Some Advice Really is Classic
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been accused of being “agents of embassies,” meaning people who take their cue not from the Saudi government but from foreigners.
Saudi Arabia has curbed the Islamist organizations that used to build mosques and spread Salafist teachings around the world in favor of a new regional assertiveness. The crown prince, writes Al-Rasheed, “is currently struggling to make Saudi Arabia a serious regional power on a par with Turkey, Iran, and Israel.” In this he has the support of President Trump, who visited Riyadh on his first official overseas trip after being elected. Previous US governments also backed—and armed— the Saudis, but European diplomats, who would rather see a balance of power in the region, fear the combination of a young, ambitious crown prince and a belligerent US president with no understanding of history or regional dynamics and a determination to crush the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A recent UN report suggested that Saudi Arabia, along with other parties to the conflict, might be guilty of war crimes in Yemen. The Saudis, it suggested, failed to consult their own “no strike” list, and frequently killed civilians. (The report held back from naming Britain and the US, which supply many of the aircraft and weapons used.) Some 18,000 airstrikes in the past three years have hit civilian infrastructure including hospitals and markets, and “certainly contributed to Yemen’s dire economic and humanitarian situation.” Other UN reports suggest that eight million Yemenis are at risk of starvation, largely because Saudi Arabia and its allies have obstructed aid getting into ports.
Such is the animosity toward Iran that the Saudis have warmed to Israel, which also sees the Islamic Republic as its main enemy. President Trump’s sonin-law, Jared Kushner, is said to have a good relationship with both MBS and Benjamin Netanyahu: the US decision to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral agreement that curbed Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, was forged in Riyadh and Jerusalem as much as in Washington. The Saudi king and crown prince have also picked a quarrel with Qatar, backed the Egyptian dictator General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, supported Islamist (although not ISIS) rebels in Syria, and tried to force the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister. “King Salman and his son have proved to be reckless,” writes AlRasheed. “Their foreign policy is based on a single doctrine: establishing the supremacy of Saudi Arabia in order to make it the sole arbiter of Arab affairs and the main point of entry for all international powers into the region.” For now, the domestic and foreign policy ambitions of MBS continue unchecked because, although he has alienated the traditional power brokers—the clergy, the business elite, and the quarrelsome royal factions—he is wildly popular among Saudis under thirty. No longer do young Saudis feel that they live in a backward country or a backwater compared to other Gulf States. But their continued enthusiasm is dependent on the economy delivering jobs and prosperity. In his chapter on the Saudi state in the age of austerity, Steffen Hertog points out that employment has previously been regarded as a form of welfare, and it will be hard to convert Saudis from jobs as largely idle bureaucrats in meaningless government positions into productive private-sector workers. (He quotes a Saudi minister saying that the average government bureaucrat works one hour a day). The structural obstacles are immense. “While the Saudi private sector has built real capacities since the 1970s, it mostly caters to a domestic market that relies on state-generated demand, and has developed production models that rely on state protection and stateprovided subsidies,” he writes.
The air in Riyadh is choked with dust from the construction of a new subway and dozens of skyscrapers. The aim is to create a skyline like Dubai’s, but the danger is that many towers will lie empty if the ambitious plan to diversify the economy falters for lack of foreign investment. The Dubai parallel is limited because the Saudi royal family, as guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, cannot allow what religious Saudis regard as the debauchery of the United Arab Emirates. The guardianship of Islam’s most holy sites remains essential to the Saudi sense of self. A group of grumpy old men I met at a livestock market just outside the capital told me that they could go along with newfangled ideas like movie theaters, but anything involving “alcohol and fornication” would be beyond the pale. It is no secret that some of the more than a million Saudis who visit Dubai annually indulge the pleasures of the flesh, but what happens in Dubai stays in Dubai and is regarded as entirely different from what is permitted at home.
No historical parallel is exact, but the crown prince might study another royal ruler who tried to modernize a conservative Islamic country: the Shah of Iran. Backed by the West and supported by a cosmopolitan urban middle class, he tried to decree a change in people’s way of thinking and became ever more repressive as he enforced his will. The Islamic Revolution that swept him away in 1979 was initially progressive, bringing together Communists and other leftist forces before they were crushed by the reactionary forces of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Success for MBS would presumably mean ascending to the throne of a more powerful and prosperous kingdom, his internal and external rivals having been subdued. There is no timeline for this: his father is eighty-three, though—rumor has it—he might not hang on until death but step down to allow his son to accede to the throne sooner rather than later. For the moment the young crown prince is on course, but he may yet find that he cannot impose his will indefinitely through a program of bread and circuses. —September 13, 2018