Mohammed bin Salman Is Here to Stay
The United States has to work with Saudi Arabia, so it has no choice but to work with its crown prince.
On Oct. 2, 2018, the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. After his disappearance, politicians and pundits called on the United States and its allies to hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the crime. “It should be United States policy,” former National Security Advisor Susan Rice wrote in the New York Times, “in conjunction with our allies, to sideline the crown prince in order to increase pressure on the royal family to find a steadier replacement.”
The Washington Post’s editorial board, meanwhile, was optimistic that such a strategy could work. “[I]t is entirely possible,” the board wrote, “to sanction and shun the Saudi leader while still doing business with his regime.” After all, it continued, “[t]he Saudi royal family cannot afford and will not allow a rupture with the United States.” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy went further. Trump officials, he warned, “must quickly reorient their policy toward Saudi Arabia or Congress will do it for them.”
There is no question that Khashoggi’s killing was a crime perpetrated by agents of the Saudi government. But the idea that the United States can magically disentangle Saudi Arabia from its crown prince is fanciful. If Mohammed bin Salman stays, Washington will not be able to sideline him without harming its own vital interests.
First, King Salman took a huge step in appointing Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince in 2017. He promoted his son not just over many other candidates in the second and third generation of the Saud family but also over three of his older brothers, all of whom have impressive résumés. The king, an astute practitioner of royal politics since the early 1950s, would not have come to this decision lightly. All previous successions had followed a clear pattern of age and seniority among the sons of the founder. Having taken the momentous step of overturning that order, it would be inconceivable for the king to change his mind. Doing so would reopen the Pandora’s box of intergenerational succession, which would destabilize the entire monarchy.
Second, Mohammed bin Salman has proved a quick study of power politics himself. Since his appointment as crown prince, he has moved swiftly to consolidate power by bringing the most important internal security organs, including the domestic intelligence service and elite special forces, under his direct control. In the past, these bodies had been parceled out among several royal figures. Mohammed bin Salman also installed a loyalist as the head of the national guard and recently appointed his brother as vice minister of defense, which gives him effective control of all the kingdom’s security institutions. Meanwhile, he has replaced many key royal governors with close allies. His control over so much of the Saudi state means that it would be virtually impossible for any faction within the royal family to organize against him, even if the United States did threaten to cut ties. Moreover, during times of crisis, the royal family has consistently rallied to—not against—the throne.
The crown prince’s succession is thus virtually assured; his future and the future of Saudi Arabia are indissolubly intertwined. Given that Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the United States in terms of regulating global energy markets, security cooperation, and pushing back against Iranian expansionism, shunning Mohammed bin Salman won’t likely serve U.S. interests.
After all, for all the talk of the crown prince’s brashness (former State Department officials Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky described the crown prince as a “ruthless, reckless, and impulsive leader”), some of the changes he has brought to his country have benefitted the United States. Not least among them are his efforts to drastically curtail Wahhabi clerical influence at home by detaining dozens of radical clerics and drastically limiting the power of the religious police and to empower Saudi women by better integrating them into the workforce.
And despite what many in the West see as Saudi Arabia’s missteps during his tenure—including its involvement in the war in Yemen, blockading Qatar, detaining Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the imprisonment and alleged torture of women’s rights activists, the detention of Saudi political and moneyed elites, and the diplomatic spat with Canada—Saudi Arabia has also used its considerable diplomatic and financial leverage to support key U.S. policies throughout the Middle East. These include efforts at Arab-Israeli peace and stabilization and reconstruction initiatives in Iraq and northeastern Syria.
The United States should remember that Mohammed bin Salman’s successes as well as some of his mistakes are products of the same qualities: his youth and drive. He is 33, which is an asset insofar as it aligns him with the needs, wants, and hopes of a country in which 70 percent of the population is under 35. Youth entails boldness and an increased appetite for risk—essential qualities in a leader who is trying to bring about the type of total social and economic transformation the kingdom requires.
But with youth also comes inexperience, something the steep learning curve to which Mohammed bin Salman has been subjected should ultimately mitigate—as should new measures at the royal court to subject all proposals presented to the crown prince to adequate institutional review. All in all, Saudi Arabia should have a more measured and thoughtful foreign policy in the future.
Upbraiding Saudi Arabia may seem like a cost-free way for U.S. politicians and pundits to signal virtue to the public. (And to signal disapproval of a U.S. president who has maintained warm ties with the Saudi royal family.) But there will be costs if the United States marginalizes one of its long-standing allies. The country has critical interests in the kingdom and a vital stake in the region’s future. It must therefore engage rather than shun the Saudi leadership without harboring any illusions of getting to pick who ascends to the throne. In the wake of the Khashoggi assassination, that may be a tough pill to swallow. But antagonizing rather than cultivating and guiding the future king of Saudi Arabia, whose reign could last 50 years, is hardly smart politics.