Global Affairs

Fight for Saudi reform is fight for global security

The key question is whether the country's conservative clerics will accept the rapid changes being proposed.

LONDON • Countries don't usually re-invent themselves; unlike a commercial company, a country can't easily discard its history and traditions, nor can it brush aside its various interest groups.

But Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, is now attempting precisely such an elusive national reinvention. Not a week passes by without some spectacular announcement of a fundamental reform in Saudi Arabia, be it the start of the privatisation of the country's national oil company, the lifting of the ban on women driving cars or, most recently, the planned creation from scratch of a new sci-fi city which will act as a business hub in the Arabian desert and house more robots than humans. This will, in Prince Mohammed's words, be a "civilisational leap for humanity".

Of course, some of this is just hyperbole. And, of course, many of these initiatives won't come to pass; even the most developed and well-run country finds reform hard to pursue and its rewards patchy. But even if a small fraction of what Prince Mohammed bin Salman - or MBS, as he is universally known - currently plans is realised, this has the potential to transform both his country and the region.

And if nothing of what MBS plans happens, the impact would be catastrophic and shock waves will be felt well beyond the Middle East. For there is no question that the fight for Saudi Arabia's reform is also a fight for global security.

GRIM LIST OF WHAT'S WRONG

Saudi officials can be forgiven for concluding that, whatever they do, they will always be criticised. Just one year ago, the received wisdom among analysts was that the Saudi kingdom's biggest problem was that of the royal succession. For the crown has never passed beyond the direct sons of Ibn Saud, the founder of the country, who was born in the 19th century and passed away in 1953. And running a country with octogenarians does not bode well for the future.

For a Saudi peninsula without the House of Saud will make Afghanistan and Syria seem like mere picnics by comparison, and the amount of violence and persistent other troubles which a destabilised Saudi Arabia can unleash does not bear even thinking of.

Now, however, that King Salman has jumped not one but two generations by appointing his 32-year-old son as the next in line of succession, criticism is heaped upon Saudi Arabia for promoting someone supposedly so inexperienced to such a position of responsibility.

Yet, petty gripes aside, the new Crown Prince is, at least in formal terms, better educated than many of his predecessors. True, he had no prior government experience but, like all previous Saudi kings, he relies on advisers to provide him with expertise.

Much more important is the fact that he may be the first Saudi royal who seems to understand the frustrations of most of his countrymen - and perhaps even of his countrywomen - and who is comfortable in openly admitting both what is currently wrong with Saudi society and the economy, and what needs to be done.

And the list is both long and grim. A country whose population was barely four million half a century ago now stands at over 33 million, with over two-thirds under the age of 25. This is a nation which has both high rates of open and hidden unemployment and 10 million foreigners to perform jobs locals could, but won't do. It is a country in which half of the population - the women - are seldom seen and until recently were not even issued with identity cards.

It is also a nation whose economy relies almost entirely on the sale of oil and gas at a time when electric cars and other technologies for energy-generation are making rapid strides. And if this was not enough, the Saudis are so wasteful with their use of energy that, if current trends persist, they won't have anything to export. In short, there is no doubt that reforms are needed; the question is which ones can and should be implemented.

FAST LEARNER

Prince Mohammed's first reform attempts were clumsy. He came out brandishing a report written by a consultancy firm and unimaginatively entitled "Vision 2030", which ticked all the right boxes of reform expectations without offering any evidence that Saudi Arabia's future monarch understood what these meant. The Crown Prince also took a pre-emptive decision to cut the bonuses of civil servants in an effort to balance the Budget, only to be forced to reverse this move when faced with a popular uproar.

But MBS appears to be a fast learner. He understood that none of his Vision 2030 goals would be realised until he took the lead in empowering people; the decision to allow women to drive cars may look like a minor matter elsewhere but was a huge step for the Saudis. The nation may also soon permit cinemas, another major social step in a famously conservative country.

And, in a series of media interviews last week, Prince Mohammed vowed to steer the kingdom down the path of "moderate Islam", thereby explicitly accepting that his nation may have veered away from moderation.

Still, difficulties abound. The first is over the direction of the reforms. Much of what Prince Mohammed proposes to do is being done by his immediate Gulf neighbours and, although they are far smaller than Saudi Arabia, they are also far ahead.

Transport hubs? Dubai and Qatar alone boast airports with a capacity of 120 million passengers yearly, so can the Saudis best that?

Diversification of the economy into financial services? Bahrain is much better at this than anything the Saudis are likely to provide.

And would the Saudis really attract tourists to their Red Sea coast as the Crown Prince envisages, complete with beaches where ladies in bikinis can suntan while sipping alcoholic cocktails?

Nor is it obvious that the Crown Prince, who has all the infectious impatience of a young man in a hurry, really understands that, for some of the reforms to succeed, he needs decades rather than years to educate people and change social norms and family values.

But the most important question about the fate of the reforms is whether the country's conservative clerics will accept the rapid changes that are being proposed. For, since the kingdom was established almost a century ago, the pious and strict observation of the faith was one of Saudi Arabia's key pillars, a duty made more onerous by the fact that the Saudi king is also the custodian of Islam's holiest shrines.

RETURN TO MODERATE ISLAM

Shrewdly, Prince Mohammed claims that his objective is merely to return his kingdom to what it was before.

"Saudi Arabia and the entire region went through a revival after 1979… All we are doing is going back to what we were: a moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world and to all traditions and people," he claims.

Prince Mohammed's reference to 1979 is telling, for it was then that the so-called "Sahwa Movement" of religious piety arose, and this has constantly polarised faith in the kingdom ever since. It is therefore unsurprising that, as the Saudi government unveiled its latest reform plans, the country's intelligence services were also rounding up Sahwa leaders.

Still, the reality remains that just about the most dangerous period for a country to face is not when its leaders persist in ignoring their nation's long-term problems, but when they are trying to deal with them by reforming. That is precisely what the Shah of Iran discovered in the 1970s; he tried to overhaul his country, only to face a conservative backlash which ended with the clerical regime that runs Iran to this day.

It is vital for global stability that the Saudi experiment, which is just beginning, should go in a different direction, and unlike Iran be crowned with success. For a Saudi peninsula without the House of Saud will make Afghanistan and Syria seem like mere picnics by comparison, and the amount of violence and persistent other troubles which a destabilised Saudi Arabia can unleash does not bear even thinking of.

Saudi Arabia, claims Prince Mohammed, is "determined to amaze" by shaking off the culture of complacency of his kingdom. In that, he deserves as much help as possible, so that our future amazement will be only of the positive variety.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline 'Fight for Saudi reform is fight for global security'. Print Edition | Subscribe