In the aftermath of 9/11, the American people had a deep distrust of Saudi Arabia and its government.
Times have changed.
With the emergence of a newly emboldened Iran, the largest state sponsor of terrorism, the continued presence of ISIS in Iraq and in Syria and the ongoing conflict in Yemen, the United States finds itself closely aligned with the Saudis in attempting to root out terrorism.
But most importantly, the newly appointed Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, at 32 years old, has brought about drastic reforms that have improved Saudi Arabia’s standing among Western democracies.
Bin Salman, the son of the 82-year-old King Salman and heir to the throne, helped bring an end to the infamous Saudi ban on female drivers, ended a countrywide ban on cinemas and recently orchestrated a crackdown on corruption in the Kingdom, arresting over 500 princes, government ministers, and businessmen.
In addition, bin Salman has focused his attention on attracting business investment in Saudi Arabia, which will be on full display in the United States over the next week. After his meeting with President Trump this past Tuesday, bin Salman began his two-week mission across the United States, which will include stops in New York, Boston, Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. On the west coast, he will meet with prominent CEOs Bill Gates and Tim Cook, as well as with key members of the film industry.
In an interview with the Guardian, bin Salman said he is trying to recreate the more moderate Saudi Arabia that existed before the Islamic Awakening. “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries—one of them is Saudi Arabia. We are simply reverting to what we followed—a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.”
Another area where bin Salman has brought about much-needed change is on the Kingdom’s attitude toward Israel. Unlike previous Saudi leaders, who have flexed their muscles and attempted to intimidate the only democracy on their border, the Crown Prince has privately improved relations with the Jewish state. Earlier this month, during bin Salman’s visit to Egypt, Israel’s Channel 10 reported on behind-the-scenes meetings between Israeli and Saudi officials, which have become more frequent over the past year, as diplomatic and intelligence cooperation between the former foes is at an all-time high.
The improvement in Israel-Saudi relations began during the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, which both countries saw as a naïve agreement, as Iran was rewarded with nearly $150 billion in sanctions relief for temporarily agreeing to halt its nuclear program. Since the agreement, Iran has increased its presence in Syria and Lebanon, and has beefed up financial support for the Houthis in Yemen, drawing the ire of both Saudis and Israelis.
Bin Salman has also played a key role in last year’s joint decision between the Saudis, UAE and Egypt to cut off all diplomatic relations with Qatar, another major sponsor of terrorism.
While there is still much needed reform that needs to take place in order for Saudi Arabia to be seen as a dependable ally amongst the United States and the West, the Crown Prince has done his part.
By bringing about freedoms for women, reaching out to business executives in an attempt to reduce the country’s reliance on oil, improving relations with Israel and orchestrating economic boycotts against terror-supporting Arab countries, bin Salman has openly challenged the conservative, hard line views that have been at the center of Saudi politics for decades. That takes courage—and Mohammed bin Salman ought to be commended for doing so.