Saudi Leadership Changes Highlight Contradictions in U.S. Middle East Policy

04/29/2015 05:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

This morning King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a series of royal decrees removing his half-brother Prince Muqrin as Crown Prince and replacing him with Mohammed bin Nayef, the Minister of the Interior and head of the powerful Council of Political and Security Affairs. Bin Nayef is a grandson of King Abdelaziz whose sons have served as Saudi monarchs since his death in 1953.

Bin Nayef has been described as "America's favorite Saudi official." It is a description that points to a contradiction at the heart of U.S. policy in the region: how can the United States engage in effective counterterrorism cooperation with its authoritarian regional allies without legitimizing or validating their repressive practices?

Bin Nayef embodies this contradiction since he is seen as the leading force behind a massive crackdown on independent civil society activists and human rights activists inside the Kingdom and the architect of a regional strategy aimed at rolling back movements for more representative and more participatory governance throughout the Arab region. These policies spread instability and fuel the grievances that are exploited by violent extremists.

The United States and its Arab allies are in agreement over the threat posed by violent extremist groups like the so called Islamic State or ISIL. Bin Nayef has survived multiple assassination attempts by such extremists and U.S. officials see him as a reliable partner in countering terrorist threats. At the same time, President Obama stated in February at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism: "When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied - particularly along sectarian lines of ethnic lines - when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism."

Saudi Arabia's policies run counter to the president's statement and harm U.S. interests.

President Obama is aware of the problem. In a recent interview, he warned of the "internal threats" facing countries like Saudi Arabia caused by unresponsive governance and spoke of the need for "tough conversations" with their leaders on the need to implement internal reforms.

The elevation of bin Nayef to be the heir to the 79-year-old king's throne underlines the challenges facing President Obama as his administration ramps up engagement with the Arab region in the face of numerous regional crises, and on the cusp of a possible new agreement on Iran's nuclear capabilities that has created misgivings among America's regional allies, chief among them Saudi Arabia, which see the Islamic Republic as a rival and even a threat.

On May-13-14, President Obama will meet with GCC leaders during a summit in Washington and at Camp David. He should initiate "tough conversations" and speak out against human rights violations within the Kingdom and its negative influence beyond its borders. Such an approach offers the best hope for restoring peace and stability to the region and would serve the best interests of both countries.