Opinion: Memo to the President on Saudi Arabia

March 07, 2018
  • By Thomas Friedman
  • New York Times

Mr. President, in advance of the visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS, I want to share some thoughts:

It’s only a matter of time before King Salman turns over the reins of power to MBS, who’s already the effective ruler. MBS is not a democrat, nor is he interested in promoting democracy. He’s a modernizing autocrat. The most we can expect from him is the modernization of Saudi Arabia’s economy and religious/social structure, but given how badly the country has stagnated from years of tentative reforms, this is deeply significant.

MBS is definitely bold. I can think of no one else in the ruling family who would have put in place the profound social, religious and economic reforms that he’s dared to do — and all at once. But I can also think of no one in that family who’d have undertaken the bullying foreign policy initiatives, domestic power plays and excessive personal buying sprees he’s dared to do, all at once. Our job: help curb his bad impulses and nurture his good ones.

MBS is trying to forge a societal transformation in Saudi Arabia. Call it “one country, two systems.” For those who want piety, the mosque, Mecca and Islamic education, they’ll all be available and respected. But for those who want modern education and a more normal social life between men and women — and access to Western, film, music and the arts — those too will be available and respected. No more religious domination. That is huge.

Because when the Saudi ruling family took Sunni Islam down a much more puritanical path, right when Iran’s ayatollahs did the same with Shiite Islam, they changed the face and culture of Islam. And it was not for the better. The Saudis closed all cinemas, banned concerts and fun, choked off trends for women’s empowerment and modern education, and spread an anti-pluralistic, misogynist, anti-Western form of Islam far and wide .

Just think of the dollars we’ve spent countering Islamic extremism since 9/11. It’s trillions. Yet we now have a Saudi leader who is not just talking about but actually lifting the ban on women driving; freeing women to go to concerts by Western and Arab rock stars, join the military and more easily start businesses, while sharply curbing the power of the religious police and clerics in daily life; and importing Western-style learning systems.

If Saudi women are empowered, and the kingdom becomes a more normal, connected and productive society, Saudi Islam will naturally become more moderate and inclusive. Given how Saudi Arabia sets the tone for Islam globally, this will isolate extremists and empower moderates everywhere.

MSB can’t achieve his economic reforms without global investors — and today there are a lot of foreign (and Saudi) investors asking: “If I put money into Saudi Arabia, or partner with a Saudi, can that wealth be confiscated without warning at the Ritz-Carlton?”

Without rule of law there will be never be enough investments or jobs in Saudi Arabia — and without jobs the social reforms will wither and religious extremism will find fertile ground for a comeback.

At the same time, we need to tell MBS: You can be an effective king, with real legitimacy, or you can buy yachts, chateaus and Leonardo da Vincis like your cousins — but you can’t do both.

We need to be regularly engaging with him on all the issues — with wise counsel.

If MBS chases Iran everywhere, Tehran will sap all his strength; it will be death by a thousand cuts. We need to be in his ear regularly with someone he respects.

But, if I may, President Trump, MBS is a young man, and two-thirds of Saudi Arabia is under 30. They watch what we model — so it is more vital than ever that we continue to model the rule of law, respect for institutions, tolerance and pluralism. A special U.S. envoy to Saudi Arabia is necessary now, but keeping America a special example is even more important. You get my point.

Please heed this message.