Evolution or Revolution?
Saudi Crown Prince looks impatient in reaching the heights of ‘developments’ that other nations have come through over a much longer period.
We were on a trip to Scandinavian countries in 2018. The young Saudi man who was to be my roommate in the group was from Mecca, as I learnt. Thinking him to be young and restless and comparatively liberal in outlook, I enquired from him about popularity of reforms ushered in by the Crown Prince and de facto Saudi ruler, Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS). He did not hesitate in opposing the much-touted liberal agenda of MBS. I was taken aback. But then he must have been a conservative minority from a holy city, in a vast pool of young people riding along the Crown Prince to cross frontiers, never crossed before in the Kingdom. The recently concluded series of music concerts in Jeddah – a stone throw from the Holy Mecca – attended by youth in record numbers, is a case in point.
Mapping out the reform is instructive to make an assessment. First, the political landscape. Irrespective of the reform, the form and format of Saudi Government is to remain a monarchy, dominated by the Sudairi clan, maintaining their stranglehold on the state power, through thousands of princes and princelings in pivotal positions, duly supported by expats from almost all nations. Although the internment of prominent clan members during last years, and the strong-arm tactics employed to recover large sums from some of them, under direct orders of MBS, seems to have dented the family solidarity…if the press is to be believed. There seems no visible family challenger to the authority of the King and MBS.
Regionally, the Kingdom is in strong alliance with the UAE, whose equally younger rulers, also seem to rock the traditional boat and change the social and political status quo. MBS’s closeness with the US under a Trump-Kushner combine is no more, as President Biden supports institutional-led approaches in US-Saudi ties. However, with Iran contained in suffocating sanctions, its useful power potential embroiled in Syria, Iraq and Houthi overreach; an Israel on the mend with UAE, Sudan, Bahrain and Oman through ‘Abraham Accords’ and Adnan Khashoggi, human rights remaining the only irritants, popping up now and then…the Kingdom is on a roll. A Middle East minus Israel is almost zero threat perception for the Saudis. Houthis are just a side show with a timeline.
Economically speaking, the oil prices after the Covid-induced economic slump have bounced back. Limited Hajj/Umra revenue is also again in the pipeline, and Covid-19 is mostly contained. Fossil fuel still remains the global lifeline, as green energy is still a far cry. And the Kingdom has plenty of it. So, there seems no severe economic pressure to the Saudi economy other than global inflation and soaring unemployment. And Saudi economic czars hope to address unemployment by embarking on a liberal economic agenda. MBS is impatient in reaching the heights of ‘developments’ that other nations have come through over a much longer period. From revamping the entire construction industry to building newer, eco-friendly and IT-enabled cities to reorienting domestic tourism to relaxing social curbs on female population to introducing the entrapments of modern entertainment like cinemas, pageants, catwalks and music concerts…he is on the go.
Maj Gen Inam Ul Haque (Retd) writes on global affairs and political sociology. He can be reached at email@example.com and his twitter handle @20_Inam
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