At­ten­tion: Saudi Prince in a hurry

The Philippine Star - - OPINION - By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

To un­der­stand the up­heaval that is tak­ing place in Saudi Ara­bia to­day, you have to start with the most im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal fact about that coun­try: The dom­i­nant shap­ing po­lit­i­cal force there for the past four decades has not been Is­lamism, fun­da­men­tal­ism, lib­er­al­ism, cap­i­tal­ism or ISISism. It has been Alzheimer’s. The coun­try’s cur­rent king is 81 years old. He re­placed a king who died at 90, who re­placed a king who died at 84. It’s not that none of them in­tro­duced re­forms. It’s that at a time when the world has been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing so much high-speed change in tech­nol­ogy, ed­u­ca­tion and glob­al­iza­tion, these suc­ces­sive Saudi monar­chs thought that re­form­ing their coun­try at 10 miles an hour was fast enough — and high oil prices cov­ered for that slow pace.

It doesn’t work any­more. Some 70 per­cent of Saudi Ara­bia is un­der age 30, and roughly 25 per­cent of them are un­em­ployed. In ad­di­tion, 200,000 more are study­ing abroad, and about 35,000 of them — men and women – are com­ing home ev­ery year with de­grees, look­ing for mean­ing­ful work, not to men­tion some­thing fun to do other than go­ing to the mosque or the mall. The sys­tem des­per­ately needs to cre­ate more jobs out­side the oil sec­tor, where Saudi in­come is no longer what it once was, and the gov­ern­ment can’t keep eat­ing its sav­ings to buy sta­bil­ity.

That’s the back­drop for this week’s dar­ing, but reck­less, power play by the 32-year-old son of King Sal­man — Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, known by his ini­tials MBS. I’ve in­ter­viewed MBS twice. He is a young man in a hurry. I’ve found his pas­sion for re­form au­then­tic, his sup­port from the youth in his coun­try sig­nif­i­cant and his case for mak­ing rad­i­cal change in Saudi Ara­bia com­pelling.

In­deed, there are two things I can say for sure about him: He is much more McKin­sey than Wah­habi — much more a num­bers cruncher than a Qu­ran thumper. And if he did not ex­ist, the Saudi sys­tem would have had to in­vent him. Some­body had to shake up the place.

But here is what I don’t know for sure: Where does his im­pulse for rapid re­form stop and his au­to­cratic im­pulse to seize all power be­gin? Af­ter MBS ar­rested a slew of Saudi princes, me­dia own­ers and bil­lion­aire busi­ness­men on “cor­rup­tion” charges, Pres­i­dent Trump tweeted his ap­plause, say­ing, “Some of those they are harshly treat­ing have been ‘milk­ing’ their coun­try for years!”

I could only laugh read­ing that tweet. Hear­ing that Saudi princes were ar­rested for “cor­rup­tion” is like read­ing that Don­ald Trump fired seven cab­i­net sec­re­taries “for ly­ing.” You know it has to be some­thing else. Trump ob­vi­ously missed the story last year that MBS im­pul­sively bought a yacht while on va­ca­tion in the south of France — it just caught his fancy in the har­bor — from its Rus­sian owner for $550 mil­lion. Did that money come out of his piggy bank? Sav- ings from his Riyadh le­mon­ade stand? From his Saudi gov­ern­ment 401(k)?

I raise this point be­cause when you’re mak­ing as many rad­i­cal changes at once, and mak­ing as many en­e­mies at once, as MBS is, your robes need to be very clean. Peo­ple have to be­lieve that you mean what you say and that you have no hid­den agen­das, be­cause change is go­ing to be pain­ful. Look at what MBS is do­ing all at once:

To speed up de­ci­sion-mak­ing, he is re­shap­ing the Saudi state — from a broad fam­ily coali­tion where power is shared and al­ter­nated among seven ma­jor fam­i­lies and de­ci­sions taken by con­sen­sus — to a state gov­erned by a sin­gle fam­ily line. This is no longer “Saudi Ara­bia.” It is be­com­ing “Sal­man Ara­bia.” In the lat­est series of ar­rests, MBS ba­si­cally elim­i­nated the “young old guard” — the key sons and his nat­u­ral ri­vals from the other main Saudi royal lines. He also ar­rested the own­ers of the three main quasi-in­de­pen­dent pri­vate tele­vi­sion net­works, MBC, ART and Rotana.

At the same time, MBS is shift­ing the ba­sis of le­git­i­macy of the regime, end­ing “the 1979 era.” In 1979, in the wake of the takeover of Is­lam’s most holy site in Mecca by an ul­tra-fun­da­men­tal­ist Saudi preacher who claimed that the al-Saud fam­ily was not Is­lamic enough, the Saudi rul­ing fam­ily — to shore up its re­li­gious le­git­i­macy — made a sharp

re­li­gious turn at home and be­gan ex­port­ing its pu­ri­tan­i­cal Wah­habi Sunni Is­lam abroad, build­ing mosques and schools from Lon­don to In­done­sia.

It has been a dis­as­ter for the Arab/Mus­lim world, spawn­ing off­shoots like Al Qaeda and ISIS and re­tard­ing Arab ed­u­ca­tion and women’s ad­vance­ment.

MBS has vowed to give birth to a more mod­er­ate Saudi Is­lam, start­ing by curb­ing his re­li­gious po­lice and per­mit­ting women to drive. This is hugely im­por­tant. He is dar­ing peo­ple to judge his gov­ern­ment not on piety but on per­for­mance, not on Qu­ran but on KPIs — key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors on un­em­ploy­ment, eco­nomic growth, hous­ing and health care.

But he is re­plac­ing Wah­habism as a source of sol­i­dar­ity with a more sec­u­lar Saudi na­tion­al­ism, one that has a strong anti-Iran/Per­sian/Shi­ite tenor. And that is tak­ing him to some danger­ous places. To con­front Iran, MBS got the Sunni Prime Min­is­ter of Le­banon, Saad al-Hariri, to quit his of­fice on Satur­day while on a visit to Riyadh, and blamed Iran and its Shi­ite al­lies for mak­ing Le­banon un­govern­able — and for a mis­sile at­tack from Ye­men. Le­banon, which had forged a rel­a­tively sta­ble bal­ance among Sun­nis, Chris­tians and Shi­ites, is now shak­ing. MBS also led a Gulf ef­fort to iso­late Qatar for be­ing too close to Iran and to crush Iran’s in­flu­ence in Ye­men — and crush Ye­men in the process. It’s over­reach, and there seems to be no one around to tell him that.

As a vet­eran Saudi jour­nal­ist re­marked to me of MBS: “This guy saved Saudi Ara­bia from a slow death, but he needs to broaden his base. It is good that he is free­ing the house of Saud of the in­flu­ence of the clergy, but he is also not al­low­ing any sec­ond opin­ion of his po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic de­ci­sions.”

I worry that those urg­ing MBS to be more ag­gres­sive in con­fronting Iran (whose ma­lign re­gional in­flu­ence does need coun­ter­bal­anc­ing) — like the UAE, Trump, Jared Kush­ner and Bibi Ne­tanyahu — will push MBS into a war abroad and at home at the same time, and we could see Saudi Ara­bia and the whole re­gion spin out of con­trol at the same time. As I said, I’m wor­ried.

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