Not long ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman caused a stir when he declared, "The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia." At the heart of what Friedman calls "Arab Spring, Saudi style" is Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Known as MbS, the 32-year-old son of King Salman has been praised for his plans to reduce the Saudi economy's dependence on oil, sweeping social reforms--movie theaters are opening and the ban on women driving is being lifted--and leading an anti-corruption campaign. But critics point to his consolidation of power since he was elevated to crown prince in June including the arrests and detainment of dozens of royals, government officials and businesspeople, as well as his severe crackdown on dissidents.
The crown prince has also made waves with his aggressive foreign policy: As part of an ongoing struggle with Iran for dominance in the region, a controversial Saudi-led coalition has tried to crush rebels in Yemen supported by Iran in a war that has left more than 10,000 dead. In addition, MbS is rumored to be working behind the scenes with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and author of the new Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR, speaks with Moment deputy editor Sarah Breger about Saudi Arabia's geopolitical ambitions, the state of a kingdom where 70 percent of the population is under 30, and whether the Trump-MbS honeymoon is over.
Reading your book, I was surprised by how many times the Israeli-Palestinian issue has come up as a point of tension between U.S. presidents and Saudi rulers. Why has that been the case, and is it still true today?
The reason why is embedded in the nature of the kingdom. This is a country that prides itself on being the defender of Islam and Muslim rights. The king's other title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. So the Palestinian issue has always been something that strikes at the very core of what being a Saudi is. But does the younger generation of Saudis have the same deep attachment to the Palestinian cause? We don't know yet.
Has Trump's acknowledgment of Jerusalem as Israel's capital changed the dynamic? The Saudis were caught off balance by this, particularly the crown prince, who thought he had some understanding of where the Trump administration was going to go. Since the announcement on Jerusalem, the Saudis have been much more critical of Trump than they had been before. They're definitely feeling out-maneuvered. They put all their eggs in Jared Kushner's basket...