These days, you can’t open an internet browser without coming face to face with the handsome, keffiyah-clad visage of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. For weeks now, he’s been on a charm offensive, courting American politicians, tech giants, businessmen and journalists.
And they have been happy to receive him. From an interview on 60 Minutes (“At just 32, Mohammed bin Salman seems fearless and determined”) to a lengthy sit-down interview with the Atlantic’s editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg (“He was jovial to the point of ebullience when I met him”) to TIME magazine’s cover story (“He looks like someone you knew in college, a big guy going on about something that seems really important to him”), MBS has been delighting the American media.
In all of his meetings, MBS has been putting himself forward as the leader of a changing, modernizing Saudi Arabia. Over the past year, the 32-year-old Crown Prince has initiated reforms, including reigning in the the religious police, removing the ban on women driving and bringing Hollywood movies back to the Kingdom after a 35-year ban. And he’s acknowledged Israel, telling Goldberg, “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”
He’s even been meeting with American Jews. One meeting included Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. Another included leaders from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee. (Both declined to comment for this article, and the Saudi consulate did not respond to a request for comment).
Like everyone else, American Jewish leaders seem to have fallen under his spell. Jacobs tweeted about the meeting in glowing terms:
I was honored to meet with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in NY on Wednesday. He expressed his desire to build a more religiously tolerant country and world. #Passover: time for aspiration and hope for all. https://t.co/EWTeNQ28Sl— Rabbi Rick Jacobs (@URJPresident) March 30, 2018
And when Goldberg’s interview came out earlier this week, the head of the Anti Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt called MBS a ray of hope.
But moments later, the tweet disappeared, replaced by a less effusive one:
h/t to @JeffreyGoldberg for this amazing intvw. all should watch #MbS. he is far from perfect + there is a long road ahead, but in a region long dominated by hateful despots, MbS envisions a very diff future for Muslims, Jews, Christians & all in MidEast https://t.co/XNaPphgfav— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) April 2, 2018
The new tweet acknowledged that the Saudi Prince is “far from perfect” and that “there is a long road ahead.”
The second tweet was more apt (Greenblatt could not be reached for comment). For, in addition to speaking highly of Israel, removing the ban on women driving, and reopening the movie theaters, MBS has helmed a few unsavory efforts.
He imprisoned and reportedly tortured his political rivals (17 were hospitalized and at least one died in custody, bearing marks of physical abuse). He all but kidnapped Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and ordered him to resign. Journalist Raif Badawi remains jailed, having received 50 of the 1,000 lashes to which he was sentenced, and many other activists and journalists have been arbitrarily imprisoned since November. He also established a blockade against Qatar and sustained an offensive against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, where one third of the Saudi airstrikes have targeted civilian sites and during which tens of thousands of children have reportedly starved to death. One of the members of the anti-Houthi coalition, the United Arab Emirates, operates a network of torture sites where detainees are literally grilled alive.
Needless to say, these are not the things MBS brings up in meetings with American religious leaders and tech giants. Instead, he extols his “Vision 2030” plan to modernize the Saudi Kingdom through economic and social reforms.
The situation is complicated, explains Hala Aldosari, a fellow at Radcliffe who focuses on gender in the Gulf states and is herself a Saudi exile. “He did embrace certain reforms, but these reforms are reflective of his focus on the economy, not on political participation or the legal framework or the rule of institutions,” she said. “There’s an overemphasis on his reforms as historical and drastic, when it’s very much aimed at reforming the economy without touching social barriers.”
In fact, the Crown Prince has consolidated power exactly like other authoritarian leaders, with absolute disdain for the rule of law, says Aldosari. And his American PR campaign allowed him to round up his political rivals as well as hundreds of members of the media and activists and imprison them, “and not only get away with it, but get away with it victorious.”
The thing is, when Mohammed bin Salman arrived here last month, Americans had already been primed to love him. “The Saudis and the Emiratis have the most effective lobbying operation in Washington,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, told Dexter Filkins in a recent New Yorker article.
In particular, the UAE’s Ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, has been talking up MBS, promoting him to the likes of David Petraeus and in ghost-written op eds. Meanwhile, lobbyists Eliot Broidy and George Nader were shelling out millions of UAE dollars to fund two conferences held by the hawkish think tanks the Hudson Group and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. And sifting through filings of the Foreign Agent Registration Act, lobbying analyst Ben Freeman located 29 contracts by 25 different firms for a total of $15.9 million in Saudi cash.
These efforts all went into overdrive when President Trump was elected. “The first year of the Trump administration has been critical for the Saudis,” Freeman told The American Conservative. “They’ve added several new firms to their already powerful lobby and have managed to court the Trump administration in a way they never quite could the Obama administration.”
That’s because President Obama held the Saudis at arm’s length, “objecting to their repressive internal policies, their treatment of women, and their aggressive posture toward Iran,” Filkins explains. Unlike his most recent predecessors, Obama had been willing to engage with Iran.
Mohammed bin Salman on the other hand views Iran as his nemesis, just like Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does, going so far as to compare Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Hitler in numerous interviews (as Netanyahu, too, has done). “He wants to create his own project in the Middle East very much like Hitler who wanted to expand at the time,” the Crown Prince told CBS. (No one has yet bothered to point out that Hitler’s most salient feature was not his expansionist tendencies but his attempted genocide of the Jews.)
MBS saw in Trump a welcome change, given that from the beginning of his presidency, Trump has signaled the desire to isolate Iran and threatened to walk away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. And through Otaiba, the Crown Prince took advantage of that change.
It is widely believed in Beltway circles that Otaiba cultivated Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son in law, and influenced his thinking on foreign policy issues. Most importantly, Otaiba helped Mohammed bin Salman forge a friendship with Kushner that would prove crucial. At Kushner’s urging, Saudi Arabia was the first country Trump visited as president, to much fanfare. Just weeks later, the blockade against Qatar was announced. It’s no wonder MBS reportedly bragged that Kushner was “in his pocket.”
In October, Kushner traveled again to Saudi Arabia to discuss his peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians, and when he left, both he and MBS seem to have gotten something they wanted. As Filkins reports, Kushner left convinced that the top priority was uniting the region against Iran, while MBS met with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and presented a plan that was radically favorable to Israel.
Protesters in #Gaza burn pictures of Saudi Crown Prince, after his remarks on Israel pic.twitter.com/bkhec3fMQP— Guy Elster (@guyelster) April 6, 2018
Just six months later, MBS would tell Jeffrey Goldberg, “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land,” he said. “But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations,” he was careful to add.
The statement made headlines. “There’s no question that in MBS we’re dealing with a Saudi leader who is prepared to break taboos that no previous Saudi leader has done,” Dan Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel, told me. “It’s also true with respect to Israel,” Shapiro went on. “He went further than any Saudi leader has done in recognition of Israel’s right to have its own land.”
These reforms and changes are motivated by the alignment of interests between Israel and the Sunni Arab states vis-a-vis Iran, Shapiro said. “That said, it’s possible to engage in irrational exuberance about how quickly the changes he’s signaling will really be carried out.”
“Cautiously supportive and optimistic” was how one of the rabbis who met with MBS — Steve Wernick — described his own feelings as well.
Wernick believes that part of the Crown Prince’s goal in meeting with American Jewish leaders was to telegraph his openness to his own people, as part of his modernizing efforts. “One of the ways in which you bring about more tolerance within your own society as a leader is you be seen engaging people with other perspectives,” he said.
Alan Fagin, who also was at the meeting, viewed it a bit differently. “He wanted to make a pretty clear statement that his attitudes towards Jews, towards Israel and to other faith communities that have not felt a warm embrace by the Saudi regime were changing, that there was now a desire for a new and different approach,” he told me.
The meeting, which was off the record, lasted about half an hour. According to two sources familiar with the meeting who requested anonymity because it was off the record, many issues were discussed, first and foremost Iran as the biggest threat confronting the region. The Crown Prince also brought up his efforts to liberalize his country, and the Jewish leaders brought up issues of interest to them, for example, “anti-Semitic and anti-religious references in Saudi textbooks and educational materials,” one of the sources recalled.
Something that did not come up were the civil and human rights issues, just as they did not come up in the Crown Prince’s meeting with Rupert Murdoch, Morgan Freeman and Dwayne Johnson.
“Certainly those of us who were there are aware of that,” Wernick said. “I’ve never met him before, I’ve never met anyone from the Saudi government before. I was interested in hearing what they had to say. We did talk about how important these reforms are.”
Wernick is right: They are important. Even jailed journalist Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, believes in the progress MBS has made.
“In the past two and half years, since his rise to power, the Prince has introduced several positive policy measures pushing for a modern Saudi Arabia,” she wrote to me. “I can only hope that this is only the beginning and that his appointment will open the path for positive changes we all are looking for.”
But Aldosari believes that the reforms, while positive, are mostly cosmetic. For starters, as MBS admitted to Goldberg, he has no intention of revoking the guardianship laws that forbid Saudi women from traveling without the permission of a male sponsor. “If I say yes to this question, that means I’m creating problems for the families that don’t want to give freedom for their daughters,” he said. “Saudis don’t want to lose their identity but we want to be part of the global culture.” So while the Crown Prince has enabled women to become more effective consumers, he hasn’t done anything to protect their civil liberties.
Furthermore, many of these reforms began as efforts on the part of activists –- activists who are still in jail for pursuing the very measures the Crown Prince has decreed. “All kinds of people who called for these reforms are still in prison,” Aldosari said.
She herself can’t go back to Saudi Arabia. Her friends and fellow outspoken activists told her not to ever return, because her name came up in the investigations against them.
What this means is that Vision 2030 is not about granting Saudis civil liberties but about appearing to do so. It’s not about transforming Saudi Arabia but about selling it as a transformed state. In other words, it’s a rebrand.
That’s why Mohammed bin Salman is here — to rebrand himself and Saudi Arabia, removing the stain of Osama bin Laden and 9/11 and the image of the Saudis as extremists and replacing it with the image of MBS as the magnanimous reformer.
And he needs America to buy this new brand – quite literally, in fact.
This might seem surprising, coming from the leader of a country rich in oil. And yet, unless Saudi Arabia can wean its economy off of oil, there might not be much left in a just a few years.
As Filkins explained in the New Yorker article, Saudi Arabia’s welfare state was built on the expectation that the price of oil would remain high, yet it’s plummeted in recent years, and is predicted to keep falling. As one former defense official put it, “In five to seven years, at current trends, they’re broke.”
It is this crisis that MBS’s entire U.S. tour was designed to stave off through foreign investment, along with many of the “liberalizing” reforms — like allowing women to drive, which is directly related to getting women into the work force. The entire “Vision 2030” plan was devised to address the looming economic crisis.
It’s this that makes our willingness to be charmed by Mohammed bin Salman especially galling — because we hold all the cards. Instead of using that leverage to demand true reforms, we gave him cover for his human and civil rights abuses by greeting him like a hero on his PR campaign.
“It shows the hypocrisy of countries that want the best for their own people, promoting and writing how a democratic society and the rule of law is essential,” said Aldosari, “but it’s ok if other countries are authoritarian, as long as they are not fanatics.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward. You can email her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bungarsargon.