Saudi state news agency SPA reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke on the phone Monday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the leader behind Saudi Arabia’s wide-reaching and controversial corruption crackdown.
The Crown Prince, popularly known as “MBS” in the foreign relations community, discussed regional security, “ways to combat terrorism,” and “coordination of efforts to reinforce security and the stability of the region” with Tillerson, according to Reuters.
The Trump administration, by all appearances, is taking a firmly pro-MBS, pro-crackdown stance in the Saudi Arabian turmoil. The president’s praise of the Crown Prince has been tempered by more measured, if not less amenable, signs of support from Tillerson’s State Department.
MBS has unleashed a wave of arrests that reach deep into the Saudi Royal family, ostensibly dealing with rampant corruption. He may be steering the country towards a course of reform, but the facts on the ground are anything but clear. The Saudi government does not release the names of individuals indicted until after they have been tried, which has led to significant confusion regarding who has been arrested and why.
Separately, the State Department issued a new travel advisory for Americans about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), citing a likely topic of Tillerson and Crown Prince Salman’s discussion: the growing tensions stemming from the Saudi intervention in neighboring Yemen. It reads in part:
Violence from the ongoing conflict in Yemen continues to spill over into Saudi Arabia. In the past year, rebels have fired several long-range missiles into Saudi Arabia capable of reaching the vicinities of Riyadh and Jeddah, and they have publicly stated their intent to continue doing so. The most recent attack on November 4 resulted in debris falling near King Khalid International Airport north of Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia does not have a strict hereditary succession like western monarchies, but sources indicate MBS may succeed his father, King Salman, as absolute ruler of the KSA as early as next week. Saudi officials have repeatedly denied these rumors. Given Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance to the United States, Tillerson’s call could also be related to this succession process.