Mideast’s reckless prince
Have President Trump and his sonin-law bet their entire Mideast policy on a reckless 32-year-old Saudi crown prince who is getting in over his head?
That’s the question that should grab Americans as we watch the wild game of thrones playing out in Saudi Arabia, where, last week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) arrested 11 princes along with an additional 190 officials and businessmen. Another prominent prince died in a mysterious helicopter crash.
What’s riveting the Mideast is the degree to which Trump has fully embraced the youthful prince (and his elderly father, King Salman). Who can forget the scenes of the president sword dancing as he was lavishly feted and flattered on a May trip to Riyadh, and promised (unfulfilled) billions in arms deals? Moreover, first son-in-law Jared Kushner, a new buddy of the young prince, has made three trips to Riyadh this year, the latest a secret four-day visit last month.
Trump tweeted, in the midst of his Asia trip: “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. They know exactly what they are doing.” Clearly the purge doesn’t bother a president who admires strongmen.
More to the point, Trump and Kushner appear to be relying on the crown prince to spearhead a Sunni Arab campaign that will roll back Shiite Iran’s expanding influence in the Mideast (and godfather a peace between the Palestinians and Israel).
Sure, Prince Mohammed talks a good game. He says he wants to modernize the kingdom, fight corruption, let women drive and promote a more moderate form of Islam. That would certainly be a welcome change, since Saudi Arabia’s export of their fundamentalist Wahabi variant of Islam has paved the way for the rise of jihadism around the world.
Yet his roundup of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen in a kingdom where corruption is endemic looks more like a Putinesque shakedown than a move toward a transparent system. Any seized funds may be used to underwrite MBS’s grandiose scheme to build a new $500 billion high-tech metropolis in the desert called NEOM.
As for moderating the Saudi brand of Islam, thatwouldbeaboontothekingdomandtheworld. But although some clerics have been arrested, and religious police lectured, the crown prince has cracked down as hard or harder on intellectuals and peaceful activists. So it appears that Prince Mohammed’s main goal is to solidify power in his hands alone, in a country where kings have long ruled by consensus. Whether he has the judgment to handle that power is questionable.
MBS’ impulses are most questionable when it comes to his campaign against Tehran, waged all over the region. The Saudi track record vs. Iran is one of unmitigated failure – despite U.S. backing.
With the prince’s terrible track record so far, you’d think that Trump would be branding MBS a loser. Or at least proceeding with great caution.
Instead, Trump and Kushner have heedlessly harnessed their Mideast hopes to an undependable Saudi prince.