Saudi Arabia, like Pakistan, has been one of those problematic allies. Security cooperation on one hand, coddling and funding of Islamist extremists on the other. It’s assumed by many in the U.S. Intel community that the House of Saud is merely buying off the Tehran-backed terrorists to keep their bacillus out of the Kingdom. But that deal of convenience could only last so long. Someone was inevitably going to rewrite the rules.
Enter a prince.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has rocked the boat by granting more liberties to women, cozying up to Israel, challenging Iran in Yemen, and changing the image of Riyadh from an oil-rich religiously fundamentalist medieval sand trap to a nation struggling to enter the modern era. This has not sat perfectly well with some of the myriad number of princes who comprise the state. Nor are the Islamist radicals in and outside the Kingdom happy. But for the average filthy-rich Saud, at least one not extorted or purged in that little operation of 2017, it is increasingly popular.
That’s why allegiances have switched from theological loyalty to a growing nationalism and another, albeit strained, loyalty to the ambitious “Vision 2030” plan championed by MBS. 2030 seeks to diversify the economy, develop the public sector infrastructure, and upgrade the military. In other words, drag the country kicking and screaming into the 19th century.
The plan ruffles feathers because it ends goodies like cheap utilities, tax-free shopping, and easy government sinecures. It also lifts, more by attitude than edict, some restrictions on free speech. While the national conversation is not exactly going to morph into a U.S. town hall meeting, it’s a marked improvement from the days when fundy mullahs exclusively ruled the airwaves and social norms.
This is a positive development for the U.S. because the more normalized the Sauds become the better allies they will be in a pivotal region. Given their aforementioned less than completely covert Intel cooperation with Israel, the evolution is bearing national security fruit for U.S. interests. One hopes the desert continues to bloom in just this fashion.