IN terms of Middle East politics, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recently made some statements that — if indicative of Riyadh’s future policy — could have a significant impact on the region.
On Monday, comments published in American magazine The Atlantic quoted the prince as accepting Israel’s right to exist, alongside a Palestinian state, while last month, speaking to The Washington Post, he appeared to admit that the Saudis were responsible for the spread of Wahhabi ideology across the Muslim world as part of the Cold War. Considering Saudi Arabia’s place in the Muslim and Arab worlds, these words coming from the man who actually runs the show in Riyadh must not be taken lightly.
Concerning the spread of Wahhabism/ Salafism as a religio-political ideology, it is good that the prince has accepted this fact. In the Post interview, he said that the Saudis had promoted mosques and madressahs across the globe as a pushback to communism, and that Riyadh’s Western allies were on board.
This is no doubt true, as we experienced firsthand the use of religion to reverse the red tide in Afghanistan.
However, the prince indicated in the same interview that this policy of exporting a narrow brand of faith was being reviewed, which should be welcomed.
Coming to the recognition of Israel, it should be remembered that the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 — spearheaded by the Saudis — had already called for normalisation of ties with Israel if it went back to the 1967 borders and recognised the Palestinian right of return, among other things. Mohammed bin Salman’s statement, however, is most likely inspired by his extreme dislike of Iran — something he shares with Tel Aviv.
Interestingly, King Salman was swift to call for support to the Palestinians in a phone call to Donald Trump after his son’s remarks were published. While once any Arab state making peace with Israel was considered a pariah — eg Sadat’s Egypt — today’s sad reality is that Arab governments are willing to put the Palestinian issue on the back burner to establish ties with Israel.
On the domestic front, the crown prince may be blazing new trails by ensuring greater freedoms for women and a more relaxed social order. However, true reform can only take root if political freedoms and free expression are also encouraged. This is something the Saudi leadership must ponder over. Meanwhile, there is great need for caution on the external front.
The ruinous war in Yemen, which the crown prince has led, is an unmitigated human catastrophe.
Moreover, the growing warm ties with Israel and the harsh rhetoric towards Iran — the prince has placed Tehran as part of a “triangle of evil” and compared Iran’s supreme leader to Hitler — could spell the beginning of a new conflict in the region. If growth and stability are what he desires, then a new conflagration must be avoided.
Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2018