Change is coming to Saudi Arabia, but the nature of the change is still viewed in darkness and through a veil.
A new piece by experienced Mideast correspondent Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker sheds some cautious light on the change, which doesn’t settle anything, but contradicts, at least in tone, a recent exploration of the Saudi situation by another experienced Mideast correspondent.
The agent of the change is a young Saudi prince, Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MBS.) MBS is currently the designated “crown prince,” which means he will likely become king. (I say “likely” because MBS previously wrested the crown prince-ship away from one of his cousins. This was roughly unprecedented in Saudi history. It may have helped that MBS is the favorite son of the current King Salman, but the rules of succession are complicated in the Saudi system, based somewhat on merit, and also involves the word “agnatic,” about which I suspect some of us (including me) have never previously heard.
A few months ago, New York Times columnist (and Minnesota boy) Thomas Friedman wrote a cautiously favorable piece about MBS, based mostly on MBS’ reputation as a reformer/modernizer on social issues.
Saudi Arabia is, by Western standards (and pretty much by any standards), a deeply sexist society, in which women were not allowed to even drive cars. Last year, the ban was lifted. Saudi Arabia is also deeply theocratic and undemocratic. In November, I linked to the Friedman piece, and described Friedman’s view as cautiously optimistic that the advent of MBS might mean progress on the personal freedom front in the deeply conservative Saudi society. Friedman was also cautiously impressed with what he saw as the anti-corruption side of MBS’ agenda.
On Monday Filkins, another great and experienced Mideast observer, published his likewise cautious and tentative but substantially darker take on the possible future of Saudi Arabia and the region when MBS takes full power. (Friedman, by the way, pops up in the Filkins piece, angrily and profanely responding to some critics of his previous piece.)
I’ll pass along below a few specifics and excerpts from the Filkins piece below, but first one more bit of prologue. A recent PBS/Frontline documentary titled “Bitter Rivals” (which I previewed in February) also helped me understand the degree to which the larger source of the perpetual chaos of the Mideast is about the Saudi-Iranian conflict over who should dominate the Muslim world. It’s a fight on many fronts along many divides, including the Sunni-Shia divide, the Arab-Persian divide and the U.S. ally-U.S. enemy divide.
If you read the full Filkins/New Yorker piece, you’ll also see plenty of echoes of that insight, and evidence that the Saudis and the Trumpies were pretty excited to discover that they share the obsession with Iran. Here’s a taste:
In late October , [Trump son-in-law Jared] Kushner paid an unpublicized visit to M.B.S., his third trip to the kingdom since the election. Though Kushner was supposed to focus on a plan for peace between Israel and Palestine, he had evidently decided that the more pressing goal was to unite the region against Iran.
Soon after Kushner departed, M.B.S. held a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, to discuss the prospects for peace in the Middle East. According to [an unnamed] former Obama Administration official, the Saudis presented a plan that was radically favorable to Israel. It would recognize Israel’s claims to Jerusalem and ratify nearly all of its settlements in the West Bank, offering the Palestinians only limited autonomy in areas under their control.
A senior Palestinian official told me that Arab leaders have been applying intense pressure to Abbas, apparently in cooperation with the Trump administration: “The whole idea is to settle the Jerusalem issue, so the White House can build a united front against Iran.” But, he said, “if Jerusalem is on the table, we will never do it.”