Initial Public Offering of Saudi Arabian Oil Co (ARAMCO), for only 1.5% of its shares, has fetched $44.3 billion despite lack of interest from large western institutional players. This represents the marching on of the economic liberalisation which Prince MBS had promised. However, his quest for societal liberalisation is moving with less promise and more hiccups creating doubts that social agenda may only be there to provide cover and support to his economic liberalisation. This brief analysis examines his efforts.
The kingdom has given significant attention to easing tensions in the Gulf. Mohammed bin Salman visited the United Arab Emirates Wednesday, as efforts to end the nearly five-year war in Yemen gain momentum. Earlier this month, a power-sharing agreement brokered by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi was reached between the southern secessionists and the Yemeni government. This has raised hopes for peace talks to end the war in Yemen’s main theatre, between the coalition-backed central government and the Huthis.
The Saudi crown prince’s visit reflects “agreement between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh… in addressing regional challenges”, the official UAE state news agency WAM reported.
Furthermore, recent reports have claimed Qatar’s foreign minister met senior Saudi officials to discuss ending the rift between Qatar and its blockading neighbours. This move came after Saudi Arabia and UAE’s football teams traveled to Doha, Qatar for a tournament as a sign of sports diplomacy. Apparently Kuwait’s ruling monarch is playing a mediation role and sources in Islamabad claim that Pakistani military institutions, working behind the scenes, have also played some role in confidence building between Riyadh and Doha.
— Post of Asia (@post_asia) November 25, 2019
But MBS is not only reaching out to end disputes in foreign policy arena, he has also ushered a series of modernist reforms to combat the barbaric image of Saudi Arabia, in western media, and attract foreign investment and support under its diversification drive.
In April 2016, Saudi Arabia curbed the power of its religious police which patrolled public spaces to impose restrictions such as the ban on alcohol-bans, women’s dressing, and gender segregation.
At the same time that Saudi authorities were announcing these reforms, other events in the country pointed to an increasing intolerance of political dissent and criticism
“One of the things that has dramatically changed in the past few years is the general relaxation of social life,” said Eman Alhussein, a researcher and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “For a long time, people had to maintain two separate lifestyles: one inside their homes where they can act normal, be whoever they want to be, and one in public.”
December 2017 saw the end of a 35-year prohibition on cinemas and announced plans to open more than 300 movie theatres by 2030.
Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women driving cars in June 2018, a move highly advertised by the Saudi government in its liberalisation movement.
— CGTN (@CGTNOfficial) June 24, 2018
A royal decree passed in January 2019 allowed playing music in restaurants as they pushed for reviving entertainment.
August 2019 saw regulatory changes allow adult Saudi women to travel without permission and exercise more control over family matters, further eroding a heavily criticized male guardianship system but leaving parts of it intact.
Saudi Still a Police State?
At the same time that Saudi authorities were announcing these reforms, other events in the country pointed to an increasing intolerance of political dissent and criticism.
Saudi Arabia might've lifted the ban on women driving, but their crackdown on women's rights activists is anything but progress pic.twitter.com/2Xt6s41Zac
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) June 29, 2018
For example, just weeks before the ban on women driving was set to be lifted in June 2018, prominent women’s rights activists who had campaigned for the ban to be lifted were arrested and imprisoned.
The arrests could also be seen as a warning against further demands for rights. “By imprisoning high-profile feminists, the monarchy attempts to weaken and abolish the ability of women’s groups to organize, advance their rights and be heard,” Nermin Allam, an assistant professor of politics at Rutgers University-Newark, said.
The Saudi monarchy’s suppression of political dissent was thrown into especially stark relief when the killing of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi made international headlines a year ago.
Saudi Arabia may be pitching itself as a state experiencing reform but the political threat that existed before still remains. The message seems to be that MBS is the sole architect of change and anyone who deviates from the structure established, despite apparent relaxation, will be punished.