by Asim M Jaweed

Saudi Arabia is currently in the midst of the most significant transformation since it’s kingdom’s foundation in 1932. As a G20 economy and a leading regional power which exerts influence throughout the Middle East and across the Muslim World, Saudi Arabia’s domestic politics hold sway far beyond the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. Perhaps not since 1973, when it led a crippling oil embargo against nations supporting Israel, has the Kingdom garnered such worldwide attention.

The Gulf state, which has positioned itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim realm, is locked in a tense rivalry with its archrival, Shiite Iran, over leadership in the Islamic world. The rivalry picked up steam after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and has grown increasingly into a turf war fought through proxies since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 disrupted the careful balance of power in the region. The two are among the primary actors contributing to entrenched civils wars in Syria and Yemen and now further threaten Lebanon’s political stability.

At the helm of this radical transformation in geopolitics is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to by his initials MbS in Western media. Son of the current King Salman, he was effectively promoted to Crown Prince, next in line for the throne, when King Salman deposed the extant Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in June 21, 2017. Since then, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been racing to exert control over the Saudi state.

Some, including officials in the U.S. Department of State, have categorized his actions as a reckless threat to regional stability according to the New York Times. The Crown Prince’s supporters argue that he is implementing necessary reforms to revitalize Saudi Arabia’s economy and society while countering an ascendant Iran.

A slow-motion coup

Until recently, the Kingdom has practiced a form of collective leadership where political decisions were made among select male descendants of founder King Abdulaziz ibn Saud. As decisions required consensus, the King was simply first among equals, in addition to being the public face of the regime. Power sharing also manifested through different sons of ibn Saud controlling different key ministries of the Saudi state. As these roles were headed by elderly men, it is perhaps unsurprising that Saudi Arabia has simultaneously retained such stability and conservatism.

However, in an unprecedented and swift move on November 4, 2017, the heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the arrest of dozens of Saudi Arabia’s most influential figures on charges of corruption. Among those arrested were bin Salman’s last remaining domestic rival, his cousin, Prince Mutaib, as well as billionaire investor-philanthropist Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (released as of late January).

What separates illegal corruption from the well-established patronage system entrenched in the Saudi political system remains unclear.

“Prince Mohammed is neutralizing all of the other factions and competing networks that could stand in his way, consolidating power in a one-man regime,” says Stéphane Lacroix, Associate Professor of Political Islam at the Paris School of International Affairs. “But these transformations could jeopardize the Sa’ud Asabiyya, the family solidarity, that has long been a foundational pillar of the Saudi political system.”

Three principal supporters have emboldened the Crown Prince to make such daring moves. One is his octogenarian father, King Salman, who has long favored MbS but may no longer have the mental faculties to fully comprehend his son’s actions. Second is Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi who shares similar domestic and regional aspirations. Another is U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been an ardent supporter of the Crown Prince despite the reservations of other American officials. Trump is heavily influenced by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has developed a camaraderie with Mohammed bin Salman.

“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Mr. Trump tweeted in November. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”

Trump has not been shy about his support: His first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia for the May 2017 Arab Islamic American Summit — bucking a decades-long trend of a first visit to neighboring Canada or Mexico.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with the Crown Prince at the White House in March 2017. [The White House/Flickr]

Moderate Islam for economic revitalization?

Some of the enthusiasm for Prince Mohammed is driven by ambitious economic projects outlined in the Saudi Vision 2030 plan.

MbS announced the proposal in 2016 with designs to rid the Kingdom of its reliance on oil and provide employment opportunities for a growing population. A 50% drop in the price of oil since late 2014 has forced Saudi Arabia to reconsider both its economy and welfare state. New taxes and levies including annual taxes on expatriates are expected to generate non-oil revenues as well as free up domestic labor opportunities for the 12.8% of Saudi citizens who are unemployed.

The Crown Prince recently announced a $500 billion independent economic zone straddling its border between Jordan and Egypt. Named NEOM, the new city is planned as a major business hub with advanced manufacturing and biotech and will include a tourist zone where the men and women can commingle. However, Saudi Arabia’s earlier mega-project, King Abdullah Economic City, announced in 2005, is still mired in delays and has failed to deliver housing and jobs for millions.

According to the Crown Prince’s progressive philosophy, economic revitalization cannot take place without a new social contract. He has sought to distance the Kingdom from its past ultra-conservatism not just in rhetoric but also action.

“We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions,” the Crown Prince told the Guardian in October. “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia.”

Thus far, the Crown Prince has lifted the ban on women driving, eased female guardianship laws, and effectively neutered the feared religious police by suspending their right to arrest. The highly rigid religious establishment appears to be taking notice. Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a senior religious scholar in Saudi Arabia, spoke out in February against the law requiring women to wear the long black abaya robes in public, arguing that “more than 90% of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world … do not wear [them].”

Paramount to these reforms is a shift in the centuries-old alliance between the Al Saud political dynasty from which MbS hails and the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi clerics that legitimized the royal family’s rule. If these changes hold, it will be a stark departure from a Kingdom known for financing the spread of Wahhabism around the world and often categorized as overly narrow-minded and intolerant.

The regional playground – Israel, Yemen, Qatar, Lebanon

Critics of the Prince point to his aggressive foreign policy, which risks Middle East peace as he pushes aggressively against Iran. In doing so, MbS is shedding historical animosity to broach closer ties with Israel. Although Israel and Saudi Arabia do not currently maintain diplomatic ties, Saudi Arabia reportedly approved Israeli commercial use of its airspace in March for the first time. In turn, Israeli Intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, recently invited the Crown Prince to visit Israel, describing Saudi Arabia as “the leader of the Arab world.” These moves suggest the two nations are finding common ground over a shared distrust of Iran.

Many of MbS’s regional projects, originally intended to demonstrate Saudi muscle against Iran, have failed to work as planned. There have been more complications for Saudi Arabia than wins.

In Yemen, the United Nations estimates that the ongoing conflict has already claimed more than 10,000 lives, with the Saudi-led coalition responsible for the majority of civilian casualties. This humanitarian crisis has only been exacerbated by a Saudi blockade of Yemeni airspace and seaports. The war in Yemen has been raging for three years with no end in sight and has dragged Saudi Arabia into a morass.

Another Saudi-led effort to blockade its smaller eastern neighbor Qatar largely backfired on its original objective of inducing Qatari compliance. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched a campaign to isolate Qatar for its oft-critical newspaper, Al Jazeera, as well as for maintaining ties with Iran. But the isolation of Qatar has only pushed it towards other Saudi rivals, namely Turkey and Iran. Qatar remains defiant as ever, and as a key member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the blockade has considerably damaged Gulf relations as well as the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council in its entirety.

A similar move to exert influence on Lebanese politics also failed to produce its desired outcome. In November, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s surprise resignation during a stay in Saudi Arabia fueled speculations of undue influence. Mohammed bin Salman would likely be wary of the Iran-backed Hezbollah party that constitutes a significant part of Mr. Hariri’s political coalition. Hariri rescinded his resignation within weeks of his return to Lebanon and by early December had returned to power.

A “sheikhy” road ahead

A revolution set to redefine Saudi Arabia and the Middle East is well underway with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Having cleared most domestic limits to his power, and making significant headway towards social change, the Crown Prince represents the biggest transformation to the Kingdom since oil was discovered in the 1930s. The new regime appears to be pursuing a combination of authoritarianism, social progressiveness, and military hawkishness.

It is perhaps too early to determine if his ambitious economic projects will attract enough foreign investment to diversify the economy away from oil and satisfy the needs of a growing country. A more socially moderate Saudi Arabia is a welcome change — both domestically and internationally with respect to the ultra-orthodox Wahhabism it funds abroad. But for the time being, much of the Middle East remains mired in instability, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s bold moves only appear to be aggravating. ♦

Asim M Jaweed is a contributor to The Paris Globalist and is pursuing a graduate degree in international security at Sciences Po-Paris.

Feature Photo: Original illustration by Rosa Hofgärtner for The Paris Globalist.