Mohammad bin Salman and the Middle East’s Long Line of Reformist Dictators

Until the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de-facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman had been hailed in the West for his efforts at reforming his country: allowing women to drive, curbing the export of religious fanaticism, attempting to wean his country from its dependency on oil, and even pursuing sub-rosa ties with Israel. Reuel Marc Gerecht notes that the Middle East has a long history of strongmen who tried to modernize their societies, with mixed results:

The modernizing rulers of the Arab Middle East date from the early 19th century, with Mohammad Ali of Egypt, who forcibly indentured the peasants of the Nile valley to farm cash crops, and Ahmad Bey of Tunisia, who in 1846 became the first Muslim ruler to abolish slavery. . . . The allure of such despots has been strong in the West. These pashas were both widely admired in Europe for their efforts to introduce “progress”—more efficient economies, better schools, better armies, elites who spoke European languages—even though their grand ambitions nearly bankrupted their countries. A century later, Baathist, or Renaissance, parties rose and had many Western admirers, too, leading to the surreal situation of a New York Times columnist seeing the secular Saddam Hussein, [who used] rape as a political tool, as an avatar of social rights for women. . . .

The crown prince’s [current] popularity with the young has been undoubtedly a reflection of the Westernization of much of the country’s youth. (That same process of Westernization, conversely, can fortify the appeal of contemporary Islamists, like the Muslim Brothers.) The crown prince could blow this transformative moment by intensifying his police state. Talk to young Saudis and they will quickly tell you how social media have become almost entirely a vehicle of Mohammad bin Salman’s sycophants. What is now a widely held sentiment among the young for more openness, certainly for more fun, could turn into a protest movement against a dictatorship that allows only approved thought. . . .

If Mohammad bin Salman survives, which is still likely, the United States will confront the distressing fact that the Saudi ruler is “modernizing” his country in ways that could well prove tumultuous. There is little to love in the Saudi royal family. There is nothing to like about what has happened since [the Saudi dynasty’s alliance with the Wahhabi sect of Islam] in 1744. But there is something to be said for consensus within a deeply conservative society trying to change. The Muslim Middle East is littered with the wreckage of strong, oh-so-modern men exercising their wills. Saudi Arabia is a potentially explosive laboratory where cautious men need to prevail.

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More about: History & Ideas, Middle East, Mohammad bin Salman, Politics & Current Affairs, Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia

How to Prevent Saudi Arabia from Getting Nuclear Weapons

Skeptics of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran warned that it could prompt a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. As they predicted, Saudi Arabia has been seeking assistance from the U.S. in obtaining civilian nuclear capabilities, while also speaking—in imitation of the Islamic Republic—of a “right” to enrich uranium, something it pledged not to do in a 2008 agreement with Washington. Were Riyadh to begin such enrichment, it could also produce the fuel necessary for nuclear weapons. Emily Landau and Shimon Stein warn of the dangers inherent in Saudi proliferation, and discuss how the U.S. and Israel should respond:

So long as the motivation to go nuclear remains strong, states are likely to find a way to develop [nuclear] capabilities, even if they have to pay a price for doing so. In Iran’s case, the major motivation for going nuclear is to enhance its hegemonic power in the Middle East. . . . But in the case of Saudi Arabia, if strong international powers . . . were to take a harsher stance toward Iran’s regional aggressions and missile developments and were to cooperate in order to improve the provisions of the [2015 nuclear deal], this would most likely have a direct and favorable impact on Saudi Arabia’s calculations about whether to develop nuclear capabilities.

A decision by the U.S. administration (or for that matter any other supplier) to allow Saudi Arabia to have enrichment capabilities will confront Israel with a dilemma.

On the one hand, it has been Israeli policy to do its utmost to deny any neighboring country with whom it does not have a peace treaty the means to acquire and develop a nuclear program. If Israel remains loyal to this approach, it should seek to deny Saudi Arabia enrichment capabilities. In practical terms this would imply making its opposition known in Washington.

On the other hand, given the “tactical alliance” with Saudi Arabia which has been primarily developed in response to the common Iranian threat, Israel could consider sacrificing its long-term interest in denying nuclear capabilities for the sake of its current interest in cultivating relations with the Saudis. Israel, [however], should support the traditional U.S. nonproliferation policies that allow states to have access to nuclear fuel for civilian purposes, while denying them the option to produce it themselves.

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More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Nuclear proliferation, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia