News analysis

Moderation may signal trajectory of Saudi politics

A year before then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was promoted to be second in line to the Saudi throne, his supporters tweeted photos of him in jeans and virtual reality glasses at Facebook's headquarters during a visit to Silicon Valley.

Traditional backers of his cousin and then Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 58, responded by tweeting photos of him in white pilgrim attire and flanked by clerics while performing umrah, or the minor pilgrimage, in Mecca.

After all, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed's June 2016 visit to the United States coincided with Ramadan, when Saudi rulers prefer to be seen performing religious deeds, while many ordinary Saudis tend to leave the country to avoid the strictures of the holy month.

The episode indicates that the princes could be jockeying for popularity in different power bases: the tech-savvy but marginalised Saudi youth who spend most of their free time on social media or playing the latest video games, versus the ultra-conservative segments of the population and the clerics.

It also signals a divide in Saudi society, and the trajectory its politics will take.

Change in Saudi Arabia always comes from above. Yet it reflects the rulers' response to realities on the ground which, if ignored, could lead to the downfall of the state itself.

Since his promotion this June, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, 32, has pledged to fight corruption and modernise not just the business structures of the kingdom but also its social and educational systems in favour of a modern, more tolerant and inclusive state with a transparent economy.

But few expected the anti-corruption drive, which has previously targeted low-and mid-level officials, to sweep the elephants in the room: Hundreds of top royal family members, government officials and business tycoons were charged with corruption, fraud and embezzlement of state funds.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then Deputy Crown Prince, with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the company’s headquarters last year. He has vowed to fight corruption and modernise not just his kingdom’s business structures but also its social and educational systems in favour of a modern, more tolerant and inclusive state with a transparent economy. PHOTO: TWITTER/BADER AL MASAKER

Nazaha, the anti-corruption body headed by the Crown Prince, said the suspects could be released after reaching settlements to pay back as much as US$100 billion (S$134.5 billion) owed to the state.

The news has been met with cautious relief and ecstatic disbelief. In recent years, the middle-class and educated youth have seen their economic situation deteriorate and purchasing power dwindle, as the merchant class and members of the royal family siphoned the top jobs, lucrative government contracts and foreign business partnerships.

As the population grows and oil receipts drop, the longstanding welfare state that provides the people with largesse and free services, while the royal family and traditional merchant class treat the country like fiefs, will not work.

It is dangerous as well.

This is why creating jobs for young Saudis is key to national security and the fight against home-grown extremists. Up to 2,500 Saudis have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the kingdom spent most of the last decade fighting militants seeking to topple the House of Saud.

Up to two-thirds of the population of 32 million is younger than 35 and unemployment is at least 12 per cent.

As part of economic reforms to create non-oil revenues, the kingdom plans to impose 5 per cent value-added tax next year.

Utility and petrol subsidies are being gradually reduced, and the costs of education, housing, food and goods have increased as a result. This means the middle class will bear the brunt of the economic reforms, while the multibillionaires do not pay their dues.

Last year, King Salman fired the water and electricity minister after public outrage over skyrocketing water bills.

The recent crackdown was also preceded by arrests of critics of economic reforms and Saudi foreign policy, as well as several sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood. Among those arrested were televangelists and ideological celebrities active on social media, as well as several opponents of religious reform and online critics of the state's strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

Traditionally, the Saudi power structure has rested on consensus in the royal family as well as its alliance with the religious establishment and the merchant class. With the latest crackdown, the existing power structure is being dismantled in favour of a centralised modern state with a strong, even populist, national identity that respects diversity.

The Saudi monarchs may be absolute rulers but they are watching their population carefully. Political dissent used to come mainly from conservative clerics, but under the late King Abdullah, more professionals and activist youth have demanded accountability, a firm stance against corruption and greater civil liberties.

Many used blogs and social media to spread their message, and most were given long prison terms.

Since his ascent to power, the Crown Prince has courted the middle class and the youth.

The leadership has eased restrictions on public spaces by morality squads, which used to roam glitzy shopping malls to enforce gender segregation and strict dress codes.

Music concerts and women in stadiums have also been allowed. And the ban on women driving has been lifted.

This loosening of strictures may seem sudden, but there have been indications of how Saudi politics may play out in the near future.

While the long-term implications of the latest changes remain to be seen, history shows that key Saudi rulers, such as Abdulaziz bin Saud, who founded the present-day Saudi state in 1932, and his son Faisal, used similar tactics to introduce reforms or consolidate power.

King Abdulaziz built modern tools like telecommunications, and King Faisal introduced girls' education in the 1960s, in spite of threats and objections from zealous clerics.

Even as some might chafe at the Crown Prince's harsh actions, others hope they will loosen the grip of clerics who have constrained their country's development.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2017, with the headline 'Moderation may signal trajectory of Saudi politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe