In time-honored tradition, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is making the rounds in Washington this week, introducing himself to the great and the good of the capital’s foreign policy elite.
He has just met with Secretary of State John Kerry at his private residence, a signal mark of respect. The discussion was also very wide-ranging, as befits long-time allies, with the Yemen war, the Syrian crisis, and the fight against ISIS all being gone over. This trip matters more than most in that – unlike his well-regarded uncle, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef – the Deputy Crown Prince is not a man Washington knows nearly enough about.
If the deputy crown prince is seen as an important, if enigmatic, new force in Saudi politics by Washington, there can be little doubt that he has come to preside over the practical fraying of longstanding US-Saudi ties.
For on both the economic and foreign policy fronts, Mohammed bin Salman has been the leading proponent in policy terms of Riyadh’s newfound efforts to carve out a more autonomous foreign and economic policy, limiting Saudi Arabia’s long-time dependence on both oil and the United States.
These gargantuan reform efforts will largely tell the tale of the sort of Saudi Arabia that emerges in the new multi-polar era.
In both instances, the Deputy Crown Prince is making a virtue out of a policy necessity. In the case of oil, Riyadh wants to avoid the resource curse that has plagued so many countries seemingly blessed with abundant mineral wealth, who instead never use this innate bounty to sustainably grow their economies.
In the case of the United States, as the Obama pivot to Asia (and corresponding lesser role in the Middle East) has become clearer, the only sensible Saudi foreign policy strategy is to move away from dependence on America, charting a more activist and autonomous role. While all this follows, it is a great departure – in both economic and foreign policy terms – from what the country has been used to for decades. Mohammed bin Salman is the embodiment of these tectonic shifts.
Moving away from oil
While Riyadh’s rapidly changing foreign policy orientation will get the lion’s share of the American press coverage of the visit, it is perhaps his economic reforms that, more than anything, will determine the success or failure of his overall reformist program.
The only sensible Saudi foreign policy strategy is to move away from dependence on America, charting a more activist and autonomous roleDr. John C. Hulsman
Mohammed bin Salman, as is set out in the Vision 2030 economic plan, wants to follow in the footsteps of prosperous Norway, rather than venal Venezuela, using the country’s vast oil wealth to establish the largest public investment fund in the world, which will be used to dramatically diversify the Saudi economy away from its oil dependence over the long run.
While Vision 2030 is remarkably detailed, it remains an open question as to whether the young Deputy Crown Prince can make Saudi society stakeholders in his reformist drive, as conservative elements in both the Saudi bureaucracy and the religious leadership will have to be won round over time if the economic program is to succeed. The US Treasury Department will be fascinated to try to fathom how committed the young Prince is to this central plank of his agenda.
Taking relations to another level
Complementing the economic drive, the new Saudi foreign policy also aims to enhance the country’s self-sufficiency. While the United States is in theory delighted that Riyadh is doing more on its own, in practice this has made it very clear that a more assertive Saudi Arabia’s interests in the region increasingly diverge from those of the United States.
Whereas the Iranian nuclear deal sought to bring Tehran in from the cold, the Saudis look upon Iran as its primary regional opponent. Whereas America (though helpful) worries about the Yemen war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels turning into a quagmire, Riyadh sees it as a bold counter-move, designed to check Iran’s drive toward regional dominance.
The Saudis want America to redouble its efforts to oust Assad in Syria, the US wants to stay as far away from the whole appalling mess as possible. On all these fundamental issues, the two old allies simply no longer see eye to eye.
In a multipolar world, it inevitably follows that the declining, preoccupied superpower cedes a great deal of control to regional powers, much as happened in the time of Lord Salisbury’s Britain, with the rise of the US and Japan. A Washington doing less in the Middle East means a Saudi Arabia likely to do a great deal more.
What has been missing from this natural process is a recognition by both sides that US-Saudi interests are simply not the same. Managing these differences matters far more now, as the Saudis adopt a greatly increased regional role and America settles into being an off-shore balancer in the region. Keeping the alliance broadly together, as these forces fray the old US-Saudi ties, will take patience, skill, and more than a little luck.
The good news is that the Deputy Crown Prince has been working hard to keep the still vital relationship on an even keel, going out of his way to distance himself from the standard criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy. Drift between the two old allies is almost inevitable; but that doesn’t mean the old alliance isn’t still worth saving.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.