MbS’s rebranding exercise on Saudi Arabia and Hitler

MbS’s rebranding exercise on Saudi Arabia and Hitler
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Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the “new Hitler” of the Middle East, according to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who arrived in the United States this past weekend and is scheduled to meet President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE in the Oval Office today.

The description actually dates back to an interview that the prince, known as MbS, gave to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, published last November. The prince is asked about it in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview that was broadcast on Sunday evening. Speaking in Arabic, MbS explains that the Iranian leader “wants to expand. He wants to create his own project in the Middle East, very much like Hitler who wanted to expand at the time. Many countries around the world and in Europe did not realize how dangerous Hitler was until what happened, happened. I don’t want to see the same events happening in the Middle East.”

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It is a slightly expanded version of what he told Friedman and encapsulates MbS’s mindset that Shia Iran is a threat to the Sunni Muslim world, led by Saudi Arabia. It also implies, arguably correctly, that the United States did not really understand the threat posed by Hitler — and may not be appreciating today’s Iranian threat, either. Ouch!

 

The follow-up question in the CBS interview is: “Does Saudi Arabia need nuclear weapons to counter Iran?” The answer completely ignores the possibility of asking for and assuming some American nuclear umbrella. “Saudi Arabia,” MbS says, “does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

Oh dear, Saudi Arabia wants to buy nuclear power reactors and the U.S. Westinghouse-led consortium wants to be chosen as the supplier. Riyadh also wants access to enrichment and reprocessing technologies, the respective ways to produce highly enriched uranium and plutonium, both nuclear explosives. One wonders whether MbS thought about the consequences of his sound-bite before delivering it.

The Hitler comments and the nuclear statement likely will raise concern that, on foreign policy, MbS is impetuous. Life is not simple. Iran’s behavior is a threat to the kingdom. And the region may be a better place without the ayatollahs in Tehran. But getting there is the challenge. If Saudi Arabia tries to destabilize Iran by promoting insurrection, as MbS has said privately to visiting interlocutors, its own vulnerability may be quickly exposed.

While MbS’s social reforms — women driving and a more moderate Islam — are being widely-applauded internationally, and his economic vision is considered necessary, if probably over-ambitious, on foreign policy he is judged less sure-footed. The Yemen war has become a quagmire in the desert. Blockading Qatar, along with his soulmate Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, has failed to win the quick surrender of their irritating neighbor that the two men may have expected. Twisting the arm of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, prompting his brief resignation, was viewed as ridiculous.

A columnist in Financial Times, writing after MbS’s recent visit to London, may well have made the correct judgment on what the 32-year-old, soon-to-be-king of Saudi Arabia is all about when he suggested that MbS was re-branding the kingdom, rather than reforming it.

And, of course, if one quotes historical precedent, there is always the danger that a scholar or two may come up with a reference to remind the world that, in judging World War II history, Saudi Arabia’s stance is open to criticism. Not only did it wait until May 1945 before declaring war but in the late 1930s Saudi princes, MbS’s uncles, had visited Hitler. In the 1970s, King Khaled opined that the Führer was a “maligned man,” and Crown Prince (later King) Abdullah used to shock visiting diplomats by showing a dagger he had been given as a gift from Hitler.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.