Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
Jared Kushner has a vast foreign policy portfolio, including brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, as well as managing relations with both Mexico and China.
Those efforts are far worse off today than they were a year ago because Kushner’s father-in law has instigated policies that have sabotaged them.
President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has torpedoed any chance of the United States acting as an honest broker with the Palestinians for the foreseeable future. Trump insisting that Mexico pay for “the wall” resulted in Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto canceling plans last month for his first visit to the White House. And Trump unilaterally pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal reduced American influence in Asia, while strengthening Chinese power.
There is, however, one area where Kushner has scored a win, which is placing a big bet on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, who only four years ago was an obscure Saudi prince and today is running the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
History will tell if the Trump administration’s backing of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly referred to as “MBS,” is merely a tactical victory rather than a strategic victory, but nonetheless a win it is.
On Tuesday, MBS will visit the White House on what is effectively a state visit. (MBS’s 82-year-old father, King Salman, is monarch in name, but it’s clear his son is calling the shots.)
Given how significant MBS is to the future of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East and also the fact that Kushner and Trump have bet the house on MBS, it’s worth exploring how that happened and what it means.
Kushner and Trump have embraced both the Emiratis and MBS who share a deep suspicion of Iran. Kushner believed they would also help with his now-dead-in-the-water peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis.
And why is that? Well, Kushner is close to the powerful and effective United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, who has served in Washington for a decade and shaped Kushner’s view of the Middle East. Of their first meeting, Otaiba said, “He did all the asking, and I did all the talking.” They have remained in regular contact since.
Kushner, 37, and MBS, just a few years his junior, have also bonded. MBS was one of the first foreign officials to visit the Trump White House even before his father had elevated him to his present role of crown prince.
The US-Saudi political allegiance
A demonstration of how all-in the Trump administration is with MBS is that Trump chose to pay his first state visit to Saudi Arabia. Typically, first state visits by American presidents are made to closely allied Western democracies such as Canada rather than to absolute monarchies such as the Saudi kingdom. In Saudi Arabia last May, Trump was treated to the kind of royal welcome – elaborate ceremonial sword dances in opulent palaces – that warms the Trumpian heart.
It was hardly an accident that just days after Trump’s triumphal trip, Saudi Arabia and the UAE began the blockade of their neighbor, the gas-rich kingdom of Qatar. The Saudis and Emirati ruling families loath Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV news channel. They also dislike Qatar’s tolerance for leaders of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a number of whom live in the tiny kingdom.
The fact that the blockade of Qatar hardly aligned with traditional American foreign policy goals didn’t seem to bother Kushner or Trump, although then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis did try to push back. After all, the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar is one of the most significant American bases in the world. That’s where the bombing campaigns against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and against the Taliban in Afghanistan are directed from.
Trump’s eagerness to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal also, of course, aligns with Saudi foreign policy, as does the Trump administration’s almost complete silence on the Saudis’ disastrous military campaign in Yemen against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels.
The Saudi campaign in Yemen helped instigate what UN agencies in December described as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” According to those agencies, more than half of Yemen’s population don’t have enough to eat. Yemen has also seen the worst outbreak of cholera in recorded history.
Trump and Kushner have, in short, largely absorbed the Saudi/MBS view of foreign policy in the Middle East despite the scant benefits and significant costs that come with this.
MBS at home
Domestically, MBS is moving fast to change the kingdom. What was once an absolute monarchy where the invariably geriatric monarch ruled in consultation with other members of the massive royal family, as well as with the Wahhabi religious establishment, is now a secularizing dictatorship ruled by a young prince who brooks no dissent or even any other power source.
On the one hand, MBS has cut down the powers of the feared religious police, allowed women to drive starting in June and encouraged once-forbidden concerts. As of this month, divorced women will get custody of their children without having to go to court, which is progressive family policy compared to some other Arab states.
On the other hand, beginning in November, MBS imprisoned more than 200 businessmen and members of the royal family in the ritzy confines of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh on charges of corruption. Only six months earlier Trump and Kushner were given the royal treatment at the very same hotel.
Corruption is an odd charge in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where the ruling family has named the entire country after itself, an indicator of how little separation there is between the resources of the state and the whims of its ruling family. MBS, for instance, is reported to have paid more than half a billion dollars for a yacht he took a fancy to in France.
Last month, MBS also fired much of the leadership of the Saudi military and replaced them with his own men. On one level, this seems entirely reasonable given the fiasco of Saudi military intervention in Yemen, but this also has the effect of making the leaders of the armed forces beholden to MBS.
Similarly, MBS has imprisoned a number of leading conservative clerics. This too can be justified as an effort to remove opposition to his liberalization of Saudi society, but it also has the effect of discouraging any opposition to MBS from the clergy, an until-now powerful force in Saudi society.
At the same time that MBS is both liberalizing Saudi society and quashing any form of possible dissent, he has also embarked on an ambitious plan known as Vision 2030 for weaning the Saudi economy from its almost entire dependence on oil and its citizens from their almost entire dependence on the state.
Saudi Arabia is a strange polity in that it is an absolute monarchy that functions simultaneously as an almost perfect socialist state, where most of the population work for the government, pay no taxes, receive subsidies for energy and electricity and enjoy free health care and education.
All that gets expensive. And in a world where $100 a barrel for oil won’t be seen again any time soon, Saudi Arabia simply can’t afford this kind of largesse anymore.
The aim of Vision 2030 is to privatize the defense sector as well as agriculture, education and health care and to sell off chunks of the oil giant Saudi Aramco. This has bankers salivating from Manhattan to London to Riyadh, as even selling a small part of Aramco might be the largest IPO in history, worth around $100 billion.
However, the IPO is unlikely to take place in Manhattan as the Saudis are well aware that ongoing litigation by the families of 9/11 victims might eventually end up in a massive settlement against them, so why take the risk of a flotation on Wall Street when it can be done in Riyadh or elsewhere?
When MBS meets with Trump and Kushner at the White House, the President and his son-in-law can give themselves a pat on the back; they supported MBS, who now controls every aspect of the Saudi economy, society and military. And there is the added benefit that he is moving Saudi Arabia in a more liberal direction at the same time he has a real plan to diversify the Saudi economy.
What is less clear is how some of MBS’ foreign policy gambles will play out. His intervention in neighboring Yemen remains a fiasco, while his blockade of Qatar has ended in a stalemate. His saber-rattling against Iran has intensified a sectarian proxy war between the Gulf States and Iran, raging from Yemen to Syria.
Kushner and Trump have placed a big bet on MBS. Let’s hope he doesn’t continue to deepen the conflicts across the already fragile Arab region.