The “Arab spring”, which began with distant events in the small country of Tunisia, brought very different changes to a range of countries in the Middle East. If, for example, in Egypt it led to regime change, then in countries such as Syria and Iraq, it led to civil war, whose end is not yet visible on the political horizon. The changes that have taken place in the political superstructures of the rich countries of the Persian Gulf are strictly cosmetic. Removing underlying problems, including the gap between expectations of the younger generation and the real readiness of local “aging” governments to work on their resolving, has not happened. Moreover, their critical mass increases as time goes by, only postponing the next internal political explosions with pronounced cross-border consequences. The political systems of these countries are not being updated; for the most part, they demonstrate their readiness only for strict doses of socio-economic reform, without significant changes in the state system of government.
The clearest example of this kind of trend is Saudi Arabia, where the local elite and their rulers, the Saudi family, try to neutralise all domestic challenges inherent in the Arab world without any significant political innovations. The country still remains under the strict and harsh control of the elderly king, numerous princes, ulama (Islamic scholars) and kadis (Sharia judges), who regulate the entire way of life fundamentally. However, recently there have been signs of some cosmetic changes. This is primarily due to the fact that the elderly King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud broke the previous system of inheritance, established by the founder of the kingdom Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud, and began to promote his son Muhammad ibn Salman to every conceivable and even inconceivable top post. Thus, it was his son who became the official crown prince, who after the death of his father will inherit the royal throne. Of course, if the other numerous princes do not come forward, a new basis for succession to the throne will not be created.
We must pay tribute to the new young heir, who zealously got to work, and as a result of his leadership a very ambitious document Vision 2030 was published; a program to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop public health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism. The objectives include intensification of economic and investment activity, an increase in the volume of international non-oil trade in goods and services, and an increase in defence spending. Non-oil revenues should have been raised to $267 billion, and non-oil exports from 16% of GDP to 50%. The kingdom should have entered the top 15 world economies instead of the current 20th place. A huge generation capacity based on solar energy in the north should have been created to avoid water shortages.
It should be said that in the kingdom itself, there are no Saudi economists who are able to develop such ambitious plans. That is why Western specialists who never visited the kingdom were attracted by large sums of money, and who, not knowing the simple realities, could only theoretically substantiate these plans. Even Western economists, after the Vision 2030 was officially presented, were very critical of the young Crown Prince’s dreams.
Many political scientists believe that the so-called “silent revolution” is taking place in Saudi Arabia, during which an extensive anti-corruption campaign is being conducted, members of the royal family are being arrested, reforms are being announced both in the economic and socio-political spheres. But, perhaps most importantly, the current regime is abandoning the radical direction in public life. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman introduced decrees that were unthinkable only yesterday, such as giving women the right to drive cars, visit cinemas, theatres and stadiums, and also divorce if they wish. He personally signed a decree on the appointment of the first woman to the government, Tamadur bint Youssef al-Ramah as deputy labour minister. Saudi Arabia will invest $64 billion in entertainment over the next ten years, according to the head of the General Development Authority, Ahmed bin Aqeel al-Khatib. The money will be spent on the construction of entertainment infrastructure, as well as the organisation of concerts, musicals, comedy performances and the construction of the country’s first opera theatre in Jeddah. According to Al-Khatib, the authorities intend to attract $267 billion of investment for the creation of entertainment infrastructure. By 2030, 224 thousand new jobs should have been created in the country.
Altogether, this is a big step for a country where concerts, music in restaurants and shops have been banned for the last two decades. For a country where Wahhabism is the state ideology, this phenomenon is extremely unusual, and of course it can affect the rest of the countries in the Persian Gulf. Prince Mohammed himself described a new wave of reforms as part of the “shock” therapy needed to modernise the cultural and political life of the kingdom. If you recall the application of “shock therapy” in Russia, then you will remember nothing good came out of it in the end. I wonder what will be the fate of all these Saudi innovations.
A very disturbing and troubling aspect for Riyadh is the struggle against Iran and the incitement of Sunnis against Shiites. Such a struggle seems to the Saudis one of the foundations of pan-Arab solidarity, but, in fact, distracts huge resources and is well understood to be useless. This is largely a game imposed on Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf by the US and Israel. The former receives an “iron argument” for maintaining their dominant military positions in the region and utilisation of the capacities of the US military-industrial complex. The latter channels the energy of the Arab world in a favourable direction, distracting from the same Palestinian issue. It is not by chance that the US initiatives that irritate the Arabs around the old Middle East problem, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are realised precisely against the backdrop of distraction of the leading forces of the Arab world to Iran. Who would have decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to schedule the date of the transfer of the American embassy to this city on May 14, 2018, were not the Arabs so divided and oriented on confronting the Shiite foe? No one, I believe. But after the “Arab Spring” much has changed in the heart of the Middle East, and these changes are clearly not in favour of the Arabs themselves.
Other disturbing factors complicating the innovations of the young prince are his poorly thought-out actions against Syria, Yemen and Qatar. If the Syrian position was taken by Mohammed bin Salman from his predecessors (and here, by the way, the revision of the previous views towards their rapprochement with the position of Russia is noted), then the war in Yemen was completely organized by the prince. Currently, the result is dead peaceful Yemenis, including women, the elderly and children, bombed cities and towns, and epidemics of a number of terrible diseases, as a result of the destruction of hospitals, clinics and other medical institutions by Saudi aviation.
Another failure of the current regime and the young prince personally is the deterioration of relations with Qatar, the establishment of a tough embargo (an example set by the United States) in attempts to subjugate the Qatari regime, and with luck change the Emir in Doha. True, here again, Riyadh has failed, because Qatar has taken very vigorous measures to overcome illegal Saudi sanctions with the help of a number of neighbouring states.
It is only natural that the near future will show how seriously the crown prince and future king will be able to translate his widely advertised plans. At the same time, we should not forget about Washington’s plans, which were once voiced by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, publishing a new map of the Middle East, in which instead of a single Saudi Arabia there are several small states – the Emirates.
Victor Mikhin, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“