Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Upheaval in the Saudi Kingdom

The pace of change is more rapid than anyone, no less your humble blogger, predicted. And yet, as I have been reporting for some time now, we will not understand what is happening in the Middle East unless we have a sense of the radical transformation that is happening in Saudi Arabia.

As reported here, the convocation of Sunni Arab states in an anti-terrorism summit with President Trump was monumentally important. We are not going to defeat Islamist terrorism without the cooperation of Muslim countries. And we will not defeat it by siding with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Iran.

One notes the colossal irony of the fact that the ever pusillanimous Barack Obama curried favor with Muslims by refusing to call Islamist terrorism by its name. And then, the Sunni Arab world opened its arms to Donald Trump, a president who kept calling Islamist terrorism by its name. Could it be that the leaders of Saudi Arabia wanted to side with strength, not weakness? Could it be that its leaders, like the prime minister of Israel, was thrilled not to have to deal with Barack Obama any more.

Saudi Arabia has funded terrorist training for decades now. That it is opening to the West and modernizing must count as a giant step forward.

We all see that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is consolidating his power in a way that seems to have taken cues from Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. As mentioned yesterday, considering how liberal democracy has been malfunctioning in the West, we should not be surprised to see him following a more authoritarian model.

As many observers have noted the Saudi population is unnaturally young. As is the new crown prince. Yet, MBS, as he is called, has initiated strong measures to rid his kingdom of a corrupt and decadent aristocracy. In so doing he has garnered considerable popular support among the nation’s young people. Surely, we know enough about the history of the West to understand that economic and political progress can only take place when corrupt and decadent aristocrats are brought low.

Yaroslav Trofimov reports in the Wall Street Journal:

By having much of the kingdom’s ancien regime detained on Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seems to be using the same playbook. The 32-year-old heir to the throne is, among other things, appealing to Saudi youths who are disgusted by decades of unpunished graft just as the general population is asked to accept relative austerity.

“His base are the mostly young Saudis under 30 years old who have seen a great deal of turmoil, and who feel there is a great deal of corruption and decadence,” said Fawaz Gerges, chair of contemporary Middle East studies at the London School of Economics. “Mohammed bin Salman is sending a very clear message to the kingdom’s power elites: he will not tolerate any opposition to his worldview.”

And, of course, MBS is exerting authority. We understand that some Western liberals detest authoritarian politics, but, where were they when Barack Obama was bending over for the Iranian ayatollahs?

Trofimov continues:

While corruption is widespread at top rungs of the Saudi royal family and business elite, the reasons for targeting these individuals—just as it was the case in Russia’s and China’s antigraft campaigns—have more to do with Prince Mohammed’s consolidation of power than administering justice, according to analysts and diplomats.

“For Xi and Putin, there is a lot of domestic popularity in going after corruption, and this is also popular with Saudi youth,” Mr. Bowen said. “But Mohammed bin Salman is also facing a fiscal hole in Saudi Arabia. A lot of these corrupt Saudi princes who have taken money out of the country are easy sitting targets to bring money back into the kingdom, regardless of the value of the Aramco IPO.”

It is worth underscoring the fact that many of these princes— the Saudi royal family has thousands of princes—have a great deal of money outside of the country. Thus, they are being encouraged to bring their money back into the nation and to make it work for the people.

Also in the Journal, Karen Elliott House reports from Riyadh:

In a monarchy infamous for widespread malfeasance, an anticorruption campaign means almost every prince and current or former minister is vulnerable to being targeted, detained, blocked from travel, and stripped of his assets. Not even aides and associates are safe. But it’s unlikely the opposition will grow much, as the crown prince has spent the past year taking control of internal security and defense. The message is clear: Get behind reform or be silenced.

Perhaps it did not need saying, but MBS is more pragmatist than idealistic social reformer:

Prince Mohammed, a millennial popular with young Saudis, is not so much an idealistic social reformer as a pragmatist. He desperately wants to diversify the economy. Standing in his way are decades of dependence on oil and an exploding population of young people lacking education and the will to work.

As for the nation’s internal reforms, they go far beyond the recent edict that will allow women to drive. About that edict many Westerners complained that it was too little, too late… but apparently, women in Saudi Arabia have been enjoying more freedoms than have been reported:

Prince Mohammed is rapidly removing the traditional guardrails on Saudi society. Gone are the religious police who enforced gender segregation. Women will be allowed to drive beginning next June. Already some dare to congregate in restaurants without a male guardian. Jogging, hiking and bike riding in mixed company is becoming more popular. Cinema, banned for four decades, will be restored by year’s end, the prince says.

The reformist Crown Prince has also provoked a new wave of entrepreneurialism. House offers a picture of a new spirit among young Saudis:

All over Riyadh young Saudis are buying and operating portable food trucks to earn cash, as government cuts generous subsidies. Saudi men are notorious for refusing to do menial work, but these entrepreneurial young men hustle to serve customers hamburgers, chicken wings, tacos, pasta or whatever the truck specializes in. One young man told me last week that he learned business in China while on university scholarship. He works seven-hour days for Airbus—then sells from his food truck late into the night.

Some 40 of these trucks are congregated on an empty lot in northern Riyadh, forming a small outdoor village where young Saudis relax with family or friends. Among the food trucks is one operated by a mother and daughter who are selling Arabic coffee to a line of male customers. The women chat casually with their clients. Only a year ago such forbidden interaction between women and unrelated males most likely would have landed them in jail.

Call it several steps in the right direction. It does not make for a modern economy. And yet, we do recall that when China started to modernize in the late 1970s it began by giving peasants their own land back and allowing them to profit directly from their labor. Such transformations often begin slowly. But, surely, what is happening in Saudi Arabia is far better than the mess that Obama created in dealing with Iran.

House concludes:

So far, the social liberalization has wide support among young Saudis and the acquiescence of the silent majority. The Saudi religious establishment is largely silent while some other conservative critics have been silenced by selective arrest. But if economic growth remains stuck at zero, unhappy royals may not be Prince Mohammed’s greatest threat. A society liberated from its traditional moorings and disappointed with its economic prospects may prove difficult to control.


Christopher B said...

Hopefully we will not elect someone in 2020 that would screw up the Saudi liberalization the way Jimmy Peanut handed Iran to the mullahs in the late 1970s.

Sam L. said...

A number of years ago, I worked with a pharmacist who'd worked in Saudi. He said the men there seem to believe that work is beneath them.

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.