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After shakeup, can Saudi Arabia’s crown prince deliver on promise of reform?

In the name of fighting corruption in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced over the weekend the government would hold trials for 11 princes, stamping out opposition and cementing his rule. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin is joined by Bilal Saab of the Middle East Institute and Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center to discuss the potential fallout of the crackdown.

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  • John Yang:

    It was a momentous weekend in the Middle East.

    In Saudi Arabia today, the government announced it would hold trials for 11 princes accused of corruption. The arrests were part of an unprecedented crackdown and just one of many aggressive moves made by the young Saudi crown prince in the last few days.

    And that turmoil sent oil prices to a two-year high today.

    President Trump, traveling in Asia, took to Twitter moments ago expressing great confidence in King Salman and the crown prince, saying, “They know exactly what they are doing.”

    Here’s special correspondent Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the name of fighting corruption, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is stamping out opposition and cementing his rule. The 32-year-old ordered the arrests of more than a dozen, including Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a billionaire who has major investments in Citigroup, Twitter and Apple, and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the former national guard chief and most obvious rival.

    It’s not the first House of Saud shakeup, but it’s the most rapid. And it centralizes Mohammed bin Salman’s power over the military and security services that began earlier this year, when he replaced Mohammed bin Nayef, the former heir to the throne.

    State TV announced the arrests and accused the princes of embezzlement and stealing public money. That was a message to a Saudi population that’s sick of ostentatious royal wealth, and eager for reform.

    That reform is what Mohammed bin Salman is selling, as state-owned oil company Aramco plans to go public and diversify.

    Mohammed bin Salman, who is known as MBS, has vowed to modernize and fight extremism.

  • Mohammed Bin Salman:

    (Through interpreter) We only want to go back to what we were: moderate Islam that is open to the world, open to all the religions. Seventy percent of the Saudi people are younger than 30 and, quite frankly, we will not waste 30 years dealing with extremist ideas.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mohammed bin Salman has also led a muscular foreign policy to confront Iran, especially in Yemen. For two years, a Saudi-led coalition has targeted Iranian allies the Houthis. The war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And this weekend, Saudi announced a total blockade.

    That was in response to the Houthis’ launching a ballistic missile at Saudi Arabia. A Saudi military spokesman said it intercepted the missile, and blamed Iran.

  • Col. Turki Al-maliki:

    (Through interpreter) The coalition has ample evidence to prove that Iran is providing weapons to the Houthi armed group.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Saudi’s anti-Iran policy extends to Lebanon. Prime Minister Saad Hariri has led a fragile alliance with Iran-backed Hezbollah. And this weekend, Hariri visited Saudi Arabia and appeared on Saudi-owned TV to resign, and blame Iran.

  • Saad Hariri:

    (Through interpreter) Wherever Iran is present, it plants discord and destruction, attested to by its interference in Arab countries.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Throughout this process, President Trump has lent support. And the Saudi leaders who embraced him have been emboldened.

    All of this means today might be the most volatile moment for Saudi Arabia in more than a half-century.

    And to discuss that, I’m joined by Bilal Saab. He is the senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. And Aaron David Miller is the Middle East program director of The Wilson Center and a former adviser and negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.

    Thank you to you both.

    And, Bilal Saab, let me start with you.

    Mohammed bin Salman has an ambitious internal agenda that he’s looking at over the next few decades. Does he feel the need to consolidate power in order to enact that agenda?

  • Bilal Saab:

    I think so.

    I had a chance to meet with Mohammed bin Salman for a good hour in Riyadh not too long ago. And I think this is someone who really doesn’t like ambition. And he strikes me as particularly genuine about his desire to reform his country.

    That being said, the reform agenda that he has spearheaded, in his mind, I think, requires consolidation of power. I mean, this is now the old Saudi is gone, this is MBS land. Therefore, whoever is not on board with this reform process and also is not really investing in this is basically removed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    OK, Aaron David Miller, can Mohammed bin Salman rule the country from the top down absolutely? Can actually he reform from the top?

  • Aaron David Miller:

    Well, we’re in terra incognita, basically. We have never been here before.

    Like, our political system has never seen a president quite like Donald Trump. Saudis have never encountered a would-be king, not king yet, a 30-something who has created an accretion of power which is unprecedented in the history of the kingdom.

    Ruling a country of 33 million people, maintaining the status quo and managing, transacting, if you will, is probably something that is feasible. But MBS aspires to be a transformation leader. And as Bilal suggested, his first step is literally repress the opposition, maintain control over the security services, send messages to the economic and financial establishment that he will not tolerate or suffer opposition, and even to try to co-opt the religious establishment that he intends apparently to try to reform.

    So, it’s a tough lift for a 33-year-old, let alone for an experienced, prudent, and wise, and skilled Saudi leader.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Bilal Saab, can he do that? Can he effectively dismantle the version of Saudi governance that we have seen for a long time, and pick all of these fights, not only with the princes we talked about, but intellectuals and critical clerics, and succeed?

  • Bilal Saab:

    What was particularly striking about this move is it really tells us that he has basically blown up basically the Saudi system of decision-making, which has been based on consensus.

    Now it’s one person, one decision. And, in many ways, that brings some good in it. The Saudi system decision-making has been notoriously slow and it needed reform, but now basically it’s one person. When he makes a mistake, it’s basically on him.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the buck stops there.

    Bilal, let me stick with you just for one second and move to the external factors.

    Do — the steps that he’s taken in the last couple of days, does that increase tension in the Middle East, especially obviously between Saudi and Iran?

  • Bilal Saab:

    Well, it certainly hasn’t enhanced stability.

    Obviously, this is a much more aggressive stance toward the Iranians. You just heard what Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir has said about the missile strike from the Houthis against the Saudi airport.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He accused Iran of actually launching that missile into Saudi Arabia.

  • Bilal Saab: 

    Precisely, and also Hezbollah basically.

    And you are seeing the manifestations of that in several theaters. And some theaters are hotter than others. You just saw what happened in Lebanon recently with the prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigning.

    I think that’s all part of this new aggressive stance against the Iranians. Now, the question is whether it actually succeeds. What gains do you get out of this? That is very much unclear.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Aaron David Miller, can he succeed or can he get the gains that he wants in the Middle East?

    And, also, President Trump has obviously supported this new Saudi leadership. What’s the impact of that?

  • Aaron David Miller:

    Well, there’s no question about that, that the administration has invested heavily both in Salman and in Mohammed bin Salman.

    And the reason is clear. The administration wants to adopt a much tougher policy toward Iran in the region in the Gulf. And they’re looking to the Saudis to create something of a vanguard in that regard.

    And, quite extraordinarily, the administration wants to pursue the president’s vision of an ultimate deal. And he and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are banking heavily on some sort of Saudi support.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The ultimate deal, you’re talking about Israel and the Palestinians.

  • Aaron David Miller:

    Israeli-Palestinian agreement, yes.

    And I think both these things, frankly, are probably bridges too far. But let’s be clear about one thing, one unique and extraordinary thing that MBS possesses. It’s possible, if Saudi Arabia survives, that this man, when he becomes king, could rule the kingdom of Saudi Arabia healthy, vibrant and not infirm for almost 50 years.

    That’s an extraordinary arc and it may well be that time, which is the ultimate arbitrator of everything is of value, in this regard, is any ally.

    But, again, I agree with Bilal. The reality, you want to become supreme leader, which is essentially what he intends to do, perhaps not along the lines of Khamenei — but you want to become supreme leader, the man to rule, one ring to rule them all?

    Well, then it’s all going to fall on you. And the reality is, he’s banked his fate, his political fortune on the fact that he can — he has enough horses to pull this wagon. And it won’t be easy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, quickly, Bilal Saab, just last word. Regional instability in the near future after the things we have seen in the last couple days, do you think that will increase, that regional instability?

  • Bilal Saab:

    That’s a safe assumption, fortunately, yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    OK.

    Bilal Saab, Aaron David Miller, thank you very much to both of you.

  • Aaron David Miller:

    Pleasure.

  • Bilal Saab:

    No problem.

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