U.S. press bestows blessing on 'frenemy' Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman, perhaps prematurely

Following a weekend in New York -- where I made sure to down a couple of the Big Apple’s unofficial, official drink, the egg cream (I prefer vanilla) -- I returned to my current home in Maryland, where I proceeded to go through my waiting mail.

And there he was -- again. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (often referred to as MBS), his face gracing the cover of the latest issue of Time.

But of course. Media speaking, it’s his moment in the spotlight. Heir to the throne of his critically important Arab nation, American news media offered up near blanket coverage of his now completed three-week visit here.

The question is, how to portray him?

As a modernizer out to update the public face of traditionally uncompromising, Saudi-style Wahhabi Sunni Islam by, among other things, allowing women to drive cars and speaking about allowing public movie theaters to open (amazing, but that’s what passes for reform in socially constricted Saudi Arabia, even in 2018)?

Or as a two-faced but media-savvy, all-powerful monarch in-waiting who imprisons his domestic foes and financially shakes them down, while simultaneously trying to divert attention from his nation’s horrible human rights record so as to gain strong Western support for Saudi Arabia in its building conflict with Iran, with which it fights a devastating proxy way in Yemen?

My view?

Only 32, he’s most probably inclined by his experiences toward genuine public social change -- in Saudi Arabia that means a relaxation of religious authority -- in his homeland, which, as Islam’s birthplace and the site of its greatest pilgrimage and holiest shrines, strictly conforms to premodern Sunni Muslim traditions.

However, he’s at best a “frenemy.” He’s an authoritarian politician who wildly spends public money on himself and, worse, appears heartless over his nation’s brutal bombing attacks in Yemen. In short, he’s another very mixed bag of the sort that the United States and other Western democracies have long done business with in the Middle East.

Despite such negatives, he’s probably today’s most consequential Arab leader in that he embodies the potential to alter even non-Saudi Muslims’ views on Islam’s role in the modern era. That could also mean a big change in Arab attitudes toward jihadists who claim to fight to protect Islam from Western aggressions, both real and imagined.

Let’s not forget that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists were Saudis, and that the debate over the degree of full Saudi involvement in the attacks remains ongoing. See here and then here.

However fundamental changes won’t happen overnight, if at all. And only if he’s not overthrown by some other Saudi royal family member in cahoots with members of the nation’s religious establishment who think bin Salman’s pushed the envelope too far.

All these questions and more were tackled by the slew of outlets that covered the crown prince’s visit. Here’s a few links to some of the coverage you should peruse to gain better understanding of bin Salman, the man, and the mostly supportive tone of the elite (a term I prefer to the politically loaded “mainstream”) media’s coverage.

Let’s start with The New York Times, and The New Yorker --  both, I admit, chosen in homage to the above noted vanilla egg cream drink, and the memories of my New York City youth. And then there was this piece in The Atlantic. It provoked quite a bit of follow up coverage because of what the crown prime said about Israel.

Here are two key paragraphs from the piece, written by the magazine’s editor,  Jeffrey Goldberg, who has long focused on Israel and the Middle East.

The prince, in my conversation with him, divided the Middle East into two warring camps: what he called the “triangle of evil,” consisting of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunni terror groups; and an alliance of self-described moderate states that includes Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman. About his bête noir, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Prince Mohammed said, “I believe the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good. Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. … The supreme leader is trying to conquer the world.”
Another key -- though sub rosa -- member of Prince Mohammed’s alliance is Israel, a country about which Prince Mohammed did not have a bad word to say. In fact, when I asked him whether he believed the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland, he said: “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” According to the former U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross, moderate Arab leaders have spoken of the reality of Israel’s existence, but acknowledgement of any sort of “right” to Jewish ancestral land has been a red line no leader has crossed until now. (My meeting with Prince Mohammed took place before the recent fatal violence on the Gaza-Israel border, but I do not believe that the crown prince would have moderated his views in light of these events. The Saudis, like many Arab leaders, have tired of the Palestinians.)

That’s more than just a rhetorical step forward if you wish for a peaceful relationship between Jewish Israel and its Arab neighbors. It’s potentially a very big deal, given that Iran routinely threatens the annihilation of Israel. Nor would it be the first time that once warring enemies -- Israel and Saudi Arabia -- became strategic friends. (The U.S. and Germany and Japan.)

But let’s not get too far ahead of reality, fellow journalists. Retain your professional composure.

As noted above, Saudi Arabia has long been a frenemy. And a cagey one at that, intent above all else on protecting the royal family’s rule and many privileges.

So don't go overboard in writing about a newly reconfigured Middle East thanks to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Remember his many warts. Rather, keep watching for signs that he actually is a positive change agent, and not just a man who excels at charm offensives.

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