Opinion

How Far Can America and Israel Trust the Instincts of Saudi Arabia's New Heir?

King-in-waiting Muhammad bin Salman signals both promise and peril. He's a modernizer, but also impulsive and has disregarded coordination with the U.S. On Iran, that could be dangerous

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman during a bilateral meeting, Saturday, May 20, 2017
Photo/Evan Vucci

The timing of the news out of Saudi Arabia was unexpected. But the die had been cast and the result was inevitable: King Salman’s son, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), was elevated to Crown Prince, displacing his older cousin, Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN). Like monarchs everywhere, Saudi kings favor passing the throne to their direct descendants. 

Given his youth (31) and the advanced age of his father, MBS could rule for decades. For the United States and Israel, his elevation contains both considerable promise and some peril. Both countries will need to be opportunistic, employ deft diplomacy, and stand firm for their key interests to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

MBS has already established himself as a reformer and a modernizer, far bolder than any previous Saudi leader.

While MBN was known to be a steady and reliable partner of the United States, particularly in counterterrorism, he is from an older, more conservative generation, and it is nearly inconceivable to imagine him tackling the major social and economic reforms championed by MBS: privatization of Aramco, cutting subsidies to force more Saudi citizens into the workforce, upgrading the professionalism of the Saudi armed forces, increased opportunities for women, and modern entertainment options. MBS’s openness to new ideas is encouraging, and could, over the course of years, presage dramatic changes in Saudi society and its relationship with the world.

Strategically, MBS is inclined toward leadership of the moderate Sunni Arab states. He has forged a particular bond with the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, Muhammad bin Zayed, and has emerged as strong backer of Egypt’s President Abdelfattah al-Sisi.  What unites all these players is their antipathy toward both Iran and the radical Shia axis it leads, and Sunni Islamist movement from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaida to ISIS

And herein lies an opportunity for the United States and Israel. The emergence of strong Arab leaders who identify the same adversaries that threaten the United States and Israel, can further a process that has been underway for several years: the consolidation of a bloc of U.S. allies in the Middle East, encompassing both Sunni Arab states and Israel, who are strategically aligned, eager to cooperate with the United States and one another, and willing to shoulder responsibilities in confronting the region’s radical players.

For Israelis, a dynamic Saudi leader who shares their strategic outlook and openly acknowledges that it places them in the same camp, is nearly a dream come true.

At the same time, MBS has demonstrated a penchant for confrontation with neighbors and adversaries quite unlike previous Saudi rulers, and his campaigns have not always been well-coordinated with the United States. 

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump are welcomed by Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at Al Murabba Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

The Saudi campaign in Yemen, aimed at defeating Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels, has been poorly conducted, with random shelling causing large-scale civilian casualties and contributing to humanitarian disasters of hunger and disease.  MBS has ignored American advice to improve precision targeting of legitimate military targets, yet has insisted that the United States give the Saudis full backing.

The more recent dust-up with Qatar, in which Saudi Arabia has led a campaign to isolate its smaller neighbor over its support for radical Sunni groups, was a further example of uncoordinated impulsiveness with direct, and harmful, effects on American interests. Notwithstanding President Trump’s initial approving comments and tweets, the United States has been forced to try to mediate a dispute that complicates the conduct of American military air operations in the region out of a large Qatari airbase. 

The Saudis’ resistance to U.S. proposals to deescalate led the State Department spokeswoman to declare the United States "mystified" as to their true agenda.

If MBS were to adopt a similar approach to Iran, he could spark a conflict that could escalate rapidly. In such a circumstance, the United States would instantly be called upon to intervene, possibly pulling it into a major military conflagration at a time not of its choosing. While Saudi Arabia could spark the confrontation, Americans would end up doing most of the fighting and bearing most of the costs.

While standing solidly in support of Saudi security, the United States will have to be extremely firm with MBS in asserting its expectation that he will not take actions that could harm U.S. interests, or incur U.S. obligations, without full consultation in advance. Even Israelis, who may harbor hopes for an American-led campaign to confront Iran or damage its nuclear facilities, can understand that any such decision must be taken and led from Washington, not Riyadh.

Finally, there is hope in both the United States and Israel that MBS would be open to improved relations, and even a process of normalization, with Israel. While such steps are to be encouraged, we should avoid irrational exuberance.

There is little to suggest that MBS’s approach to this issue strays far from the Arab Peace Initiative, which holds out the prospect of full normalization with Israel, but only in the context of a two-state solution that ends the conflict with the Palestinians. While he continues to consolidate his own position, it is unlikely that he would take the domestic political risks, or distract from his higher priority regional issues, by overtly warming up ties with Israel before there is a major breakthrough on the Palestinian issue. 

As Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt continue their regional diplomacy, they should be clear with the Arabs that the United States desires and supports a normalization process, but equally clear with Israel about what will likely be necessary to achieve it.

Daniel Shapiro served as Senior Director for the Middle East on the National Security Council, and a U.S. Ambassador to Israel, during the Obama Administration.  He is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.