In early November, Houthi rebels in Yemen, backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, launched a missile strike targeting the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Although the missile, like more than 100 others launched at Saudi Arabia from Yemen over the past two years, was intercepted, and no casualties were incurred, the incident served as yet another reminder of Tehran's aggression and hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, through proxy terrorist organizations. The Houthis are but one example; al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah are others.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump telephoned Saudi King Salman to repeat the importance of fighting terrorism in the region and the world -- the stated purpose of the joint American-Saudi Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, which the two leaders inaugurated in Riyadh in May, at a gathering of representatives from 50 Islamic nations.
Since that summit in the spring -- the first leg of Trump's first official trip abroad as president – King Salman's son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been pushing economic and social reforms, announcing a crackdown on corruption and an increase in women's rights, including allowing them to drive.
At the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh at the end of October, Crown Prince Mohammed vowed to "return to a more moderate Islam," saying:
"We want to lead normal lives, lives where our religion and our traditions translate into tolerance, so that we coexist with the world and become part of the development of the world.... Saudi was not like this before '79. Saudi Arabia and the entire region went through a revival after '79. ... All we're doing is going back to what we were: a moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world and to all traditions and people."
This development vindicates what syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer called the Trump administration's "progress in the Middle East." In May, after the Riyadh summit, he wrote:
"That progress began with Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia, the first of his presidency — an unmistakable declaration of a radical reorientation of U.S. policy in the region. Message: The appeasement of Iran is over."
Krauthammer further explained:
"The reversal has now begun. The first act was Trump's Riyadh address to about 50 Muslim states (the overwhelming majority of them Sunni) signaling a wide Islamic alliance committed to resisting Iran and willing to cast its lot with the American side.
"That was objective No. 1. The other was to turn the Sunni powers against Sunni terrorism. The Islamic State is Sunni. Al-Qaeda is Sunni. Fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. And the spread of Saudi-funded madrassas around the world has for decades inculcated a poisonous Wahhabism that has fueled Islamist terrorism.
"Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states publicly declaring war on their bastard terrorist child is significant. As is their pledge not to tolerate any semiofficial support or private donations. And their opening during the summit of an anti-terrorism center in Riyadh.
After eight years of U.S. policy hovering between neglect and betrayal, the Sunni Arabs are relieved to have America back. A salutary side effect is the possibility of a detente with Israel."
Crown Prince Mohammed appears to be acting on this "relief" -- and on his declared commitment to combating Iran and shifting to a policy more consistent with the goals of the current American administration -- in a number of ways. Not only has he made concrete moves to end widespread corruption among members of the royal family, but he also detained two prominent Islamist clerics and other radical Islamists critical of his decision to lead the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in an embargo against Qatar for its sponsoring of terrorism.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh, May 20, 2017. (Image source: White House/Shealah Craighead)
In addition, on November 19, the Saudi kingdom convened an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, to condemn Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah for "supporting terrorism and extremist groups in Arab countries with advanced weapons and ballistic missiles" -- such as the Houthis in Yemen.
According to the Jerusalem Post's Seth Frantzman, "The main takeaway from the meeting in Cairo is it cements the Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE ties that have been clear since the Qatar crisis in July," spurred by Doha's support for Islamist terrorist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and close ties with Iran, with which it shares the world's largest gas field.
Saudi Arabia deserves praise for recognizing and acknowledging the threat from Iran and for calling on other states to do the same. Before the administration in Washington puts too much faith in the regime in Riyadh, however, it must not ignore findings of a recent investigative report revealing that hundreds of Saudi and Kuwaiti nationals residing in the United States -- many of them students with dual citizenship and receiving government scholarships -- have joined ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq during the past three years, and the Saudi government has reportedly kept this information from American authorities.
As the Iran scholar Amir Taheri recently wrote:
"If Saudi Arabia is genuine in its declared desire to become an active member of the global system, the first thing it has to do is to offer the rule of law in the sense understood by most people around the world."
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed, who is 32, has the opportunity to exact genuine change, particularly in a country more than half of whose population is under the age of 30. Whether he will follow through on his promise to liberalize the kingdom and fight extremism remains to be seen, but it is in the interest of the United States that it do so.
At a summit in Moscow in the spring of 1988, U.S. President Ronald Reagan said: "Here's my strategy on the Cold War: we win, they lose." This is the kind of strategy that the current administration in Washington needs to adopt in relation to the Middle East. Let us hope that Saudi Arabia will be part of that strategy, and not an obstacle to it.
Dr. Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981, as well as Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.