As the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits Washington to conduct meetings at the White House and with US leaders, critics and supporters compete to frame the achievements of the young royal, who will surely become the next monarch of a major world energy producer and home to the holiest shrines of Islam. The race between critics and fans of the 32-year-old prince, known worldwide as “MBS,” is fueled also by other crises in the region, notably the Iran-Saudi feud and the Gulf-Qatar quarrels.
The supporters of the Crown Prince note his young age, energy, and highlight his activities inside the Kingdom and worldwide. They often cite the project known as Vision 2030, a complex structure of economic and social reforms aimed at modernizing a kingdom endowed with dizzying riches.
The enemies of the young emir assault this glowing image with a plethora of acerbic assertions. They describe his acts as very firm and bound to fail. Prince Mohammed is also criticized for having waged a “war on Yemen” and its civilian bill. MBS is also accused of "escalating the Saudi conflict with Iran, instead of accepting the Iran Deal and its consequences". The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is characterized by his foes for his alliance with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. Both are chastised by opponents as responsible for the Gulf crisis and the boycott of Qatar since 2017.
Understanding the change
This young leader is indeed making waves as he undertakes perilous changes in the Kingdom while at the same time pushing for changes in the region in a way that has not been done by his country’s leaders since the end of the Cold War. Thus it is important that the American public and the West understands what the Crown Prince is trying to achieve, regardless of success or failure.
Let me first disclose that I have been a critic of radical Salafist ideology who brought forth a web of radicalization from Saudi Arabia and the region that has impacted the world of jihadists for generations. However, as I have also observed and remarked upon for years, reforms should be expected from precisely the countries where extremism also arose. My books Future Jihad and War of Ideas attest to these arguments. But it was not until I actually came into contact with representatives of the reform movement in Saudi Arabia and a number of opinion leaders that I was convinced that what I had projected was finally happening.
Mohammed bin Salman’s vision is strategic. And his vision is assaulted by our strategic enemies. The understanding cannot be simpler.Walid Phares
I have long followed the expansion of social media in the Kingdom and have had the opportunity to interact with men and women who openly expressed their views and aspirations. Thus, I see Mohammed bin Salman as a product of this bottom-up transformation taking place in that country – even though his current role is to initiate top-down change by using the political power with which he has been entrusted. His father has agreed that Prince Mohammed will be a reformer and has accepted that the power of the Saudi state will be used to limit the influence of militant Salafism.
The young bin Salman has undertaken a massive reform campaign to change the political culture of the Kingdom: limiting the religious police, granting women the right to drive vehicles, defending their right to vote, to become part of the government, and soon to inherit and be paid equally with men. Early signs show MBS will alleviate the social and legal pressures which impose strict Islamic clothing on Saudi women.
On a regional level, MBS and his allies in the Arab Coalition, particularly UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed, have been steadfast in confronting Iran, even when the previous US administration was cozying up to the Ayatollahs. Fighting Iranian-backed militias in Yemen, as they are deploying ballistic missiles from Tehran and firing them across the Peninsula on a civilian airport and on US navy ships, is a strategic move which needs to be supported, not condemned. In standing against Assad and Hezbollah, the Saudis are aligning themselves with US policy. More noticeable is the Saudi-UAE rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood, major producers of extremist indoctrination, and last but not least, waging a war of ideas against the very ideology that many in the West criticized the Kingdom for allowing its funding decades ago. This is a miracle happening in before our eyes. And it needs to be recognized and embraced, even if it is still in its early stages. Such a historic opportunity for comprehensive reforms in the region doesn't come often. It needs to be seized, protected and nurtured.
Mohammed bin Salman’s vision is strategic. And his vision is assaulted by our strategic enemies. The understanding cannot be simpler.
Dr. Walid Phares was Donald Trump's foreign policy advisor in 2016 and Mitt Romney’s national security advisor in 2012. He advises members of Congress and the European Parliament and is the author of 14 books including The Lost Spring.