U.S. Strategic Interests and the Rise of Prince Mohammed bin Salman
It does not take much vision to predict that making Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the new Crown Prince, and removing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef from any position of power, will lead to a flood of new speculation about the possible tensions with the Saudi royal family, the motives involved in changing the succession, and how the resulting changes will spill over into a host of changes in less important positions.
It takes even less vision — just reading the reporting during one or two prior major changes in succession will provide all the necessary examples — to predict that the vast majority of this reporting will be pure speculation and wrong. Guessing about the Saudi royal family went from a national to an international sport at the time of Nasser, and the game — like all other forms of phantom sports leagues — is likely to continue indefinitely. This is particularly likely because the past shows that the full circumstances and facts behind many shifts within the Saudi royal family never do become fully known, and any really good conspiracy theory can live forever.
In any case, what is done is done and America has far more serious priorities. What is far less speculative is the fact that Saudi Arabia is a key strategic partner of the United States at a time of great uncertainty, and finding the best ways to serve common strategic interests is already a critical challenge.
Regardless of all the circumstances surrounding the succession, and the personalities involved, the rise of Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the new Crown Prince marks a key time to consider how best to develop some common approach to a host of truly critical strategic issues where neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia have a clear and convincing strategy.
The first and most obvious area where the United States and Saudi Arabia need to come together is the current crisis between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and their neighbor Qatar — and the broader lack of any coordinated approach to building up a strong deterrent to Iran, a common approach to fighting Islamic extremism and terrorism, and working to bring stability to the Gulf region and the Middle East.
This is not simply a matter of stopping the feuding. It is a matter of creating a more effective Gulf Cooperation alliance and set of U.S. security ties with the Gulf states. As Secretary Tillerson has made all too clear, the divisions between the Arab Gulf states are a critical threat to their security, counterterrorism efforts, and ability to deal with Iran. Finding ways to deal with them — and to create a more effective deterrent to Iran’s ambitions without precluding some eventual movement towards compromise — is Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first priority.
The second, and almost equally immediate, priority is to find a better common approach to helping Iraq achieve stability and unity once ISIS is driven out of Mosul. We are months away at most from the point at which ISIS ceases to be the focus of Iraqi security and stability. What comes next is critical, and neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia have indicated they have any clear strategy for dealing with Iraq’s future.
Third, the United States and Saudi Arabia need to take equally immediate steps to ensure that the departure of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef — a man whose role in the war against terrorism was of critical value to both the United States and Saudi Arabia — is not damaged. The United States and Saudi Arabia also need to take much more effective steps to ensure that they cooperate more effectively with their other strategic partners in the fight.
The United States needs to stop its gross over emphasis on ISIS — which is only one of the very real terrorist and extremism threats in the region and only accounts for about 11% of the acts of regional terrorism. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia need to create tangible plans for dealing with a lasting mix of regional threats — with a focus on actual substance instead of hollow rhetoric.
Fourth, there is less chance that any cooperative effort can bring post-ISIS stability to Syria, but the current mix of competing U.S., Arab, and Turkish efforts almost ensures more fighting and civil conflict. It also helps to ensure the rise of largely extremist Arab rebel movements along with the survival of the worst elements of the Assad regime. Once again, there seem to be no credible U.S. and Saudi plans for Syria’s future — although in fairness, it is unclear that anyone has credible plans to bring any lasting stability out of the defeat of at least the formal “caliphate” part of ISIS’s operations.
Fifth, establishing priorities becomes steadily harder as the list goes on, but Yemen is reaching the level of a humanitarian crisis that is so grave, that pursuing a military stalemate that endangers at least half the population is not a credible response. Saudi Arabia cannot give up its security, but some new effort has to be made to ease the humanitarian cost and provide more incentives for conflict resolution. The United States cannot simply stand aside, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE need to help find ways to at least contain and limit the humanitarian cost of the war.
Finally, and without regard to the previous priorities, the United States needs to do what it can to help King Salman and Prince Mohammed bin Salman make their plans to bring economic change and reform to Saudi Arabia work. The Saudi 2030 plan needs to be made a practical and successful effort. All of the problems in Saudi internal stability that it is intended to deal with are all too real.
Economic reform, jobs, and social change are as critical to fighting extremism as any form of counterterrorism. Moreover, the United States cannot afford to forget that Saudi Arabia must now deal with what now seems to be a prolonged cut in petroleum revenues that will keep them 50% or more lower than in 2012–2014. It is not a poor strategic partner, but it cannot be treated as a “rich” one.
Americans need to realize that America’s basic national interests in Saudi Arabia do not lie in more jobs and more arms sales. They lie in keeping the center of Islam out of extremist hands, in having a stable strategic partner, and in seeing Saudi Arabia become a more successful economy and a nation that can ensure broad popular support for its current moderate government. This does not require U.S. aid money, but it does require American political and financial commitment and support of Saudi plans and reforms. Finding ways to back Saudi Arabia in such efforts will be at least as important as all of the other challenges emerging out of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s new role.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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