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Saudi Moderation: How Far Will Crown Prince Mohammed Go?

Despite the boldness of his moves, Crown Prince Mohammed has sent mixed messages about how far he is prepared to go to reform Saudi Arabia.

Credit: TanyaRozhnovskaya Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Crown Prince Mohammed’s US trip is designed to cement relations with the Trump administration following the dismissal of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
  • Both Prince Mohammed and President Trump touted the economic benefits of the two countries’ relationship. A key part are massive US arms sales.
  • Prince Mohammed’s social reforms and promised economic change provide him significant arrows in his multimillion dollar public relations blitz.
  • Despite the boldness of his moves, Crown Prince Mohammed has sent mixed messages about how far he is prepared to go to reform Saudi Arabia.
  • There are serious questions as to whether Prince Mohammed’s reform path will alter the kingdom’s long-standing political and social restrictions its global support for ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

In his effort to improve Saudi Arabia’s badly tarnished image and project the kingdom as embracing an unidentified form of moderate Islam, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has hinted that he envisions a conservative rather than an ultra-conservative society.

Prince Mohammed’s vision, although not spelled out in great detail, seemed evident in an interview with CBS News’ 60 minutes, his first with a Western television program, on the eve of a three-week trip that is taking him across the United States.

The trip is designed to cement relations with the Trump administration following the dismissal of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Prince Mohammed and his United Arab Emirates counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, viewed Tillerson as distinctly not supportive of their own hegemonic designs.

They envision ruling a swath of land stretching across the Middle East from the Horn of Africa to South Asia.

Iran nuclear deal

The prince’s U.S. visit comes barely a month before Mr. Trump has to decide whether to pull the United States out of the 2015 international agreement with Iran designed to curb the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. A withdrawal could lead to the agreement’s collapse and spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Prince Mohammed, who is locked into existential battle with Iran, told CBS.

It is also intended to project the kingdom as a beacon of moderation rather than a promoter of ultra-conservatism and cutting-edge modernity led by a young reformist who is also an autocratic king-in-waiting.

After all, his vision for Saudi society is not one where citizens are fully free to make personal, let alone political choices of their own.

Brothers in arms

In a meeting in the White House with Donald Trump on the first day of his visit, both Prince Mohammed and the U.S. president touted the economic benefits of the two countries’ relationship.

A key part are massive U.S. arms sales. They also include other deals, including nuclear sales that would involve reducing U.S. safeguards by giving the kingdom the right to enrich uranium. Both leaders asserted that the deals would significantly boost employment in both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

In that regard, both Prince Mohammed and Mr. Trump stand united in their need to demonstrate economic progress to boost or cement their popularity at home.

The crown prince needs to demonstrate to Saudis that he is feted internationally as a leader. He is facing mounting international criticism of his conduct of the ill-fated, three-year old war in Yemen, as well as his domestic power and asset grab under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign.

There are also serious questions as to whether his reform path will really alter the kingdom’s long-standing severe political and social restrictions and/or its four-decade long global support for ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

Attracting foreign investment

Prince Mohammed also needs to demonstrate that he can attract foreign investment into the country. These efforts have not been helped by the arbitrary nature of the arrest in November of hundreds of senior members of the ruling Al Saud family, including prominent businessmen and high-ranking officials.

There are reports that at least some of them were abused and tortured during their detention. Most of the detainees were released after surrendering control of assets and/or paying substantial amounts of money. The government said it expects to raise $100 billion from the asset grab.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the most prominent detainees and the kingdom’s most-high-profile businessman globally, seemed to put up a fight during his detention. Since his release in January, he has said that he would be investing in some of Prince Mohammed’s pet projects.

Women’s rights

Despite the boldness of his moves, Prince Mohammed has sent mixed messages about how far he is prepared to go. He has yet to say a clear word about lifting Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship that gives male relatives control of women’s lives. Similarly, there is no indication that gender segregation in restaurants and other public places will be lifted.

Asked about the guardianship, Prince Mohammed evaded specifics. “Today, Saudi women still have not received their full rights. There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don’t have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go,” he said.

Middle East Scholar As’ad Abu Khalil, whose blog is named The Angry Arab News Service, posted a picture of Prince Salman’s meeting with Mr. Trump. He noted that there was not one woman on either side of the conference table.

The crown prince conceded that women had the right to determine what to wear if their clothes were “decent, respectful clothing, like men.” He did not define what would constitute decent, but insisted that it did not have to be a “black abaya or a black head cover.”

No doubt, Prince Mohammed’s social reforms and promised economic change provide him significant arrows in his multimillion dollar public relations blitz. That is getting him the support of the White House.

Translating that into real policy and dollars and cents could, however, prove to be a harder sell.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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