For Riyadh, building deep engagement with the US does require communications work

Riyadh could once reliably count on Washington to ward off external threats but no longer.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) and US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan attend the Saudi-US Partnership Gala event in Washington, on March 22. (Saudi Royal Palace)
Ambitious agenda. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) and US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan attend the Saudi-US Partnership Gala event in Washington, on March 22. (Saudi Royal Palace)

With an extensive series of meetings in Washington, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz began a tour of the United States to build relations with the Americans that are central to the crown prince’s national, political and even personal strategy.

His wide-ranging economic and social reform programme, centred on Vision 2030, is all about capacity building in a country that desperately lacks proficiency.

It’s partly by design. For example, the chronic weakness of the Saudi military, amply demonstrated in Yemen, is neither coincidental nor inevitable. It stems from the 1950s and ’60s when Arab monarchies and republics were routinely toppled and military governments swept the region. Saudi leadership took numerous measures to ensure that wouldn’t happen in Riyadh.

The side effect has been an expensive but wholly inadequate armed force. Analogies abound throughout a society conditioned to be politically passive and dependent on the government. However, plummeting oil prices and other developments meant business as usual was not an option.

Riyadh could once reliably count on Washington to ward off external threats but no longer. In the era of burden sharing under former US Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and US President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, Saudi Arabia obviously needs to urgently improve its military capacity.

That means major reforms, such as consolidating security forces, which has happened as they are all under the control of Crown Prince Mohammed. It also means learning fast from more capable partners, such as the United States.

Crown Prince Mohammed’s project aims at a sweeping transformation of Saudi society trying to turbocharge its development in a single generation. This has happened elsewhere — in Japan in the 19th century and in South Korea in the last quarter of the 20th century. Whether anything of the kind can be accomplished in Saudi Arabia remains to be seen but it’s exactly what the crown prince is attempting.

The conundrum, which makes such leaps forward so rare, is that they require the creation of new institutional capacity and the production of human capacity necessary to administer and staff wide-ranging public and private institutions more or less simultaneously. Technology and infrastructure can help but the key is to rapidly transform Saudi Arabia’s dependent subjects into empowered and productive citizens.

Crown Prince Mohammed is plainly counting on a greatly expanded partnership with the United States as a whole — not just government institutions — to give his ambitious agenda a fighting chance.

That’s why he isn’t only meeting with the White House, the Pentagon and Congress in Washington. He’s also going to high-tech hubs and innovation centres in Boston, Seattle, Silicon Valley and San Francisco. He’s going to meet with those in the energy industry in Houston. He’s going to talk with CEOs and financiers in New York.

Because culture and the reintroduction of public entertainment and enjoyment — quarantined in private spaces or forbidden altogether in Saudi society for many decades — are key imperatives, he’s going to meet with the entertainment industry in Hollywood.

At a news conference with the crown prince, Trump focused on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, at times sounding more like the manager of a car dealership than a US president. However, Crown Prince Mohammed will be very pleased with the proposed $1 billion in weapons sales announced already. That’s the easy part.

It’s going to be harder to make a deal on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy programme, especially after the crown prince told CBS News’ “60 Minutes” that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, so will Saudi Arabia.

It may sound reasonable in Riyadh and beyond to counter any Iranian nuclear weapon with an equivalent Arab deterrent but the comments underscore views that, if Saudi Arabia won’t forego uranium enrichment, Washington cannot be its main source of reactors.

The nuclear energy question points to a broader pattern. Crown Prince Mohammed has no problem dealing with the Trump administration or the Pentagon. Congress, however, may try to block the weapons sales due to concerns about the war in Yemen. It recently rejected a bipartisan proposal to block further US participation in Yemen. The sentiment is out there and it’s growing.

The crown prince and Saudi Arabia need to attend to their image, not merely with the administration, but with the entire country. Many Americans like where Crown Prince Mohammed is going, especially with social and religious reforms, but are uneasy about the autocratic way he’s getting there.

If the crown prince is going to secure the kind of sustained, broad and deep engagement with the United States in general that he seems to be counting on for the grand transformation he is attempting, there is important communications work to be done.