Saudi Arabia is changing, so how far will its king go?

The ruling crown prince appears to be a more liberal and enlightened kind of autocrat

Sunday 05 November 2017 19:09 GMT
Mohammad bin Salman has made little secret of his intention to move Saudi Arabia back to moderate Islam
Mohammad bin Salman has made little secret of his intention to move Saudi Arabia back to moderate Islam

First women were allowed to become drivers, then they were allowed into sports stadiums, and now the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, de facto political leader, has arrested a score of princes and ministers on suspicion of corruption. Where will all end? Human rights? Free elections? A critical media? A female premier? Or a bloody fundamentalist counter-revolution?

We should not hold our breath for the establishment of democracy and a constitutional monarchy in the most important nation in the Gulf. Yet things are visibly changing. Distant in most ways from the Russia of 1917, apart from a taste for absolute rule, the Saudi Arabia of today is going through a revolution of its own – at bewildering speed for a Gulf state still dominated by primitive Wahhabism, whose clerics have long exercised a deeply sinister influence at home and abroad (and often suspected of supporting networks and propaganda sympathetic to Islamist terror).

The continuing war on Yemen, the counterproductive blockade of Qatar and the threat of terror in the kingdom – not least the Houthi rocket that almost landed on Riyadh – also reminds us that these modest reforms arrive against a volatile background. To an extent the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has created many of the challenges that now threaten its stability.

Secretive, opaque, courtly – Saudi politics have never been easy to read. Still, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has made little secret of his intention to move Saudi Arabia back to moderate Islam. His actions also suggest that he is conscious of building some sustainable economic future for his kingdom, post-oil. His indulgent father King Salman is 81; at 32 years of age, his son, known by the incongruously Western nickname of MBS, knows his rule will last well into the coming age of green energy, electric cars and new technologies. Already the fracking revolution is making a depressing impact on the oil price and, thus, the country’s budget and sovereign wealth fund. MBS wants the kingdom’s resources to be better geared to lasting financial security: vast personal corruption by billionaire royals is not compatible with that national interest.

Of course, in the dynastic dynamics of the House of Saud a self-serving interest cannot be entirely discounted. The line of succession has never been unchallenged or straightforward, and the current crown prince did, after all, supplant a previous holder of the office. MBS may well be right to target his relatives’ egregious self-enrichment, but he might also derive some political dividend along the way from locking them up, removing them from command of military units, government departments and billions of dollars worth of assets. Besides, the very nature of autocratic regime by one family is in essence corrupt and a conspiracy against the wider population, and there are no checks and balances on the behaviour of any ruler, this one included. MBS, in other words, is himself vastly wealthy and will continue to be virtually unaccountable for his actions. That’s the context.

Yes, this crown prince appears to be a more liberal and enlightened kind of autocrat, but he is an absolute ruler nonetheless. He must also be haunted by the assassination of the last reforming ruler of the kingdom, Faisal, as well as the fall of the Shah of Iran 1979 and that country’s hardline Islamic revolution, albeit on behalf of a different branch of Islam. He may not be allowed to make the changes he wishes to, hence the pre-emptive containment of possible rivals.

Saudi Arabia matters. It is only necessary to give a moment’s thought to the impact of the country falling into civil war or under the unchallenged rule of the Wahhabists to understand that.

The world’s largest oil exporter, a G20 member, owner of huge slabs of Western assets from Apple and Google to property in London and New York, it is obviously a player, and stands at a crossroads. It is plainly a regional superpower and possesses the capacity for great good or great harm. In the past it has done both.

Since liberation from its Turkish overlords, with British assistance, a century ago, it has faced many challenges and latterly enjoyed great prosperity. Today, however, engaged in pitiless proxy wars with Iran in Syria and elsewhere, a failed and vicious war in Yemen and a risky blockade of Qatar, it has never been less secure. The career of Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, also reminds us that not everyone in Saudi Arabia has aspired to modernisation and a peaceful world role. As the Israelis often remark, this is a rough neighbourhood.

The oil money is slowly running out, and so is time. Saudi Arabia has made poor progress in developing new industries such as airlines, finance or tourism in the way the neighbouring United Arab Emirates have. The issue for the first time of Saudi Treasury bonds and the float of 5 per cent of the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco is both a sign of a changing financial reality and a degree of globalisation. MBS, whether or not for the sake of his own position, wants to place his realm on a better path to a more modern future. How far will he go? Such change is ambitious – success cannot be assumed.

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