How to Solve a Problem Like Mohammad bin Salman

October 22, 2018 | Elliott Abrams
About the author: Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the chairman of the Tikvah Fund.

When Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known as MbS) consolidated his power as successor to the throne and de-facto ruler, many in the West had high hopes for him. He allowed women to drive, initiated important economic reforms, cracked down on the export of an intolerant and fundamentalist brand of Islam, and tacitly realigned his country with Israel. But the kidnapping of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his death in custody—whether intentional or accidental—have, in Elliott Abrams’ words, demonstrated the crown prince’s “ignorance about the United States, impulsiveness, brutality, or all three.” Abrams explains how the U.S. should respond:

[T]he image that MbS so carefully built has been smashed. Everyone has been reminded there is no modernizing of the Saudi government, just the sometimes praiseworthy and sometimes disgraceful efforts of one thirty-three-year-old man. Moreover, that man has decided that criticism is tantamount to treason. He has decided that to force the pace of change in the kingdom, as he believes he must, all opposition—whether it comes from within the royal family or from elements of broader Saudi society—must be crushed. No doubt he sees himself as an enlightened despot who must seize all the reins of power or see the brighter future slip away.

This cannot work, for us or for Saudi Arabia. That conclusion is based not only on sentiment or on moral revulsion at what was done to Jamal Khashoggi, whom I knew, but on a realist view of Riyadh. It would not be fair to say that the current Saudi arrangements inevitably led to the gruesome scene in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, but that denouement was more a logical byproduct than an accident. . . .

MbS is today crown prince, deputy prime minister (the king always has the additional title of prime minister), defense minister, head of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, head of the Council on Security and Political Affairs, and more. That arrangement is unprecedented for Saudi Arabia and is alien to every other Arab monarchy. . . . Whatever MbS loses in his ability to force through beneficial changes must be given up now, because unrestrained, unlimited power has too often been used badly.

This is not a call for a coup but for a combination of American pressure and reasoning with the king—whose views will be crucial—and with the crown prince himself. . . . We must tell both of them that even in the cold world of business and international politics, the vicious murder of a journalist can change the image of a nation and a prince overnight. We should clearly express our moral outrage. And we should then harness it—not to abandon Saudi Arabia, but to insist that Saudi Arabia move farther away from gruesome violence and start to create a system of governance and law that can truly modernize the country and sustain the alliance with it that we have had since 1945.

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