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Washington Should Balance Saudi Arabia and Iran

President Donald Trump once was skeptical of the totalitarian dictatorship commonly known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He complained that the Saudis had funded terrorism against America and wondered why the U.S. paid to protect the wealthy petro-state.

However, after taking office the president, perhaps affected by the Saudi royals’ abundant flattery, acted like MBS Trumpjust another Westerner hired to do their bidding. The result has been a steady assault on American interests and values.

Abdul Aziz ibn Saud forged the new Saudi nation after the fortuitous collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The Kingdom mattered little until the discovery of oil in 1938. Abundant petroleum won America’s “friendship.”

The KSA belongs in another age. The country is an absolute, not constitutional, monarchy. Nor is rule based on primogeniture. Rather, until a couple years ago the crown was passed among an ever-aging set of brothers who were sons of ibn Saud.

That tended to result in short and decrepit reigns, as well as collegial rule. By one count around 7000 princes shared the nation’s bounty.

The royals long ago made a deal with fundamentalist Wahhabist clergy: the former would enforce social totalitarianism at home in return for the latter teaching obedience to the royals. However, low oil prices and a youthful population created increasing strain in the KSA.

Now the U.S. is dealing with the 32-year-old crown prince (and de facto sovereign) Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi regime once was cautious and measured, unwilling to let anything disturb the good life enjoyed by the royals.

However, MbS, as the crown prince is known, is taking his nation in conflicting directions. He is promoting economic opportunity and social modernity, while deepening political repression and seeking military hegemony.

It is a toxic mix that threatens America’s interests.

MbS won a reputation as a reformer by relaxing some of the KSA’s most archaic restrictions, especially on women. However, Islam remains the only acceptable faith and only those among the elect are allowed to intrude in politics.

Indeed, MbS turned a rather ramshackle, collegial authoritarian aristocracy into a more traditional personal dictatorship. The ruthless seizure of power, calculated centralization of authority, and brutal shakedown of wealth bode ill for the future.

Before MbS claimed kingly authority, Saudi Arabia intervened in Syria on behalf of radical jihadists who pose a far greater threat to the West than ever did the repressive but secular Assad regime. Riyadh also militarily backed Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy against the majority Shia population.

However, the crown prince initiated Saudi Arabia’s worst blunder, launching the brutal, bloody war in neighboring Yemen to reinstall a puppet regime. That turned a long-running domestic conflict into an international sectarian war.

MbS also launched last year’s de facto blockade of Qatar, which divided the Gulf. More recently he invited the Lebanese prime minister to Saudi Arabia, then effectively kidnapped the latter and forced him to proclaim his resignation. Only international pressure won Saad Hariri’s release, after which he recanted his resignation.

Adding to MbS’ reckless pursuit of Mideast hegemony is his focus on Iran. Although Tehran’s Islamic dictatorship begs for a popular revolution, at least the existing Iranian government is based on principle, though highly flawed.

People are willing to die for Islam. But for a pampered royal elite which believes itself to be entitled to power, position, wealth, and more? Not so much. So the crown prince hopes to convince—or, more likely, manipulate—the Trump administration to do Riyadh’s dirty work and attack Iran.

Best for America would be rough parity between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Despite fear-mongering promoted by both the Saudi and Israeli governments, Tehran so far poses little threat to anyone, especially the U.S. Iran’s alleged geopolitical gains, such as greater influence in the political wreckage known as the Assad government, don’t impress. And handing the Gulf over to a totalitarian Saudi Arabia is no answer.

The Trump administration would well start by ending U.S. support for the KSA’s murderous and purposeless war in Yemen. Washington also should suggest that the crown prince stop his nation’s support for intolerant Wahhabism abroad. And if MbS starts a war with Iran, he should know he will be on his own.

During the Cold War Washington’s close embrace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made a certain strategic sense. Today a far more limited, arms-length relationship with what remains an intolerant and repressive power is needed.

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