Now that the boy wonder Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has accelerated his ascent to the throne through a series of wide-scale purges last weekend and reckless foreign-policy moves abroad, both of us are feeling nostalgic for the good old days when the Saudis were scared of their own shadow.
During decades of service at the State Department, we longed for the day when risk-averse Saudi leaders would take greater ownership in solving their domestic and regional security problems and reduce their dependence on the United States. We were frustrated by their inaction and caution. Even former Secretary of State James Baker — who courted the Saudis for obvious reasons during the Gulf War — exploded in frustration after the Saudis failed to deliver a promised public statement on the Arab-Israeli peace process: “These guys could fuck up a two-car funeral.”
But now the dog has finally caught up with the mail truck. The Saudis have become everything we wanted them to be — and by the looks of things, maybe a lot more than we bargained for. Under Mohammed bin Salman, Riyadh has morphed into an independent force striking out aggressively at home and adventurously abroad, dragging Washington with them. Here’s why we have a serious case of buyer’s remorse — and why the Trump administration needs to hit the reset button with King Salman and his impetuous son.
In a string of pretty spectacular foreign-policy failures (see: Yemen, Qatar, and now Lebanon may not be far behind), Mohammed bin Salman’s most notable success abroad may well be the wooing and capture of President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Americans have long been infatuated with kings and the kingdom. But King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman seem to have set a new land speed record in convincing the Trump administration that they hold the keys to war, peace, and the transformation of the region.
It didn’t take much convincing. To be sure, the Saudis had some natural advantages over other possible partners that put points on the board in the White House: seeming stability and strength, an authoritarian streak, tons of money, and a desire to flatter and please. But above all, the new bromance reflected a timely coincidence of strategic imperatives: Trump was eager to distance himself from his predecessor’s pro-Iranian inclinations and repair U.S. tensions with Saudi Arabia and Israel from the Obama years; the Saudis, meanwhile, were determined to exploit Trump’s preternatural allergy to all things Barack Obama and to push Washington into a more aggressive posture against Iran.
That Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia was unprecedented. Indeed, it’s stunning to consider that Trump’s four immediate predecessors made their first foreign trips to either Canada or Mexico. The Middle East is usually a place where U.S. schemes and dreams for transforming this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region go to die. But the Saudis turned Trump’s first foray outside the United States into a veritable love fest and string of hyperboles: He cut “tremendous” deals and expressed his pride in the new relationship and the “like-minded” goals the two nations share. The Saudis, having mesmerized and disarmed the president and official Washington with their glowing orb, were given a series of blank checks and a margin to maneuver in the region — without giving much in return.
To be sure, previous administrations dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt have adopted consistently pro-Saudi policies. After all, the Saudis have long been an important security partner and critical energy supplier. But this president’s willingness to fawn all over the Saudis, bless their domestic and foreign policy, and trust that these policies make sense for American interests is truly head-exploding. In fairness to the more levelheaded thinkers in the Trump administration, no U.S. president has ever encountered a House of Saud this ready to act in transformative ways. One would think that alone would be cause for some caution and distance. But not in Trumpland.
Instead, the president has ramped up support for the bloody, inhumane, and disastrous Saudi campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen; willfully and publicly taken the Saudi side in a largely failed campaign to pressure Qatar to align its policies with Riyadh’s; and said nothing about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record or its export of an intolerant and extreme form of Islam abroad. Indeed, in response to Mohammed bin Salman’s large-scale purges last week of well-known royals, government ministers, military and business leaders, and media figures, Trump publicly endorsed the campaign, indicating that Saudi Arabia knows exactly what it’s doing. That Kushner was in Saudi Arabia on an unannounced visit before the crackdown raises some suspicion that he was informed of what was coming and didn’t object. In short, the president seems to have turned Saudi Arabia into a kind of fulcrum of Western civilization — a bulwark against Iran and a key force in the administration’s yet-to-be-announced policies on the peace process, all without considering how Saudi policies support U.S. interests or the region at large.
That’s a big bet. Assuming Saudi Arabia survives this turmoil, Mohammed bin Salman could be king for 50 years. Clearly, Saudi Arabia needs to change. Weaning the country off hydrocarbons to a more diversified economy (the central piece of Mohammed bin Salman’s massively ambitious Vision 2030 plan); moderating hardline Islam (as the crown prince has indicated he wants to do); and permitting women to drive (which the Saudis have announced they will do) are all positive headlines. At the same time, Mohammed bin Salman has made other moves that are much darker and worrisome. Saudi Arabia is already a police state. But the bid for what appears to be absolute personal power undermines the traditions of consensus-building in the royal family that have ensured continuity and stability; it has also disrupted a system that had distributed power in the military in a manner to maintain harmony, rather concentrate it, as Mohammed bin Salman has now done — which is certain to generate resentment and opposition during the actual succession or afterward.
Abroad, the Saudis are engaged in a cold war with an opportunistic Iran that’s exploiting their missteps in Yemen and Qatar and exacerbating a dangerous Sunni-Shiite sectarianism in the region. The latest Saudi gambit — pressuring the Sunni Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign in an effort to expose an Iranian- and Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon — is perhaps too clever by half. What are the Saudis going to do, given their Shiite adversaries’ advantages in Syria and Lebanon, when the Lebanese find themselves plunged into domestic crisis or a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah?
The Obama administration made a crucial mistake in trying to buy Saudi acquiescence in the Iran nuclear deal by indulging the kingdom’s misbegotten venture in Yemen. But with this one important and utterly regrettable decision, the former president had the right approach in maintaining the U.S. distance from Saudi Arabia and not allowing itself to get suckered into taking Riyadh’s side in its dispute with Iran. As painful as it would be for President Trump, he needs to take a page out of the Obama playbook by leaning heavily on the king and his son to de-escalate this conflict and restore equilibrium to America’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Because make no mistake: Saudi independence is still illusory. Riyadh desperately wants us to back them — and bail them out when they get in over their heads with Iran. If Washington is not careful, the Saudis will sandbag America into standing up to Tehran while the Saudis hide behind its skirt.
Above all this sits Donald Trump, apparently oblivious to the choices he’s making. He’s banked U.S. credibility, image, and policy on a young kid whose ambitions and drive seem to have outstripped his wisdom, experience, and judgment. Mohammed bin Salman is up on a tight wire, and to paraphrase the late, great songwriter Leon Russell, putting on a show for Trump to see. The president, without thinking any of this through, has got America and the future of the region up there with him. Let’s hope he’s not too blind to see and doesn’t fall.