SOBHANI: Why royal Saudi leadership matters

Miteb bin Abdullah follows in his father’s footsteps

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The United States needs reliable allies in the Middle East now more than ever before. The rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria, continued instability in countries such as Yemen and the Iranian regime’s support for dangerous elements in the region demonstrate the need to actively strengthen relations with a country that shares our interest in a more stable Middle East — Saudi Arabia. Ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, Saudi Arabia has been one of America’s most steadfast allies.

Indeed, it matters to Washington and to the rest of the world who governs Saudi Arabia. The Saudi king controls the world’s largest reserves of petroleum, is custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites and has been a counterweight to extremist ideologies — whether supported by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As leader of this nation of 25 million, King Abdullah has played all these roles and more.

King Abdullah has anchored Saudi foreign policy on the basis of stability and, domestically, has carried out many groundbreaking reforms such as expanding the roles of women in Saudi society and establishing a national dialogue among various elements of Saudi society and institutions to contribute to the development of the nation. The king’s encouragement of interfaith dialogue and extensive spending on educational scholarships to Saudi men and women to study abroad point toward his commitment to a more tolerant and interlinked society.

Indeed, the king puts a premium on education and raising his country’s human capital. To this end, he has established the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a coed institution along the same principles as the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The reforms King Abdullah has made demonstrate his willingness for change and his interest in transforming Saudi Arabia.

As Washington looks at the next chapter of its relations with Saudi Arabia, engagement with and cultivation of ties to the man who can uphold King Abdullah’s legacy becomes paramount. That person is Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the king’s reform-oriented 60-year-old son.

Prince Miteb was born in Riyadh and trained at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, graduating as a lieutenant and rising through the ranks of the Saudi military. Beginning a military career in the early 1980s, he eventually was appointed commander of the Saudi National Guard in November 2010 — a position previously held by King Abdullah — and appointed minister of the National Guard this May. He is a member of the Saudi Council of Ministers, a member of the Military Service Council and vice president of the Supreme Committee of the National Festival for Heritage and Culture — the Janadriyah. Prince Miteb’s resume of appointments demonstrates the high level of regard he holds with his father as a capable and influential member of the next generation of Saudi royal family leadership.

Yet Prince Miteb’s influence is not merely a result of his number of appointments, but rather the actions he has taken. In April, Prince Miteb spoke at the Janadriyah festival on the need for more secularization in Saudi Arabia and downplayed the role of political Islam. His remarks were welcomed by a majority of Saudi men and women who do not want to remain hostage to narrow-minded clerics but instead believe — like the prince — that jihads should be about creating, building and innovating, not destroying.

He also has demonstrated the ability to act quickly and strategically against subversive regional actors. In 2011, he ordered the National Guard to intervene in Bahrain, thus preventing an American ally (Bahrain is home to the U.S. 5th Fleet) from slipping away to Iranian influence and from creating further instability in the Persian Gulf. Prince Miteb also has acted decisively in Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi tribesmen continue to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula. As Syria’s Bashar Assad continues to slaughter his own people to stay in power, Prince Miteb has been a strong advocate of assisting the opposition. As leader of the National Guard, he is an anchor of domestic and regional stability for Saudi Arabia.

Prince Miteb is a strategic thinker and decisive leader with a unique ability to gauge a situation clearly and act accordingly. Whether in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria or Egypt, or how to confront the dangers of an Islamic regime, Prince Miteb has stepped up to the plate to carry the legacy of his father’s desire to maintain stability as the linchpin of Saudi foreign policy.

The United States should take three steps to begin closer engagement with Prince Miteb. First, President Obama should invite him to the White House to demonstrate high-level U.S. government recognition of the prince. Second, the United States should engage the prince as a partner in solving global challenges. Prince Miteb is an avid fan of technology, and engaging him as a partner to address challenges such as poverty, access to fresh water and climate change through innovations would be a good start. Prince Miteb also should be invited to address Congress and outline his vision for a U.S.-Saudi partnership.

Washington has an opportunity to lay an enduring foundation for U.S.-Saudi relations by cultivating an active and persistent engagement with an ideal partner, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah.

S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.

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