Home/Daniel Larison/Don’t Believe the ‘Reformer’ Hype About MBS

Don’t Believe the ‘Reformer’ Hype About MBS

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with then- Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, May 20, 2017, at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo Shealah Craighead)

Rosie Bsheer warns Westerners not to fall for Mohammed bin Salman’s reformer act:

Even as Western governments and media outlets sing his praises, the young crown prince is viewed domestically as an incompetent and corrupt ruler who hides behind liberalism, tolerance and anti-corruption rhetoric [bold mine-DL]. This view is shared by ruling members of the monarchy, economic elites and the population at large, who see bin Salman as someone who has disturbed the status quo for the sake of massive personal enrichment and political aggrandizement.

Many Westerners are often eager to promote individual foreign leaders in as “reformers” or “moderates” so that it makes it easier to justify a close U.S. relationship with these leaders. Few would openly argue that the U.S.-Saudi relationship should remain the same or become even closer if the next king is a reckless incompetent who is actively destabilizing the surrounding region. For that reason, there is great reluctance on the part of supporters of the relationship to judge MBS on what he has actually done rather than what he says he wants to do in the future.

Bsheer comments on MBS’ recent power grab and how it benefits him and his father:

These arrests, cloaked in populist rhetoric trumpeting a purported campaign to end corruption, actually aim to silence and disempower, if not to completely purge, bureaucrats and members of the ruling family who hold economic and political power and are still not on board with Salman’s rise to power.

The arrests benefit Salman in two ways. Politically, they upend the balance of power in the Saudi regime, leaving Salman with few rivals. Financially, they make it easier to claim his rivals’ assets as his own, part of a two-year effort to consolidate economic power.

When stripped of their official justifications, we can see that these actions are not those of a reformer at all. They are the actions of a despot engaging in a massive abuse of power. If an adversarial authoritarian regime conducted such a purge and justified it in the same way, the near-unanimous response from the West would be criticism and ridicule, and that response would be appropriate. When MBS and his father do it, they are embraced by the president and their justification is taken at face value by far too many news outlets.

At the very least, MBS and his father should be subject to the same skepticism and criticism as any other authoritarian government. We should be wary of accepting the “reformer” credentials of a person who has so far distinguished himself for his hubris and incompetence while compiling a record of failure and repeated violations of international law. Perhaps we could refrain from labeling the man who is helping to starve millions of people to death as a “moderate.” Ideally, the U.S. should take the opportunity provided by MBS’ rise to recognize that the relationship with the Saudis has become a liability and put as much distance between us and Riyadh as possible.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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