In a sensational interview with the Washington Post, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de-facto leader Muhammad bin Salman has blamed the US and its allies for putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to export the extremist Wahhabi ideology during the Cold War as a means to counter the influence of the Soviet Union in the wider Muslim world.
Slaman’s statement is unequivocally true as the US constantly worked to prop up monarchical regimes in the Arab world at the expense of secular Arab Nationalist governments whose style of government and geo-political struggle for post-colonial liberation automatically drew them closer to the USSR. In Asia, during the Soviet intervention on behalf of the legitimate Afghan government in the 1980s, the United States collaborated with Riyadh to fund and arm the Mujahideen which ultimately mutated into Al-Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia continues to be accused of funding terrorist groups throughout the Middle East who practice Takfiri extremism that is related to Wahhabism. Now though, Muhammad bin Salman has shifted the blame back to the United States, implying that it was a mistake for Riyadh to aid the US in the spreading of a Wahhabism. This statement is somewhat ironic given the fact that Wahhabism remains the official ideology of Saudi Arabia, but it does show that at minimum, Muhammad bin Salman is deeply concerned with changing the soft power perception of Saudi Arabia in the wider world, while on the other end of the spectrum, the statements indicate that he seeks to weaken the power of Wahhabi clerics who continue to be the biggest obstacle in the way of his consolidation of power.
According to the Washington Post, Muhammad bin Salman stated that today, Saudi Arabia does not fund the spread of Wahhabism abroad but instead such efforts are being done by “Saudi based foundations” with no ties to the state.
In reality, Muhammad bin Salman does not seem to be a committed ideologue in any sense, although his youth and cosmopolitan demeanour would indicate that he is certainly not a reactionary in terms of his habits. In reality, Muhammad bin Salman is keen to weaken the power of Saudi clerics for his own political benefit as his ambitious Vision 2030 reforms designed to diversify the Saudi economy stand in the way of clerics whose hold on power largely relies on Saudi Arabia being a one-dimensional petro-economy whose wealth far excesses its output in other fields, including the sciences and entrepreneurialism.
What’s even more interesting about the Crown Prince’s statements is that he is openly condemning the US for fomenting the spread of Wahhabism during an interview with one of America’s largest media outlets. On the one hand, one could rationalise this as part of Muhammad bin Salman’s drive to win over a wider American public whose perception of Saudi Arabia remains far more negative than that among ruling US political and corporate elites. Indeed, when running for Persident, Donald Trump himself blamed previous US leaders for helping Saudi Arabia to export extremism and terrorism and thus, one could see the interview as a kind of “Muhammad bin Trump” moment that contrasts with previous Saudi officials and their close relationship with Trump’s bitter domestic rivals including the Clinton and Bush clans. But in the longer term, Muhammad bin Salman is sending a message that under his rule, Saudi Arabia will not have the kind of admittedly slavish relationship it had with the US during the Cold War.
It is no coincidence that these statements from the Crown Prince come days after the official launch of China’s Petroyuan. As every historical trend indicates, the world’s most powerful economy dictates which currency will be used in most international transactions. This continues to be the case with the US in respect of Dollar, but as China gets set to fully overtake the US as the world’s leading economy, the Dollar will inevitably be replaced by the Yuan.
China’s issuing of oil futures contracts in Petroyuan is the clearest indication yet that China is keen to make its presence as the world’s largest energy consumer known and that it would clearly prefer to purchase oil from countries like Saudi Arabia in its own currency in the future, quite possibly in the near future.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince appears to understand this trajectory in the global energy markets and furthermore, he realises that in order to be able to leverage the tremendous amount of US pressure that will come down on Riaydh in order to force Saudi Arbia to avoid the Petroyuan, Riyadh will need to embrace other potential partners, including China.
More than anything else, the Petroyuan will have an ability to transform Saudi Arabia by limiting its negative international characteristics that Muhammad bin Salman himself described. As a pseudo-satellite state of the US during the Cold War, Muhammad bin Salman admitted that his country’s relationship to the US was that of subservience. China dose not make political let alone geopolitical demands of its partners, but China is nevertheless keen to foster de-escalations in tensions among all its partners based on the win-win principles of peace through prosperity as articulated on a regular basis by President Xi Jinping.
Thus one could see China’s policies of political non-interference rub off on a potential future Saudi partner, in the inverse way that the US policies of ultra-interventionism are often forced upon its partners. Thus, whatever ideological views Muhammad bin Salman does or does not have, he clearly knows where the wind is blowing: in the direction of China.