Charles Platiau / File Photo / REUTERS Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Paris,  June 2015. 

Can Mohamed bin Salman Reshape Saudi Arabia?

The Treacherous Path to Reform

His command of the issues was solid, his delivery even better. His body language signaled confidence, even though he was the youngest and least experienced person in the room. He had charisma. But most important of all, he made a more powerful case for his country than any Saudi official had done before.

To be sure, it would be unwise to form any serious judgments about Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, with whom colleagues and I met in Riyadh for a couple of hours, following a single encounter. Still, it’s hard not to appreciate how the 31-year-old MbS, as he is known in Washington, seems determined to take on his country’s hardest problems at such an early stage in his political career. By spearheading a campaign for sweeping change in Saudi Arabia, he is putting everything on the line. Whether he’s guided by ambition or naïveté is irrelevant. What matters is that he is charging ahead with decisiveness and pragmatism.

MbS’ early moves include cutting various subsidies, raising taxes, selling major state assets, pushing for a culture of efficiency and accountability in the notoriously unproductive Saudi bureaucracy, and making room for the private sector to play a larger role in the economy. Although he is only third in line for the throne, MbS has total control over the country’s oil monopoly, the national investment fund, economic affairs, and the humongous Ministry of Defense. He acquired all these portfolios immediately after his father, King Salman, became ruler in January 2015 and appointed Mohamed bin Nayef (MbN) crown prince and MbS deputy crown prince.

Never before has a member of the royal family spoken for and connected with young Saudis.

To say that MbS’ rapid rise has generated debate in Saudi Arabia, and to some extent in Washington, would be an understatement. To his supporters, he is already hailed as the savior of the Kingdom. To his detractors, who include Twitter-savvy Saudi princes (some of whom live outside the country), he is an opportunistic charlatan. Such divisions are to be expected whenever an agent of change tries to reorder a system that has many beneficiaries. And so it makes sense that there’s both excitement and uneasiness about MbS’ abrupt command of Saudi politics. One obvious concern is that he appears to have too much on his plate. Any portfolio that covers both defense and economics would be daunting to even the most experienced politician, let alone someone with little public policy experience. However, MbS’ amassing of power should be put in a broader perspective. The process, sanctioned by his father, is meant to grant him the necessary authority to lead hard reforms and effectively manage domestic opposition.

Although it is vastly premature to evaluate a long-term economic reform process that has just begun, the early returns on his defense policy are not promising. MbS seems to have the right ideas about how to create a more effective military and build a defense industrial capacity at home: developing a defense production policy and acquisition strategy, creating a more streamlined institutional infrastructure for national defense, and fully leveraging offset programs are excellent starts. But Saudi Arabia’s war in neighboring Yemen, which he oversees as defense minister, has failed to achieve its strategic goals, leading to a humanitarian calamity in an already broken Yemen and a PR nightmare in Washington and London. How the Kingdom will exit Yemen while still meeting its core national security objectives and not conceding too much to Iran, its arch-nemesis, will require artful statecraft by MbS. His job is not impossible, but the more Yemeni civilians die, the harder it will become.

Faisal Al Nasser / REUTERS At the funeral of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Riyadh, January 2015. 

Another concern, shared more by Americans than Saudis, is that MbS’ ascent is changing the royal pecking order. There is much chatter in Washington about MbS sidelining his older cousin Mohamed bin Nayef, the number two in the Kingdom. But there is no evidence of divided government in Riyadh. Factionalism certainly exists there (a condition hardly unique to the Saudi political system), but not the kind that leads to infighting and paralysis, at least nowhere near what currently bedevils Washington. Facts suggest that MbS and MbN work closely together and meet almost daily. Their portfolios complement each other; indeed, there isn’t much room for overlap or competition. MbS is in charge of fixing the economy and bolstering national defense. MbN controls the enormous dossier of internal security that includes chasing down terrorists and preserving law and order in the Kingdom’s vast and numerous governorates and municipalities.

A related worry is that MbS is moving too fast, especially on economic and cultural affairs, upsetting the old order and shaking the foundations of the Kingdom’s social contract. However, the risks reflect the enormity of the socioeconomic challenges facing Saudi Arabia, which require nothing short of transformation. And such changes inevitably lead to some degree of instability. Saudis are understandably fearful, but there is also a powerful and crucial consensus inside the Saudi government about the unsustainability of the country’s current economic system and way of doing things. Riyadh realizes it should have come to this conclusion 10 or 15 years ago, like most other oil-producing Gulf sheikhdoms did—but better late than never.

Although it is fair to raise questions and express concerns about MbS’ seemingly oversized power and government agenda, one should also not miss the unique opportunities that lie in an MbS-led Saudi regime. Perhaps most important, never before in the history of Saudi Arabia has a member of the royal family spoken for and connected with young, hopeful Saudis. In a country where more than half of the population is under the age of 25, this is huge. Because of his young age, an entire lifetime spent in Saudi Arabia (unlike many other royals), and keen understanding of the needs and aspirations of his generation, MbS is better positioned than most to manage and take advantage of the country’s vast youth population, using its skills to further the reform program.

The deputy crown prince’s commitment to meritocracy is real, and is completely antithetical to the country’s patronage-based gerontocracy. He recruits the best and the brightest, and those who underperform are either asked to pack up or offered early retirement plans. Meanwhile, MbS has gone head-to-head with the Kingdom’s religious hardliners. In the past, several Saudi kings, including the late Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, argued with the clergy on the issue of change, only to retreat to avoid a dangerous clash that might upend internal stability and the monarchical order. MbS has learned from these experiences. To deal effectively with the sheikhs who wish to preserve the status quo, MbS says he has a three-pronged strategy. Instead of confronting the religious opposition, he will engage, divide, and convert its members using Koran-based principles and religious teachings from the life of Prophet Muhammad and his closest disciples.

According to MbS, a very small percentage of the hardliners are too dogmatic to be reasoned with. Should they incite or resort to violence, isolation and other punitive measures would be considered. More than half, he believes, can be converted through dialogue, and the rest either have no interest or are not in a position to cause any serious problems. MbS believes that reform efforts will succeed when they gain recruits from the conservative ranks. He cited the example of Sheikh Saad bin Nasser Al Shathri, the influential cleric who was fired in 2009 from the high council of religious scholars for challenging the reforms of the late King Abdullah. He is now an advisor in the Royal Court and because of patient and sustained engagement with him, has slowly but surely warmed up to MbS’ ideas. More likely than not, that has given MbS more authority.

Trump will have to handle the rise of MbS with care.

If rebuilding the Saudi economy for the post-oil era was not hard enough, MbS has to do it while he’s entangled in a costly war in Yemen, frantically checking Iranian advances across the region, and dealing with an increasingly violent neighborhood. In his capacity as the nation’s top defense official, MbS’ fingerprints will be all over present and future Saudi foreign policy. His worldview is a work in progress given his modest experience, but the contours are starting to form.

In what should be a shock to no one in Washington, MbS shares the Saudi government’s view that Iran represents and instigates the three main ills of the region: borderless ideologies, state instability, and terrorism. The problem was never Iran per se, he made sure to emphasize: it is the radical regime born of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Asked about the future of the Saudi-Iranian power struggle and whether Saudi Arabia would consider opening a direct channel of communication with its adversary to de-escalate tensions and forge common ground, he replied that there is no point in negotiating with a power that is committed to exporting its exclusivist ideology, engaging in terrorism, and violating the sovereignty of other nations. Until Tehran changes its deeply problematic outlook and behavior, he said, Saudi Arabia has much to lose from prematurely proposing rapprochement and cooperation.

Although MbS has an Iran-centric regional perspective, he is not oblivious to the spread of Sunni violent extremism and the machinations of the Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda. As deeply worrisome as ISIS’ influence in Iraq and Syria is, he believes that the organization can be contained in the Levant and ultimately defeated, given the existence of stronger states, such as Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. In Africa, on the other hand, ISIS could flourish, operate with ease, and cause much greater harm, he said. That is why Saudi Arabia, following MbS’ prodding, has committed to helping combat the growing threat of violent extremism in Africa by partnering with international aid and development organizations, including UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and planning for a number of initiatives in the coming year.  

Homegrown radicalization is also a top concern. MbS was only in his late teens when Osama bin Laden instructed his jihadist followers to wage a deadly insurrection against the Kingdom after the United States invaded Iraq, and he remembers vividly that dark episode in Saudi Arabia’s history. He understood at the time the profound significance of the terrorists’ gambit for control over Islam’s holy cities and oil wealth. Al Qaeda failed, although it took months for MbN’s men to crush the jihadist uprising with some help from the CIA. Clashes between the Saudi counterterrorism services and the terrorists, the vast majority of whom were Saudi, erupted in several cities and urban centers, including the capital Riyadh, Jeddah, Khobar, Mecca, Taif, and Yanbu. It was the longest and most intense domestic struggle against the Saudi monarchy since the establishment of the modern Saudi state.

For his part, MbS concurs that Saudi Arabia made mistakes when it joined hands with the United States and recruited jihadist fighters to defeat communism during the Cold War, but that was the past, he said. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been a victim of terrorism and a key ally in the global counterterrorism campaign, devoting considerable resources to the mission. That is true as far as it goes, although the country could do more by countering the extremist narrative more effectively. As to charges of Wahhabism equaling terrorism, MbS was dumbfounded by Americans’ profound misunderstanding of this strain of Islam. He argued that the history of Islamic militancy has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia’s religious doctrine, founded by Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, an 18th-century sheikh. “If Wahhabism was created 300 years ago, where was terrorism then?” he asked. “Why did it appear only recently?”

At any rate, MbS was right about one thing: U.S.-Saudi relations have not really recovered from the 9/11 attacks against New York and Washington. It is certain that U.S. President Barack Obama’s indifference toward and impatience with the Kingdom over the past eight years did not help the relationship, but that is not the cause of the lingering tensions. Saudi officials will have to address concerns about their country head-on by engaging more effectively with the U.S. government and the American public. This will take years, because Saudi Arabia is unskilled in public diplomacy and unfamiliar with strategic communications. But this process must start today, and in my opinion, there is no better person to lead it than MbS.

MbS is an adept communicator who appreciates the value of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, to which he believes there is no credible alternative. In our conversation, he did not shy away from expressing his strong belief in U.S. leadership in the world. Like most allies and partners of the United States around the globe, however, he has concerns about Washington’s decreasing desire to lead and the consequences of U.S. apathy. “If you don’t lead, somebody else will fill in the void, not necessarily good actors.” Unlike most other Arab officials, who are particularly sensitive to American lectures about democracy or interventions in their countries’ domestic affairs, MbS urged Washington to constructively criticize the Kingdom.

Khaled Abdullah / REUTERS Yemenis flee their homes, Sanaa, August 2015.

The 800-pound gorillas in the room, of course, were the U.S. Congress’ recent Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA (which allows Americans to sue the Saudi government and entities for damages caused by terrorism carried out on U.S. territory on or after 9/11), and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. MbS said he has confidence, perhaps unwarranted, in the ability of rational American officials and legislators to come up with a solution to JASTA. There is already momentum on Capitol Hill, led by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ), that could lead to modifying the law in ways that respect the wishes of the 9/11 families while preserving U.S. national security interests and the U.S.-Saudi relationship. And with a business-minded president in the Oval Office, MbS said he will focus on leveraging the major economic opportunities within his Economic Vision 2030 initiative to get the United States on board with Saudi Arabia’s transformation. But he also noted that he would like to restart the bilateral strategic dialogue that was interrupted during the Obama years for reasons that remain unclear. Trump might be receptive to such a dialogue, although he has already made it clear that he expects much more from America’s allies and partners around the world in terms of security contributions. Whether Saudi Arabia can deliver in ways that would satisfy a Trump administration is up to MbS and his colleagues.

Trump will have to handle the rise of MbS with care. His administration will have to recognize the young prince’s growing influence, not only in Saudi Arabia but also in Arab and regional politics. They should seize the opportunity to shape his views, giving him advice at a time he needs it the most, and making a positive impact on the vital issues he controls. But Washington would be smart not to roll out the red carpet for MbS just yet, as that would risk upsetting the excellent relationship with MbN, whose counterterrorism duties are essential for the United States.

Although already viewed by his followers as a hero, MbS will face serious challenges in his journey to transform Saudi Arabia. Any one of a number of factors—from strategy, state capacity, and fiscal discipline to war and regional chaos—could derail the entire operation. Yet perhaps the ultimate test of MbS will be his ability to sell his reform plan to two critical audiences and galvanize their support. The first audience is the Saudi public, the majority of which is risk-averse and apprehensive about change. MbS must manage the massive discrepancy between the speed of his groundbreaking reforms and the deeply conservative nature of Saudi society. The second is the United States, whose role in this revivalist project is indispensable, given its unmatched ability to provide Saudis physical security, technical knowhow, state capacity, and investment. 

By many credible accounts, MbS is off to a strong start. But the complexities of his reforms will require, among other things, patience and humility. The march toward real change in the Kingdom is not optional; it has to happen, with or without MbS. MbS may be the conductor, but for music to be played, the entire Saudi orchestra will have to perform.   

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