Two Young Arab Leaders to Keep an Eye On

An unlikely meeting between Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and one of Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric.

If you were looking for a single moment that captured the peculiar nature of leadership and how history is determined in the Arab region today, it would be the meeting that took place a few weeks ago between the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman, and the populist Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Al-Sadr. There are enough fascinating aspects of this meeting to fill a graphic novel. Several pertinent ones that stand out tell us much about how the destiny of this turbulent and still deteriorating region will be determined by some relatively young men operating in the shadows, for the most part.

Moqtada Al-Sadr inherited from his assassinated father the leadership of a grassroots movement of Shiites in Iraq that has emerged as a pivotal actor in the ever-changing Iraqi political scene. Mohammad Bin Salman vaulted to the crown prince position in Saudi Arabia thanks to the decisions of his father the king, and some wily palace machinations that remind us why kings and princes are such popular figures in television series. They are quite young as Middle East leaders go, and both assumed power without any formal training or experience, but thanks only to their fathers.

Like most Arab leaders, they have immense power, are accountable virtually to no one, and can wage war or make peace with former enemies at the drop of a hat, a kefiyyeh, a turban, or any other Middle Eastern head covering. We should take a good, hard look at these two men, because they and others like them will shape the future of the Middle East.

We have to remain both equitable and vigilant towards them and their like—equitable, in not judging them too quickly but rather giving them time to show if they are reckless dangers to us all, or bold and visionary young men who have learned the mistakes of the autocratic leaders of the recent past; but vigilant, in watching them closely to spot any signs of utter foolhardiness and destructive actions that promote sectarianism and warfare in lands that beg for pluralism and calm.

The Saudi crown prince sees himself as perhaps the protector of all Sunni Muslim Arabs, if not all Sunni Muslims in the world. He has spoken harshly of alleged predatory Iranian intentions in Arab societies, and has launched military (Yemen) and diplomatic (Qatar) efforts to stem alleged Iranian inroads into Arab countries that include Shiite Muslim minorities. Whether his fears of Iran are justified, exaggerated, or fully hallucinatory will be determined by history to come.

Moqtada Al-Sadr represents the modern phenomenon of a dynamic, charismatic grassroots Shiite Muslim organizer and leader in an Arab country. He has fought the Americans, negotiated politically with other Iraqi political groups, spent time in and out of Iran, spoken harshly of Saudi Arabia in the past, and generally sought to position himself to become the most prominent Iraqi Shiite spiritual and (unofficially) political leader after the imminent death of the leading Iraqi Shiite authority Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.

Each in his way represents a break from the past, and both of them have spoken about the need for serious political, economic, and social-cultural reforms within their own countries. Sadr wants a serious anti-corruption effort in Iraq, and Mohammad Bin Salman has championed an ambitious national economic reform plan. These are novel and potentially historic developments, if they are sincere and will be translated into action. So we must wait and see if and how these young men’s rhetoric promotes real changes for the better for the people of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which would immensely benefit many others in the Arab region and Iran.

The meeting of these two men raised eyebrows across the region because it was widely assumed that intense Shiite-Sunni rivalries throughout the region precluded such interactions and consultations across sectarian lines. It turns out that this meeting resulted in some bilateral agreements, including a $10 million Saudi Arabian donation to meet the needs of Iraqis displaced by war in Mosul. Then the Iraqi government announced that it was asked to mediate to improve relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a long-closed Iraqi-Saudi border post will be reopened to facilitate the flow of people and goods that will benefit both states.

The big riddle is whether this meeting will pave the way for more normal relations among Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, or generate more intense political rivalries and sectarian competition for influence. More sinister analysts than myself wonder if these Saudi and Iraqi figures are using each other mainly to strengthen their internal position and also create more troubles for Iran. We will know in the months ahead.

We should not rule out the possibility that even brash, inexperienced, unconstrained, and bold young men who make war at will would one day see the folly of their ways and start to act more sensibly. That would be good news for the entire Middle East, which is why these two fellows are worth watching closely.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global