And then there’s Saudi Arabia. I have little doubt that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the only one in his family who would have initiated the vital social, religious and economic reforms that he’s dared to do all at once — and that he is also the only one in that family who’d have undertaken the bullying foreign policy initiatives, domestic power plays and excessive personal buying sprees he’s dared to do all at once. These are two halves of the same M.B.S. package, and, as I’ve argued, our job is to help curb his bad impulses and nurture his good ones. But Trump — who still doesn’t even have an ambassador in Saudi Arabia — is AWOL.
It doesn’t seem to occur to Friedman that one half of the “package” he describes undermines and destroys the other. Suppose for the sake of argument that the de facto Saudi ruler truly wants to pursue these “vital social, religious, and economic reforms.” Even if that’s true, his intensifying repression, incompetent diplomacy, and reckless belligerence are wrecking or discrediting the few modest changes he has made so far. He has scared off foreign investors and his shakedown purge has contributed to massive capital flight, and everything he does confirms that he doesn’t know what he’s doing or how to go about achieving the grandiose goals he has set for his country. The same overweening ambition that inspires the “reform” agenda can’t be divorced from the power grabs, crackdowns, and pointless wars. Friedman has spent the last year and a half gasping in excitement about all the things Mohammed bin Salman might do in the future while studiously ignoring the horrific and stupid things he is doing in the present, and even now he is still offering only the mildest criticism.
Friedman says that the U.S. should “curb” the crown prince’s “bad impulses,” but he never says what that would mean in practice or why disciplining the reckless despot should continue to be our responsibility. U.S. indulgence has encouraged and fed Mohammed bin Salman’s worst impulses for the last several years, and yet I have never once heard or read Friedman demanding that the U.S. end military support or arms sales to the kingdom. Friedman says that Trump is “AWOL,” but that ignores that Trump has closely embraced the Saudi royals and gives them whatever they want. He also mentions the war on Yemen in passing, but all he can manage to say is that “the Saudi-U.A.E. war in Yemen has been so badly botched by incompetents in the Saudi Air Force that they are now being accused of possible war crimes.” That criticism is as weak as it is belated.
There may be incompetent Saudi and Emirati pilots, but to say that they are the ones that “botched” the war presupposes that there was a way for the Saudis and their allies to attack Yemen successfully that didn’t lead to the current disaster. Friedman can’t acknowledge that the main problem with the war is that it has always been pursuing unrealistic goals with inadequate means in the prosecution of an unjust military intervention in another country’s conflict, and his golden boy has been the one running the Saudi side of the war from the start. Saudi coalition forces have been committing war crimes on Mohammed bin Salman’s orders for more than three years, and the crown prince is one of the biggest war criminals currently in power. Saudi war crimes in Yemen haven’t just happened because some pilots “botched” their assignments, but have been part of a deliberate campaign to devastate the country’s economy and infrastructure. Coalition planes systematically target Yemen’s domestic food production and distribution by bombing farms and fishing boats. Coalition pilots aren’t just “botching” things–they’re carrying out the criminal orders of their superiors.
According to one recent report, the crown prince is quoted as saying this:
“Do not care about international criticism,” Bin Salman is alleged to have told his officers, a reference to the international condemnation of military operations against civilians in Yemen, particularly raids that kill women and children. “We want to leave a big impact on the consciousness of Yemeni generations. We want their children, women and even their men to shiver whenever the name of Saudi Arabia is mentioned.”
Mohammed bin Salman is an unabashed war criminal, and an honest assessment of his real record requires acknowledging that. We should all refuse to give him a pass because he might one day carry out the “reforms” he keeps promising but almost never delivers. Instead he should be treated with the same contempt that we show to other war criminals.