Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Top-Down Revolution in Saudi Arabia

Dennis Ross has worked on Middle Eastern policy matters for multiple presidents over decades. This qualifies him as something of an expert, as someone who knows the region and its people. He also has access to the people in power.

Now, returning from Saudi Arabia, he is persuaded that the reforms being instituted by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman are a good thing… good for the kingdom and good for the world. 

Today, the world's attention, Ross suggests, is being diverted by actions in Syria, but he ought to mention that the Saudis have long approved of any Israeli action against Iran and Hezbollah. Some reports have 1had it that Saudi Arabia was willing to finance Israeli military operations against its enemies in Syria and Lebanon.

In any event, as we have been reporting, Saudi Arabia is being transformed, from the top down, not from the bottom up. It’s well worth watching, especially for the impact it will have on the war against Islamist terrorism.

Ross explains:

His efforts to transform Saudi society amount to a revolution from above. Many seem to equate him with the shah of Iran, who thought he could Westernize his country without modernizing its social, religious roots and was ultimately swept away in the revolution that produced the Islamic Republic of Iran. I see him as more like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — a leader who revolutionized Turkey by taking away the power of the religious base and secularizing the country.

Of course, the Crown Prince has had to disempower the clerical establishment and to institute liberal reforms. He also led a famous anti-corruption drive. He has been careful not to go too far, too fast, but it has been moving in the right direction:

In my visits, which were a year apart, whether meeting at the College of Entrepreneurship, the MiSK Foundation, the Intelligence or Foreign Ministries, or “Etidal” — the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology — the new prominence of women is unmistakable. Equally impressive is the youth of those one meets in all these institutions.

At Etidal, which means moderation and is not just monitoring extremist messaging but also forging a counter-narrative of religious coexistence, the average age of the Saudi engineers, programmers and graphic designers is 26. With two thirds of the Saudi population under the age of 30, that should not be surprising. And it is Saudi youths who convey great energy and enthusiasm; they insist that they own the change and are committed to remaking their country.

As others have observed, from Karen Elliott House in the Wall Street Journal to Tom Friedman in the New York Times, the Crown Prince is expressing the will of a great majority of the nation’s people… because most of the kingdom’s people are under 30:

The drive for change in Saudi Arabia is more credible because it is homegrown, not a response to outside pressure. It is being driven by an understanding that Saudi Arabia cannot sustain governance based on the lowest common denominator among all the factions of the royal family, the approval of the Wahhabi clerics, an economy dependent almost exclusively on oil for revenue and 80 percent of Saudi households dependent on the government.

We have been told, through the dominant philosophical narratives, that democracy must be bottoms-up. And yet, we cannot deny the popularity and the support enjoyed by an autocrat like Mohammed bin Salman. While many American leftists are doing everything they can to discredit the last presidential election, in the name of democracy, of course, among the world political leaders who are most respected by their people are autocrats like MBS and, of course, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Go figure.


James said...

Many many of histories most despised men started out as admired liberal rulers, beware.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

It's always good to be wary, but America's handling of the events will certainly influence them... toward success or failure. Besides, what are the alternatives?

James said...

"Besides, what are the alternatives?"
I really don't know.

History is littered though with these guys who accede to power while young, liberal, and popular who turned into the very opposite when they got older.
One example was Caligula. It's said that when he assumed the purple he made a very public show of burning all the informant's records that Tiberius had accumulated (supposedly he burned fakes and kept the originals) and we all know how infamous he turned out to be.I guess if anything I'm warning about being happy for actions of a person instead of a system.