Saudi Arabia’s reform-minded crown prince is implementing change in Riyadh at such breakneck speed that Westerners are having a hard time grasping what exactly is going on in the oil-rich nation.
Over the past few months, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka “MBS”) – who is heir to the throne and effectively rules the country for his elderly father, King Salman — has repeatedly shaken up the status quo, challenging the Salafist-extremist elements in Saudi Arabia.
In late October, he called for a more “moderate, open” Islam in his country, essentially ending the ancient pact between Saudi Wahhabist clerics and the ruling class.
In his battle against fundamentalist forces, bin Salman stripped Saudi Arabia’s infamously brutal Haia religious police of its powers. He also lifted the de facto ban on women driving and liberalized other long-observed customs, enraging fundamentalist factions in the country.
The Salafists represent the cultural blockades in a nation with demographics that includes over 50 percent of the population being below age 30.
Since being anointed crown prince, MBS has articulated a multi-pronged — but connected — approach to revitalizing his nation.
Recognizing that an economy wholly reliant on fossil fuel revenues is not sustainable, he has pushed for a modernized economy that encourages innovation, entrepreneurship, and outside investment. The Salafists, on the other hand, prefer a system of government handouts that allows them to not gain employment and instead preach radical Islamic doctrines.
This weekend, the 32-year-old monarch took his campaign to a new level, taking the unprecedented approach of targeting the once-untouchable, unaccountable class of royal-family members.
In total, 11 Saudi royal princes and four government ministers have been arrested in an ongoing anti-corruption campaign. The Saudi government has not yet released what the individual charges are, but it is believed to be related to their abuses of power.
The most recognizable person swept up in the crackdown is billionaire prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a major investor in Citigroup and Twitter. In 2005, bin Talal also donated $20 million to Georgetown University in creating a pro-Muslim Brotherhood outpost at the school (the "Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding").
Skeptics view Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a man tightening his grip on power and monopolizing his platform to ensure his direct family will prevail over the throne for decades to come. In one such Washington Post screed, university professor Daniel Drezner declared MBS the “Kim Jong Un of the Persian Gulf.”
Drezner’s foreign policy thought process is the kind of thinking that leads to overthrowing allies and supporting Islamists over stable, pro-America monarchs (see: the tragic Obama administration policies in Libya and Egypt).
In the Middle East, striving for perfection is a fool’s errand. Sure, the crown prince should not be mistaken for an aspiring Jeffersonian Democrat, but he has already voiced his support for many initiatives that can directly advance the security interests of the United States.
The international spread of Wahhabism has plagued U.S. institutions for decades. Rogue members of the royal family have clandestinely supported international terrorist organizations that seek holy war against America.
It is essential, and unbelievably rare, to have a pro-America individual occupying the seat of power of the world’s most influential Sunni nation who is interested in countering these threats.
If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is indeed tackling radical Islam and cracking the whip on corruption, he should be celebrated as a man who can fundamentally alter course for the better for U.S. interests in the region.
We don’t need to pretend that Saudi Arabia is a bustling liberal democracy, or insist that it must become one to support a promising course change in the Middle East.
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