Building on President Trump’s historic visit to Riyadh in May 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman commenced his two-and-a-half week visit to the United States on March 19. This visit follows successful visits to Egypt and England. The crown prince (MBS, as he is known) had a very warm and productive meeting with President Trump at the White House on March 20.
He also had productive meetings with many congressional leaders during his Washington visit. Both the president and MBS are in complete agreement on countering terrorism and the urgent requirement to roll back the Iranian Crescent. The president is keenly aware that the success of the crown prince’s economic and social transformation of Saudi Arabia, as outlined in his “Vision 2030,” is a key element with regard to the United States achieving its objectives in the Middle East.
The crown prince, with the backing of his father, King Salman, got the world’s attention with his anti-corruption campaign. Many have claimed this was a power grab. Far from it. This was essential if Saudi Arabia was going to be able to transition from a one-product oil economy to a diversified, modernized 21st century country.
Consistent with modernizing the economy is promoting a more liberal, open society which will require a more “tolerant” version of Islam. In that sense, MBS has already curtailed the power of the Wahhabi clerics and has led the effort to roll back the powerful religious police. They have been stripped of their power along with the ultra-conservative clerics.
MBS, with the king’s support, has made other dramatic changes, including women’s right to drive commencing in June. Women are no longer required to wear headscarves. They can now attend sports events, work out in gyms and join the military. A woman still must obtain permission from her husband or other male relative, even if younger, however, to leave her house unattended.
The male guardianship rules must be removed if women are going to be a positive factor in the expanding work force. Many Saudi women are well-educated with advanced degrees but have not been able to use them.
As part of the modernization of Saudi Arabia, educational reforms must also be instituted. The rigid Wahhabi doctrine taught in the school system must be eliminated, as well as in the 25,000 madrassas that the Saudis fund and support. Also the public enforcement of shariah (Islamic law) with amputations, beheadings and floggings at Decra (Justice) Square, sometimes called “Chop Chop Square,” must be eliminated.
There are many challenges facing the crown prince in achieving his objectives to modernize Saudi Arabia — not the least of which is Iran and its drive to become the dominant power throughout the Middle East. Fortunately, the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia are in total agreement on the need to roll back the Iranian Crescent.
Key is preventing Iran from establishing a land bridge from Tehran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea, where it will be on Israel’s border. To prevent this, Mr. Trump asked King Salman for $4 billion to help rebuild areas in Syria where the Islamic State has been defeated and eliminated. He believes he has that commitment from the king. Establishing an independent, sovereign Kurdistan would also help. The Kurds have been an invaluable ally in defeating the Islamic State and deserve our support.
Another area that cannot be neglected is the proxy war in Yemen where Iran is deeply involved in supporting the Houthi rebels. There has been a well-coordinated international propaganda campaign led by Iran’s Washington lobby and the leftist mainstream media with the basic theme that Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States, regularly carries out airstrikes against civilians, including children.
By now it should be well understood that a tactic utilized by Iranian-trained Houthi rebels is to use civilians as a shield, the same as Hezbollah has done for years.
Regrettably, in wars, civilians get killed. Unfortunately, the disinformation campaign has been most successful as reflected in the recent attempt by Democratic senators and some Republicans to push through a vote on a Senate resolution banning all U.S. military assistance to the Saudi campaign in Yemen. Fortunately, it was defeated 54-45.
What is being ignored is Iran’s role in this proxy war, as well as the strategic importance of preventing Iran from establishing itself in Yemen with control of the Bab-al-Mandab straits, which would mean de facto control of the Suez Canal as well. Over one-third of the world’s flow of oil passes through these straits on a daily basis.
Iran’s role in creating the current Yemen humanitarian crisis is totally dismissed, as well as its objective to destabilize Saudi Arabia. What’s always overlooked is that Saudi Arabia has been and continues to be the single-largest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen, more than $3 billion in humanitarian assistance to Yemen through U.N. agencies. Continued U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia is essential if Iran is going to be prevented from exercising de facto control of Yemen and encircling Saudi Arabia.
The crown prince’s visit at this time is key to his garnering more political, military, and most importantly, economic investments in Saudi Arabia, which are essential to his achieving the goals outlined in Vision 2030. More than 75 percent of the Saudi population is under age 35; MBS himself is only 32. As he has told his cabinet, “Time is our enemy. We cannot wait any longer to reform our country. The time is now.” He is absolutely right.
• James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.
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