Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud is here to rebrand. If all goes well, his visit to the U.S. this week will wow Americans with Saudi Arabia’s new progressivism, increase U.S. investment in the Saudi economy, and align U.S. and Saudi strategies in the Middle East.
That final task is the hardest. Saudi and U.S. officials largely agree on the most urgent issues facing the region. They disagree on what is to be done—and, more specifically, who is going to do it.
On re-branding and investment issues, the cheekily nicknamed “MBS” shows every sign of genuine commitment to overhauling core elements in Saudi society and its economy. Saudi Arabia has until now combined dependence on the west with deep internal dysfunction, but the crown prince’s “Vision 2030” strategy for his country aims to change this: diversify the economy, end the dependence on hydrocarbons, and remove some of the ultra-conservative social norms which impede development.
Some significant changes have already been enacted. Women are now permitted to drive and attend concerts and sporting events, and are no longer required to wear headscarves. Cinemas have reopened. The arrest of a slew of senior royals and their incarceration for two months from November 4 at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh demonstrated the seriousness of Mohammed bin Salman’s determination to address the issue of corruption. (Some observers also saw in it a perhaps reckless attempt to neutralize potential rivals.)
MBS will seek over the next two weeks in the U.S. to reap the PR benefit of these changes, presenting Saudi Arabia as a country on a new path.
The crown prince needs American money for a number of flagship projects intended to spearhead the diversification of the Saudi economy. These include Neom, a planned mega city intended to rival Dubai as a business center—with a sleek, East-meets-West name generated from the prefix “neo” and the Arabic word for “future,” “mustaqbal”—and Qiddiya, an entertainment city imagined in similar dimensions to Las Vegas, to be built close to Riyadh. Whether Mohammed bin Salman will convince investors and the U.S. public of the viability of his social and economic projects, set down as they are in the deeply conservative Saudi realities, remains to be seen.
With regard to the regional political issue, the problem is deeper. Both President Trump and the crown prince are clear opponents of Iran’s efforts at empire building in the region. Both are also set in their opposition to Sunni jihadism. Trump made his first visit abroad as president to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, appearing to cast Saudi Arabia as the main U.S. ally in the pursuit of common goals.
But there are serious questions as to whether each can or wishes to play the role that the other would like to allot him in the pursuit of these goals.
In part, the problem is that Iran is winning. MBS has been proactive in challenging the Iranian advance. The Saudis are engaged in a costly and unfinished war in Yemen, and have prevented the Iran-supported Houthi rebels from reaching the crucial Bab el Mandeb Strait. But the Houthis are far from defeated and the conflict is bleeding money and resources from a Saudi Arabia that can no longer afford limitless
Elsewhere, Saudi efforts have been even less successful. In Syria, their early efforts to support the Sunni Arab rebels have led nowhere. The remnants of the rebellion now work largely under the Turkish banner, but they are set to remain in control only of outlying areas of the country. The Iranian effort on behalf of Assad has preserved him in power and in control of the central and most populated part of Syria.
In Iraq, the Iranians are represented in government through proxies such as the veteran pro-Teheran Shia Islamist Badr Organization, have their own armed forces on the ground in the key militias of the Popular Mobilization Units, and look set to increase their influence in government following elections in May. Saudi Arabia has tried to play catch up, courting non-Iran aligned politicians such as popular religious figure Moqtada al-Sadr. But in the influence game, they hardly register in comparison to Teheran.
In Lebanon, the Saudis supported the now defunct pro-western March 14 movement, which emerged from the popular mobilization against Syrian occupation following the assassination of then Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. It has now been comprehensively outplayed and outfought by Iran’s clients in the rival, Hezbollah dominated bloc. In mid-2016 Riyadh suspended $4 billion of aid to the Lebanese armed forces and police. It was a tacit admission of failure. The Iranians have won in Lebanon.
As indicated by the unimpressive track record, the Saudis lack the strength and skill to lead in rolling back the Iranians. MBS therefore probably wants firm commitments from the U.S. and a declaration of leadership: for example, a clear strategy to mobilize available assets to halt and roll back Iranian gains in Syria; support for the Saudi/UAE cause in Yemen; and acknowledgement of the strength and depth of Iran’s penetration of Iraq, or that further aid to the Lebanese state means strengthening Hezbollah.
He may well be disappointed. The latest reports suggest the Administration is looking for Saudi Arabia to increase its own commitments on the anti-Iran file—and even pledge $4 billion for reconstruction in eastern Syria.
The Administration continues to speak in different voices on its own plans. So far, despite the difference in rhetoric, the Trump Administration’s practical commitment to rolling back Iranian regional influence has not differed markedly from that of its predecessor (with the significant exception of Trump’s commitment to tightening implementation or abandoning the Iran nuclear deal). And certainly the president’s vague comments in a brief press session in the Oval Office with bin Salman on Tuesday did not suggest a concrete plan of action.
So Saudi Arabia wants very much to set about pursuing shared goals, but lacks the strength and skill to do so. The United States, meanwhile, clearly has the necessary ability, but appears unsure whether it wishes to use it.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud may find fans for his reform agenda, and even investors for his mega cities in the U.S. over the next two weeks. But rebranding may not yet be able to buy him the partnership he wants.
Jonathan Spyer is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Strategic Studies. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.