipping far enough in one direction to fully satisfy any one group. Political expression will continue to be repressed, and bin Salman’s regional policies will set the kingdom on a collision course to open conflict with Iran.

The likelihood of this second scenario should be enough to scare the US away from its unabashed support for the Crown Prince.

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