President Donald Trump, like a star-struck teenager, has been swooning over King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his 31-year-old son and new crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, known to U.S. diplomats as MBS. Since FDR, American presidents have been enamored by Saudi royals, but in this case the infatuation may be downright dangerous. The young prince who would be king might not only get his own country into heaps of trouble, he could also drag the United States down with it.
It’s not just Trump who’s been heaping praise on the new crown prince. MBS has also been hailed by the likes of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the German foreign minister, the International Monetary Fund and the head of the World Bank. As the architect of Vision 2030, a galactically ambitious plan to transform and diversify the Saudi economy, MBS is seen as a potentially modernizing, dynamic and risk-ready monarch who has broken with the cautious traditionalism and risk-aversion of aging Saudi kings.
Who knows whether or not the young king will be able to live up to these expectations on the domestic side. Countervailing forces and challenges might limit his horizons. But one thing is already stunningly clear when it comes to his handling of foreign policy: In two short years, as the deputy crown prince and defense minister, MBS has driven the Kingdom into a series of royal blunders in Yemen, Qatar and Iran, and he has likely overpromised what Saudi Arabia is able and willing to do on the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking front. Far from demonstrating judgment and experience, he’s proven to be reckless and impulsive, with little sense of how to link tactics and strategy. And sadly, he’s managed to implicate and drag the new Trump administration into some of these misadventures, too.
We don’t blame the crown prince for snookering Washington into its schemes and designs—this is almost entirely the fault of a White House that seems naively to believe Riyadh and the Sunni Gulf coalition are critical to helping the United States achieve its three key Middle East goals: destroying ISIS, rolling back Iran and delivering Arab-Israeli peace. Based on Saudi behavior since King Salman and MBS came to power in 2015, it’s not at all clear that Riyadh can deliver on any of these objectives. Indeed, if Washington doesn’t lay down some rules and distance itself from Saudi misadventures, it will find its objectives even more elusive. Here are three considerations the Trump administration needs to think through before its Middle East policy becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of Saudi Arabia.
Can the Saudis avoid further misadventures? MBS has the Midas touch in reverse: Every initiative he has spearheaded has turned into a hot mess. For one, the crown prince owns the war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Under his direction, the Saudis along with some of their Gulf Arab allies have conducted a relentless and brutal air campaign that has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, killing thousands of civilians, inflicting massive damage on civilian infrastructure and worsening an ongoing famine.
The Saudis are stuck in a quagmire: Their military campaign, even after doubling down, has failed to dislodge the Houthis and their allies from the capital or wrest control of the northern part of the country; and they have no viable diplomatic strategy for ending the war. By aiding and abetting the Saudis in Yemen, the United States has empowered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, strengthened Iranian influence in Yemen, undermined Saudi security and brought Yemen closer to the brink of collapse. The Saudis have driven themselves—and the United States—into a deep ditch in the country. They need to stop digging to get out.
The crown prince’s fingerprints are also all over the Saudi decision to rupture its relations with Qatar. (As in Yemen, the Kingdom has also encouraged some of its Sunni Arab allies to go along for the ride.) This crisis, exacerbated by Trump’s open embrace of the Saudi view, has dealt a serious blow to U.S. diplomacy in the Gulf. The Trump administration hoped to build a strong and united Sunni Arab coalition to achieve its Middle East goals; instead, the needless fight the Saudis picked with Qatar has ripped this coalition apart. And make no mistake: The crown prince engineered this dispute not to punish Qatar for its financing of terrorism (a hypocritical comment coming from the Saudis whose own citizens have provided funding to radical extremists over the years), but rather to end Qatar’s independent foreign policy and especially its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its ties with Iran. Simply put, the Saudis want to turn Qatar into a vassal state—as they have done with Bahrain—as part of their plan to establish Saudi hegemony over the entire Persian Gulf. But the crown prince’s grandiose ambition and national chauvinism have put the Kingdom on a collision course with Iran—and the United States, with its uncritical support for Saudi Arabia and more muscular stance against Iran, could easily get dragged into the dispute. Further, MBS’s incendiary rhetoric and uncompromising position toward Tehran only stoke the sectarian conflict that is tearing the region apart.
The Trump administration’s decision to side with Saudi Arabia in its conflict with Qatar and in Yemen is akin to pouring gasoline on a fire. Washington instead should be doing whatever it can to extinguish the flames.
Can Saudi Arabia deliver on the peace process? There’s no question that the twin threats of Iran and Sunni jihadi groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, plus Arab fatigue with the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict have created a greater coincidence of interests between the Gulf states and Israel than ever before. The still unanswered question is whether this new alignment can be converted into usable currency to facilitate and support Israeli-Palestinian negotiations leading to Trumps’s desired “ultimate deal.” It may well be that the Saudis are prepared to do more than they have in the past, particularly with regard to setting up overflight rights, telecommunications links and commercial contacts with Israel.
But—and the qualification is a critical one—that will happen only if Washington is prepared to do its part. There are no free lunches here. And the down payment, from the Saudi perspective, involves the Trump administration’s willingness to intensify its effort not just to contain but also to roll back Iranian influence in the region (which we think is both unrealistic and potentially harmful to the United States) as well as a serious effort to press the Israelis for concessions both large and small on behalf of the Palestinians. The Saudis might be willing to start with offering small confidence-building concessions. But if team Trump is looking for big moves—the establishment of diplomatic relations, for example—the administration will need to get the Israelis to deliver on Jerusalem and June 1967 borders. And that seems to be mission impossible with the Netanyahu government.
There is a real danger that the administration has unrealistic and exaggerated expectations of what the Saudis are prepared to do. Riyadh will not expose itself to criticism from Iran and the Arab world on an issue like Jerusalem unless Palestinian and Arab requirements are met. And without Israeli give on Jerusalem, there can be no ultimate deal.
Can the United States stop enabling the Saudis and set some rules? Clearly Trump is enamored by the Saudis, with whom he’s done business for years and who flattered and catered to him during his trip to the Kingdom earlier this month. He also sees Saudi Arabia as the key to achieving U.S. policy goals in the region, giving them a pass on human rights and permitting them wide latitude to pursue their anti-Iranian agenda without considering America’s interests. MBS is the driver of much of this impulsive risk-taking. The crown prince has dragged the United States into its local quarrels, creating a serious risk of a direct U.S.-Iranian confrontation, which could undermine the nuclear agreement with Iran at a time when the United States confronts a much more serious nuclear challenge from North Korea.
It’s time that the Trump administration draws some red lines with Riyadh. Washington does have leverage it can apply to the Saudis, who remain heavily dependent on American military and intelligence support for their security. In Yemen, Washington should put the Saudis on notice that if they do not lend their unqualified support for the United Nations-sponsored effort to mediate a negotiated end to the conflict, the United States will cut off the military, intelligence and logistics support it is providing to Saudi Arabia and coalition forces. With Qatar, the White House and State Department should intervene directly with the Saudis (and United Arab Emirates) to press both countries to moderate the extreme demands they have just presented to Qatar to end their dispute.
And with Iran, as painful as it might be, the president should take a page from President Barack Obama’s playbook. Rather than engage in rhetoric that escalates the conflict, the United States should make it clear to the Saudis that America’s support for its military and security establishment is not unconditional and will hinge to some extent on Saudi efforts to bring its relationship with Iran to a slower boil.
We’re not at all sure the White House is prepared to do any of this. For years during our long tenure at the Department of State, the two of us in memo after memo criticized Saudi Arabia’s unhealthy dependence on the United States to solve its own security problems and its failure to project its power to resolve regional security threats. And we lamented the Kingdom’s chronic risk aversion on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Now that we have gotten what we wished for, a more independent and assertive Saudi Arabia, maybe the U.S. can channel some of the new Saudi risk-readiness in a way that benefits U.S. policy. But if we don’t lay down some ground rules and stick to them when the Saudis push back, Washington will be further enmeshed in the parochial agenda of a small power whose interests aren’t entirely our own. It’s bad enough to be used and abused by our adversaries, particularly Russia and Iran; it’s even worse to be diddled by our so-called friends.