Saudi: The Game of Thrones & beyond

Over the past ten days, Saudi Arabia has seen the arrest of over 500 people, including at least 11 princes from the House of Saud. The sweeping crackdown is apparently aimed at purging corruption in a country where conflict of interests has never been seen to be against the law. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, where private profit at the cost of public interest is so pervasive that any attempt to tackle corruption is perceived as an act of selective prosecution.

The crackdown on corruption has been led by crown prince Mohammed bian Salman, one of King Salman’s sons. He is also the deputy prime minister and minister of defence. In the last two years, the young prince has taken over most of the key economic and security posts and has emerged as the most powerful hand in the Saudi government. Prince Mohammed is apparently trying to consolidate his position to stake his claim for the kingdom’s throne. In Saudi Arabia, power has been passed among the sons of the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom, known as Ibn Saud, since his death in 1953. The state is ruled under a broad family coalition where power is shared and alternated between seven major families.

Prince Mohammed’s elevation to crown prince two years ago was not unanimously supported by the royal princes. His attempt to flush out corruption amidst arrests and announcement of changes to top ministries and creation of a powerful anti-corruption committee is widely seen as centralisation of power in his hands. The perception about his keenness to reshape Saudi Arabia which will be ruled by a single family is substantiated by the removal of prince Miteb, the crown prince’s potential rival, as head of the National Guard.

Two weeks before the ‘anti-corruption’ drive, the 32-year-old crown prince had organised a lavish global economic summit meeting in Riyadh to showcase his plans to diversify the Saudi economy beyond oil. At the summit, the crown prince spoke about his plans to take Saudi Arabia to its original moderate Islam that is ‘open to the world and all religions’. It is difficult to say whether it was a public relation exercise aimed at global investors, but the prince has also announced economic and social changes like selling off a stake in the stateowned oil giant Aramco and limited rights for women. This is in sharp contrast with Saudi Arabia of past four decades: ruled by the royal clan with an iron hand and projected as ‘true guardian’ of Islam.

As a state and society, Saudi has remained a backward nation in education, technology, development and social progress, while the world has experienced high-speed changes in every aspect of life: social, cultural, political and economic. This was perfectly fine with the kingdom till high oil prices covered all deficits of progress and development. But not anymore, as oil has lost its sheen and the kingdom needs to reduce its dependence on oil by attracting foreign investment.

One cannot say how serious is prince Mohammed about moderate Islam. But he seems keen on shifting the basis of legitimacy of the Saudi regime that took a sharp religious turn in 1979 when a group of radical Islamists seized the Mecca mosque in protest against corruption, westernization and other grievances. The Unitarian fundamentalists had claimed that the ruling al-Saud family was not Islamic enough. To shore up its religious legitimacy, the ruling family began radicalisation of Saudi Arabia that proved to be a disaster for the county and the Arab world.

The year 1979 is remembered for the Iranian revolution. The founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran undermined Saudi Arabia’s claim of being the only truly Islamic country.  As Iran began to propagate its Islamic revolutionary ideology abroad, Saudi Arabia turned to a more radical version of Islam: Wahhabism. Two more important events that partly contributed to Saudi’s radicalisation were: the Camp David accord between Egypt and Israel, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Both happened in 1979 and gave Saudi an opportunity to display its Islamic credentials aggressively.

Today, the Arab world is in the grip of political instability, civil war and ISIS-inspired terrorism. Saudi Arabia’s Middle-east policies have an anti-Iran theme. Three months ago, it led a group of Gulf countries to isolate Qatar for being too close to Iran on charges of supporting terrorism and causing political volatility in the region. To confront Iran, it has also got the Sunni prime minister of Lebanon to quit his office ten days ago, blaming Iran and its Shiite allies for making Lebanon ungovernable. Prince Mohammed’s aggressive approach towards Iran and his moves to reshape Saudi Arabia and the Middle East are likely to have wider consequences, further destabilising the region already in turmoil.

How moderate Islam will emerge in Saudi Arabia under a repressive regime that thrives on purging theological difference and gains its legitimacy from supporting puritanical Islam is difficult to understand. Wahhabism, as a source of solidarity, binds the country and it is not going to be easy to replace it with secular nationalism. When tweets that criticise the authorities invite lengthy prison terms, the message is clear: fall in line or pay the price. In such a scenario, political liberalisation is definitely not on the cards, but economic reforms will follow because oil is no more the regime’s saviour.

Saudi Arabia is no longer what it once was. With 70 per cent of its population under the age of 30 and about 25 per cent of them unemployed, not only there is a desperate need to create more jobs outside the oil sector, but the country needs to develop much faster than it has done in the last four decades. Disillusionment with repressive regimes, human rights abuses, economic mismanagement, corruption and stifling of political dissent were the causes of the Arab Spring that brought political change in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, while it was crushed in other countries like Bahrain and Syria. Saudi Arabia’s response to the Arab Awakening was a $130 billion package of financial benefits that included unemployment compensation, salary increases and new housing developments. The first phase of Arab Spring is over, but its final outcome is still undetermined.

This is largely the backdrop for prince Mohammed’s daring power play in the kingdom. His promise of moderate Islam, economic reforms and rights for women may give him an image of a modernizer. But the pace of change and the methods he has chosen to achieve these objectives have raised serious questions about his motive and judgement.

The author is an independent senior journalist.

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