Saudi Arabia's Google talks prove Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is the most powerful leader in the Middle East

  • Google and Amazon are reportedly in advanced talks with Saudi Arabia to build a tech hub in that country.
  • This is the result of seven months of swift reforms in Saudi Arabia that began under Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
  • It's not only proof that bin Salman's reforms have worked, but also that he is now the most powerful man in the entire Middle East.
Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud
Bandar Algaloud | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud

Reports surfaced Thursday that Saudi Aramco, the world's largest energy company, and Google parent Alphabet have reportedly entered discussions to create a technology hub in Saudi Arabia.

This news is the latest and perhaps the most solid evidence that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is not only the most powerful man in Saudi Arabia, and not only the most powerful leader in Sunni Islam, he is now clearly the most powerful man in the entire Middle East.

That's because he's not only gained more control over his own country but doing so has made Saudi Arabia more powerful both politically and financially.

It's been just seven months since his reportedly ailing father King Salman effectively handed control of the country to him by naming him crown prince. Since then, the 32-year-old bin Salman has run full speed with his three-part plan to strengthen the country. Part one was shoring up Saudi defenses against Iran, which he accomplished in many ways but most notably by entering into a more solid partnership with Israel.

Step two was a major series of cultural reforms that included purging anti-American and anti-Jewish clerics and granting more rights for women.

"Crown Prince bin Salman is being rewarded for his actions. The U.S. is rewarding him. Israel is rewarding him. Now, two of the richest corporations in the world are poised to do the same."

Step three was more controversial. That was the crown prince's plan to improve the nation's finances and send an anti-corruption message by detaining without trial about 200 of his fellow princes and government officials at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.

That group included the richest man in the Middle East, his cousin and fellow prince, Alwaleed bin Talal. But the operation has come to an apparently peaceful and lucrative end with many billions of dollars turned over to the government by the detainees in return for their release.

All of this has happened with no apparent protest and no reported violent outbursts. Compare that with the massive protests that engulfed Iran just a few weeks ago.

Now, the Alphabet/Google talks with the Saudis, as well as a separate deal for three data centers with Amazon, are taking the crown prince's successes to a new level. It's the first proof that his efforts to diversify his nation's economy from being solely dependent on oil aren't such a long shot after all.

Of course, these talks with America's tech titans would not have been possible without all the major moves bin Salman made first. Improving the nation's security, finances, rights for women, and toning down its worst Islamist rhetoric go a long way to making the kingdom a more attractive place to invest.

But look at the bigger picture. Sure, Saudi Arabia still doesn't have the strongest military, and it still doesn't have a very large population. It's also still backing the government in Yemen against an Iranian-sponsored revolt. None of that has stopped Saudi Arabia from continuing to have the biggest GDP in the Middle East, the most allies in the region and the power of rising oil prices to boot.

So, finally, we understand the purpose of all the crown prince's sweeping moves since June. They're not just about stepping up militarily to deter Iran's ambitions in the region. Now we know it's about finding a way to make an impressive form of foreign investment in Saudi Arabia more possible.

There are other Middle Eastern leaders with autocratic power who would like to do the same thing. But they don't have the money, the powerful friends, or true support from their own populations that bin Salman clearly has.

Imagine if the mullahs in Iran used their power to achieve these kinds of goals instead of being the world's top sponsor of terrorism, launching proxy wars all over the region, and granting fewer rights to their own people. Imagine if the leaders of Syria and Egypt did something like this 40 or 50 years ago instead of obsessing and warring with Israel.

Saudi Arabia was just about as guilty as its peers of being similarly misdirected in favor of Wahhabist Islamism and other counterproductive nonsense for decades. But now it has a leader who has a better and clearer focus.

Yes, that detention of his peers at the Riyadh Ritz was disturbing in many ways. But it's hard to make a lack of due process a deal breaker in the neighborhood where we see Iran's brutal domestic repression or a Syrian civil war that's claimed almost half a million lives.

Crown Prince bin Salman is being rewarded for his actions. The U.S. is rewarding him. Israel is rewarding him. Now, two of the richest corporations in the world are poised to do the same.

And all that will do is make him even more powerful. Hopefully, this kind of positive reinforcement will encourage other leaders in the Middle East to follow his lead.

Commentary by Jake Novak, senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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