Washington’s MbS dilemma

Washington’s MbS dilemma
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Congressional hearings on the Saudi coalition’s actions in Yemen are yet another reminder that Saudi Arabia’s hard-charging Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, can be both reckless and reform-oriented. Which MbS, as he is called, continues to govern this strategically important country matters not only for American national security but for the world as well, because Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of crude oil and thus provides the fuel that makes the global economy function.

Although MbS clearly has reformist instincts, some of his actions show a reckless side that needs to be tempered. Take his disastrous foray into Yemen. While His Royal Highness is absolutely correct in wanting to thwart the Islamic regime of Iran from establishing a beachhead on his country’s southern border and support Yemen’s Houthi rebels, his approach has been reckless because the war has not deterred the mullahs in Iran. Instead, this proxy war has drained Saudi Arabia’s precious resources to the tune of $1 billion each month. Today, Yemen is a failed state where 8 million people are on the brink of famine and more than 1 million people are affected by cholera.

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Another foreign policy mistake committed by the young crown prince was his decision in 2017 to impose a blockade on Qatar, home to America’s largest prepositioning military base. Whatever legitimate reasons he may have had to punish his much smaller neighbor, this unfortunate move by MbS has left a permanent fissure within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at a time when the focus should be on the main threat to the region: the theocratic dictatorship of the Iranian regime.

The reformist instinct of MbS to attract foreign direct investment as a means to grow the Saudi economy has also run into headwinds due to His Royal Highness’s behavior. Last year’s arbitrary arrests of Saudi businessmen, government officials and even his uncles and cousins spooked global investors. According to the Wall Street Journal, foreign direct investment inflows into Saudi Arabia have dropped from $8 billion in 2013 to $1 billion in 2017. When foreign bankers and hedge-fund managers hear that those Saudis released by MbS cannot leave the country, have to wear ankle bracelets to track their movements, or have their bank accounts frozen, it leads observers such as University of Oklahoma’s Joshua Landis to conclude: “The Crown Prince has been rather clubfooted and has scared away investors.”

Mohammad bin Salman’s instinct to unleash the talents of individual Saudi citizens is admirable and his Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (MiSK) Foundation is setting the stage for the empowerment of Saudi men and woman. However, this reform initiative does not mean that other charitable organizations within Saudi Arabia have to be shut down. The King Abdullah Foundation was endowed by the late King, MbS’s uncle, not only as a means to preserve his legacy but because King Abdullah saw charity as a core duty of Muslims. Before curtailing the activities of that foundation and the arrest of its leadership team last year, the King Abdullah Foundation had established a partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to address the plight of refugees around the world. It is unfortunate that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler has stopped a foundation from helping those less fortunate within his borders and even those beyond the kingdom.

The Trump administration and members of Congress need to pay closer attention to the actions of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince because they have serious consequences for the stability of this long-time ally, as well as America’s national security.

Collectively, Washington must ask MbS to do the following:

  • First, end the proxy war with Iran in Yemen and, instead, focus financial and soft-power capabilities on helping the Iranian people free themselves of the clerical regime.
  • Second, lift the blockade of Qatar.
  • Third, provide an immediate status report on those still held in custody after their arbitrary arrest in 2017. Some members of the royal family continue to be under house arrest, including former Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayaf — a courageous warrior against al Qaeda who was working closely with American intelligence.
  • Fourth, unfreeze the activities of the King Abdullah Foundation.
  • Finally, allow access to the bank accounts of those whose assets have been confiscated. This will go a long way to providing confidence to foreign investors currently sitting on the sidelines.

Mohammad bin Salman must be applauded for allowing Saudi woman to drive and for opening the cultural space in this religiously conservative country. Yet, as one of Saudi Arabia’s longtime allies, Washington must reserve the right to raise objections when actions by its leader run contrary to America’s foreign policy interest, to its traditions of free-market enterprise, and to our national ethos of philanthropy.

Rob Sobhani, Ph.D., is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings, which works with a range of companies and investors in the United States, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. A former professor at Georgetown University, he has written several books, including, “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence,” and has worked with the King Abdullah Foundation on humanitarian and other projects.