“A reformed Saudi Arabia could defeat terror at its roots. A radicalized Saudi Arabia could rock the global economy and destabilize the entire Middle East.” Madeleine Albright, 2003
By any measure, two events with game-changing significance occurred last week.
The first was the gang in Gaza, Hamas, giving up any pretext of governance. Their call for mass demonstrations and a “March of Return” on the Israeli border signifies the end for their ideology. Hamas has tried everything except care for its citizens since it took over the densely populated Gaza Strip and declared war on Israel in 2007. Hamas has sent suicide bombers, thousands of rockets, and tunnels deep into Israel. Some of these tunnels have shocked the Israelis in their sophistication. But nothing has brought Hamas remotely close to its stated goal of violently destroying Israel. The “March of Return” should be seen as the last gasp of this failed military campaign.
The other game-changer was Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to America. The 32-year old heir apparent, known globally as “MbS,” went on quite a charm offensive. Gone were the trademark flowing robes and ghutrah (the traditional headgear his ancestors have worn for centuries). In their place were Hollywood-style open collar shirts and tailored suits. The photos of him posing with Michael Bloomberg in a New York City Starbucks and later with Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs must have had his ancestors whirling like dervishes in their desert graves.
If you need a quick refresher on Saudi Arabia and the role of MbS, here is what you need to know: Saudi Arabia has been ground zero for 90 percent of all Islamic fundamentalism in the world. That is because their Sunni brand of Islam is practiced by 90 percent of all Muslims, with the Shia being the other 10 percent. The Saudis have funded, publicly or privately, virtually every terror organization from Al Qaeda to ISIS and the Taliban. They have destabilized entire countries, such as Indonesia and Pakistan, with their cruel strain of Islam. Beheadings? Check. Whippings? Check. Public stonings? Check.
For MbS to depart from this script and meet Oprah Winfrey, Tim Cook, and – on top of it all – to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation-state is completely unprecedented.
Fundamentalist Sunni Islam is idiosyncratically undergoing an about-face. How? Because the Saudis have supported and funded the very Hamas that has not yet read MbS’s new script. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was also funded by the Saudis for years. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudis exported, through the mosque (found in every village), an extreme and radical version of Islam in order to shape the Muslim world in its image. To a large extent it worked. There were setbacks, like in Syria, where tens of thousands of Brotherhood members were massacred in Hama in 1982 by then Syrian President Hafez al Assad. But fundamentalist Sunni Islam has had it successes. For example, in Egypt the Brotherhood took power in 2012. And consider for a moment how long we have been at war with the Taliban, which is still a very real threat.
In Gaza, Hamas was able to violently overthrow the more secular Fatah that co-governed the strip after the Israelis unilaterally left it in 2005. To say Hamas has made a mess of matters is an understatement. They have ruined Gaza’s economy by relentlessly using the strip as a base to attack Israel. Instead of building schools, hospitals, factories, or housing, Hamas has spent millions of dollars and countless hours trying to tunnel under the Israeli border to terrorize and kidnap Israelis.
Recently, Hamas seemed to surrender governance to the same Fatah they overthrew. That too has failed, and Hamas continues to rule a pariah quasi-state. The Egyptians and Gulf States have ceased funding them. The Iranians have once again befriended them but are in no position to help in any significant way. Diplomatically isolated, economically ruined (the United Nations has issued warnings about an impending humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza), power outages, overflowing sewage, and young Gazans trying to get arrested by Israel to eat: Islamic governance does not look too good.
Back to MbS in America. The steep decline in the price of oil has threatened the Saudis. This economic crutch has brought their need to modernize and diversify their economy into full focus. With the youth quake coming, MbS is in need of foreign investment. He needs to take the desert kingdom out of the fundamentalist past and into the digital, connected present. This requires hundreds of billions of dollars, hence the meetings with American financiers. At home, he is already in the process of allowing women to drive and movie theaters to operate.
It is hard to believe that Bloomberg and Blankfein will help raise billions only to see it siphoned off to the tens of thousands of mosques the Saudis have set up in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. That pipeline must dry up. MbS cannot think that Saudi support to destabilize the Islamic world can continue using other people’s money. Thus there is a real possibility that for the first time in decades we may see the Saudi money spigot to fundamentalists and terrorists turned off, just as was done to Hamas.
The world still has Iranian and Shia fundamentalism to deal with, but the Shia are not responsible for Al Qaeda and 9/11, Hamas, or the Taliban. The Iranian-funded Hezbollah have as of late concentrated on nearby power plays (Lebanon, Syria) and do not inspire the same global mass murder and carnage that Saudi-fueled extremism does.
Let’s hope that the Islamic world recognizes these new realities. It must dawn on Muslims everywhere that the Gazans have been led down a road to utter despair. The sight of Gazans throwing themselves into Israeli bullets is not pretty. The sight of the heir to the Saudi throne meeting with American Jews to modernize his country is groundbreaking. MbS heralds the potential for change after decades of Saudi fundamentalism and all the havoc and death it has brought. Wish him well.