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2018 Annual Assessment

Since King Salman ascended to the throne (January 23, 2015), major changes have been evident in the kingdom’s conduct. The driver of these changes is Muhammad bin Salman, the king’s 33-year-old son, accredited as first in line to the throne (June 21, 2017). Under his leadership, Saudi Arabia is becoming more assertive in its foreign policy, and more aggressive in its actions vis-à-vis- Iran and Iran’s allies. The crown prince launched (April 25, 2016) a long-term plan – Saudi Vision 2030 – aimed at diversifying Saudi Arabia’s income sources, alleviating its absolute dependence on oil, and setting the country on the path to development and modernization. In this spirit, the kingdom’s women are being encouraged to join the labor force; freedoms previously denied them, such as attending sports events and driving automobiles, are being granted (June 24, 2018). Under the crown prince, Saudi Arabia is showing determination to halt Iran’s attempts at regional hegemony. His willingness to deepen cooperation with the Trump administration and even with Israel has largely been fueled by a desire to thwart Iran.

Muhammad bin Salman is felt to be more open to Israel than his predecessors, but in the absence of any real progress in tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict he is avoiding public normalization measures. Nor is he hastening to comply with the requests of Trump’s envoys for normalization gestures, so that the peace plan they are formulating can move forward (see below). It seems that the King is restraining his son’s openness towards Israel and her positions, that were strongly articulated in an interview to The Atlantic: “The Iranian supreme leader […] is the Hitler of the Middle East […] the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land […] Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Our Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman […] There are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan.”12 Indeed, the global and Arab media have published many reports of senior-level Saudi-Israeli meetings and substantive cooperation on security issues. It remains to be seen whether, and to what degree, the crown prince will succeed in advancing the Saudi reforms and avoiding possible attacks by parties in the royal family he has suppressed and alienated.