mohammed bin salman crown prince of saudi arabia
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

I am sure that it’s not easy to govern Saudi Arabia or to maintain yourself as the head of a royal family with so many princes vying for power. If you’re interested in liberalizing the place, you’ll not only run afoul of the religious establishment but open yourself up for all kinds of behind the scenes intrigue from your rivals. Maybe what we’re seeing can be explained as a careful balancing act.

Saudi Arabia is escalating its crackdown on activists who had pressed for the right of women to drive, bringing the number arrested to at least 11 and publicly branding them as “traitors.”

The acceleration of the crackdown has come as a surprise because the kingdom is expected, in just three weeks, to grant the activists a victory by allowing women for the first time to drive. An international uproar over the arrests now threatens to drown out the accolades that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the dominant force in the kingdom, had previously won for announcing the rule change.

I’ve noticed an embarrassing quantity of insufficiently qualified praise for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Washington press over the last year, and perhaps a lot of it emanates from a public relations campaign or simply from the fact that the Trump administration has thrown in with the Sunnis against the Shiites in what amounts to a regional sectarian war. Either way, a lot of hope has been invested in Prince Mohammed.

It could be that this hope will be ultimately justified over the long haul, but it seems to me just as likely that this is evidence the Saudi Royal Family simply isn’t a natural or desirable ally for the United States. If this is what a reformer needs to do to enact a relatively minor reform like allowing women to drive, perhaps the culture and dynamics of the place are simply too hostile and foreign to our values and interests to make a close alliance a constructive idea.

I still do not see any reason why the United States of America should have a dog in a sectarian fight between Sunnis and Shiites. I see no reason why we should be pursuing a policy that is essentially anti-Shiite. Our refusal (for the most part) to take sides during the Obama administration is what angered Saudi Arabia and their Gulf allies, but also what made it possible to get a nuclear deal with Iran.

In my opinion, our policies should be aimed at defusing sectarian differences rather than ganging up on Shiites. We probably have an interest in the stability of the Saudi monarchy, but mainly because we don’t want chaos and have no reasonable assurance that more moderate or moral alternatives are waiting in the wings.

As for Prince Mohammed, he can be encouraged to make reforms and praised where appropriate, but he should be kept at arm’s distance.

In truth, he needs us to keep a certain distance:

But both supporters and critics of the crown prince said Wednesday that he appeared determined to portray the change [on women driving] as a royal gift to Saudi women rather than any concession to domestic or international pressure, even if silencing the activists overshadows the reform.

“That sort of change has to be seen as emanating from the government itself rather than the West,” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation and a supporter of the crown prince. He argued that the activists had failed to appreciate the balancing act that the crown prince faced in checking the power of the clerical hierarchy and its conservative supporters, who opposed allowing women to drive.

“These activists got carried away with being celebrated in the West as ‘the activists driving change’ and so on,” he said. “It all sounds nice and sexy in New York and London and Paris but in reality it is deadly.”

He added: “It further provokes an already resentful conservative and clerical class when the government is working very hard to temper their resentment. It puts meat on the bones of the accusation from the religious class that this is all a Western-driven agenda.”

That all makes sense until you think about the cost:

Pro-government news outlets and social media accounts have called them “traitors,” with one account splattering the word in red across their faces, or as “agents of embassies,” suggesting they worked for foreign governments. One newspaper said they could face as much as 20 years in prison for treason.

News reports have identified some of those arrested. One of the best known, Loujain al-Hathloul, is in her late 20s; she was previously detained for more than 70 days in 2014 for trying to post an online video of herself driving into the kingdom from the United Arab Emirates. Others include a retired professor with five children and eight grandchildren; an assistant professor of linguistics who is also a blogger in English and the mother of four; a psychotherapist in her mid-60s; and a twentysomething nurse in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. One of a handful of men arrested is a lawyer who defended Ms. Hathloul when she was previously arrested.

We criticize this kind of behavior wherever else it occurs, but when it happens in Saudi Arabia we rationalize it. Some regrettable things can be rationalized, of course, yet that doesn’t mean they should be celebrated or overlooked.

It’s not our responsibility to remake the world in our image or to dictate to other people how they should govern or be governed, and nowhere are we less capable in these areas than in the Middle East. It’s for these reasons that our policies should be crafted to promote peace and to tamp down sectarian differences rather than to make alliances with one sect at the expense of another.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at