Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pulled back the curtain on his hidden empire with a series of strategic steps this past week. Many of us who have interacted with him and his diplomatic team in Riyadh have heard him privately talking about this plan for the past eighteen months. But these moves are more than the prince and his team of laptop-wielding young men in thobes attempting to consolidate power. Here is a blueprint of the crown prince’s moves and their unintended consequences for U.S. national security.
Crown Prince Mohammed is acutely aware of the different audiences both inside and outside of the kingdom who are following his decisions. Although it did not flood the airwaves, the 32-year-old prince’s speech on “moderate Islam” has profound consequences for the Middle East. A key constituency the crown prince addressed during his speech is the Saudi youth –the under 25 population which represents half of the country, yet is a demographic forgotten by many. The prince realizes that this is one of his main bases of support. Research has shown that young Saudis are increasingly ‘consuming’ social media; they are in the top five worldwide in the use of social media (per capita). This is why Crown Prince Mohammed made sure he had a coordinated campaign on the rollout of the speech and symbolic reforms (e.g., allowing women to drive). In fact, most of these young people do not typically pay attention to speeches from on high. But they do watch advertising, like the Coca Cola ad showing a cheeky father teaching his daughter to drive. That Coke spot, which went viral in Saudi Arabia and parts of the Middle East, continues to generate significant discussion and debate.
Another key audience for the new Saudi leader is ISIS, or Daesh, and al Qaeda foreign fighters and their fanboys who run the groups’ digital propaganda machine. In the past, the Saudis have given lip service to anti-extremism efforts while handling the issue delicately, particularly since some Saudi corporate families have funded radical groups. The crown prince realizes that ISIS is not creating a new breed of extremists; the group is cynically exploiting a vast, pre-existing segmented demographic. (It should be noted that Saudis make up the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in the Middle East).
There is a prevailing narrative in U.S. policy circles that ISIS members’ sophisticated use of social media is somehow luring young men who would otherwise be at home with their families in Jeddah or Riyadh playing video games. This is just not true. It is not the stylized violence in extremist videos that motivates potential recruits. State accommodation of extremist clerics provides a large pool of recruits. There is widespread discontent that the Arab Spring and the failed revolutions did not produce the change people looked for, including in Saudi Arabia. Many youth believe that playing by the rules of the game simply does not work. The crown prince recognizes these potential recruits’ identity issues and their frustrations with a culture and government that limits their free expression, and confounds their ability to affect social and political change.
But the prince’s messaging strategy is flawed. In the game of alt-narratives, Prince Mohammed is attempting to counter ISIS’s words and ideas step-by-step, and he is linking this strategy to Iran. As he has said privately, Saudi Arabia’s current social problems began with the Iranian revolution of 1978. Saudi society’s rightward tilt, he argues, was a backlash to Iran. From the Saudi point of view, they are threatened by ISIS from within, and Iran from without. While this fits his origin story, research shows that when you develop counter-narratives (especially like the prince’s anti-Iranian messages) typically they backfire and wind up fortifying already-held positions. Simply put, the regime’s black-and-white anti-Shiite position works to the extremists’ advantage.
The challenge from a messaging standpoint is to promote those credible, local voices that can offer a more compelling and authentic alternative to ISIS’ supporters. It matters who delivers the message, and right now the crown prince and his $550 million yacht appear to be compelling messengers for the modern youth. However, the same liberal youth will want more from the crown prince than the latter is willing to give in terms of freedom. Additionally, the prince’s reformist religious agenda undercuts his credibility among the conservatives who share the same basic Salafist creed with the extremists.
Using game theory, I will argue that Prince Muhammed is intent on becoming a “Schelling point” – an arena with limited information. He wants all roads to lead through him. By taking on, and arresting, multiple princes – as part of an anti-corruption drive that kicked off November 4, he is sending a strong, unmistakable signal. And while there are still formal structures, like the crown prince’s Royal Court, which is increasingly influential as his personal think tank and implementation arm, many governance relationships run along blood lines. This is the Gulf version of The Sopranos, where the circle of trust among family and friends is paramount and suspicion is deadly. And beneath this trust is anxiety around the Saudi economy, which is running one of its largest deficits in history. When you travel outside of the expatriate areas of Saudi Arabia, you see the impact this is having on the “other” Saudi nation where many live but few understand. These are deeply poor and under-resourced areas, where resentment of the wealthy monarchy and its establishment grows, particularly among the disproportionately disadvantaged Shia citizenry.
Despite the ambitious Vision 2030 economic reform plan, Saudi Arabia has fallen further behind in terms of education and work skills. The kingdom does not have the first-mover advantage over its neighbors in any key industries, making the push for investment even more difficult. So, while the crown prince has made it easier to implement his own vision, he still needs help from certain domestic players whose support is necessary to maintain the delicate balance of power in Riyadh.
Religious Leaders Still Matter
The religious establishment – the historical pillar of stability in the kingdom – will have to be dragged along this journey toward a reformed state and society. But this will be a tall order for the soon-to- be-king, as is evident from the numerous examples that underscore how the old guard is resisting change.
At the heart of the old guard are clerics who remain key influencers. The role of one such figure helps explain a lot about the power that the religious scholars wield in the kingdom. He happens to be the #1 person on Twitter in the Middle East, someone you’ve probably never heard of. He is one Mohammed Al-Arefe, a 47 year old extremist cleric, a revered leader to over nineteen million Twitter followers, in addition to millions of other supporters. Al-Arefe’s videos are famous, his reach legendary. He is prolific on multiple platforms, averaging four to five ‘Snap fatwas’ a day issued to thousands of young people who adhere to his every word. Al Arefe’s range of messages are distributed so as to attract and mobilize niche, targeted audiences. He continues to churn out his ‘calamity topics’ at an alarming rate. For him, content is king – whether new videos, apps or games. He has inspired many thousands to go out and buy a plane ticket to Syria or Iraq, to join the fight abroad. His content sizzles with a ‘change narrative’, something young people latch onto and feel is aspirational.
Al-Arefe has shown there is a strong market among young people for religious leadership. And not the standard religious leaders associated with the Ministry of Religious Affairs or the official Saudi government channels. These institutions are not seen as trustworthy. The fact is, bold and provocative proclamations really do work. It is troubling that while many princes were arrested, al-Arefe and the other religious leaders who support extremism have not been targeted – an indication of the power he wields within the kingdom and beyond. He is one of the biggest motivators for of Saudi youth who do fly off to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS.
U.S. Policy Options
For the reasons listed above, the United States stands at a crossroads in its relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations. How Washington responds in the next few months will have dramatic implications for our national security and stability in the Middle East. There are key policy approaches that can improve the situation.
Diplomatic Counterinsurgency: The U.S. supported Saudi counter-insurgency in Yemen has not gone well, emboldening separatists and extremist groups and creating a humanitarian crisis. In effect, it has become ripe ground for “ISIS 3.0” (long-term parallels with Afghanistan are scary). With the events of this past week (such as the ballistic missile fired at the Riyadh airport by Houthi rebels), Yemen is not only a proxy battleground for the Saudi – Iranian struggle, it is also a threat to Saudi security due to its location on the southern flank of the kingdom. A physical altercation between the region’s two heavyweights could draw the U.S. into a wider conflict in the Middle East. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has laid out an ambitious diplomatic effort behind the scenes to bridge the gap between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, given that the small Gulf country houses more than 11,000 American military personnel. Few realize that our base in Qatar also houses the U.S. Military Information Support Task Force, which is key to our ‘diplomatic counterinsurgency’ work. The U.S. needs to tread carefully to avoid being pulled into a wider conflict, to support Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts between the Qataris and the Saudis, and to re-bolster the Gulf Cooperative Counci (GCC). The key here will be to avoid getting caught in the middle of the Saudi-Iranian geosectarian struggle.
Visually Telling the Narrative Against ISIS: Another mistaken assumption is that a technology-heavy approach can counter violent extremism. It does not. What does work, based on my research on recruits and at-risk youth, is media content hubs (e.g., Middle East Broadcasting Center, or MBC, privately owned by a Saudi family) and social media incubators, like U-Turn, which is based in Jeddah. Firms like UTurn produce authentic, viral online content that challenges ISIS by giving youth alternative pathways. MBC is by far the largest TV network in the region and has single-handedly done the best work against ISIS. Its TV dramas, “Selfie” and “Black Crows,” were the two highest-rated shows in the Middle East over the last two years. The head of MBC, Walid al-Ibrahim, was among those jailed in the crown prince’s corruption sweep. Nevertheless, Washington would be wise to make MBC a model for the Etidal Center (a new joint U.S.-Saudi counter-extremism partnership).
Partnerships with American Universities: Many fail to recognize that the Saudi government has made a $4.5 billion-dollar investment in U.S. higher education (based on the current 95,000 Saudi students studying in the States). Much of this investment goes to public universities in rural America, like Kansas State University or Washington State University, where budgets are being cut. These are threatened by increased bullying of Saudi students (including the Nov 2016 murder of a Saudi college student at the University of Wisconsin). We need to better support those partnerships that build stronger ties with young Saudis through our Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau at the State Department. It is a win-win for U.S. universities and a generation of Americans.
As Tillerson outlined earlier this year, “We must break ISIS’s ability to spread its message and recruit new followers online. We must fight ISIS online as aggressively as we would on the ground.” To implement this vision, the US needs to view Saudi Arabia within a larger strategic framework and understand the strategy behind the crown prince’s new maneuvers. Through skillful diplomacy we can avoid any pitfalls of being pulled into another Middle East conflict, build long-term relationships that support a new generation of Americans, and prepare for potential new adversaries, like ISIS 3.0. We must understand that while extremists are losing on the physical battlefield, they are advancing on the online battlefield. Al-Arefe is at the front lines of this new Digital World War. The need to fight back is an urgent one; action must be taken now.
Haroon Ullah is Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and the Chief Strategy Officer at the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.