Mohammad bin Salman: The New Face of Saudi Arabia’s Monarchy

Is the brash young crown prince a liberalizing reformer or a repressive hard-liner? And what does this mean for his kingdom’s relationships with the United States and Israel?
By | Jan 18, 2018
mohammad bin salman

Not long ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman caused a stir when he declared, “The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia.” At the heart of what Friedman calls “Arab Spring, Saudi style” is Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Known as MbS, the 32-year-old son of King Salman has been praised for his plans to reduce the Saudi economy’s dependence on oil, sweeping social reforms—movie theaters are opening and the ban on women driving is being lifted—and leading an anti-corruption campaign. But critics point to his consolidation of power since he was elevated to crown prince in June including the arrests and detainment of dozens of royals, government officials and businesspeople, as well as his severe crackdown on dissidents.

The crown prince has also made waves with his aggressive foreign policy: As part of an ongoing struggle with Iran for dominance in the region, a controversial Saudi-led coalition has tried to crush rebels in Yemen supported by Iran in a war that has left more than 10,000 dead. In addition, MbS is rumored to be working behind the scenes with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and author of the new Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR, speaks with Moment deputy editor Sarah Breger about Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical ambitions, the state of a kingdom where 70 percent of the population is under 30, and whether the Trump-MbS honeymoon is over.

Reading your book, I was surprised by how many times the Israeli-Palestinian issue has come up as a point of tension between U.S. presidents and Saudi rulers. Why has that been the case, and is it still true today?

The reason why is embedded in the nature of the kingdom. This is a country that prides itself on being the defender of Islam and Muslim rights. The king’s other title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. So the Palestinian issue has always been something that strikes at the very core of what being a Saudi is. But does the younger generation of Saudis have the same deep attachment to the Palestinian cause? We don’t know yet.

Has Trump’s acknowledgment of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital changed the dynamic? The Saudis were caught off balance by this, particularly the crown prince, who thought he had some understanding of where the Trump administration was going to go. Since the announcement on Jerusalem, the Saudis have been much more critical of Trump than they had been before. They’re definitely feeling outmaneuvered. They put all their eggs in Jared Kushner’s basket, and that didn’t play well for them.

How important is what Saudi citizens want versus what the crown prince wants? Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy married to a theocracy. The people don’t count unless they start showing signs of anti-family action. I’ll give you a good example: When subsidies were cut in 2017, there was an immediate reaction from the Saudi population, and the family reversed itself overnight. So, if it’s an issue that could potentially get people out in the streets, they listen to it. Otherwise, it’s difficult to say. The hardest thing in Saudi Arabia is to know what the mood of the populace is, because there are no national polls or free press. So you’re always guessing. There are a lot of people who will tell you that MbS is very popular among young people. I don’t know whether that’s true, but what I do know is this: It really doesn’t matter, because they don’t vote.

In the media, MbS is often portrayed as a great reformer. Do you think that’s the case? MbS is a very complicated person. He does show unmistakable signs of being a social reformer. Giving women the right to get drivers’ licenses, opening up cinemas; things like that are significant reform moves. At the same time, his efforts to reform the economy are so far largely a failure. I mentioned cutting subsidies; he reversed that. They tried to reduce the public-sector workforce; that didn’t work. Most of the other things they’ve talked about regarding the economy are still in the planning stage and, in many cases, behind schedule.

In terms of foreign policy, he’s definitely not a reformer. He has to bear the principal burden for the disastrous war in Yemen, which is now about to produce the largest famine in decades. He is also not a political reformer. This is not a reprise of the Arab Spring. He’s concentrating more political power in his own hands than any Saudi king has had in the past half-century.

Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner, and his wife, Assistant to the President Ivanka Trump, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-White House Chief-of-Staff Reince Priebus arrive at Murabba Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 20, 2017.

Will MbS be able to maintain control when his father, King Salman, who is 81, dies? That’s largely a question of how long the king lives. The longer the king lives, the more his son benefits from his legitimacy as a son of Ibn Saud. If the king passes away tonight or in the near future, I think Mohammad bin Salman is in serious jeopardy because he doesn’t have a strong claim to legitimacy and because he’s alienated significant parts of the royal family.

In terms of Yemen, is there a point where the U.S. will put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its blockade? I certainly hope so. And it’s interesting that at the same time the Trump administration belatedly has begun calling for lifting the blockade, the Jerusalem and Yemen issues both went south for the Saudis. I’m beginning to think that the Trump-Salman honeymoon may be over. It’s too soon to say, but both of these issues have undercut the previous, very strong relationship.

  In the real world, if the United States decides to stop military support for Saudi Arabia, stop selling ammunition, stop providing intelligence, stop providing technicians to keep the Royal Saudi Air Force going, the Royal Saudi Air Force would be grounded immediately. So we have enormous leverage here. It’s a question of whether we’re willing to use it.

It sounds as if the Saudis or MbS either underestimated or didn’t understand Trump and Jared Kushner. That’s right. American politics are hard to understand, even if you’re an American, and they’re very hard for foreigners to understand, especially for people living in an absolute monarchy. They assumed that Donald Trump was an emperor and that Jared Kushner was his crown prince, and that all they had to do was pay attention to that. It’s increasingly clear that Kushner is a dead man walking, and they’re not well positioned to react to something like that.

They have an ambassador in Washington, MbS’s younger brother, who’s a charming man, but he has no experience, and he’ll tell you this immediately. He has no experience in diplomacy, and very little experience in dealing with Americans. He’s a fighter pilot. In ten years, he may be well prepared for his job, but today he’s not. And MbS has very little training abroad. He was more or less home-schooled in Saudi Arabia. I don’t think he has a particularly good understanding of America, either. So they’re very poorly prepared to deal with the kind of changes that I think we’re going to start seeing in the United States over the course of 2018.

Israel and Saudi Arabia share the same enemy: Iran. Will this bring them closer? This is an area where getting facts is very difficult. They definitely share a common interest in containing the Iranian influence in the region. How much they directly cooperate, though, is hard to establish. The Jerusalem issue has made it harder for the Saudis to have even indirect contact with the Israelis. The Iranians, the Turks, Hezbollah have all been quick to say that the president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel came because some unidentified Arab states were cooperating with Israel. Well, everybody knows who the unidentified Arab states are, and I think the Saudis feel very defensive about that.

But this is not new. Saudi Arabia and Israel have cooperated before when they saw a common enemy; they worked together quite closely in the 1960s against Nasser’s Egypt. Again, there was very little direct contact between Israelis and Saudis, but both sides knew that they were working jointly against the Egyptians. This kind of indirect cooperation is very situational. If the situation changes, it’ll come to an abrupt halt.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have cooperated before when they saw a common enemy. This kind of indirect cooperation is very situational. If the situation changes, it’ll come to an abrupt halt.

Is there a way for Saudi Arabia to extract itself from its proxy wars with Iran in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon? Yes. The one place that the Saudis have been playing it smart recently has been in Iraq, where they have opened an embassy and reached out to Shia politicians. It’s not that they’re going to replace Iran as the biggest player in Iraq, but they can be something of a balance. And if they played it smart in Yemen and other places, they could do the same thing. They need to back away from military solutions and use diplomacy more effectively. The biggest question to my mind about MbS is: Is he going to learn from his mistakes? Really good political leaders learn from their mistakes. John F. Kennedy is the classic example. The disastrous Bay of Pigs decision was followed by the brilliant performance in the Cuban Missile Crisis. So is this young man going to become more astute as time goes on? We just don’t know yet.

The Saudis are looking toward a post-oil future, what they label Vision 2030. Do you think the country can achieve this? Something has to happen. If oil prices remain around $50 to $60 a barrel, as they are today, the Saudi system is unsustainable. When King Salman ascended to the throne three years ago, they had $750 billion in reserves. Today, they’re under $500 billion. You don’t need to have a master’s in business administration to realize that’s unsustainable. The good news is that both the king and his son understand that. The bad news is that it’s very difficult to change. Saudis expect their government to subsidize their way of life. That’s been the case for half a century. There is some hope that these social measures will help. Women driving will reduce the need to have a half-million foreign chauffeurs in the country. But even that’s likely to take a decade to make a difference.

What is the biggest economic problem facing Saudi Arabia? The biggest near-term problem they have is a defense budget that’s way out of sync with the size of the country. They had the third-largest defense budget in the world in 2015, a staggering almost $7,000 per capita spent on their military. It’s even more now that the Yemen War is costing them so much money, over $6 billion a month. They need to change this if they’re going to have a sustainable economy in the long run. It’s in all of our interests that they succeed in doing that, because instability in Saudi Arabia makes an already unstable Middle East infinitely more dangerous.

What are some of the challenges you see in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States? The fundamental challenge is: Do we have shared interests, but no shared values? We’re a democracy; they’re an absolute monarchy. We believe in religious tolerance. Maybe we’re not always perfect at it, but we believe in tolerance. They’re a very intolerant society. It’s very hard for countries that share no common values to work together over time. The discrepancies constantly pull at the relationship. Good example: The president is an enthusiastic supporter of the Saudis. He went to Saudi Arabia as his first foreign port of call. But there’s very little evidence the American people share his enthusiasm. Polling shows Americans are very skeptical about the kingdom. And many, many Americans believe that the kingdom had something to do with the 9/11 attack. So there’s a big gap between where the White House is and where the American people—and increasingly, the American Congress—are on Saudi Arabia. And that’s going to cause problems in the years ahead.

How could the lawsuits against Saudi Arabia by 9/11 victims’ families impact the relationship? There are now seven major court cases in which the Saudis are the defendant. The American justice system is not quick, and they’re likely to take a long time. But I think it’s a safe bet that at least one, and probably more, will find against the Saudis. I’m not saying that Saudi Arabia’s guilty of being part of the 9/11 plot. I don’t think the evidence for that is very strong. But I think the Saudis can definitely be prosecuted on negligence, that they should have done a better job, that they weren’t paying attention to Al-Qaeda. A ruling against Saudi Arabia will be very damaging to the relationship. And what’s interesting is that there’s very little room for maneuvering by any American politician on this since the vote to override President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act passed the Senate 97 to 1. So, I don’t see a lot of wiggle room here for either Republicans or Democrats when those court cases finally come to some kind of conclusion.

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