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Saudi Arabia: “What should Mohammed bin Salman do?” Good question….

November 28, 2017

Over the past couple of months both the mainstream and the social media have abounded with material about Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his foreign policy and the domestic reforms he has launched. Some has been supportive, but by no means all.

I’ve very rarely seen an article in the New York Times met with such scorn and derision on the social media as Thomas Friedman’s recent piece about the crown prince, also known as MbS.

Most of the comments on the article focus on MbS’s intolerance of dissent, his country’s blockade of Qatar and his pursuit of a war in Yemen that has left disease, starvation and thousands of casualties in its wake. But the quotation from Friedman’s interview that seems to have exercised most people has been his comparison of Iran’s Supreme Leader with Hitler.

In MbS’s defence, I suspect his comment about Iran was more about territorial encroachment than any genocidal intent by the Iranian regime. But as soon as you press the Hitler button you unleash all manner of reaction.

As for the interview itself, Friedman is widely accused of writing an apologia for MbS, or, in the words of one tweet, delivering a warm french kiss to the crown prince. Here are a few comments to be found on Twitter on publication day:

Whatever you think about the article, and Friedman’s journalism in general – this is a man, by the way, who has won three Pulitzer Prizes – the question that critics are failing to ask was simply put in a tweet by Blake Hounshell, editor of the US journal Politico:

Very good question, and worth exploring.

Before we go into that, we should probably ask what King Salman should have done. After all he, not Mohammed bin Salman, is the king. Should he have ditched King Abdullah’s “continuity candidate” Prince Muqrin as crown prince on acceding to the throne? As far as anyone can tell, Muqrin, Salman’s half-brother, would most probably have represented a “business as usual” faction within the royal family. Under his rule, Saudi Arabia might have continued on Abdullah’s path, reactive rather than proactive.

But would the stability that yet another son of Abdulaziz might have delivered have survived the economic sclerosis that has set in over the past twenty years, and has been exacerbated by the decline in oil prices over the past three? How would the continuity faction have dealt with Iran’s perceived encirclement of the country? Perhaps not with a full-scale war in Yemen, but surely by continuing to sponsor proxy wars elsewhere.

Instead, Salman promoted Mohammed bin Naif, his nephew, to crown prince. MbN, as he is known, was a highly respected Minister of the Interior who led an effective anti-terrorism effort against Al-Qaeda in the mid-2000s. He was liked by Barack Obama’s foreign policy team, and again seen as someone who would not rock the boat.

But Salman didn’t just promote MbN. He put MbS, one of his younger sons, into the line of succession, and gave him a host of powers that gradually eroded MbN’s position. Eventually MbS supplanted MbN as crown prince, which leads us to where we are today.

Apart from dynastic considerations, what were Salman’s reasons? Most likely MbS convinced his father that business as usual was not an option. Had things continued in the usual Saudi way, senior princes from the various al-Saud clans – sons of Fahad, Abdullah, Naif and Sultan – would have continued to occupy the critical ministries. Consensus would have continued to be the order of the day. And consensus, Salman and his son would have calculated, gets in the way of rapid and decisive action.

Would MbN have gone into Yemen? Probably not. Would he have commissioned a 2030 Vision? Perhaps. Would he have locked up his cousins? Probably not.

Would Muqrin or MbN have declared that the Kingdom is committed to a “moderate Islam”, and moved against the conservative faction, including the religious police? Almost certainly not. His father and predecessor as Minister of the Interior, Naif bin Abdulaziz, was a noted religious conservative.

All speculation of course. But we can be sure that neither of Salman’s designated successors before he elevated his son would have undertaken such a radical set of measures both without and within his kingdom. If they resembled their predecessors in any respect, it was in aversion to risk.

So we are where we are. Let’s now look at two aspects of the way forward for Mohammed bin Salman and his father: what the West would want, and what the Saudis want.

Neither are clear-cut. The West is not a political monolith, but politicians from America to Japan would probably agree that the one thing they want from Saudi Arabia is to have a stable and reliable ally – one that will not descend into chaos like Iraq and Syria, that will not pivot towards Russia and China, and probably one that will act as a reliable counterweight to Iran.

If we translate that desire into potential political outcomes that might arise out of the current turmoil, lets look at three scenarios, and the risks that might upset the applecart as far as the West is concerned.

  1. Democracy: a high level of power devolved from the royal family to an elected assembly that has the power to make laws – probably subject to the veto of the King. Potential risks: tribal factionalism, sectarian unrest and salafi control of the assembly. Interference by Iran in electoral processes.
  2. Authoritarian rule: with social liberties, as in the UAE, curbs on corruption, curbs on religious extremism, clampdown on dissent across the spectrum. Potential risks: passive resistance on the part of the disenfranchised – particularly the religious establishment – leading to active insurgency. Resentment among the marginalised factions within the royal family, especially those who have been targeted in the recent anti-corruption drive, and those who maintain close links with their former military fiefdoms.
  3. Status quo ante: glacial change, oligarchic rule, widespread corruption, continued funding of salafi ideology, and from the West’s point of view, “they may be bastards, but at least they’re our bastards”. Potential risks: frustration among the middle class at their declining income. Frustration among western-educated technocrats at the slow pace of change and their lack of ability to find meaningful roles within government and business. Continued frustration among educated women at their lack of social freedoms.

What most governments in the West would probably want is somewhere between 2 and 3, while publicly supporting 1. Remember, they prize stability over all other things, including human rights, freedom of expression and – whatever the neoconservatives might say – over democratic government.

Now let’s look at the Saudis themselves. After all, it’s their country.

Here again, the picture is fragmented. The country is not a monolith. There is a wide range of opinion across different segments of society: generational, geographic and economic.

The first point to make is that the vast majority of Saudis do not want social and political chaos. They are only too aware of the consequences of instability. They see it in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. A minority, however, believe that it will only be through massive disruption of the status quo that they will achieve the state they desire. Saudi Arabia was one of the largest contributors of foreign fighters to ISIS. The sentiment that led those people to fight in Syria and Iraq has not gone away with the demise of ISIS as a proto-state. What the West calls the extremist salafis will be biding their time for an opportunity to turn Saudi Arabia into an Islamic state – and possibly an Islamic republic.

How do other Saudis view Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms?

What follows is an educated guess. It can be no more than that, because there is no formal method of measuring opinion across the country, let alone within individual demographic components.

As for my qualification to make such guesses, I’m not a journalist like Friedman and others who are currently offering opinions within and outside the Kingdom. But over the past ten years I have met hundreds of Saudis – doctors, students, academics, and young professionals (Taxi drivers? No – hardly any of them are Saudi!). I haven’t deliberately sought to talk politics with these people, but some have done so of their own volition. I’ve probably spent more time in Saudi Arabia – and not just in Riyadh – during the decade than any foreign journalist who is not based in the country.

For some collateral on my experience, search this blog for two series of articles: Postcard from Saudi Arabia, and currently, RetroSaudi, which offers a series of comparisons between the country of today and how I saw it thirty years ago.

So here’s a broad-brush view, based on my experience and observation, of the support, or otherwise, of the Crown Prince’s domestic initiatives.

This table shows what I consider to be the likely spread of opinion by geographical region.

Next, here’s a breakdown of attitudes by age group:

And finally, by economic status:

Jeddah, the Kingdom’s second-largest city, has always been more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country. As a port city and the traditional gateway to the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, it has been open to more foreign influences and cultures than any other conurbation.

I have not included Mecca and Madinah in this table because I simply know too little of them to hazard as guess. As a non-Muslim I’ve never been allowed to enter either city. Historically, Mecca was never the heartland of the Wahabi movement. Like Jeddah, it’s a multi-ethnic city that welcomes all shades of Islam to the annual pilgrimage. Madinah, on the other hand, was the Prophet’s chosen city. Would Mecca be more open to MbS’s religious reforms? Possibly, but I’ll defer to others who know better than me.

The central region of Saudi Arabia is probably the most conservative area of all. The cities of Hail and Qassim have long been where you will find the sort of traditional social and cultural attitudes most commonly associated with the Kingdom. Heavily tribal, socially conservative, family-oriented and strongly supportive of the religious practice that MbS has undertaken to modify. Many of the influential religious preachers come from the area, and it has been a rich source of recruitment for Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Riyadh has also been part of the conservative heartland, but its population has grown rapidly over the past twenty years. Many of the younger people, especially the women, are challenging the conservatism of their parents. The government has spent huge amounts on tertiary education, both within the country (and especially in Riyadh) and on scholarship programmes for foreign study. The young people of the capital have been beneficiaries of that expenditure, and I believe their attitudes have led many to embrace MbS’s reforms. But there is still a strongly-entrenched conservatism, especially among the older generation, that acts as a counterweight.

The East of the country includes the communities built up around Saudi Aramco. By and large, they are likely to support most of the reforms, especially the Vision 2030. The picture here, however, is complicated by the sectarian dynamic. The majority of Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia population live in the Eastern Province. While they might be in favour of the economic reforms, would they be strong supporters of “moderate Islam”? I suspect that many will be wondering if they will be beneficiaries of the new spirit of pluralism. After all, the government has long suspected them of being a fifth column for their fellow-Shia in Iran.

There is no inherent reason why the Shia should not be brought in from the cold. I have been to cities such as Al-Hasa, where Sunni and Shia co-exist quite amicably. But it will take a concerted effort by the government to overcome decades of what the Shia consider discrimination, suspicion and sometimes outright persecution.

Other parts of the Kingdom that I have not included in the tables include Asir, in the South-West. Like central Saudi Arabia, the region is innately conservative, but it has a distinct culture, and a tradition of religious plurality. If any region stands to gain from Vision 2030, it’s the Asir, which is poorer and less developed than other areas.

Finally, to the question posed by Blake Hounshell: what should Mohammed bin Salman do?

On the international front, three things.

First, he needs to find a way to end the Yemen conflict. It is causing Saudi Arabia massive reputational damage and is draining the treasury. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. He needs help from the international community to achieve this. But at the very least, he must alleviate the suffering of the Yemenis by allowing food and medicines without putting up insoluble bureaucratic roadblocks.

Second, he needs to make his peace with Qatar. The dispute is getting in the way of any concerted action he wishes to bring against Islamist insurgencies, and is enabling neighbouring actors to exploit the division in their interests, not necessary Saudi Arabia’s.

Third, if he really believes in “moderate Islam”, he should cut off funding and support for salafi propagation in other countries. That means funding for textbooks, literature and imams, especially when they espouse extremist sentiments at odds with the yet-to-be defined moderation he supports.

Domestically, Mohammed bin Salman has been receiving unsolicited advice from just about anyone who thinks they know anything about his country (including me). Based on my own experience, I’ll address in detail one critical long-term improvement that the Kingdom urgently needs. And that’s the secondary school system.

I’m not about to suggest that the schools need less religious instruction and more of other subjects. They probably do, but for me, they first need to focus on five key areas:

Critical thinking skills – particularly the ability to deal with manipulation via the social media

Career guidance – expert advice on how to choose a career rather than take “any job”

Citizenship skills – understanding responsibilities and obligations of adulthood, including money management

Preparation for work – understanding CV preparation, interview skills, the work ethic, employers’ expectations

Soft skills – including communications and emotional intelligence

Getting the kids into satisfying, reasonably paid and sustainable work is – hand-in-hand with a strong economy – one the surest guarantors of the long-term social stability of the country.

I also believe that he should focus on rapprochement with the Shia minority. That means investment in infrastructure and businesses, and bringing more Shia leaders into political institutions such as the Shura Council. A good start would be to commute the death sentences hanging over a number of people arrested during the recent disturbances in the east.

Other commentators are urging a number of actions – for example abolition of the female guardianship laws and improved judicial due process, particularly for corruption cases. They’re right to do so.

Finally, one can understand MbS’s thinking in locking up critics, and anyone who he thinks might be a critic. But he needs to realise that it’s not a viable long-term option for preventing dissent. There also needs to be dialogue and reconciliation, especially with members of his own family.

I have written this rather long piece not because I have any need to curry favour with MbS and his government. My days of visiting Saudi Arabia are probably over. But I do want Saudi Arabia to succeed, for no greater reason than that I still have many friends there. I may well be wrong on my assessment of the Crown Prince’s support within the country, and would be happy to be corrected by those who know better than me.

And for those who are lining up to criticise the current reform programme, I will end by quoting the words of Joni Mitchell:

“Don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

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