Jim Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation, gave his insight into the recent events related to succession that have taken place in Saudi Arabia in an interview Tuesday with The Heritage Foundation’s Genevieve Wood. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.
Wood: So people understand, so currently the king of Saudi Arabia is his [Mohammed bin Salman’s] father, but it’s my understanding that it was actually supposed to be one of his cousins who was in line to be the next king until several months ago and then he was put into place. What happened there?
Phillips: You know this is a very, kind of, violent family struggle. Not violent in the sense of use of force but in the sense of very strong resentment among different wings of the family. Because when the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz, died in 1953, his power was passed to his sons. He had 45 sons and the last of them is currently King Salman, who has now chosen to pass power on to his son, rather than to one of his very old and increasingly feeble brothers. So the power now is leaping a generation, to the grandsons of King Abdulaziz. And that’s what has made it very critical period in the kingdom’s history.
Wood: When you talk about this anti-corruption committee, which I understand this crown price is overseeing basically, what kind of corruption are we talking about? I mean, everyone out there knows how rich the country of Saudi Arabia is, the family members there. One of the people, in my understanding, who was arrested was one of the richest people in the world, they say. What kind of corruption are we talking about?
Phillips: Well, historically it’s the division between the coffers of the government and the private pocketbooks of the family have been, it’s kind of murky, the boundary there. And many princes that have led ministries have used their power to siphon off money, either in bribes or kickbacks and that has increased the price of doing business in Saudi Arabia, but has lined the pockets of many princes and their patronage networks.
Wood: Many people have probably heard, a couple, well, maybe it was a month or two months ago, that it was this crown prince who came out and said we’re going to now allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia, which had been banned for years. He also seems to be playing to maybe a younger audience, I mean, I think the majority of Saudi Arabians are under the age of 30. Is that some of what you think is going on here, he’s trying to establish his, you know, basically win the favor of the growing larger public there?
Phillips: I think one thing that makes him puzzling is although he is ruthless and moving very quickly, he also has a reputation as a reformer. And he’s supported, not only greater rights for women, including driving, but he wants to encourage women participation in the labor force in order to boost the Saudi economy.
He’s also called for return to a more moderate form of Islam. And he’s liberalized rules on entertainment, on sports, allowed movies, less censorship, more mixing of the sexes, which is resisted by some of the hardcore fundamentalist religious leaders in Saudi Arabia. So he’s also moved against some of them, in addition to this anti-corruption drive. So on the one hand, he’s putting rivals in jail, or at least under house arrest, and doing it very ruthlessly. But on the other hand, he is trying to put in motion some long overdue economic and social reforms that could bring Saudi Arabia out of the Middle Ages.
Wood: One of the articles I read said that he’s trying to make the country so it’s not so dependent on oil, though that’s certainly a big factor there, but trying to expand it to tourism and education, and a host of other things.
Phillips: Right, he’s the architect of the Saudi Vision 2030, which is a very ambitious economic plan to diversify the Saudi economy, move it away from its dependence on oil export revenues, privatize the state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco. And that’s expected to come next year, which could be many of tens of billions of dollars that the Saudis will invest in broadening and liberalizing their economy.
Wood: So earlier, I mean, very early on in President Trump’s presidency he made a visit with the Saudi Arabia and said they are going to be our partners in fighting terrorism and the like. What does this do to all of that? What is the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and how does what’s going on there now affect that?
Phillips: Well, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also known to be very close to Jared Kushner. I think it’s been portrayed as an alliance of the “House of Saud” and the “House of Trump.” Although it’s important to note there also was a previous alliance with the “House of Saud” and the “House of Bush.”
So in the way the Saudis think, they prefer to deal with families and they put a very high premium on personal relations in part because they don’t trust institutions. And so it’s interesting to note that Jared Kushner would travel to Saudi Arabia, I think about 10 days ago, just before this most recent round of anti-corruption purges. So there may be some close alliances there.
Wood: What should the response of the United States be to what’s happened? I mean, it’s another country, they’re a sovereign country. How do we react to what’s happened?
Phillips: Well, I think that it’s an internal matter and as long as it’s conducted according to the rule of law there’s not a lot that we should be saying about it, I think. I mean, to the extent that it results in a Saudi Arabia that practices a more tolerant form of Islam. That presents less ideological fodder for Islamic extremists groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda. I think that’s a good thing. And the crown prince has publicly declared that he is in favor of that. And he is a very strong opponent of these Islamic extremists. So, I think on balance, it’s a good thing, but it’s a little surprising the speed and the scope of change. Because that has not been historically the norm in Saudi Arabia.
Wood: What does this mean, I’m thinking of my little red hat. I went to Israel back earlier this fall, they gave me the “Build Israel Great Again” hat. What does this mean for Saudi Arabia’s neighbors in the Middle East, not just Israel but all of the neighbors? They have to be looking at this very carefully. And Iran, for sure.
Phillips: Well, Iran is feeling threatened by these moves in part because they know that this young crown prince is very anti-Iranian and one of the ways he’ll probably try to appease the Wahhabi religious establishment is to take a more anti-Shiite bent. Not only against Iran but against Hezbollah and the Houthis rebels in Yemen that the Saudis are fighting now, who also are Shiites aligned with Iran.
So from Iran’s point of view it’s a reason for concern, but from Israel’s standpoint and from the standpoint of most other Sunni Arab Middle Eastern states, I think they see the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a potential counterweight to Iran. And as a reformer, they probably hope he will further reduce the power of Wahhabi Islamic religious leaders, because they have historically promoted a brand of Islam that has destabilized many other countries.