Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘Charm Offensive’: Hype or Substance?
Mohammed bin Salman is making his debut as Crown Prince during his visit to the United States by promoting a vision of reform for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but his foreign policies have left the Gulf divided, while Yemen suffers from the horrors of war. As MBS meets American security and business leaders, he will continue to promote himself as a social and economic reformer bringing Saudi Arabia into the modern era. Since Mohammed bin Salman rose to power, he has already become a controversial figure. The Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen has contributed to the world’s worst humanitarian disaster according to the United Nations, and reports have also emerged on a possible plan to reshape the governing dynamics in the Middle East that could possibly lead to the breakup of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
MBS was confirmed Crown Prince last year and is most likely going to replace his father Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as the future king of Saudi Arabia. MBS has promoted many domestic reforms at home including easing restrictions on women’s rights by allowing them to drive and attend sporting events in stadiums. MBS has also opened up to allowing entertainment and public performances to take place in the KSA, and one of his top priority domestic reforms is the anti-corruption campaign against domestic rivals who criticize him. On the foreign policy angle, Mohammed bin Salman is a strong vocalist against Iranian influence in the region.
The main purpose of Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington is to forge strong relations with the United States that go back decades after the Second World War. Now that the Trump administration is in the White House, the Saudis might have learned their lessons from Obama after the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, and the ratification of the JCPOA in 2015. MBS basically has two goals during his visit to Washington. One is to legitimize his position as the future king of Saudi Arabia with American recognition, and the second goal for MBS is to promote his ideas for regional policy that align U.S. interests with Saudi interests in the Middle East. However, the extent to which the United States and Saudi Arabia can achieve common goals together on the global stage remains unclear.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reiterated that the status of U.S.-Saudi relations are at an all-time high. In addition, MBS is currently embarking on an extraordinary trip to the United States that is entering a new phase for welcoming entertainment, free markets, and more business from the arms industries. However, Mohammed bin Salman does not really care about President Trump’s political standing domestically, and the Saudis assume that Trump will hang around until the 2020 presidential elections. On the foreign policy angle, the Saudis have acted very amateurish in the region with the ongoing campaign in Yemen, as well as being one of the main culprits behind the blockade on Qatar, and arming rebel groups in Syria and Iraq. The key factor behind the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been the close working cooperation on public relations which resulted in millions of dollars pouring into influencing policies in U.S. think tanks and advertising lobby groups. Since MBS was declared Crown Prince, his overall performance has been mixed. On the domestic front, many Saudis are welcoming the reforms inside the KSA, but the verdict is too early on, for example, the Vision 2030 and the NEOM projects. However, the process MBS is leading inside Saudi Arabia remains autocratic with change starting at the top.
In regards to Mohammed bin Salman’s recent visit to London, it was a well-planned trip that allowed MBS to take advantage of Prime Minister Theresa May’s desire to show the British public that she can bring in foreign investment in light of the current Brexit negotiations with the European Union. But the difference with MBS’s visit to the U.S. is to rectify Saudi Arabia’s influence on institutions that don’t rely heavily on the Trump administration. In other words, MBS has listened to the advice of distancing himself from Trump and has also committed Saudi Arabia to maintaining stability in its relationship with the United States. Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the United States is fundamental for Saudi Arabia because MBS realizes that relying on Trump alone is not enough and he needs to win over U.S. institutions. This ensures that Riyadh is on board with the policies of the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as with the White House who value the U.S.-Saudi partnership.
During Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington, he will also meet with new soon-to-be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and with Rex Tillerson out at the State Department, the push to resolve the Qatar blockade will be weakened. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fairly pro-Qatar when the Saudis launched the blockade on the small GCC nation, and he even tried to convince President Trump not to support the Saudi-led effort. Trump will at least try to create bridges with the GCC states, but the Saudis have sent signals to the White House that the Qatar blockade is not a huge priority for them, and they would rather have Kuwait continue mediation efforts instead of Trump. The U.S. will try to push the Saudis to resolve the GCC crisis as soon as possible, but Riyadh is not willing to make concessions anytime in the near future. Even with Pompeo in the State Department, who shares most of Trump’s foreign policy positions on the Middle East, there is likely going to be no significant shift from Washington’s stance in the coming weeks on the GCC crisis.
Inside Saudi Arabia, many Saudis, including the young generation support Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms to liberalize daily life through women being able to drive and joining the workforce, as well as entertainment with concerts and cinemas. The problem MBS will run into through implementing these domestic reforms will be the criticism from the Wahhabi establishment and parts of the royal family. A lot of people in Saudi society are not entirely pleased with the failures of Riyadh’s rather aggressive foreign policy in the region from the blockade on Qatar to the war in Yemen, but internally, a lot of MBS’s domestic reforms are appealing to many younger Saudis who want to see change for the future. However, many critics oversee the activities of Mohammed bin Salman as someone who has tight control over the media and controls every single lever of power in the military, interior, and economy within the kingdom. MBS has promoted a new one-person government and we are not sure what the verdict will be coming from the Saudi people for at least another couple of years.
Saudi Arabia needs to diversify away from oil, but MBS has launched some ambitious projects like the Vision 2030 and the NEOM City project that have some support from ordinary Saudis and from the business establishment as Saudi Arabia continues to search for global partners who can bring in the investments needed to make these ambitious projects a success. The problem many people will have with MBS is his arbitrary nature of governance. In other words, Saudi Arabia remains lucrative in terms of investment and Mohammed bin Salman is trying to open up monopolies in the kingdom for people, and he needs American investment to carry out his economic projects. If the United States does not provide the investments needed, MBS could simply look elsewhere to British, Chinese, French, and Japanese markets. However, again, we will see in the short-term if MBS is a capable Crown Prince or not for Saudi Arabia going forward.