Reckoning in Saudi Arabia
The White House and MBS are now joined at the hip—a relationship that makes a mockery of President Donald Trump’s “America First” mantra and risks drawing the United States into more conflicts in the Middle East. (It seems there’s no limit to how many battles, domestic and foreign, the president can pick at one time). The fact is Trump and MBS have a lot in common. Both are authoritarian personalities; both are inexperienced at governance, particularly in foreign policy matters; and both have preternaturally inflated egos that get in the way of the prudence and wisdom required for wise governance.
Nothing that MBS has done in Yemen, Qatar, Syria or Lebanon has advanced America’s interests. To the contrary, his reckless pursuits have strengthened ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Iran, divided the Gulf Cooperation Council, created greater instability in Yemen and Lebanon, and made America complicit in Saudi war crimes in Yemen, further damaging our reputation in the region and beyond. By writing checks (figuratively, if not literally) that MBS is cashing, the United States has enabled the headstrong prince to plunge the Kingdom into misadventures around the region and made Saudi Arabia look more like Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China than the progressive and modernizing autocracy that he would have his admirers in the United States believe he wants to create. And he can do all this safe in the knowledge that the White House will continue to be his biggest cheerleader. If the president and his advisers want to avoid further entanglements in an angry, dysfunctional and conflict-ridden region, they should stop enabling MBS and start treating him like the menace he is to America’s interests and credibility in the region. If the president thinks that Saudi Arabia under MBS is about to become a strategic partner of the United States in achieving Arab-Israeli peace and rolling back Iranian influence, he’s even more detached from reality than seemed possible.
Can He Succeed?
Saudi Arabia faces a great many problems: low oil prices; an economy dependent on hydrocarbons; deficits that will continue to flow from a citizenry expecting cradle-to-grave benefits and the royal family’s own profligate spending habits; a protracted war in Yemen that the Saudis don’t know how to end; and an opportunistic Iran eager to capitalize on Saudi stumbles. MBS’s bold vision, including his ambitious Vision 2030 designed to wean Saudi Arabia off of oil and diversify the economy, may make sense on paper; whether it can succeed or even partially address the challenges in practice is unclear. Meanwhile, his risk-ready foreign policy, designed to contain if not roll back Iranian influence, has largely failed. Right now, MBS faces no real obstacles in his path—other than blowback at home and in the region from his own outsized ambitions. And it’s possible—assuming Saudi Arabia survives another half century—that he could be leading the Kingdom fifty years from now. He clearly has the time and, for now, the space to do big things. The question remains though whether he possesses the wisdom, patience and judgment as well. Judging from his performance so far, Washington would be wise not to place all its bets on a young man who seems to be in a big hurry to do big things.
Aaron David Miller is a vice president and Distinguished Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.
Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served in the State Department for thirty-seven years, including ten as a member of the secretary of state’s Office of Policy Planning from 2005 to 2015.