Back in May, President Trump stood before the assembled leaders of the Sunni Muslim world and called on them to “drive out the terrorists and extremists … from this earth.” We do not know what was said privately between Trump and Saudi royalty, but since then changes have come thick and fast, most of all in Saudi Arabia, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world.
How Trump’s administration adapts to these changes will either restore American prestige that was lost in the region during the Obama years or risk seeing the Middle East fall almost completely under Russian and Iranian influence.
Two main shifts are taking place. The first concerns efforts by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (known colloquially as MBS) to concentrate power. The fact that this 32 year-old royal will be the first grandson of King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud to succeed to the throne will be a significant change in the political culture, in contrast to the rule of 81 year-old King Salman, his father.
To build his power base, MBS has been promoting a slew of princes from the younger generation of Saudi royalty, many of whom will now be beholden to him. MBS is also crushing potential rivals. Older royals are being sidelined, while others are suffering worse fates. So far, police have arrested at least 11 senior royals formerly in key positions on corruption allegations, including global investor Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who owns three perecent of Twitter, among other holdings. An estimated 500 people in total have been arrested so far in the crackdown.
Prince Muqrin, the son of the previous crown prince who was displaced by King Salman to make way for his son, died in a helicopter crash at the beginning of November. Unsubstantiated rumors are circulating that his death was deliberate. As noted by Foreign Policy, MBS has not promoted any sons or grandsons of the previous King Abdullah.
It is hoped that despite the autocratic concentration of power in the hands of the crown prince, Saudi Arabia will become more modern under MBS. There have been encouraging signs. Women will be allowed to drive from 2018. Opening cinemas is also under discussion.
“We want to go back to what we were, to a moderate Islam that is open to the world, open to all the religions,” the heir to the throne told a meeting of the Future Investment Initiative in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in late October.
“We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today,” MBS added. “We will end extremism very soon.”
If these developments genuinely represent a tectonic shift in Saudi policy, they will be very positive for the United States’ efforts to combat extremism globally. Trump’s administration should take the opportunity to push Saudi Arabia on its funding of extremism abroad, especially within the United States of America.
The second shift taking place relates to Saudi fears about the Islamic Republic of Iran which is part of a struggle for supremacy between those two countries. Saudi Arabia is already engaged in a protracted war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Famine and cholera are rife in the country as a result of Saudi Arabia’s campaign.
If Saudi Arabia’s blockade is not lifted, “It will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades,” warned Mark Lowcock, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, in a press conference last week.
But Yemen is only one theater and Saudi Arabia is struggling against Iran on many fronts. For this reason, the Saudis called for an urgent meeting of the Arab League in order to discuss Iran’s interference in the region.
Nor are the Saudis the only ones concerned. Russia, America and Jordan just came to an agreement to remove Iranian and other foreign forces from the Syrian border with the Golan Heights. Iranian soldiers, Hezbollah and foreign jihadi fighters in that region threaten the security of both Jordan and Israel.
Last week, during a visit to Saudi Arabia, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced that he was going to resign. Hariri blamed Hezbollah for his resignation, saying the Iranian-backed terror group was endangering Lebanon by embroiling it in regional conflicts. However, Qatari state-owned Al-Jazeera argued that Hariri was forced to resign by Saudi Arabia on the grounds that he was not forceful enough in confronting Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia has ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon and may be gearing up for a more intensive conflict.
In addition, Saudi Arabia turned on immediate neighbor Qatar in June for, among other things, its close ties with Iran and its terror financing. Along with Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on Qatar which is now entering its fourth month.
The conflict with Iran may be pushing the new Saudi Arabia into the arms of an unlikely ally: Israel. Saudi Foreign Minister Abel Al-Jubeir refused to confirm or deny whether or not the Gulf kingdom is working with Israel to combat Hezbollah in a press conference last week, according to CNBC.
Trump should seize the opportunity presented by these changes occurring in Saudi Arabia to deal with the threat posed by Iran. In so doing, he would be wise to encourage further rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia. If Trump can pull off this most unlikely deal and create peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, he will have, in spite of all the naysayers, succeeded where every American president from Eisenhower to Obama has failed.