As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman begins his whirlwind promotional tour of America, it’s important to assess what he has already begun changing in Saudi policy and what’s still on his to-do list.
The modernization of Saudi cultural and religious life is evident to any visitor to the kingdom. When I was in Riyadh three weeks ago, I saw many small signs of the expansion of women’s rights, such as: Women’s gyms are opening around the city, women’s sports teams are organizing, women are attending soccer matches and cultural events, and women are eagerly discussing what cars they’ll be buying when they’re allowed to drive in June.
“We are all human beings, and there is no difference,” the Saudi crown prince said in an interview Sunday with CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Talk is easy, of course, but in a country where women have been treated as second-class citizens for so long, such royal proclamations matter.
Economic reforms, however, are mostly still in the planning stage. The privatization of Saudi Aramco has likely been delayed until next year, and it’s not yet clear how much of the oil company will be floated publicly, where the stock sale will take place or its valuation. The anti-corruption putsch last November seems popular with the Saudi public, but it’s still not clear whether turning the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh into a billionaires’ prison has helped the rule of law in Saudi Arabia or hurt.
The biggest foreign challenge for MBS, as the crown prince is known, is the potentially ruinous war in Yemen. The Saudi leader jumped into this conflict three years ago, hoping to smite an Iranian-backed force centered around the Houthi sect in northwest Yemen. The Houthis managed to ally with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and a deluge of Saudi bombs and artillery devastated the impoverished country but hasn’t yet forced the Houthis to accept a settlement.
MBS insisted the tide is turning in Yemen during more than two hours of discussion at his palace on Feb. 26. He said the Houthis had blundered by killing Saleh this past December, two days after Saleh switched sides and backed Riyadh. His murder infuriated Saleh’s family and tribal allies, MBS said, and galvanized resistance to the Houthis.
Prospects for a Yemen settlement have improved, another senior Saudi official told me. A model is the deal that was nearly reached about 20 months ago in Kuwait. Now, as then, a key Saudi demand is that the Houthis give up heavy weapons before a transitional government is in place; the Saudis fear a repetition of Lebanon, where Hezbollah kept its weapons after the end of the civil war and became a state within the state.
One little-noticed area of change is Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Iraq, which has been stunted for a generation. MBS has met Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and held several meetings with a senior Iraqi security leader. Cabinet ministers have exchanged visits, too. Both sides laud the sharing of information about potential threats. The two countries have established a joint “coordination committee” to facilitate further discussion.
Saudi-Iraqi cultural and economic contacts have also expanded: A soccer game between the two nations in Basra, Iraq, in February was a raucous moment of sports diplomacy. An international oil and gas exposition in Basra, planned for December, will give another chance for the two countries to mingle, just a few kilometers from the Iranian border.
And then there’s the religious rift: The Saudi-Iraqi estrangement in recent years helped worsen the sectarian divide between Sunnis, who regard Mecca as their religious center, and Shiites, who look to Najaf in central Iraq as a shrine holier than even Qom in Iran. MBS has tried to bridge this religious divide, partly as a way of undercutting Iranian influence, and Iraqis and Saudis both report progress.
Sheikh Mohammad al-Issa, a member of the Saudi religious leadership and head of the government-backed Muslim World League, said in a Feb. 27 interview that he had hosted Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery Iraqi cleric, for a lengthy discussion in Riyadh recently. “I don’t believe we have any issues with the Shia as a sect,” he told me. This tolerant stance may help offer an alternative for Arab Shiites who want to resist Iranian tutelage.
MBS is an autocratic young leader in a hurry. He wants to fight every battle at once. But he needs to be in the business of solving problems, as in Yemen and Iraq, rather than picking new fights with Iran. And in his travels across the United States this month, he’d be wise to make some friends outside the Trump White House.
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