Saudi Arabia: As Crown Prince MBS heads to US for a visit, here’s how to encourage reform

Western analysts are publishing a host of commentaries in anticipation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s upcoming visit to the United States in the week ahead, including a meeting with President Trump on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, many of these analyses mischaracterize a lot of what the crown prince is doing in Saudi Arabia, while depicting him as a profligate individual who is ruthless at home and reckless abroad.

This approach misses the forest for the trees. The key factor to look at is that for the first time in 40 years, a bold leader has emerged in Saudi Arabia, determined to face all the challenges previous leaders have been kicking down the road for decades.

The most important of these challenges for bin Salman – commonly referred to as MBS – is his determination to free Saudi Arabia from the grasp of reactionary forces and to spearhead a socioeconomic transformation. If successful, this transformation could set off a seismic shift within the kingdom, with important implications for fighting extremism in the world of Islam.

The crown prince is the first leader in half a century who has had the guts to take on religious conservatives, some of whom provided the ideological fuel for the jihadist fire. He has publicly, loudly and unequivocally denounced extremism...

Until now, Western reporting on MBS has disproportionately focused on what is ultimately extraneous gossip about yachts and paintings. Journalists have misread his anti-corruption campaign as a “shakedown,” and have drawn superficial conclusions about the Yemen war.

Western reports have also routinely understated the extraordinary domestic and foreign policy challenges facing the crown prince, most especially Saudi anxiety over unchecked Iranian expansionism and the existential threat it poses to the kingdom.

But if one looks beyond these headlines, the rationale for MBS’s actions and the extent of his accomplishments come into focus.

There is no precedent for the crown prince’s decision to immediately plunge headfirst into the treacherous waters of reform, after taking control of an opaque and ultraconservative oil monarchy that many blame for exporting Wahhabism (a conservative form of Islam).

MBS is determined to upend 50 years of incremental, quietist and often reactionary policymaking. As a result, the 32-year-old crown prince has launched a relentless quest to offset decades of lethargy and inaction by his elders so he can drag his country into the 21st century.

MBS has performed bold economic surgery by reducing state subsidies, privatizing key state assets and introducing direct payments to help the poor. And he has struck a heavy blow to the system of elite privileges, which have been draining the kingdom’s coffers, by arresting prominent grandees for corruption.

While it is fair to bemoan the lack of due process and the absence of transparency surrounding the detentions the government ordered in November of over 200 princes, government officials and business executives accused of corruption, it is also reasonable to ask whether formal legal proceedings would have been a viable alternative.

Pursuing court cases against hundreds of elites in a drawn-out public process would have brought the country to a virtual standstill by monopolizing people’s attention for years on end. Think of hundreds of O.J. Simpson trials on steroids.

While the anti-corruption crackdown has shaken business confidence and frozen investment, history tells us that this pause will be temporary. Countries that have weathered comparable shocks and even defaults (which are far more severe), have seen investors return as soon as the economy begins trending positive.

MBS’s domestic reforms go hand in hand with his head-on fight against Islamic extremism. The crown prince is the first leader in half a century who has had the guts to take on religious conservatives, some of whom provided the ideological fuel for the jihadist fire. He has publicly, loudly and unequivocally denounced extremism, jailed many regressive clerics and intimidated the rest into silence.

By allowing Saudi women to drive – a move reactionaries virulently opposed as a “wedge issue” that would allow liberalism to take over the country – MBS broke a huge legal and psychological barrier to women’s empowerment.

Should the crown prince succeed in his campaign against extremism, the implications for the kingdom and the Islamic world will be far-reaching.

Idealists who chastise Saudi Arabia for restricting political freedoms should remember that, from China to South Korea, no developing nation has successfully implemented such wrenching and rapid reform within a free democratic pluralistic environment.

Saudi Arabia lacks virtually all of the building blocks required to exercise such political freedoms, and there is an unbridgeable ideological gap between the nation’s Islamic reactionary right and its Western liberal left. Consequently, only a benevolent autocracy can impose sweeping and urgent change.

Regionally, MBS realizes that Saudi fears about the unfolding Iranian threat can no longer be addressed by calling on Uncle Sam to send in the cavalry. The crown prince’s determination to transform the kingdom into a military actor willing to “carry its own water” (to paraphrase long-standing American criticism of Saudi overreliance on U.S. protection) led to the Yemen war. As far as Saudis are concerned, this is a war of necessity.

Certainly, the human suffering in this war, or any war, is tragic. But what does a country do when it feels imperiled by an enemy emerging on its border who, if ignored, could ultimately pose an existential threat?

Rather than reflexively dismissing Saudi anxieties about the Iran-Houthi menace, critics should imagine what the United States would have done had the Soviet Union developed an alliance with a heavily armed, highly trained and well-funded Mexican militia at the height of the Cold War.

Those who have a vested interest in the stability and prosperity of Saudi Arabia (and the region) should give due consideration to the depth and breadth of the challenges currently confronting the crown prince. They should, realize how essential it is that he succeed – not only for his country, but also for the world of Islam. Instead of delivering instinctive criticism, they should provide the crown prince with more substantive and realistic critiques.

Taking such a constructive approach would, at the very least, be helpful in guiding Saudi leaders down what is a potentially treacherous but most urgent and necessary path.

Ali Shihabi is the executive director of the Arabia Foundation (www.ArabiaFoundation.org), a Washington, DC-based think tank focused on the geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula.