No Saudi official has been more applauded and vilified at the same time than Mohamed bin Salman, the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. That is not surprising, given the transformational nature of the project he’s leading at home, which is bound to create both winners—those who wish to open up the kingdom—and losers—those who wish more or less to preserve the status quo.
However, in foreign policy, no such polarization in world opinion about Crown Prince Mohamed seems to exist. The consensus—not shared by the Trump Administration as per usual—is that the young Saudi leader’s behavior abroad is impulsive, reckless, and outright dangerous. The only uncertainty about Crown Prince Mohamed in foreign affairs, it seems, pertains to what the 33-year old whirlwind will do next, or, to be more precise, what new crisis he will create.
In a little over a year since his appointment as second-in-command, “MbS,” as he is known for short, has raised many eyebrows and caused much consternation. He has instigated a disastrous and so far ineffective military intervention in Yemen’s civil war, freeing a host of demons from historical captivity and imposing massive humanitarian suffering on Yemen’s civilian population. He has imposed a sea and land blockade on Qatar. He has also detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, started a feud with Canada, and recalled the German Ambassador while forbidding the Saudi government from doing business with German companies.
Crown Prince Mohamed’s supporters claim that he has had legitimate reasons for all these actions. They blame media bias and general misinformation about Saudi Arabia for MbS’s bad international press. But the world remains skeptical, and policy elites are plainly worried about the Crown Prince’s next foreign policy move.
Some concern about Saudi foreign policy under the current leadership dispensation is justified. MbS lacks experience in the complex affairs of the world, seems unable to learn from his mistakes, has taken too much onto his plate too fast, and has surrounded himself with yes-men. He also believes he has the unconditional backing of President Trump, a presumption of constancy in a man with a marked tendency to boomerang on his erstwhile “friends” if he senses a slight or so much as a scintilla of disloyalty. All of this makes for, at best, a risky formula for the conduct of Saudi foreign policy. At worst it is a prelude to calamity.
All that said, there are limits to the harm his statecraft is likely to cause. The reason has to do with the difference between diplomacy and statecraft—words that many otherwise intelligent people assume to be synonyms, but are not.
Diplomacy concerns relations among states. Statecraft concerns the concert of a leader’s assets, domestic and foreign, into a unified operating strategy. And here is the rub: Crown Prince Mohamed’s top priorities are domestic. This suggests that he is and will continue to be more restrained in foreign policy than many think, on behalf of his domestic reform vision. This might not sound credible or reassuring in light of all the trouble he has caused already, but if one thinks his second year will give rise to something as stability-shattering as, say, a war with Iran, then this is a good time to stow the panic button.
The success of MbS’s grand reformist project, dubbed Saudi Vision 2030, requires utmost stability and control at home. This partly explains his aggressive consolidation of power: sidelining would-be political competitors, silencing critics, and jailing activists. MbS took major risks in this attempted consolidation, breaking two structural pillars of the regime simultaneously: the Al-Saud/Al-Wahab conjunction that has defined the temporal-religious authority balance within the Saudi polity from the outset; and the family consensus model (ijma’) that preserves elite unity amid the royal family. Arguably, taking such risks was necessary to jump-start the reform process, but the reverberations of having done so are not yet quieted. A major foreign policy crisis such as a war with Iran would profoundly jeopardize the entire reform process because it would re-empower the actor most capable of undoing everything Crown Prince Mohamed has been trying to accomplish: the Saudi clergy.
Any kind of war with Iran—whether short or long, deliberate or accidental—will enable Saudi religious leaders, who have been deeply unhappy with MbS’s cultural and economic reforms, to regain their influence in Saudi society. That would doom Saudi Vision 2030, which is a social as well as a narrowly economic program, because its realization necessitates the curbing of the sheikhs’ powers. The risk is not that the kingdom’s clerics would unseat Crown Prince Mohamed and his father King Salman in the event of a holy war with Iran, although in league with disgruntled members of the Saud elite that is not out of the question. The threat is rather that the clergy’s role and authority would catapult upward, for national mobilization in Saudi Arabia is impossible without religious sanction. That would undermine all that the Crown Prince has promised, stood for, and worked to fulfill. His sense of statecraft compels him to avoid regression in the crucial matter of clerical power, and he knows that a major war would produce exactly that regression.
So long as the struggle for influence between Crown Prince Mohamed and the Saudi clergy continues, the Crown Prince will keep talking tough about Iran but most probably refrain from engaging in any overt acts of war. That said, MbS might still resort to various options up to but not beyond the threshold of direct warfare. The Iranian leadership might think the same way too, and hence in a scenario of mutual brinkmanship the possibility of accidents cannot be ruled out. The famed British diplomat Robert S. Vansittart once wrote of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor: “He did not like war, but he liked doing all the things that led to war.” The same could prove true of MbS.
The moment a clear winner in the ongoing Saudi domestic power contest emerges is when we should start worrying about an unhinged Mohamed bin Salman. But since that emergence won’t happen very soon, if it ever does, we should heavily discount the likelihood of Saudi Arabia turning into a genuine “crazy state,” defined by the Israeli scholar Yehezkel Dror as one that exhibits high levels of irrationality and whose behavior deviates from “what is considered normal behavior within the international context.” By that standard, the Saudi leadership is no crazier than the leadership of the United States seems to be these days. There now: You’re calmer already, right?