Desert Kingdom in transition: Will Muhammad Bin Salman be the real agent of change?

Salman

News Analysis |

In an interview with the Guardian, Saudi crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman said that he will return Saudi Arabia toward moderate Islam, vowing to do away with extremist and dogmatic ideologies, which he feels are impeding his country’s growth and prosperity.

“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it,” Muhammad bin Salman said while adding that “we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”

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This was an empathic comment from the 32-year old prince who rose to prominence when he unveiled the ambitious plan to reorient the Saudi economy known as Vision 2030. His pledge to transform a society deeply entrenched in the Wahhabi School of Thought and one that resists a change is certainly a bold one.

An ambitious vision

However, Muhammad took the gambit because societal change lies at the heart of Vision 2030. But what is this highly-touted vision all about? What does it aim to achieve? How will the aims be attained? Answering these questions are central to the understanding of Saudi Arabia’s newfound love for modernization and the very many challenges it will face.

“The first pillar of our vision is our status as the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds.The second pillar of our vision is our determination to become a global investment powerhouse. Our nation holds strong investment capabilities, which we will harness to stimulate our economy and diversify our revenues. The third pillar is transforming our unique strategic location into a global hub connecting three continents, Asia, Europe, and Africa.”

The vision of the Kingdom is Saudi Arabia.. the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the investment powerhouse, and the hub connecting three continents. In the preamble of the elaborate document, Muhammad bin Salman spelled out three pillars on the which the vision stands. The foreward read: “The first pillar of our vision is our status as the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds.The second pillar of our vision is our determination to become a global investment powerhouse. Our nation holds strong investment capabilities, which we will harness to stimulate our economy and diversify our revenues. The third pillar is transforming our unique strategic location into a global hub connecting three continents, Asia, Europe, and Africa.”

Read more: Saudi Arabia to build $500 billion city in desert

At the end of Muhammad’s note is a hope that “We [KSA] will improve the business environment, so that our economy grows and flourishes, driving healthier employment opportunities for citizens and long-term prosperity for all.”

Watchers believe that the scope and scale of reforms have been unprecedented in the country’s modern history and raise concerns that the wholesale changes will be resisted by a deeply conservative society. Besides, the Kingdom does not have the wherewithal to bring about something akin to a Cultural Revolution. However, Salman is going ahead in a bid to break the nexus between the clerics and the house of Saud. MBS, as he is often called feels that the dogmatic clerics have failed to support him in his plans. 

Many are of the opinion that economic transformation cannot take place with social transformation. Salman, 32, is mindful of this fact and is certain that the economy cannot improve if a new Social contract is not established between the citizens and the state. 

In a bold and brazen move, the Kingdom recently rescinded ban on women driving, as well as scaled back guardianship laws that restrict women’s roles and establishing an Islamic center tasked with certifying the sayings of the prophet Muhammed.

Many are of the opinion that economic transformation cannot take place with social transformation. MBS, 32, is mindful of this fact and is certain that the economy cannot improve if a new Social contract is not established between the citizens and the state. 

Read more: US demands Europeans to restrict business with Iran

Breaking Taboos

Saudi Arabia follows the ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam, one that defined the country’s national character. This is a real cause of concern for experts who are following MBS. Questions are being raised if the populace can imbibe the wholesale changes especially after years of being programmed in a certain way – something that is completely at odds with what Salman wants to set-in.

Watchers believe that not only MBS wants to give an impression that his country is different from the virulence of the IS but is also different from Iran – a country that is a perpetual problem for the US and Saudi Arabia. Many are of the opinion that these hyperboles reflect Salman’s political naivete and feel that his real intentions are somewhat aimed at countering current and prospective dissidents.

Pundits are sceptic on how the clerics, who have been the guarantors of the house of Saud will view Muhammad’s rapid quest for modernization. Last month, MBS announced the construction of a new, hyper-modern city, built on the desert sands of the country’s northwest corner and home to more robots than people. Its projected cost is $500 billion (426 billion euros). The Neom plan as it is called ostensibly wants to lure investments in the country. Indeed, this is being done in-line with the idea of diversifying sources of driving the economy, reducing dependence on oil. However, the Kingdom has been saying this for the last decade. It will be interesting to see if Salman is able to finance his plans especially at a time when oil prices are stagnant.

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However, the real issue that experts have identified is how will an ultra-conservative society accept and assimilate changes such as women participation in the economy. The crown prince plans to build a luxury tourist resort on the Red Sea for an international clientele – that means that women will be allowed to wear bikinis and bars and restaurants will serve alcohol.

This may resonate well with the international community; it may also change the Kingdom’s outlook. But will it go down well with the people in the Kingdom? There is also a foreign policy angle to it. Watchers believe that not only MBS wants to give an impression that his country is different from the virulence of the IS but is also different from Iran – a country that is a perpetual problem for the US and Saudi Arabia. Many are of the opinion that these hyperboles reflect the crown prince’s political naivete and feel that his real intentions are somewhat aimed at countering current and prospective dissidents.

However, it is noteworthy to mention that Riyadh is trying to break away from the shackles of zero-sum diplomacy. Cozying-up to China is partly due to the realization that its aim of connecting three continents converges with Beijing’s gargantuan One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Both countries signed deals worth $70bn in August this year. More important is the desire to come closer to Russia, despite its outright support to Iran. King Salman expressed the willingness to build robust bilateral ties with Moscow during his visit to the Kremlin last month.

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There is hope yet despair as to how the Kingdom will transition itself. While there is skepticism regarding the usability and viability of reforms, there is a realization that one of the bastions of the Muslim world and the Middle East is thinking of a change. As one Saudi magnate puts it: “This is the new normal — challenging, uncertain and brimming with opportunity. The companies that are ready to embrace it will help shape not only their own future but also the future of the nation as a whole.”

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