SAUDI ARA­BIA’S PAINFUL TRANS­FOR­MA­TION

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Front Page - BURHANETTİN DU­RAN

SINCE the ap­point­ment of Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man as crown prince, Saudi Ara­bia has en­tered a con­vo­luted process of trans­for­ma­tion.

Over the past five months, Saudi Ara­bia has be­come a cen­ter of at­ten­tion in world pol­i­tics with un­usual fre­quency. The main rea­son for this at­ten­tion is that the coun­try has been search­ing for a new and am­bi­tious for­eign pol­icy amid re­gional chaos. Bal­lis­tic mis­siles fired by Ye­men’s Houthis, ef­forts to co­or­di­nate with Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi and the res­ig­na­tion of Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri have all been fol­lowed closely by Riyadh. Af­ter all, Saudi Ara­bia, which was a cham­pion of the sta­tus quo dur­ing the Arab Spring, has as­sumed the lead­er­ship of ef­forts to con­tain Iran.

The ap­point­ment of Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man as crown prince last June marked the be­gin­ning of an open-ended pe­riod of painful trans­for­ma­tion in Saudi Ara­bia. In a range of ar­eas, in­clud­ing the econ­omy, do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, the trans­for­ma­tion of Riyadh’s of­fi­cial ide­ol­ogy and am­bi­tious re­gional poli­cies, the young crown prince has taken au­da­cious steps. Clearly, he wants to be­come a game changer at home and in the re­gion.

Hav­ing made his mark on Saudi pol­i­tics by launch­ing a war in Ye­men, es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions with Qatar, un­veil­ing the Vi­sion 2030 and mak­ing pub­lic re­marks on go­ing back to mod­er­ate Is­lam, Prince Mo­ham­mad kicked off a cam­paign against his po­ten­tial ri­vals by launch­ing an anti-cor­rup­tion op­er­a­tion on Nov. 4.

Among those de­tained were 11 princes, in­clud­ing two sons of the late King Ab­dul­lah – Prince Turki bin Ab­dul­lah, the Riyadh gover­nor, and Prince Mu­taib bin Ab­dul­lah, the head of the Na­tional Guard – as well as four min­is­ter and a large num­ber of for­mer min­is­ters. As such, the crown prince has, at least for the time be­ing, con­sol­i­dated his power by tak­ing over na­tional de­fense, in­ter­nal af­fairs and the Na­tional Guard. Add his con­trol over the me­dia and the re­cent ar­rest of re­li­gious schol­ars and you might think that he is ready to be crowned.

The crown prince’s grip on power, which has re­ceived the bless­ing of the United States, Is­rael and the Gulf, has been ac­com­pa­nied by pow­er­ful rhetoric of re­form, a new vi­sion, de­vel­op­ment and fight­ing cor­rup­tion. How­ever, it is un­likely that the game of thrones within the House of Saud and ques­tions about which gen­er­a­tion will rule the coun­try will go away any­time soon.

Even if he man­ages to keep the tra­di­tional Saudi-Wah­habi al­liance in­tact, it seems in­evitable that the crown prince’s power will alien­ate a large num­ber of peo­ple in the royal fam­ily. The balance of power within the House of Saud, which fel­low sib­lings could pre­serve to some de­gree, has been ir­repara­bly dam­aged as a re­sult of the most re­cent wave of ar­rests. The crown prince, who would like the Sal­man fam­ily to gov­ern Saudi Ara­bia, has no choice but to take rad­i­cal steps in or­der to end the power strug­gle within the royal fam­ily. If he suc­ceeds, he might re­store sta­bil­ity for a long time. How­ever, it re­mains to be seen if and how Mo­ham­mad, who has the sup­port of ed­u­cated youth and women, will be able to win over the con­ser­va­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Wah­habism with­out re­sort­ing to vi­o­lence. The ques­tion is on which ide­o­log­i­cal ba­sis he hopes to form a grand coali­tion with­out the rigid lan­guage of Wah­habism. As I noted in the past, the most likely an­swer is Arab na­tion­al­ism.

To take an apo­lit­i­cal ver­sion of Salafism and re­brand it as Arab na­tion­al­ism would be in­her­ently con­tra­dic­tory. On the one hand, Saudi Ara­bia will have to fight against Iran’s Shi­ite ide­ol­ogy and mili­tias in places like Ye­men and Le­banon, and on the other, the coun­try will be forced to soften the tone of Wah­habi ex­pan­sion­ism in or­der to make it com­pat­i­ble with the West and Is­rael. Mean­while, the Salafist op­po­si­tion at home will be sub­jected to im­mense pres­sure, as the Saudi lead­er­ship looks for a magic for­mula to keep both the tra­di­tional clergy and young peo­ple and women, who call for re­forms, happy.

The most rad­i­cal as­pect of Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man’s quest for change re­lates to his ideas about pro­mot­ing eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in Saudi Ara­bia, which re­mains a ren­tier state – a dif­fi­cult step that must be taken amid re­gion-wide chaos and fierce com­pe­ti­tion with Iran. As such, Mo­ham­mad’s brand of pol­i­tics could bring long-term sta­bil­ity to Saudi Ara­bia. But it is equally likely that he will cre­ate tur­moil that could place his coun­try’s sur­vival at risk.

The re­sult will be de­ter­mined by Saudi Ara­bia’s abil­ity to ex­e­cute plans to con­tain Iran while con­sol­i­dat­ing its do­mes­tic pol­i­tics and for­eign pol­icy. For now, the sit­u­a­tions in Syria, Ye­men and Le­banon re­main bad, and noth­ing has changed in Iraq.

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