To cash in on Kushner influence Saudis must sell their agenda to America

President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Washington.
President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Washington. AP

Foreign royalty comes to America to experience the grandeur of the nation, its natural wonders, the success of its industry, the vast complexity of its society, and, ultimately, to do a little shopping.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, is no different. Except he’s here to buy some very pricey weaponry, a piece of the entertainment industry, and perhaps a few personal baubles. But this is not simply a shopping trip. MBS is also here to deliver the hard-sell.

First on his list, is his desire to woo American financial centers for foreign direct investments in his development schemes, from building a new city to selling off parts of the Saudi cash-cow, the state oil company Aramco. To make his pitch credible, he needs to show that Saudi Arabia is in the midst of dramatic liberalizing reform, but also that the sweeping changes are manageable and that he’s really in charge.

It helped that the first stop on his two-week whirlwind tour was the Oval Office to see his closest global ally, President Donald Trump. MBS has unfettered access to the White House via his pal, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. In charge of Middle East peace, Kushner holds the key, if not the security clearance, to brokering a summit level negotiation. The deal? MBS gets what he needs, but quietly gives on those things he and his nation’s Wahabi clerics find unpalatable, like loosening up on Qatar and swallowing America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The Kushner-MBS friendship has already yielded MBS significant returns. Kushner’s influence may have been the catalyst for the president’s visit last year. A new U.S. president’s first state visit is usually reserved for Ottawa, Canada. Instead, breaking precedent and making a significant statement, Trump flew first to Riyadh to sword dance with Saudi royals. Trump’s trip signaled Saudi’s regional primacy to the Arab world and was a clear shot across the bow of Saudi’s number one rival, Iran.

In doing so, Trump gave his blessing to MBS and carte blanche to the kingdom to let loose on its plans to build regional influence and achieve Gulf dominance over nemesis Iran.

Trump’s personal antipathy to both the Obama-negotiated nuke deal and Iran’s political and religious leadership made it easy for him to put all his eggs in the Saudi basket. Riyadh supports Trump’s anti-Iran stance and his desire to dump the multilateral nuclear deal. In return, Trump sold hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia and got a pretty good welcome party onto the world stage.

Now it is MBS’s turn to start the charm offensive with the American public, politicians, and the pecuniary investors who are standing by and wondering whether to bet on the Crown Prince’s chance for success -- and the desert Kingdom’s latest evolutionary promise. It is a big bet with incalculable risks and potentially dramatic downsides.

Saudi Arabia will not only get more arms, it will get a pinky-promise that the White House will look the other way as the Riyadh drops U.S. munitions on neighboring Yemen, a poor and suffering country that is ground zero for the proxy war between the Saudis and Iranians. Further, the Saudis could get American nuclear power plants as they pursue energy diversification and move away from the oil that pays the bills, builds the Kingdom’s coffers, and powers its desalination plants.

Thirty-two years old and in a hurry, MBS told CBS’s 60 Minutes that he has a vision and a plan to bring his father’s kingdom into the 21st century by recognizing women’s rights, diminishing the power of the clerical class, and instituting liberalizing social and cultural norms. MBS’s reforms are radical at home, but mild by Western standards. Women may soon be driving, for example, but they still live under male guardianship.

Longtime Saudi observers note, however, that past liberalizations and American influence helped breed al-Qaeda. Seen as occupying infidels in the holy land of Mecca and Medina, American military forces on Saudi soil inspired Osama bin Laden to conspire against the House of Saud, attack the Twin Towers, and sell a global jihad.

Freedoms are hard gained and easily lost in the Middle East. MBS, if sincere in his stated goals and confident in his power and approach, may be able to begin an imposed reformation on one of the world’s most closed and oppressive societies. Already given a free hand and an encouraging push by the Trump administration, he must make sure not to overreach in his regional military ambition or crack down on civil liberties at home. At the same time, he needs to speed religious and social change. That is a tall order even for a rising absolute monarch.

In the best of all worlds, MBS pulls off a fast and furious societal flip, rebuilds war-torn Yemen, and lives to tell about it all. In the meantime, he should enjoy his U.S. visit, observe America’s diversity, learn more about women’s freedoms, marvel at California’s innovative technologies and creative entertainment industry. And spend a few more bucks while he’s here.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu or on Twitter @KounalakisM.