Saudi Rip Van Winkle’s Take On Saudi Changes

James Zumwalt Author, 'Bare Feet, Iron Will'
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Almost two centuries ago, American author Washington Irving wrote a short story about a fictional character named “Rip Van Winkle.” Rip was a Dutch-American villager in colonial America who fell asleep, waking up twenty years later, having missed the American Revolutionary War. Obviously, it was a much-changed America to which he awoke.

Imagine a Saudi Arabian Rip Van Winkle awakening in 2018 after a twenty-year slumber. As he fell asleep two decades earlier, then 78-year old King Fahd was ruling. Knowing the throne typically passes from one elder brother to another—all sons of late Saudi founder, King Abdulaziz al-Saud—Saudi Rip would expect to see yet another senior citizen ruling the country. He would be befuddled to learn, while a senior citizen is ruling as king, he is not doing so exclusively.

Finding octogenarian King Salman as ruler would not surprise Saudi Rip. But he would be surprised to learn King Salman was sharing authority with someone else, after changing the royal succession order. 

In 2015, upon becoming king, Salman named his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, then 56, as Crown Prince. But two years later, Nayef was removed as heir, replaced with King Salman’s own son, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), then 31.

Why this change was made remains somewhat of a mystery. Whether it was because Nayef, the target of four assassination attempts (wounded in one), perhaps lacked the desire to succeed or whether King Salman just felt his country needed younger blood in power to deal with extremist challenges it faced, MbS became the Crown Prince of choice.

Saudi Rip would also be surprised to learn that, although King Salman was still of sound body and mind, he seemed to be giving MbS free rein to rule, leaving him to make some significant domestic changes. In a country long ago built upon an extreme Islamist foundation, MbS was doing for his fellow Muslims what US astronaut Neil Armstrong did on the moon, taking one giant leap for mankind. He was making decisions to slacken fundamentalism’s tight hold on ordinary citizens. Relaxing demands such as Muslim women wearing traditional religious clothing, or driving, or going out unescorted—all became targets of MbS’s effort to create a “kinder, gentler” Islam for Saudi Arabia. 

Of major concern to Saudi Rip would be to learn in a Muslim world known for its sectarian divisiveness between Shia and Sunni Islam—the former now championed by Iran; the latter by Saudi Arabia—how key players in the region over the previous two decades so tolerated Iranian advances in supporting terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons—so much so as to threaten Saudi Arabia’s very existence. Four Saudi kings had ruled since Iran’s mullahs came to power in 1979; yet all proved unwilling to confront Iranian aggression. Saudi Rip would be ecstatic to learn MbS was of a different ilk, willing to do the things—especially those of an unconventional Islamic nature—to confront this threat.

With MbS having gained insights from over 100,000 Iranian documents concerning its secret nuclear arms program—obtained by the Israelis in what history will record as one of the greatest espionage coups ever—MbS is committed more than ever to meeting the Iranian nuclear threat. He has taken initiatives both at home and abroad to do so that undoubtedly will put him in the crosshairs of Saudi fundamentalists. For example, his willingness to meet with the Coptic pope while in Egypt as well as his efforts to give greater freedom to Muslim women at home do not earn him fundamentalist friends. 

What would probably be Saudi Rip’s greatest surprise, however, are MbS’s comments about a country Rip was raised by fundamentalist doctrine to hate and eventually eradicate—Israel.  Accordingly, he would be in shock to learn, in the reverse of Saudi policy when he his slumber began, MbS publicly declared Israel has the right to exist.  

MbS no longer sees Israel as an enemy but, rather, as a regional economic partner and “Cold War” partner to contain Iran. While MbS recognizes a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis would expedite the process, he does not hesitate to tell the former they should either make peace or “shut up.”

Saudi Rip, catching up on events of the previous two decades, would definitely recognize there has been a tectonic shift in Saudi Arabia’s regional alliance and how an eight-year hiatus of US leadership in the Middle East under President Barack Obama allowed Iran to gain the upper hand. He would fully understand how Saudi Arabia, despite its important role in Islam as Custodian of two of the holiest mosques in Medina and Mecca (a role Iran rejects and believes it should play despite both mosques being located in Saudi Arabia), grasps the reality it must depart from its old ways under Islam and embrace the new if it is to survive. Finally, he would recognize this includes aligning itself with Israel against a soon-to-be, if not already, nuclear-armed Iran. 

Saudi Rip would appreciate the wisdom of King Salman’s selection of MbS as Crown Prince to lead a reformation of its national and international policies at a time Saudi Arabia faces the greatest threat ever to its existence. He also would appreciate King Salman’s wisdom in allowing MbS to start the process under the king’s tutelage. 

While MbS critics in the US remain leery of his motivations, they should recognize a very important personal trait—his courage in taking initiatives putting him at the top of Islamists’ hit lists. As mentioned, MbS’s cousin Mohammed bin Nayef—despite maintaining a lower profile as the former Crown Prince—was targeted for assassination four times. MbS recognizes what he seeks to do makes him a marked man. He has said that as far as his reforms go, “only death” will stop him from ruling the kingdom. 

We in the West should pray those Islamists seeking to make MbS’s death a reality are unsuccessful.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.