If there is a common denominator explaining so many recent events in the Middle East — actions by Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Syria, Israel and Yemen — it can be expressed in one word: Iran. Everyone has Iran’s growing power and influence in the region on the mind — including Iran — and that obsession is making a lot of people crazy.
For instance, the Trump administration, like Barack Obama’s, actually wants to get away from the Middle East — as much as possible — but while leaving as little Iranian influence behind as possible.
Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, wants to get ahead in the Middle East and reform his economy for the 21st century — while curtailing as much Iranian influence in the region as possible.
And the Iranians want to get wide — to expand their influence from Tehran to the Mediterranean — by forcing their way into Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq through local Shiite militias that have created states within these states.
This is generating a lot of anxiety without enough people stepping back and thinking: So pro-Iranian militias control a bunch of bad neighborhoods in Beirut, Sana, Damascus and Baghdad. Tell me, what is second prize? What are they really “winning”?
The greatest thing that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia could do is to stop working each other into a lather over this Iranian “threat” and to focus on their domestic reform agendas. That would be the best revenge on Tehran.
For starters, American, European and Arab leaders should all be encouraging MBS to keep going where no Saudi leader before him has dared to go — pursuing his stated goal of reversing the religious right turn that the kingdom took in 1979, after the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Muslim extremists. That prompted the Saudi rulers at the time to much more aggressively export the most misogynist, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam to mosques and madrasas across the Muslim world, tilting the whole faith community to the right.
If MBS fulfills his vow to bring Saudi Islam back to “moderation,” it will surely improve the status of Muslim women, the quality of education in Muslim communities and the relationship between Muslims and other faiths across the globe. We in the West have spent tremendous sums “countering Muslim extremism.” We may finally have a Saudi leader ready to do that work — from the wellspring of Islam — and it would, over time, hugely benefit Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Wise friends of MBS would be offering him some tough love — by telling him that it’s great to arrest thieving Saudi billionaires and throw them in the Ritz-Carlton, but it has to be done with transparency and within a rule of law — which would enhance his legitimacy. They also have to stress to him that to be an effective anti-corruption campaigner, he has to be open to criticism himself and live modestly. No more giant yachts.
My view on Saudi Arabia today is very simple: Because it has so much deferred reform to undertake — before its oil money runs out — the biggest question is not if MBS is too brash, too brutal, too power-hungry or too imperfect. It’s whether he’s too late — that Saudi Arabia is now un-reformable. I think not, but that is why, with all of MBS’ flaws, we need to help increase his chances for success. If he can turn Jiddah into another Dubai, where so many Iranians now love to vacation and bank, he will do more to increase his influence in the region and diminish Iran’s than anything else he could do.