Most of us have told our kids that the ends don’t justify the means. But what if your objective is something as audacious as rapidly modernizing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? What if your aim is to break the kingdom’s support for the extremist form of Islam — known as Wahhabism — that has served as the essential source material for ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the jihadist ideology that American troops have been at war with since 9/11? How much centralization of power, even absolutism, would you put up with to see that revolutionary program succeed?
For American foreign policy, that is one of the central questions posed by the shocking middle-of-the-night arrests of princes, ministers, former ministers, and high-powered businessmen, that the 32-year old crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MbS), ordered last weekend.
Those detained Saturday night were charged with corruption. The charging authority was apparently a “supreme anti-corruption committee” that MbS’s father, King Salman, brought into existence by decree only a few hours before the boom got lowered on its first targets. MbS, not surprisingly, is chairman of the committee, which has been granted sweeping powers to investigate cases, imprison suspects, freeze assets, and seize property. All of it outside normal law enforcement and judicial channels. None of it bounded by any well-developed set of rules or regulations. What rights the accused will have to challenge and appeal the actions taken against them is far from clear.
The use of corruption as a battering ram to eliminate opponents — both real and imagined — is straight out of the aspiring strongman’s playbook. It’s exactly the strategy that President Xi Jinping has used to make himself the most powerful Chinese leader in more than a generation. The people love seeing the powerful laid low. And the charges often have merit, especially in polities where a single institution — be it the Chinese Communist Party or the House of Saud — has operated largely outside the rule of law for decades.
But make no mistake, Saudi Arabia’s version of the Saturday Night Massacre was less about corruption than the accumulation of overwhelming power in the hands of MbS. With the arrest of the powerful prince in charge of the kingdom’s most effective fighting force, the praetorian National Guard, MbS now controls all of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful political, economic, and security institutions.
No Saudi leader has come close to exercising this degree of absolute authority since the death of the Kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud, in 1953. The old Saudi system that gave a nod to consensual decision making, paid great deference to age and experience, and balanced power among rival wings of the royal family has been smashed to smithereens. The only thing that counts now is fully bending the knee to MbS.
The crown prince’s supporters insist that all this is essential to implement the kinds of sweeping reforms that the kingdom so badly requires. A sledgehammer, not a scalpel, is needed to break the stranglehold that a network of powerful princes and conservative clerics have used to block necessary change.
U.S. policymakers, for the most part, seem willing to go along. And not without cause. MbS has set out an ambitious agenda of reforms, known as “Vision 2030,” that would bring badly needed diversity and dynamism to a stagnant Saudi economy. He has undermined the powers of the dreaded religious police. He has arrested radical preachers. He has spoken bluntly of the imperative of moving toward “moderate Islam.” He seems determined to liberalize Saudi society, encouraging tourism, entertainment, and, most importantly, the empowerment of women — symbolized by his recent decision to lift the longtime ban on female driving.
No one should have any doubts. If successful, MbS’s revolutionary program to transform Saudi society would unambiguously serve U.S. interests. It’s no exaggeration to say that Saudi Arabia, however inadvertently, has historically played a greater role in fueling the rise of radical jihadism than any other country in the world. MbS has made clear that he’s committed to ending all that, transforming the kingdom from being a fundamental part of the problem to an essential part of the solution.
There’s perhaps no more important blow that could be struck in the war on terrorism than to have Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the site of its two holiest mosques, move from being the fountainhead of the extremist ideology that we’ve been fighting since 9/11 to being its slayer.
Those are high stakes, indeed. To achieve them, America’s tolerance for centralization and ruthlessness will rightly be high — especially in a Saudi society where the ruling establishment has never been much for indulging the rule of law, due process, and individual rights.
The threat for now is less that MbS’s power grab succeeds than that it fails. That he pushes too hard, too fast. That he’s reckless, unnecessarily antagonizing powerful adversaries, declaring war on too many enemies at once. That his reform program collapses and Saudi society is destabilized or worse. One shudders to think about the consequences for U.S. security in a Middle East already teetering on the edge of a strategic meltdown.