Saudi Arabia’s Shaky Experiment in Modernization

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presides over a meeting in Riyadh. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via Reuters

With a bold modernization project, Saudi Arabia is embarking on reforms U.S. policymakers have been urging for decades. The crown prince’s recent crackdown could undermine this crucial effort.

November 8, 2017

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presides over a meeting in Riyadh. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via Reuters
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On November 4, official media announced an order by King Salman for the arrest of some of the most powerful men in Saudi Arabia, including eleven princes. The decree came from a hastily created anticorruption agency headed by his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “Laws will be applied firmly on everyone who touched public money and didn’t protect it or embezzled it, or abused their power and influence,” the king’s order proclaimed. The corruption charges appear to be a pretext for the crown prince to displace his rivals, many of whom were close to the late King Abdullah or are concerned about his fast-paced reforms.

With the new arrests, particularly that of the head of the national guard, Mutaib bin Abdullah, the crown prince has assumed control over all the main security forces, including the military and those of the Interior Ministry, as well as the national guard. These positions had previously been allocated to princes from various branches of the al-Saud family to maintain a balance among descendants of the founder of the kingdom, Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Saud.

Such a concentration of power is unwise. Saudi Arabia is entering a time of financial stress and simmering internal Islamist opposition, and its population is watching unfolding changes with anxiety. The ambitious modernization program launched by Mohammed is crucial, and palace intrigues may imperil such plans. As rapid changes bring dislocations, a more decentralized government led by an array of princes can best navigate the national course.

Vision 2030: Doomed for Failure?

The history of Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty is a stark reminder of the perils of consolidation. The monarchy survived for centuries in part because a nimble and clever elite found ways out of Iran’s many crises. In the mid-1970s, the shah began his purge of that elite, so that all power rested in his hands. When the revolutionary storm came, he could neither stem the crisis himself nor rely on Iran’s nobility to rescue his rule. While historical analogies are never precise, it is a truism that purging elites invested in the success of the monarchy only makes it more vulnerable to its internal critics, both secular and Islamist.

Mohammed’s reform package, known as Vision 2030, reflects ingenuity and courage. The Saudi national compact that was negotiated at the turn of the last century has little to offer in the current age. The Saudi population is too large, oil prices are too low, and the future of energy markets is too unpredictable for the kingdom to continue its practice of purchasing the passivity of its public with a generous dispensation of benefits paid for with oil revenues. The 2030 package envisions a monarchy that relies less on oil revenues, which would be reduced from 50 percent of the GDP to 16 percent, and more on alternative industries, such as petrochemicals, tourism, and solar power. Too many Saudis have become comfortable with employment in the public sector. Successive U.S. presidents, who viewed the monarchy’s compact with its citizens with concern, have recommended this type of reform to Saudi rulers.

Establishing local assemblies and even an elected parliament would help bring the Saudi state and its subjects together.

This enormously positive step may yet fail. The task of fundamentally transforming Saudi society will be full of hazards and difficulties, and its benefits will be unevenly distributed; as the economy diversifies, the political order will remain static if not grow more repressive. It would be prudent for the monarchy to develop safety valves, especially regarding popular discontent with its policies. Establishing local assemblies and even an elected parliament would help bring the Saudi state and its subjects together.

Managing Islam’s Role in the Kingdom

From its inception, the monarchy has relied on an austere version of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, to legitimize its rule. Clerics offered the regime religious dispensations for its policies; they, in turn, gained influence over social and educational policy. This political culture, infused with religious dogma, soon spawned radical Islamist groups that opposed the monarchy for being too lax in its application of Islamic law, and the Islamist movement seeped outside the control of the state. In the meantime, religious police have vigilantly enforced gender segregation, ensured that curricula emphasize rote recitations of the Quran, and imposed demands that often agitate even the conservative Saudi populace. None of this serves the kingdom well in the twenty-first century.

The crown prince is seeking to reduce the power of the conservative clergy. In recent months, scores of clerics have been arrested and removed from their perches of power. Granting women the right to vote is largely a symbolic move, but symbols matter. The next step should be to remove the educational sector from clerical oversight. A modern educational system is imperative for a developing country that is seeking to wean itself off imported labor. If Salman succeeds in tempering Saudi Arabia’s radical version of Islam, he will make an important contribution to both the kingdom’s longevity and the region’s stability.

In the post-9/11 period, as the United States focused on how fiery clerics often exhorted their followers to commit acts of violence, Washington pressed the Saudis and others to temper the religious radicalism that permeates the region. Mohammed’s efforts are an important contribution to this U.S. policy objective.

A More Assertive Saudi Arabia

For decades, Washington has hoped that Saudi Arabia would be more assertive in the region. Given the kingdom’s wealth and its importance as the custodian of Islam’s holiest shrines, successive U.S. presidents nudged Riyadh to confront radical actors, whether Arab nationalists, such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, or Iran’s theocrats, who seized power in 1979. The cautious monarchy’s usual practice was to hem in its ambitions, balance among its rivals, and pay off its detractors. The crown prince has departed from this well-trodden tradition and is locked in a region-wide conflict with Iran. The Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry is playing itself out throughout the region, most recently in Lebanon, where Saudi Arabia engineered the departure of Prime Minster Saad Hariri for accommodating Iran’s proxy Hezbollah.

Much of this is in line with U.S. interests. The primary aim of the United States in the Middle East today is to push back on Iran, which is filling the region’s many power vacuums. This task cannot be achieved without allies, and the Saudi regime is the linchpin of a battered Sunni order that is seeking to obstruct the Shia surge in the Middle East, including in Syria and Iraq.

Not all of Mohammed’s decisions have been smart. For instance, his intervention in Yemen reflects a lack of understanding of his own country’s history. This is not the Saudis’ first costly misadventure in Yemen; in the 1960s, the kingdom tried to shape the outcome of that country’s civil war at great expense. Yet again the costs of intervention outweigh any benefits. Iran has made modest investments in Yemen, primarily to prolong the conflict and lure Saudi Arabia into it. The crown prince has obliged all too easily. Today, the monarchy is trapped in a quagmire it cannot decisively win. The humanitarian toll that Saudi armor is inflicting is unconscionable. It is hard for any nation to cut its losses in a war, but Saudi Arabia should leave it.

Mohammed’s tenure thus far has been an important experiment in modernizing Saudi society. The effort conforms to American pleas over the years. The United States has often advised Saudi officials to diversify their economy and lessen their dependence on oil. Washington was similarly insistent that Saudi Arabia do more to counter the influence of Iran in the Middle East. The monarchy is resolutely responding to this call, stepping up its efforts to oppose Iran’s pro-regime forces in Syria, seeking to tip the balance of power in Lebanon away from Hezbollah, and pursuing closer ties with Iraq’s Shia-led government. At the same time, the unwise crackdown will narrow the circle of governing elites and divide the House of Saud against itself at a time of mounting tensions in the region. The best course for the United States is to encourage the kingdom on its path of reform while nudging it toward reducing princely tensions.

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