In 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia also finally has a serious modernizer who wants to diversify the economy from oil, expand the public space of women and ease other cultural strictures. The U.S. has a stake in his success and in particular should help him prevail as soon as possible against the Houthis in Yemen.
Westerners frequently exaggerate the “modernizing” impulses of the next generation of leaders in a despotic government, and the individual leaders they celebrate almost always disappoint their enthusiasts. If the noxious relationship with the Saudis must continue, the U.S. would still be mistaken to link itself closely to the fortunes of Salman’s son. For one thing, he isn’t yet the next in line of succession, and the U.S. shouldn’t be taking sides in an internecine rivalry in Riyadh. For another, the prince’s main accomplishment to date has been to help mire his country in an unwinnable war that is draining Saudi resources every month. The U.S. can’t help the coalition “prevail” in Yemen. It can only make itself more complicit in the unfolding catastrophe that the coalition has created with our government’s support.
While MBS may make delusional claims about being able to win the war in a matter of days, the coalition’s two-year record of ineptitude, war crimes, and creating a massive humanitarian disaster show that this is nonsense. In the meantime, the “serious modernizer” has succeeded only in reducing a poor neighbor to the brink of famine and has helped create the conditions for a growing cholera epidemic. As Saudi defense minister, he has already failed in the biggest undertaking of his brief career, and it would be strange to expect him to prove more competent in succeeding in any of his other projects. Expecting him to modernize Saudi Arabia requires ignoring the enormous costs of waging an unnecessary war and his incompetent management of the same.