Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman touched base with the USA and UK in his first trip abroad after his father had made him the first son of a reigning monarch to be designated heir to the throne since his grandfather Abdul Aziz made his uncle Saud Crown Prince. Another parallel with his grandfather is that Muhammad showed that he regarded the USA as the leading power. That is now a no-brainer, which it was not when King Abdul Aziz met President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Quincy in February 1945, when it was passing through the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal. That was the meeting at which King Abdulaziz obtained a reassurance that Roosevelt would do nothing to help the Jews against the Arabs. (This proved to be merely a personal guarantee when Roosevelt died just two months later, and his successor, Harry S Truman, promptly recognised Israel when it took over Palestine in 1948.)
The difference today is that Crown Prince Muhammad is involved in something that would have been anathema to the old man: he is working closely with US President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to broker a Mid-east peace deal. The moving of the US Embassy to Israel is supposed to be part of this deal, which is being struck at the cost of the Palestinian people. What is the quid pro quo that Muhammad expects out of his support for Kushner? It is expected to be his bid for the Saudi throne.
There has been a report in the US press about the Crown Prince’s claim that Kushner is ‘in his pocket’. An illustration of this is supposed to have been Kushner’s giving him the names of supposedly corrupt officials and princes, who were recently imprisoned at a hotel in Riyadh until they bought their way out. However, it equally indicates that Muhammad is in Kushner’s pocket, as not only is he his catspaw in the Middle East, but he relies on him to be told who his enemies are. The whole anticorruption drive was not just about raising money, but also about repressing potential opponents to Muhammad bin Salman’s rise to the throne.
One of the reasons for interest in the visit was not so much because the Crown Prince is the future ruler, as because he is virtually the current one. He is not so much the power behind the throne of his father, King Salman, as the power in front, by virtue of his office as Crown Prince, First Deputy Prime Minister, Defense Minister and Chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs. Combined with the age and infirmity of his father the King (who turns 83 this year), these offices make him very powerful.
However, one albatross around his neck is the war in Yemen, which the Crown Prince has taken a personal interest in. It is also the point at which Saudi Arabia is fighting overtly on a side opposed to Iran. The Iranians are fighting though proxy Houthi rebels in Yemen, while engaged in a clash with Saudi Arabia in the entire region. This visit comes just before President Trump is to sign off on an approval for the nuclear deal with Iran. The Crown Prince, along with Israel, wants the deal scrapped and Iran bound into a tighter straitjacket.
Along with the great overarching rivalry with Iran, Muhammad is behind the move to isolate Qatar. Supporting this means the USA would have to offend one of its closest regional allies. The possibility of Iran going nuclear is what is bringing the Crown Prince closer to Israel. That this makes the Saudis a better fit for the USA is a beneficial side-effect. It is also useful that the constant criticism of the Saudi human rights record is heightened by any anti-Israel bias, and thus any pro-Israeli tilt will help dampen such criticism.
Crown Prince Muhammad is working in another direction on what appears a programme meant to reduce US criticism of Saudi Arabia. He has been taking such steps as allowing women to drive, and to allow women to attend sports events, as well as allow the holding of concerts and the building of cinemas. All of the issues are debatable in Islam, but is it entirely a coincidence that the Crown Prince has reached conclusions that accord with US thinking on the subject? In his defence, it should be noted that Muhammad’s training is in the law, the subject in which he graduated from King Saud University, and thus he would be well acquainted with the arguments on either side.
However, the ease with which he pushed aside the laws also indicates the real relationship between the Bani Saud rulers and the Ash-Shaikh clan, which consists of the descendants of Muhammad ibnul Wahhab. The latter are supposed to support the former so long as the former follows the latter’s interpretation of the law. However, either the previous interpretation was wrong, and needlessly (and illegally) repressed women, or the current interpretation is wrong, and the ulema are leading people into sin. However, if the statist view is taken, that the ulema provide sanction where the ruling dynasty needs it, it makes sense. Another important area where the Saudi state needs the ulema is in its regional conflict with Iran. It not only suits the Saudi state to portray the Iranians as Shiites, but to portray itself as the champion of the Sunnis.
This is a little specious. First, it might not last long, because it is difficult to see the USA accept a Muslim religious grouping as legitimate. Second, there is something unviable in the Saudis, who are Wahhabi, according to opponents, Salafi according to supporters, and Muwahidoon according to themselves, trying to act as representatives of the Sunnis. They have not just rejected the Shiites, but also the Sunnis. One of the distinguishing marks of Sunnis was loyalty to the Caliphate. The Saudis, as well as the Hashemites (then of Makkah, but ultimately of Jordan), rebelled against the Caliph in World War I, and pursued what can only be described as a sectarian rivalry with them. (The Ottoman Caliphs were Hanafi, and allowed some Sufi practices in the Holy Places; the Saudis stamped them out with an iron fist.)
Even in the Arab world, the Salafis are a minority. However, they are influential for two reasons. One is Saudi money, and the second is because they are enthusiastic textualists in a text-based faith. However, because of this emphasis on the sacred texts, any attempt to bend them to fit Western notions may not meet with the acceptance anti-Western findings will. It is possible that the price to be levied from Crown Prince Muhammad for support for his claim to the throne will be to provide leadership to the Sunni world. That may not happen. Meanwhile, he will have to rely more on the kind of arms purchases he made on this visit ($12.5 billion worth) than on anything else.
However, there is another hurdle to overcome. Oil prices may well not allow the kind of spending in the USA that has won the Saudis so much support. Also, with the attention of the world turned towards less polluting fuel sources, Saudi Arabia may experience a tilt away from it towards natural gas producers Qatar and Iran, both already far from Saudi Arabia’s list of friends.
n The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.