Trump Plays with Fire in Saudi Arabia

This article appeared in U.S. News & World Report on November 6, 2017.
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In recent months, the White House has managed to alienate most U.S. allies. The key exception has been President Donald Trump's apparently excellent personal relationship with Saudi leaders, following up his successful trip with strong praise for Mohammed bin Salman, the country's young crown prince and putative reformer. Yet in his unstinting support for the prince, Trump is also playing with fire.

Mohammed bin Salman is indeed seeking to reform the Saudi system, but he is also shaking up Saudi social and political institutions, and interfering in the affairs of his neighbors. His rash actions could have potentially destabilizing consequences for both the country itself, and for the broader Middle East.

The crown prince's foolhardy decisions date back further than the Trump administration. In 2015, mere months after his father's ascension to the throne, the prince, as newly appointed defense minister, was the driving force behind the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Though the Saudis and their partners promised a quick victory against the Houthi rebels, the campaign has instead become bogged down in a quagmire, with little prospect of military victory.

The Saudi blockade of Yemen has compounded humanitarian suffering inside the country, and has done little to improve Saudi security. A case in point is the Houthi-launched missile which came dangerously close to the capital Riyadh just this past weekend.

Yet Mohammed bin Salman has not let his failures in Yemen stand in the way of ambitions to reshape Saudi society and the regional environment. His bold proposal to diversify the Saudi economy – backed by an IPO of Saudi Aramco, the state energy company — would be a welcome improvement for the oil-dependent Saudi economy. Likewise, his proposals to finally permit women to drive and remove some of the onerous guardianship restrictions placed on them are small steps, but would undoubtedly improve lives.

Alongside these western-friendly reforms, however, bin Salman has shown an inclination towards dictatorial control, and a series of rash attempts to interfere in neighboring states. The ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council crisis – where Saudi Arabia and a small group of states are blockading Qatar — is perhaps the clearest example.

Although the allegation that Qatar has a terror-funding problem has some merit, other Saudi demands are effectively impossible to meet. These include requirements that Qatar shut down the Al Jazeera TV network, expel all dissidents from Doha and submit to regular, sovereignty-undermining inspections of its economic and foreign policies. As in Yemen, there appears to be little consideration by the Saudi leadership of how to end this crisis.

It also marks a larger pattern for the crown prince of saber-rattling against Iran. Just this weekend, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his retirement; unusually for a head of state, he made this announcement while in Riyadh, a move that has raised speculation about Saudi influence, and attempts to confront Iran by meddling in Lebanese politics.

Saudi Arabia has also accused Iran of masterminding the Houthi missile attack on Riyadh this weekend, with an official statement blaming Iranian influence in Yemen and arguing that the strike may have constituted an "act of war."

Yet it is in domestic politics that Saudi Arabia's young crown prince may have its most destabilizing effects. The young prince rapidly ascended from defense minister and deputy crown prince to crown prince, a rise facilitated by the June 2017 removal and apparent interment of Mohammed bin Nayef, a well-respected prince and former head of the interior ministry.

Since that time, bin Salman has moved aggressively to consolidate power, including this weekend's spate of royal arrests. Though technically part of an anti-corruption drive, the arrests included several senior royals with the potential to challenge the crown prince.

By cracking down on potential rival power centers within the royal family and elsewhere the young prince is attempting to shift Saudi politics from a traditional, consensus-driven model to a personalistic dictatorship, one in which he wields primary decision-making power.

Unfortunately, the White House has largely embraced bin Salman's policy choices. The Gulf Cooperation Council crisis erupted shortly after Trump's successful visit to the kingdom, and met with little condemnation from the president. Meanwhile, last week's visit by the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner apparently did little to dissuade bin Salman from following through with Saturday's arrests.

Indeed, the public readouts of the phone call between bin Salman's father, King Salman, and Trump Sunday afternoon made no comment on the arrests one way or the other, a tacit acknowledgment of Trump's support for the crackdown. The president even pleaded on Twitter on Saturday for the Saudis to undertake their IPO of Aramco on the New York Stock Exchange.

Yet the Trump administration is playing a dangerous game by backing the Saudi leadership so heavily. It is certainly possible that Saudi Arabia will emerge from the crown prince's reforms stronger, more liberal and more economically stable. But it is as likely that further regional and domestic instability will result from his rash actions.

If the president cares about regional stability, he should use his close ties with Saudi leadership not to praise bin Salman's destabilizing actions, but instead to push his domestic and regional policies in a more productive, less damaging direction. It's time for the White House to stop enabling the crown prince's domestic and regional power grabs.