Volume 22 Issue 1, January 2018


IAt this time, Saudi Arabia is going through a process of succession to the Kingdom's throne that is different from all those that came earlier. Six times before the current unfolding of events, the throne passed from one son of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud to another. Ibn Saud who established the kingdom through conquest died on November 9, 1953 leaving behind scores of sons from dozens of wives. Twice the sons of the same wife, Hussa bint Ahmed Ali Saudari, ascended the throne. This time power is being transferred not from one son to the other but between two generations, from father King Salman Ibn Saud to son Mohammad bin Salman. King Salman has bypassed his older sons and opted for his youngest, 32 year old son Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS as he is generally referred to. He may become the Saudi monarch even before the death of his ailing father. Born on August 31, 1985 he is set to become the youngest person to sit on the Saudi throne.

It is clear from the way MBS has acted while occupying the position of the Crown Prince that during his rule Saudi Arabia will go through a number of profound changes. Not only will there be a change in the way the Kingdom's people live and work, but there will also be enormous changes in the way the Kingdom will deal with the world outside its borders. It is the latter that should be of interest to the policymakers in Islamabad. But social change in the Kingdom will also matter since the Islamists in Pakistan look to Saudi Arabia for guidance. The most significant social transformation brought about by Prince Mohammad concerns the place of women in the Saudi society. After June 30, 2018, they will be allowed to drive automobiles. That particular restriction had seriously affected women's social situation in the Kingdom and had also limited the economic opportunities they can avail for their betterment. Women will also be allowed to attend music and sporting events and go to the movies.

Given the hold of conservative clerics on the making of public policy in the Kingdom, these were brave and significant moves. But of greater importance was the action taken against several members of the extended royal family as well as a number of business people. These actions were taken under the anti-corruption drive launched by the crown prince. Those who were taken into custody and lodged in a posh hotel in Riyadh included Waleed al-Ibrahim, founder of Al-Arabiya television and owner of the Middle East Broadcasting Center and Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, owner of Rotana Group.
Between the two, they owned a network of Middle Eastern TV channels, radio stations, music labels and digital entertainment assets from Morocco to Oman. The Saudi attorney general said on November 9 that 208 people had been detained as a part of the anti-corruption probe into at least $100 billion in "systematic corruption and embezzlement" going back over decades.

While the anti-corruption drive was received positively by the citizens who had become very critical of the ways of the members of the royal family, the move against media owners worried many observers. Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute said: "The prospect of bringing the giants of Saudi Arabia and Arab media under unified government control is worrying. It raises concerns that the diversity of opinion and coverage will be further curtailed. Mohammad bin Sultan is clearly intent on controlling the message as he conducts a dramatic restructuring of the Saudi state and economy."

MBS did not confine himself to domestic affairs. He made the Kingdom carry out a devastating campaign against the rebels in neighbouring Yemen who had overthrown a regime that was close to Riyadh. The two-year conflict has taken a heavy toll on the Arab world's poorest country. According to the United Nations, about 7 million Yemenis were on the brink of famine while a massive outbreak of cholera had affected 900,000 people.

The Saudi government accused Iran for aiding the rebels, an accusation denied by Tehran but it further worsened relations between the two countries. The building conflict with Iran seriously impacted inter-country relations in the Muslim world. It contributed to the move by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to break relations with the tiny but extremely rich nation of Qatar. The Qataris had maintained working relations with Iran for good reasons. They shared the same gas field which was the major source of Qatar's wealth and had sustained Iran's economy even at the height of the West's sanctions on the country. Also, the two countries were situated on either side of the Strait of Hormuz through which much of the world's oil passes.

MBS's vehement opposition of Iran extends to several other countries where Tehran has considerable influence. That includes Lebanon. It appears that the Saudi prince forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign as a way of diluting the influence of Hezbollah in his country's politics. Whether that would produce the results desired by the crown prince remains to be seen.

These are other changes aimed at modernizing a highly conservative society. Such efforts have been made before in Muslim societies. Kamal Atarturk, the founder of modern Turkey, succeeded to some extent. But Raza Shah Phelavi, the emperor of Iran, failed dramatically. The latter's efforts at modernization led to the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Nearer home to Saudi Arabia, in the United Arab Emirates, top-down modernization is, at best, work in progress.
The UAE experience was studied by Calvert W. Jones of the University of Maryland and reported by him in his book, Bedouins into Bourgeois. According to him: "To down social engineering can take authoritarian modernizers only so far. To build truly development-friendly mind-sets prepared to compete under conditions of globalization, Saudi rulers are likely to find that they must renegotiate the social contract in more transparent and inclusive ways, going well beyond what government planning alone can accomplish."

Shahid Javed Burki is a professional
economist who has served as a Vice President of the World Bank and as caretaker Finance Minister of Pakistan.
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