Magazine article The Spectator

The Saudi Crown Prince Is the Real Deal

Magazine article The Spectator

The Saudi Crown Prince Is the Real Deal

Article excerpt

Really, the crown prince is the real deal

In an interview this week, Mohammad bin Salman offered an extraordinarily frank assessment of how to combat terrorism. It means rooting out Islamist ideology, he said, as much as sharing intelligence. He presumably would take this blunt message to MI5 and MI6 in his meetings with those agencies, as well as to Theresa May's National Security Council.

This should provide plenty of food for thought to the cynics who argue against being taken in by his much-trumpeted embrace of a more moderate Islam. We have a Saudi crown prince who is being more frank about Wahhabi-inspired terrorism than the British. Just last year, the UK government saw fit to suppress a report that found a link between Saudi-funded mosques and Isis-inspired terrorist attacks. It was kept quiet because we didn't want to upset the Saudis. So not only does bin Salman have a thicker skin than his predecessors, he has inadvertently shone a bright light on the cowardice of our own political leaders.

Western intelligence services and top diplomats are in fact already in receipt of a draft Saudi initiative that outlines how Riyadh plans to end the kingdom's financial support for Wahhabism around the world. This will take place in tandem with eradicating the menace at home. The latter process, of course, is already well under way, with the easing of restrictions governing the segregation of the sexes in public, a massive investment in public entertainment venues, the marginalisation of the religious police and the encouragement of women to enter the workforce.

It's not that a certain amount of scepticism isn't normally justified -- indeed, it's absolutely necessary -- when it comes to the historically double-dealing House of Saud. I know that as well as anybody. Few other Middle East commentators have highlighted more consistently over the past few decades -- including in TheSpectator -- the moral hypocrisy at home and terror-funding abroad that has for so long defined the way the Saudis have done business. And I have long since grown tired of the lofty promises of political reform promised by new leaders after they were handed the reins of power, which invariably came to nothing.

With Bin Salman, though, things are different. For a start, he is not spouting reform rhetoric by sucking up to critics in the West, who naively see progress in terms of introducing western-style pluralism and democracy. Thus far, he has made no such commitments. Nor should he do so, at least in the medium term.

We in the West are rightly appalled when crazed Wahhabi clerics stand in our midst, calling for the implementation of sharia. But somehow we fail to see the hubris of our own evangelical promotion of an equally alien liberal democracy in their part of the world, not infrequently at the barrel of a gun. As a Saudi commentator recently reminded an intrepid western correspondent, moderate Islam doesn't mean no Islam at all.

And, truth be told, if it is Islam that got the Saudis into the almighty mess they find themselves in, it is probably Islam that will get them out of it. The Arab Spring has shown how choosing the path of pluralistic democracy leads inexorably to chaos and bloodshed, and to the better-organised Islamist parties triumphing at the ballot box, even in historically secular countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Thankfully, Bin Salman appears to understand that the last thing his country needs is a quick and messy transition to democracy, and that there is a third way open to Saudi Arabia. …

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