The writer is a former UK defence and foreign secretary
There is a new wave of reform in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates’ momentous decision to forge ties with Israel brings with it many questions about the future for Palestinians, but it confirms a willingness in Abu Dhabi to modernise and inject fresh thinking into the region’s politics.
In its larger neighbour Saudi Arabia, we see a country transforming. Riyadh was once a quiet, private place. No more: before the pandemic lockdown it teemed with activity. Women have been granted new freedoms and are gradually playing a larger role in society. Many Saudi youth are now excited about their country’s future. For those of us who have spent time in Saudi Arabia in recent decades, these are scenes we never witnessed in the past, the results of a reform process.
Despite this progress the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to shock the world. Even friends of the kingdom were astonished by the brutality of this senseless crime. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has spoken of his responsibility, as de facto leader of the country. The west has watched closely to see if this was a terrible aberration or indicates a pattern of behaviour.
Now, once again, Prince Mohammed’s unpredictable behaviour is becoming a cause for concern. Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince, finds himself under house arrest on what appear to be trumped up charges.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was instrumental in countering al-Qaeda after the terror attacks of 9/11. His transformation of the kingdom’s intelligence service provided the US and its allies with important capabilities. The former crown prince took on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the terror group’s most vicious and murderous regional franchises. He bears the scars of almost being blown up in an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber.
Saad Aljabri, an associate of the former crown prince and close ally of western intelligence services who is living in exile in Canada, says he is being pursued and his children are being used as collateral to force him to return to the kingdom. Saudi Twitter trolls defame both men. Rumours circulate in the media of charges against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef being brought later in the year.
We can only speculate about what palace intrigue is driving this vengeful behaviour. But I am more certain about the reaction it is causing. The campaign against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and his associate Mr Aljabri is making many in London and Washington nervous. Republican senators are pressuring US president Donald Trump to act.
The US state department issued a rare rebuke of Saudi Arabia over the Aljabri case. Privately, former heads of the CIA plead Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s case. The feeling is similar in London, where MPs, ministers and officials are appalled. There is a danger that friends of the kingdom will eventually find this behaviour untenable.
Disappointment is turning to anger and frustration. We cannot expect the political change we might wish for, but the societal changes in Saudi Arabia have regional and global significance. Saudi Arabia is a bulwark against the political extremism of Iran. The Arabian peninsula is central to global Islam and Saudi Arabia’s position as custodian of the holy sites directly influences the world’s 1.8bn Muslims.
In the past, the hardline religious interpretation disseminated by Saudi Arabia has been a cause for concern. The crown prince has declared that the kingdom is to be the home of moderate Islam. If that comes to pass, a more moderate kingdom would strengthen the west’s already vital security relationship.
Saudi Arabia’s journey towards modernity should therefore be supported, encouraged and enabled by its western allies. There are still many human rights problems with the country, which the UK continues to raise with its leaders. But we must acknowledge progress where it has been made. Much has happened over the past decade and there is more to come.
The question is whether all this will be threatened by Prince Mohammed’s bouts of unpredictable and sometimes aggressive behaviour.
His treatment of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and his associates will test the resolve of Saudi Arabia’s friends and embolden its many opponents. All of us who value the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the west are hoping the crown prince responds with statesmanship.