When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia rounded up 500-head of royals and billionaires last weekend and tossed them into luxury confinement, it was more than just a power grab by a young man in a hurry. It was a revolution. But of what kind?
Faisal J. Abbas, the editor of the Arab News, the English-language daily that normally speaks for the government, provided an answer of sorts from the Saudi perspective. “With all due respect to the pundits out there, ‘experts’ analyzing Saudi Arabia in previous decades had it too easy,” he wrote on Tuesday. “We need to understand that the days when things took too long to happen -- if they happened at all -- are forever gone. The exciting part is that thanks to the ambitious reforms being implemented … we are finally living in a country where anything can happen.”
Muhammed, known as MBS, is 32 years old. He looks like a storybook Arabian prince and he talks like a progressive. He says he plans to liberalize and modernize his sclerotic society, expand the civil rights of women, reduce the economic power of the Saudi fossil fuel industry, and loosen the grip of the 5,000-member royal cousins club that has bled the country dry for generations.
Not only that: The prince also promises to transform Saudi Islam into a more tolerant brand of religion that does not fund extremist mosques in the West or underwrite jihadists in the Middle East.
Isn’t this the Arab leader we have been waiting for?
Yet so far, there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm in world capitals. With the exception of US President Donald Trump, who has tweeted his support, events in Riyadh have elicited mostly silence.
This is understandable. Sometimes bright young Arab revolutionaries turn out to be Anwar Sadat, whose radical vision brought peace between Egypt and Israel. More often, they are tyrannical like Gamal Abdul Nasser or murderous like Osama Bin Laden or hapless like the Egyptian yuppies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2010. Let’s hope the dismal outcomes of that so-called Arab Spring have taught gullible Westerners not to engage in wishful thinking.
Still, you have to admire the boldness of the young prince. He has made enemies of the Saudi aristocracy, its billionaire class and their foreign business partners, who will eventually be looking for revenge. He has also locked up some senior clerics. The Saud family has historically derived its status as the Protector of Mecca from its alliance with the ultra-conservative Wahhabi sect of Islam. The kingdom is full of young disciples who will not take kindly to the silencing of their jihadist preachers. (It’s true, however, that the prince has shown a less enlightened penchant, cracking down on human-rights advocates and academics as well.)
The prince also faces a threat from Iran. This week, President Hassan Rouhani warned that a Saudi alliance with the US and “Zionist regime” of Israel would be a “strategic mistake.” Since the US has been allied with the Saudis for decades, this sounded like a redundant warning.
It was not. Adding “Zionists” to the equation made it a death threat. Open collaboration with Israel by Arab heads of state is life-threatening. In the early 1950s, King Abdullah I of Jordan was assassinated in Jerusalem for allegedly talking peace. In 1981, after signing the deal with Israel, Sadat was shot to death by Islamic extremists at a military parade in Cairo. The next year, Bashir Gemayel, the president-elect of Lebanon, was blown to bits in Beirut, presumably by Syrian agents.
Like MBS, Gemayel was the scion of an aristocratic family, one that publicly allied himself with Israel. The Saudi crown prince is too young to remember Gemayel, but Saad Hariri -- who resigned as Lebanese prime minister over the weekend and is currently hiding in Saudi Arabia (or a nearby Gulf State) from Hezbollah assassins -- can fill him in on what happens to Arab leaders who get accused of philo-Semitism.
This dynamic, by the way, explains Israel’s silence over MBS’s maneuverings. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is delighted by the emergence of a new Arab leader who shares his view of Iran. The last thing Bibi wants to do is get him shot.
Let’s be optimistic. Suppose Prince Mohammed survives Iranian hitmen, the wrath of his cousins and the fiery opposition of jihadist clerics -- that he rises to the throne and moves to implement his domestic reforms. Granting women equal civil rights, permitting theaters and cinemas to open, tamping down the more inflammatory mosques, diversifying the economy -- it is, as Abbas writes, an exciting prospect.
But there remains the question of MBS’s wider ambitions. He has made it clear that he considers Iran a mortal enemy. It is equally clear that he wants to lead a Sunni Arab coalition that can take on Tehran and end its regional aggression. This is a worthy goal, but not realistic.
The crown prince is the commander in chief of the army. He knows that it is a third–rate fighting force, unable to defeat even Houthi militia bands in Yemen, let alone Iran and its allies. His father and previous kings have been elderly rulers, cautious and focused on self-preservation. The most impressive fighting force in the kingdom is the National Guard, whose main role is guarding the royal family. The Saudi style of warfare has been funding proxy armies, while the US defends its borders.
Will MBS follow prudently in the footsteps of his predecessors? Or will he be seduced by dreams of restoring his family’s ancient warrior tradition and imposing Sunni primacy in the Muslim Middle East? I vote for option No. 1.
An energetic, liberalizing young king in Saudi Arabia would be a very good thing for the Middle East. He could be an important ally in the international war against Islamic terror, and a fine role model for other aspiring Arab revolutionaries. It would be a shame to waste this potential on half-baked military adventures. He needs to bring the Gulf into the modern world, not get bogged down in an Iranian Bay of Pigs.
By Zev Chafets
Zev Chafets is a journalist and a former senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. -- Ed.