While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's arrest of senior officials is concerning from a U.S. idealist's point of view, it was likely inevitable. Bin Salman isn’t willing to wait before pursuing his wide ranging social, political and economic reforms. In turn, he has invited a major challenge from those in the regime and religious ulama who oppose him. But as I say, the crackdown isn't surprising. After all, when bin Salman took down his powerful predecessor, Muhammed bin Nayef, earlier this summer, he proved he is decisive.
In that regard, bin Salman’s strategy reflects a major break with Saudi traditions of power politics. Previous rulers have used oil revenues to offer patronage and influence in return for political and religious fealty. Bin Salman is instead forcing a decisive showdown with those who oppose him or his ideas, so that he can get past them and push forward.
From a realist point of view, if the Trump administration accepts that this is what bin Salman is doing, it has one of two choices. The first option is to condemn bin Salman from the sidelines, watch as he ignores our protests and then risk his seduction by a very willing Vladimir Putin. In return for hurting U.S. interests and buying Russian equipment, Mr. Putin would offer bin Salman his influence against the House of Saud's enemy No. 1, Iran.
The alternative is for the White House to support bin Salman's reform efforts. Earning his trust, President Trump could then push bin Salman behind the scenes to restrain a sectarian crackdown on his Shia citizenry and release some of those he has imprisoned. This approach would match U.S. strategic interests to realistic moral goals.
Ultimately, however, we must be clear eyed. Saudi Arabia has long been a deeply dysfunctional state and a defining source of Sunni Islamic extremism. And considering the systemic decline in oil prices born of the fracking energy revolution, and a young Saudi population that needs jobs and opportunities, Mohammed bin Salman's reforms are absolutely critical.
Saudi Arabia's future is now lies on a fork between two courses.
Saudi Arabia can evolve into a more pluralistic, opportunity-driven version of Dubai, or it can fail to address its societal-economic weaknesses and risk becoming an Islamic State-style death cult in the desert.
Whatever our justified concerns, America's interest rests firmly with the first outcome.