Things are changing in Saudi Arabia, and fast. In the past few months, women have gained the rights to drive and to attend sporting events. The Saudi religious police can no longer beat women with impunity for showing too much skin, or other violations of “Islamic Law,” as the Saudis have long defined it. And dozens of princes, businessmen, and other governmental officials have been arrested and detained for alleged corruption.
Mohammed bin Salman, the 33-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has been the catalyst behind much of this change. Bin Salman, or M.B.S. as he is known, is second in line to the throne and gaining power quickly. To many, he represents the young and growing generation of Saudis who are tired of fundamentalist rule and want to restore Saudi Arabia and Islam across the Middle East to its pre-1979 moderate roots.
However, how serious M.B.S. is about his reformist agenda remains to be seen. We can’t get inside his head and know exactly what he believes—but I think he has offered us some clues. While I believe he wants to reform Saudi domestic politics, I think his desire to transform the region extends only as far as it doesn’t interfere with Saudi geopolitical goals.
M.B.S. has shown through both his words and actions that he is committed to eradicating extremism within Saudi Arabia. In an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, he said, “Do not write that we are ‘reinterpreting’ Islam—we are restoring Islam to its origins.” He went on to explain that the Prophet Muhammad emphasized tolerance towards Jews and Christians, and allowed women to attend sporting events and even serve as judges in Medina. He argues then that by fundamentalist logic, the Prophet was not a Muslim. These are stunning things to come from the mouth of the second most powerful person in Saudi Arabia—but he has backed his words with a steady stream of legal reforms.
However, he has shown through his words and actions that when it comes to combatting extremism outside Saudi borders, his grand claims are just that—claims. Saudi Arabia is the motherland of Wahhabism, a brutal form of extremist Sunni Islam practiced by Al Qaeda and ISIS, among others. Therefore, in order to end extremism across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia would have to renounce its Wahhabi allies that are crucial to its quest for regional dominance, an idea that M.B.S. has been, thus far, unwilling to entertain.
In his interview with Friedman, between the grandiose rhetoric about the restoration of Islam and philosophical musings about his time on earth, M.B.S. called the Lebanese government a puppet of Hezbollah, defended the Saudi’s brutal military campaign in Yemen, and compared the Ayatollah of Iran to Adolf Hitler—none of which promises a commitment to ending extremism.
The actions of the Lebanese Prime Minister the past few weeks have been confusing and a little unnerving. However, it’s clear that M.B.S. is trying to exert control over Lebanese domestic politics. The Lebanese government is controlled primarily by Sunnis, but Hezbollah—a Shiite militia and quasi-governmental organization that the Saudis believe is a puppet of Iran—has a lot of influence. Hezbollah, however, has also been crucial to fighting ISIS in eastern Syria. So if M.B.S.’s main goal was combatting extremism, he should be okay with Hezbollah’s growing influence. But his main goal is regional dominance, which he can only achieve by combatting the influence of Iran.
The situation in Yemen is a little more complicated; the Houthi rebels, who seized Yemen’s capital in 2014 and have since been at war with Saudi Arabia, are extremists, and therefore could be seen as a just target for M.B.S.’s aggression. But the Saudi campaign in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians and lead to a massive cholera outbreak and famine, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world as well as a hotbed for extremism. The Saudis are actually fighting in Yemen because the Houthi rebels are allies of Iran, not because they have extremist views.
M.B.S. recently convened a conference of over 40 countries to discuss combating terrorism in the Middle East. Three countries, however, were pointedly absent: Iran, Iraq, and Syria. To even the most casual observer of Middle East politics, leaving Iraq and Syria out of a conference on combatting terrorism should seem absurd—they are on the literal frontlines of the battle against the world’s most infamous terrorist group. But Iraq and Syria are Shiite-led governments and allies of Iran, and therefore enemies of Saudi Arabia, as M.B.S. sees it.
I hope M.B.S. achieves his stated goals. There’s no doubt that the people of Saudi Arabia, the women in particular, have been oppressed by the religious right for far too long, and the young prince’s willingness to speak up for them and commit himself to their cause is admirable. But I remain skeptical that he will be able to combat terrorism across the region until he commits himself to diplomacy and gives up his hegemonic goals. Hopefully he proves me wrong.