November 13, 2017
Candidate Trump called Saudi Arabia “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.”
President Trump made his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia.
On November 7, in the wake of the purges in the Saudi capital, he tweeted,
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing….”
Others tend to wait and see what exactly is being done.
In mid-April 2016, Saudi Arabia stripped its notorious religious police (Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) of the power to detain people they identify as breaking the Kingdom’s strict standards of religious conduct.
In September 2017, Saudi Arabia announced that it will allow women to drive as of June 2018.
On October 24, 2017, at a conference attended by global investors, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said, “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70% of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.” He also expressed Kingdom’s determination to carry out economic reforms.
Finally, on November 7, 2017 Saudi Arabia detained more than 200 people including 11 princes and some of the country’s wealthiest and most prominent businessmen as part of an “anti-corruption” campaign.
The foregoing was more than enough to focus international attention on Saudi Arabia. But then came the news of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announcing his decision to resign not in Beirut but in Riyadh adding to confusion.
For decades the question of “reform”, without explicit use of the word, has been on Saudi Arabia’s agenda. However, it has always meant something far short of its definition elsewhere and has never been undertaken beyond lip service. Since 9:11, Saudi Arabia has increasingly been accused of exporting extremism, spreading its intolerant interpretation of Islam around the world. In recent years, it has been blamed for jihadist violence. Saudi assurances that the Kingdom is a partner in the fight against terrorism have made little difference. A long article carried in the New York Times on August 25, 2016 was titled “Saudis and Extremism: Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters”. Thus, a message of reform to save the plummeting image of the Kingdom became order of the day. And, it seems that the 32-year-old Crown Prince has decided to rise to the occasion.
In an ultra-conservative and closed society like Saudi Arabia, it is extremely difficult to predict how far the promised reforms would go; whether they would also refashion the lavish and detached lifestyle of the royal family; whether they would bring some improvement to the status of the Kingdom’s millions of foreign workers; and to judge what the Crown Prince exactly meant by “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions”.
Moreover, there is the question of how the announced reforms and the purges would resonate with different interest groups. For example, the late King Abdullah was the head of the National Guard for five decades before he turned the post to his son Prince Miteb bin Abdullah. The Prince is now among those who were detained. The National Guard is an elite internal security force built out of traditional tribal units, primarily responsible for protecting the royal family. Whether it wholeheartedly supports the removal of Prince Miteb remains to be seen.
What is obvious so far is that the 32-year-old Crown Prince is engaged in an unprecedented effort to consolidate his power. While the promised reforms may lead to gradual social and economic change, they will not usher in an era of democratization with unforeseeable consequences threatening the future of the dynasty.
The challenges confronting the Crown Prince are not only internal. He is widely held responsible for the war in Yemen which has led to a humanitarian disaster further damaging Saudi Arabia’s international image. He has also been criticized for his role in the feud with Qatar. Most importantly, relations with Iran remain a problem.
Throughout its history Iran has been a major regional actor. Its latest ascendancy started with the US invasion of Iraq. The Syrian conflict confronted Iran with new challenges as well as opportunities. Like other regional and external powers, it joined the war through proxies and more. To the disappointment of most, Iran now appears to be on the winning side.
In recent years one has heard much about the competition between Riyadh and Tehran for regional supremacy. The truth is Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States cannot match for Iran’s power and outreach on their own. Engaging Tehran through diplomatic channels remains the best option not only for Washington but also for Riyadh and its Gulf partners. And, a graceful exit from Yemen will save Saudi Arabia from a foreign and security policy embarrassment. Likewise, Riyadh needs to avoid opening a new battlefront in Lebanon which would be just as risky. During times of internal upheaval, external distractions may appear to serve a purpose by triggering nationalist sentiment but there is always a price to pay.
Whatever their foreign policy choices may be, King Salman and the Crown Prince need Washington’s support and President Trump seems, at least for now, to stand solidly behind them for the following reasons:
Firstly, Saudi Arabia’s internal developments spinning out of control will have disastrous consequences for Washington’s Middle East interests. Thus, Washington’s primary concern continues to be Kingdom’s stability and a reasonably strong partnership in combatting “radical Islamic terrorism” to use Mr. Trump’s own words.
Secondly, the Trump administration, though not united on the merits of the Iran nuclear deal, seems determined to isolate Tehran. Thus, forging an anti-Iran regional front with Israel and the Gulf States has much appeal for Washington.
Thirdly, President Trump may believe that the same anti-Iran coalition would increase Washington’s chances for making history by ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And fourthly, President Trump sees Saudi Arabia as a lucrative market. The White House readout of President Trump’s Call with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on November 4, notably included the following:
“… President Trump thanked the King for military purchases, including a $15 billion investment in Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and billions more in commitments and investments. The President assured the King that he would support the purchase of appropriate military equipment that would keep Saudi Arabia safe and help create American jobs. The President asked the King to strongly consider listing Aramco on a stock exchange in the United States…”
Pandora’s box of the Middle East is only half open.