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

At the UN, Nikki Haley Told the Truth about Israel—and the World Didn’t Burn Down

April 22 2019

Although Nikki Haley had never been to Israel when she took the position of American ambassador to the UN, and had no prior foreign-policy experience, she distinguished herself as one of the most capable and vigorous defenders of the Jewish state ever to hold the position. Jon Lerner, who served as Haley’s deputy during her ambassadorship, sees the key to her success—regarding both Israel and many other matters—in her refusal to abide by the polite fictions that the institution holds sacred:

Myths are sometimes assets in international relations. The fiction that Taiwan is not an independent country, for example, allows [the U.S.] to sustain [its] relationship with China. In other cases, however, myths can create serious problems. On Israel–Palestinian issues, the Trump administration was determined to test some mythical propositions that many had come to take for granted, and, in some cases, to refute them. Haley’s prominence at the UN arose in large part from a conscious choice to reject myths that had pervaded diplomacy on Israel–Palestinian issues for decades. . . .

[For instance], U.S. presidents were intimidated by the argument that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would trigger violent explosions throughout the Muslim world. President Trump and key colleagues doubted this, and they turned out to be right. Violent reaction in the Palestinian territories was limited, and there was virtually none elsewhere in Arab and Islamic countries. . . .

It turns out that the United States can support Israel strongly and still work closely with Arab states to promote common interests like opposing Iranian threats. The Arab street is not narrowly Israel-minded and is not as volatile as long believed. The sky won’t fall if the U.S. stops funding UN sacred cows like the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). Even if future U.S. administrations revert to the policies of the past, these old assumptions will remain disproved. That is a valuable accomplishment that will last long after Nikki Haley’s UN tenure.

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More about: Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, United Nations, US-Israel relations