The embarrassing celebrations of the crown prince in the U.S. in particular should be a cautionary tale for the future.
The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia, by Madawi Al-Rasheed, (Oxford University Press: January 2021), 312 pages.
The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has engaged in several years of intensifying domestic repression and destructive recklessness abroad. In order to bolster his international standing and consolidate his power, he has also presented himself as a champion of social and economic reform.
Thanks in part to credulous Western admirers, the crown prince was for a time able to crack down brutally on domestic critics and potential rivals without alienating foreign businesses and governments. But his increasingly repressive de facto rule has spurred many Saudi citizens to flee into exile, where the growing diaspora speaks out against him and the abuses of the Saudi government. Thus, the crown prince’s repressive tactics have ultimately come back to bite him with his international supporters, and now Saudi Arabia finds itself more vulnerable to outside pressure and criticism than it has been for many years.
Madawi Al-Rasheed’s The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia is an excellent new account of these recent developments. Al-Rasheed recounts the experience of many members of this diaspora and places their opposition to the Saudi regime in the context of the history of the ruling family and the country. The book is an important witness to the crown prince’s thuggish abuses, and it provides a window into Saudi society and the diverse group of Saudi exiles that has spread out around the world to escape this government. Her account is also a scathing indictment of the Saudi regime under its current leadership, and she doesn’t hold back from offering withering criticism of the crown prince’s demagogic new nationalism and his use of sectarianism to promote the war on Yemen.
As more Saudis go into exile, the Saudi regime has become more intent on tracking, harassing, and attacking its own citizens abroad. The most famous example of this was the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018. Because of Khashoggi’s longstanding ties with the royal family and his past role as a defender of Saudi government policies, his murder was intended to signal to exiles that the regime would come after anyone, no matter how well-known that person might be. If the goal was to reduce outside criticism of the regime, however, we have to conclude that this plan blew up in the crown prince’s face just like everything else he has done. It was the murder of Khashoggi that forced most of the crown prince’s cheerleaders to silence themselves, and the outrage over that killing drove many fence-sitting politicians in Congress into the camp opposing the Saudi-led war on Yemen. The backlash to the murder has spurred further mobilization of activists. We can see that in the continued work of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the organization that Khashoggi established.
Like many other hybrid and authoritarian regimes around the world, the Saudi regime has been tightening its grip on political dissent and activism in the last decade. The regime has also promoted a new Saudi nationalism to mask the country’s religious and tribal divisions and to remake the country’s identity as it sees fit. Promoting nationalist sentiment has proved useful as a pretext for cracking down on dissent, and it is also used to bolster the crown prince’s domestic standing. In the context of Mohammed bin Salman’s destructive foreign policy, it has functioned as a means of rallying popular support behind attacking Yemen.
Al-Rasheed discusses the new Saudi nationalism at great length. She questions whether it can even really be called nationalism, because it is driven by the crown prince’s need to shore up his position:
The trend that many media reporters and analysts are referring to as a new Saudi nationalism may not be nationalism after all. What we are witnessing in Saudi Arabia is the systematic and aggressive efforts of a prince who was elevated to the highest position in the state, with no history of experience in government and at the expense of other more senior princes, to consolidate his power. A true nationalist movement would require more than rhetoric, thuggery, murder and readily available treason charges against critics.
Al-Rasheed draws a picture of a fairly brittle nationalist veneer, which the crown prince is using to conceal the internal problems of the country. She notes that the crown prince’s nationalist project is so anchored in the Najd region that it may lead to more instability, by provoking the creation of “counter-regional nationalisms” from other parts of the country. It is an open question whether the new nationalism will have staying power over the longer term, or if it will succumb to challenges from older claims of religious and tribal identity.
As Al-Rasheed shows, the Saudi regime also uses explicit sectarian appeals to justify the war in Yemen. She observes that the government still uses Wahhabism when it finds it convenient:
Today, the Wahhabi tradition exists in a contentious relationship with power. It is neither abandoned completely nor wholeheartedly endorsed. It is still invoked in specific contexts, for example the 2015 war on Yemen, in which Saudi-Wahhabi rhetoric resurfaced as a tool to demonize Zaydi Yemenis, or to mobilize Saudis against Shia activism and their alleged Iranian backers.
While Mohammed bin Salman played the moderate for Tom Friedman and feigned ignorance about what Wahhabism is in interviews with Western media, his government deliberately employs Wahhabist rhetoric as part of its wartime propaganda. With very few exceptions, the Saudi government’s use of sectarianism in selling the war has gone largely unnoticed in the West, just as the Saudi coalition’s war crimes in Yemen went unnoticed for such a long time. That is, until they became impossible to ignore.
Many in Western media, governments, and businesses uncritically embraced Mohammed bin Salman for years and helped to whitewash and cover up his power grabs and abuses of power. The crown prince’s apologists not only accepted that he was the visionary reformer that he claimed to be, but they refused to pay attention to the significant and growing body of evidence that contradicted this. When he locked up hundreds of princes and businessmen in the Ritz Carlton in 2017 in a shady shakedown, they were quick to vouch for the so-called “anti-corruption” campaign. While Saudi coalition jets slaughtered Yemeni civilians, they changed the subject to a potential IPO for Aramco.
The credulity and indulgence of Western audiences were important assets for the crown prince as he set out to consolidate power, and he was able to rely on prominent pundits and politicians to make excuses for him to the rest of the world. It didn’t matter how many scholars and critics his government locked up or how many religious minorities it executed on trumped-up charges as long as there was the promise of a “new” Saudi Arabia on the horizon. The fact that the Saudi government’s behavior at home and in the region was becoming objectively worse didn’t concern his Western fans, who had already bought into the model of the autocratic reformer. As Al-Rasheed puts it:
The so-called reforms of Muhammad bin Salman were accompanied by one of the worst and most brutal waves of domestic repression and by an erratic regional policy. His apologists in the West were driven by profit, the prospect of free access to the country and the prince, or by real financial rewards.
The embarrassing celebrations of the crown prince in the U.S. in particular should be a cautionary tale for the future. When there is a broad consensus among pundits and politicians that a foreign leader is a great “reformer” who will liberalize his country, we should be very wary of joining in the applause. Instead, we should look closely at the record of what that leader actually does. It is almost always the case that the feted would-be “reformer” is telling Western investors and analysts what they want to hear in exchange for glowing reviews of the new leadership. American observers seem particularly susceptible to falling for this trick, and that may help explain why our government so often throws its support behind the wrong people.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is not the main topic of Al-Rasheed’s book, but our reassessment of the relationship should be informed by her analysis. If Mohammed bin Salman is likely to be king of Saudi Arabia for many decades to come, the U.S. needs to limit its exposure to his repressive and reckless behavior by reducing support for the Saudi government. The U.S. should be distancing itself as much as possible from this brittle regime before it embroils us in any more conflicts or implicates us in any more crimes.