Oct 29, 2017

The Saudi crown prince and "moderate Islam"

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman waves, standing next to IMF chair Christine Lagarde, at last week's investment conference. Saudi Press Agency via AP

You probably didn't see it on cable news, but on Tuesday last week the 32-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave a speech that could have profound consequences for the future of the Middle East and the fight against radical Islamic terrorism.

MBS, as he's often known, told a gathering of the world's wealthiest investors and powerful political figures in Riyadh that he will return his country to "moderate Islam." A source who was in the audience for the speech said people were shocked to hear this said in public by one of the leaders of the country that keeps the two holiest sites in Islam.

  • "It was beyond epic," Tom Barrack, the billionaire investor and close confidant of Trump's who was at the conference, told me. "I have been doing business in the region for 40 years and I could have never imagined what we experienced in Riyadh."
  • Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador, said: "the Crown Prince is driving the reform toward a more open, progressive and modern Saudi Arabia, which ultimately is in everyone's interests. It's in everyone's interests that MBS succeeds." Asked whether MBS is floating a trial balloon, the ambassador said, "No, no, no. He's definitely all in."

Several sources who have spoken to MBS told me he's been saying the "moderate Islam" line privately for some time, but for him to say it out loud sets a marker for his ambitions.

Why this matters: What happens in Saudi Arabia will have a major echo effect in the Middle East and on Islam itself. Saudi-born hijackers staged the 9/11 attacks and prominent Saudis have funded the spread of terrorist ideologies in the region. MBS says he wants to wants to change this; to turn Saudi Arabia into a more progressive open society, to bring in new investment and stop the reliance on oil. He's made some changes — like allowing women to drive — and America and its allies are heavily invested in him succeeding.

A note of skepticism: I asked Middle East expert Elliott Abrams what he made of MBS' remarks. "The reform plans are real, but implementation will be difficult," he said. "Is he really going to allow the open practice of Christianity in the Kingdom? ... I certainly wish him well and think we should all do so. But given the strength of the Wahhabi establishment, and the lack of preparedness of the population for the 21st century in terms of education and work skills, he has a real struggle."

Trump's view: The president took a major bet on MBS, and so did his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who planned Trump's first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia. So far, the bet is paying off.

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