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Hailed for bold reforms, Saudi crown prince may still fall short

The Saudi crown prince during Defense Secretary James Mattis' visit to Riyadh last year
Saudi Arabia's Prince Mohammed during a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on April 19, 2017, in Riyadh. Photo: Jonathan Ernst via Getty Images

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has inspired optimism in Washington with major initiatives — allowing women to drive, reining in the religious police and formulating a vision for economic reform.

Yes, but: Even after these first breaths of fresh air, hopes for the autocracy to transform overnight remain mistaken.

Here's what not to expect from the crown prince's U.S. trip:

  1. The U.S.–Saudi relationship to shift from largely transactional to durable and strategic. While the Saudis share the U.S.'s interest in countering Iran and eliminating Sunni terror threats, some Americans will remain concerned about Saudi support for radical interpretations of Islam. The continued jailing of Saudis who criticize the crown prince's policies will also not endear the country to the U.S. Meanwhile, one of the traditional pillars of the U.S.–Saudi bargain — keeping oil prices low — is crumbling, as U.S. companies fracking in the Permian Basin want prices to climb as high as they will go.
  2. The prince's pitch for more foreign investment in Saudi Arabia to gain much immediate traction. Even if he had not incarcerated and abused hundreds of businessmen, no single Saudi leader can create a business climate that is transparent and based on rule of law.
  3. This inexperienced prince to offer a clear vision of a stable, let alone peaceful, Middle East. There is no justification for the Saudi direction in and continued toleration of the humanitarian nightmare in Yemen. Saudi attempts to project leadership in other countries, from Egypt to Lebanon, have been ineffectual.

The bottom line: It is encouraging to see the Saudi heir promoting reforms for his country. But finding ways to support those reforms without offering unquestioning support must remain the U.S. objective.

Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait and deputy chief of mission in Tel Aviv.

Go deeper: Read more at the Atlantic Council's New Atlanticist blog.

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