Politics, Middle East
The United States once sided with a Middle Eastern monarch to reform a country. Can it do so again?
Trump and Saudi Arabia: Missing a Generational Opportunity
There is much to commend Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for, particularly his willingness to confront the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s entrenched interests that have long prevented its transition to an economically sustainable and more socially free country. From the Wahhabi-dominated religious establishment that has long hindered social reform in Saudi Arabia and helped lay the groundwork for Sunni extremism globally, to the wasteful economics of absolute oil dependency, Prince Mohammed’s willingness to confront these internal forces represents a unique departure from previous Saudi monarchs.
The future Saudi monarch’s commitment to the reforms in question compliment two major foreign policy goals of the United States: combating the spread of Sunni extremism in its war on terror, and ensuring that Saudi Arabia remains a stable ally in the Middle East for future generations. But Prince Mohammed’s brash nature also coincides with a destructive foreign policy and a penchant for autocratic purges of the opposition that increase the likelihood of derailing his economic and social agenda. The Trump administration should recognize that the viability of the Saudi-U.S. partnership requires an active interest in Prince Mohammed’s reform efforts, while using both political and economic pressure to dissuade him from the worst of his autocratic tendencies and foreign policy adventurism. A once-in-a-century chance of reforming Saudi Arabia could fall by the wayside if the Trump administration fails to rein in the hardheaded crown prince’s worst ambitions.
As the most influential U.S. ally in the Middle East, the changing political currents should mandate considerable attention from U.S. foreign policymakers. However, the Trump administration’s current strategy in regards to Saudi Arabia can be best characterized as subsidized, permissive disinterest. Militarily and politically, the Trump administration has shown no restraint in either its aid or approbation for the kingdom, but that is where attention to Saudi initiatives end. This was most recently exemplified when the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, resigned unexpectedly in Riyadh, likely under the pressure of the Saudi government led by Crown Prince Mohammed. The response of the U.S. government followed the same formula used since Trump’s inauguration: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered a vaguely worded chastisement of no one in particular, while the Trump administration shrugged it shoulders. While supporting the Saudi monarchy for the sake of stability in the Persian Gulf is nothing new, the Trump administration’s strategy differs in that, for the first time in decades, a Saudi Arabian leader is committed to fundamentally changing Saudi society in a way that diversifies its economy and confronts the promulgation and exportation of extremist Islamic ideology.
The past can serve as a template to avoid: unsettling historical parallels exist between the Trump administration’s policy towards Mohammed bin Salman and the policy pursued by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with Iran under the Shah. Much in the same way Mohammed bin Salman’s modernization drive will have wide-reaching effects on Saudi society if it is implemented aggressively as evidence would dictate, the thrust towards Western modernity by Shah Reza Pahlavi angered large segments of traditional, religious Iranian society. Likewise, aggressive economic development plans, beginning with the 1963 White Revolution, disrupted life for millions of Iranians. Not only did Kissinger and Nixon, and later presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, look the other way as the Shah executed and sidelined thousands of political opponents, the United States increased the already billions of dollars worth in discounted military aid and political support necessary to maintain a stability that was slowly proving ephemeral. The Shah’s repressive nature, boneheaded reformism and pursuit of regional hegemony proved his undoing. By 1979, the suppressed rage of the Iranian population eliminated his rule. Ironically, the unheeded pursuit of stability combined with an ambitious monarch proved the undoing of both. The current U.S. policy on Saudi Arabia raises the likelihood of that same outcome.
As Mohammed bin Salman begins his modernization drive for Saudi Arabia, the United States should give the monarch its unmitigated support for these reforms. Significant segments of Saudi society will be negatively affected in the short term by moving the kingdom from an oil dependent economy, whereby the population’s acquiescence into autarky is purchased by generous government subsidies, to a more traditional, free market economy. At the same time, as the crown prince introduces reforms that lessen the hold of the very powerful ulema, the deeply conservative nature of Saudi society will face challenges. In terms of simple, diplomatic measures, the United States should impress upon the future Saudi monarch that his handling of domestic opposition should allow outlets for grievances.
These domestic challenges will be a handful on their own without the unnecessary foreign escapades in which the crown prince is engaged. Unparalleled U.S. military aid underwrites a predilection for foreign misadventures on the part of Saudi Arabia, even as the aid provider looks the other way as that aid is put to use. The Trump administration should scale back future military aid and divert it to economic endeavors; it should also make the delivery of the remainder of the recently signed $350 billion dollar arms deal contingent on cracking down on aid to Salafist preachers worldwide, ending its brutal military intervention in Yemen and bringing the ill-conceived Qatar embargo to a responsible conclusion. While Tillerson took a step in the right direction with his strongest criticism yet of Saudi foreign policy on December 8, these words need to be backed by the appropriate policy and without contradicting words by the president himself. This would have the effect of pulling back Prince Mohammed’s interventionist ambitions and allowing the Saudi government to focus all of its resources on a societal shift. The United States would still retain its ability to protect the Saudi kingdom as it has historically done. However, these prescribed steps would preserve the security relationship the two countries have cultivated over decades without increasing the likelihood that the United States will have intervene in the region because of a Saudi miscalculation.
For decades, the geostrategic importance of Saudi Arabia to American interests in the Middle East has forced successive administrations to look the other way as the kingdom pursued policies that were both anathema to U.S. policy goals and unsustainable for its own existence. With his announcement of Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed has demonstrated that geostrategic importance need not require the United States to remain satisfied with the more unsavory, unstable aspects of Saudi governance. If President Trump is as committed to the eradication of radical Islamic terrorism and pursuing stability in the region as he says he is, then his administration would do well to engage with Saudi Arabia in a way that goes beyond subsidizing its military and praising its leadership. Prince Mohammed’s debacle-ridden interventionist foreign policy needs to be challenged forcefully, especially since it is financed in significant part by the United States and its allies. The task of pushing Saudi society into a completely different direction makes it imperative that nothing distract from the goals associated with that transformation.
Prince Mohammed’s ascent presents once-in-a-lifetime chances to align the most influential Middle East country more completely with the United States. It would be catastrophic to let this opportunity pass with passive interest.
Zach Dickens is a Fellowship Editor at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Zach received a Master's degree in Diplomacy with a concentration in International Terrorism from Norwich University.
Image: Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman meet at the White House, March 14, 2017. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque