What Does Trump Think of the Saudi Prince Switch?

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

In a move that should have surprised precisely no one, on Wednesday Saudi King Salman ousted his nephew and Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef in favor of his son, the erstwhile Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS.

Nayef, also known by his acronym MBN, was stripped of his titles and government roles and quickly pledged allegiance to the 31 year old heir apparent to the Saudi throne.

The tensions between MBS and MBN have been bubbling for some time, and while MBN has been a favorite in Western capitals, admired for his clear-eyed views on terrorism, his days have been numbered at home.

MBS has been the architect of the Kingdom’s economic revitalization plan, Vision 2030, as well as the mastermind behind Saudi’s not terribly successful intervention in Yemen.

Close to the UAE leadership (many suggest MBS’s “Godfather” in policy is the Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed), MBS is also thought to be a major player behind the rift between Saudi, the Emirates their fellow travelers, and Qatar in recent days.

I saw both the former and the now current Crown Prince earlier this year in Riyadh. Both are impressive men, though it was clear even then that MBS has the energy and the imagination many believe will be required to take the Saudi leadership into the future.

The question is whether MBS’s vision — economic and strategic — is coherent enough, and realistic enough to be sustained.

The reforms envisioned in the 2030 plan are dramatic, consultant driven, and, insofar as they upend the comfortable and entitled status quo of the Saudi elite, unpopular. Changes to subsidies and salaries put in place have already been rolled back; much vaunted GCC cooperation appears more symbolic than real; Saudi operations in Yemen are unpopular at home and are failing to snap back the Iranian-sponsored Houthis from power in Sana’a.

GettyImages-690052722 Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 30, 2017. PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty

Still, MBS deserves enormous credit for taking on the status quo. And certain steps — stripping the religious police of many of their powers, shaking up the religious establishment, modernizing daily life in Saudi — are real and may actually be lasting.

For the United States, and for the Trump administration in particular, the question is whether Washington’s new orientation around a Sunni axis aimed at containing and shrinking Iranian power will work.

Ironically similar to Obama’s hands off approach to the region (remember his admonition to the Saudis to learn to “share” the Middle East with Iran?), Trump’s “Saudi first” plans risk subcontracting Middle East policy to Riyadh.

It’s not that Obama’s “Iran First” policy was right. Or that working more closely with the Saudis (and Emiratis) is wrong. But that at the end of the day, nothing – not a new face in the palace in Riyadh, nor even a transformation of the Saudi approach to the world — will substitute for an American-led strategy in the region.

And on that, at least in Washington, we are still waiting.

Danielle Pletka is Senior Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.