Having left America for France, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is to arrive back in Riyadh empty handed. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Autocracies only half understand maritime republics. I venture that MbS remains less resolute today about the domestic prospects for reform than ever before. Here’s why.
U.S. Saudi relations were always transactional. Especially on the Saudi side of the ledger. The House of Saudi relied on U.S. arms and strategic war advise while the U.S. got oil. This tacit alliance has fractured. In fact, its over. The Kingdom didn’t have much to offer outside of oil and its only option was to buy off their Salafist enemies by funding radical madrassas from North Africa to Indonesia. The source of the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda is Riyadh. That too is only partially over. Yemen has exposed a deep profound political reality that Riyadh cannot surmount. No one wants to fight for the Kingdom.
International Islamic terrorism remains a Saudi led enterprise. Only reforming the domestic political economy will the Saudi’s from trends outside their control.
Offering the world more than oil is the challenge that MbS needs to fix. He’s trying to do with Vision 2030. Why will it fail? It will fail because the clowns he hired were paid to secure the interests of the Saudi clan, not reform Islam. This is a crucial distinction.
How can soccer matches and relief of public guardianship rules compete with Saudi political repression. The denial of religious freedom, and vast domestic security regimes still lead Saudi public ethos. No power grab in the maintenance of shaking down a dozen relatives and four government ministers will topple the balance needed for MbS to win.
Here’s why: MbS has enemies abroad and domestic. He’s got to win against them while building a functioning political economy. My any measure this remains a colossal task in its own right. Remember, the former Crown Prince relieved of his duties, Mohammed bin Nayef survived four assassination attempts. There are plenty of reactionaries, traditionalists and others deposed from on hight that seek their revenge.
Refreshing candor about Israeli existence is nice, especially when its openly acknowledged in the west. But the Saudi’s can’t afford to stop buying off radical fundamentalists; this alien bailiwick is permanent. Its regionally, culturally and theologically entrenched. Only by waging total war to the reform of Islam itself can MbS win. That isn’t the policy. Riyadh’s policy is survival. Its called Vision 2030.
So how does MbS win. He needs luck, good strong stolid allies and a long life to test his ambitions at reforming the Saudi domestic economy. If he succeeds, and by every relevant historical measure he can’t; the Israeli’s, the Americans and millions of Muslims have a place in modernity. Godspeed MbS. . . .