Memo to: US President Trump.
Date: March 6, 2018
From: The U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia (if we had one.)
Subject: Saudi crown prince visit
Mr. President, in advance of the visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a.k.a. M.B.S., I want to share some thoughts:
It’s only a matter of time before King Salman turns over the reins of power to M.B.S., who’s already the effective ruler. M.B.S. is not a democrat, nor is he interested in promoting democracy. He’s a modernizing autocrat. The most we can expect from him is the modernization of Saudi Arabia’s economy and religious/social structure, but given how badly the country has stagnated from years of tentative reforms, this is deeply significant.
M.B.S. is definitely bold. I can think of no one else in the ruling family who would have put in place the profound social, religious and economic reforms that he’s dared to do — and all at once. But I can also think of no one in that family who’d have undertaken the bullying foreign policy initiatives, domestic power plays and excessive personal buying sprees he’s dared to do, all at once. They are two halves of the same M.B.S. package. Our job: help curb his bad impulses and nurture his good ones.
His potential is vast. M.B.S. is trying to forge a societal transformation in Saudi Arabia. Call it “one country, two systems.” For those who want piety, the mosque, Mecca and Islamic education, they’ll all be available and respected. But for those who want modern education and a more normal social life between men and women — and access to Western film, music and the arts — those too will be available and respected. No more religious domination. That is huge.
Thomas L. Friedman became the paper’s foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist in 1995. He joined the paper in 1981, after which he served as the Beirut bureau chief in 1982, Jerusalem bureau chief in 1984, and then in Washington as the diplomatic correspondent in 1989, and later the White House correspondent and economic correspondent.