The Promising Crisis in Saudi Arabia

Purging rivals is often a bad sign. But in this case it may show an impatience to reform.

Mohammed bin Salman

We've seen this before. A rising leader arrests his political rivals on corruption charges to clear his path to power. Usually this kind of thing doesn't work out well for U.S. interests. See Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping.

But in Saudi Arabia, there is reason for cautious optimism after the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, purged many of his rivals over the weekend, including current and former ministers, Saudi royals and other assorted billionaires.

In a kingdom traditionally ruled by compromise and consensus, this looks like a risky play. But too often that compromise and consensus has produced a Janus-faced Saudi policy. Modernizers are forced to appease reactionaries. Past reforms have turned out to be half measures.

This is one reason why President Donald Trump has praised the 32-year old prince's power play. In two tweets on Monday, Trump said he had "great confidence" in the recent crackdown, adding that some of the arrested royals had been "milking their country for years."

It would be easy to chalk this up to Trump's own instincts to sidle up to authoritarians. There is more to it though.

To start, Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been cultivating his own relationship with the Saudi crown prince and heir apparent in the last year. The first outreach began during the transition, according to Trump administration officials. It has continued with Kushner being placed in charge of both reviving the Middle East peace process and nurturing the new counter-extremism initiative announced in Riyadh in March.

Current and former Trump officials tell me that Kushner has also been an advocate inside the national security cabinet for the U.S. aligning with the Saudi crown prince. Kushner was the force behind making Saudi Arabia Trump's first overseas trip as president, and a big part of that visit was to signal America's support for Mohammed bin Salman's reform agenda.

And even though Kushner is a foreign-affairs amateur compared with the pros in the cabinet, his instincts are not wrong. Mohammed bin Salman has publicly stated his desire to move Saudi Arabia in the direction in which U.S. presidents from both parties have prodded the kingdom for decades. This includes a willingness to target not only fundraising for terrorist groups, but also the radical clerics who spread a hateful and extremist ideology; allowing women to drive and participate more in public life; allowing outside foreign investment; and modernizing a sclerotic military.

That said, many experts fear the young prince is moving too fast.

"In Saudi Arabia, you do things slowly, cautiously and with consensus," Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf and energy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me this week. He added that the crown prince "is not fond of those ways of doing things, he's trying to be almost reckless in the way he is shaking up the kingdom."

The main criticism now is that Mohammed bin Salman is upending the consensus-based approach to governance in the kingdom at the very moment he is waging a regional war against Iran and a political and diplomatic one against fellow Gulf kingdom, Qatar. This point was driven home on Sunday after the Saudis accused Iran of shipping a ballistic missile to Yemen, which then was fired at Riyadh's airport by Houthi rebels. (The Saudis intercepted it.) The Iranians deny the charge. But the Saudis call the missile launch an act of war.

For some Saudi watchers, the purges and the escalating rhetoric are a recipe for disaster. Former senior CIA analyst Bruce Riedel in a recent column warns that the crown prince is taking a dangerous tack. "Arresting and perhaps even killing political opponents is not likely to encourage investors," he wrote in the Daily Beast. "Fanning sectarian violence is bound to fuel turbulence."

Riedel may be correct. But it's also worth considering the old status quo. For decades U.S. governments have asked the Saudis to enter the modern era, to join the West in fully opposing the extremism it helped fund overseas in madrasas and dodgy charities. The Saudis reformed, but the pace of change was slow. Even if his method of reform is a gambit, it shows the next Saudi king is now as impatient as his Western allies.

Eli Lake
Bloomberg

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