Some Ad­vice Re­ally is Clas­sic

The New York Review of Books - - Contents -

An­cient Wis­dom for Mod­ern Read­ers A series of time­less and timely books that make the prac­ti­cal wis­dom of the an­cient world ac­ces­si­ble for mod­ern life

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

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