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With New Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia Rewards Repression and Aggression

Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz has shaken his nation’s closed political system by making his youngest son his heir. Although heralded as a “modernizer,” 31-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, is the architect of Riyadh’s disastrous attack on Yemen and disingenuous campaign to turn Qatar into a Saudi satellite. Prince Salman’s recklessness is likely to draw the U.S. more deeply into destabilizing regional conflicts.

Saudi Crown PrinceThe Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy in which a few thousand princes sit atop a society of roughly 32 million, treating the nation’s wealth as their family’s piggy bank. The kingdom’s population long has been a generous source of people and money for radical and terrorist groups.

What amounts to a totalitarian state—there is no religious or political liberty and only limited social freedom, at least in public—has no popular appeal other than its open checkbook. The Saudi royals buy domestic loyalty while hiring foreigners to do the dirty work.

The kingdom confronts a multitude of challenges. For years a group of elderly brothers shared the kingship and other top positions among themselves. This self-aggrandizing gerontocracy lost what little public appeal it had when oil prices dropped.

In 2015 King Salman succeeded to the throne. He appointed his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, as Crown Prince, and his favorite son, MBS, as Deputy Crown Prince. But the king emasculated his nominal successor and began preparing to anoint MBS his successor.

The young prince, whose experience had been limited to serving his father, had the latter’s ear and effectively ruled. MBS won praise for seeking to diversify the economy. Moreover, he loosened some social strictures and restricted the religious police, to the applause of many younger Saudis.

However, his highly-touted liberalism does not extend to religion or politics. There is not one church, synagogue, or temple in the entire kingdom. No public worship or other activity is allowed any other faith.

The Shia minority faces persistent discrimination and repression. Saudi Arabia ranks with North Korea in its extraordinary hostility to religious liberty. MBS has changed nothing.

As for politics, the reigning prince has demonstrated no inclination to allow those not of royal blood to have any say in their own government. Freedom House ranks the KSA as “Not Free,” with the lowest possible rating for both political freedom and civil liberties.

The U.S. State Department detailed Riyadh’s manifold crimes in its latest human rights report: “citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination.”

Of greater concern to the U.S. is the crown prince’s international aggression. He is pushing a quasi-war against Iran, supporting, radical jihadists in an attempt to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

MBS orchestrated the invasion of Yemen two years ago to restore to power a friendly autocrat. What was supposed to be a brief cakewalk morphed into a lengthy sectarian struggle in which more than 10,000 civilians have died, most from Saudi bombing. There is no end in sight to the immoral, counterproductive conflict into which Washington is being ever more deeply drawn.

He also apparently is the driving force behind the Saudi-led assault on neighboring Qatar. Although Saudi Arabia has done more than any other nation to fund and staff anti-Western terrorist organizations, Riyadh accused Doha of supporting terrorism.

The Saudi royals were angered by Qatar’s friendly relations with Iran, growing naturally out of their shared natural gas field. The Saudis criticized Qatar for backing the Muslim Brotherhood, even though Riyadh’s war on the group threatens to drive its activities underground and radicalize even more young Muslims, who find no appeal in a corrupt monarchy.

Finally, Riyadh, which allows no media freedom, targeted Al Jazeera, the Qatar-backed television network. MBS is seeking to impose his own nation’s totalitarian controls abroad.

With young prince poised to officially rule, the U.S. should back away from a relationship which has simultaneously undermined American values and security. The Saudi regime is destined to fall. Then Washington will pay a heavy political price for having supported the oppressive royals for so long.

Anointing a younger, more vibrant ruler in Saudi Arabia is like putting lipstick on a pig. The essential problem remains the dictatorial theocracy’s lack of public legitimacy and appeal. The only question is when the Saudi people will finally free themselves.


Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

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