Saudi Arabia’s political reforms: Towards modernization or political regression?

There is an old saying in Persian: Mahtab hameeshe poshte abr nememooneh, meaning “The moon will not hide behind the clouds forever.” For Iranians, perhaps now more than ever this proverb rings true in regards to their view of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since the year 1979, Iran and Saudi Arabia have pursued two very different governing systems and ideologies. The modern Saudi state has embraced Western powers, complete access to international oil markets, infrastructure development, and a partnership between the Kingdom’s ruling family and the religious conservatives. Iran fostered anti-imperialism, a deep distrust of the West, and a hybrid political system that mixes democratic practices with theocracy.

This latter relationship became more pronounced after the seizure of the Grand Mosque led the Saudis to grant more power to the Wahhabi clerics. Iran’s distain for the extravagant lifestyle of the Saudi royals has been a feature from the beginning of the Iranian Revolution with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who decried the rich Gulf monarchies as despotic and corrupt in his worldview of those who were oppressors and oppressed. How does Iran view Saudi Arabia’s reforms? Will the reforms actually translate into meaningful and productive change for the Kingdom?

At the heart of these questions is the Kingdom’s Crowned Prince Mohammad bin Salman (often called MBS) and his dramatic changes to the Saudi Arabia’s domestic reforms and foreign policy. Iran is closely watching what the reforms will mean for the future of Saudi Arabia. MBS recently casted the regional rivalry in terms of western democracy’s 20th century confrontation with European fascism, comparing Iran’s geopolitical advantages in the Middle East to then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement with Germany in 1938. In response, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said, “I strongly advise him to think and ponder upon the fate of the famous dictators of the region in the past few years now that he is thinking of considering their policies and behavior as a role model.”

Iran itself is enjoying a time of great geopolitical advantage in the Middle East. Despite the arrival of the Trump Administration, Iran’s influence is heightened in Iraq and Lebanon. Analysts observed the decision to re-instate Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut as the Saudi’s attempt to back pedal. Iran has also won significant military victories with training and advising (along with supplying fighters) in Iraq and Syria. Tehran also has turned Yemen, in the words of one young Saudi, into “Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam.” So what will Tehran and the West make of the social and economic reforms underway in the Kingdom’s domestic front?

Some analyst have likened MBS to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and pointed to the use of highly visible anti-corruption campaigns among the world’s authoritarian leaders as a way to consolidate power. Vali Nasr, the Dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies said in a November Tweet that Saudi Arabia had in fact became a “modernizing autocratic monarchy” similar to Iran under the Shah and mused it was ironic that Iran was now confronting its own past.

Within Saudi Arabia, the anti-corruption measures have certainly been popular with the country’s youth, who make up almost 20 percentage of the population and are more globalized and self-aware of their social restrictions than the older generations, thanks in part to the large number who have studied overseas and internet connectivity. Public interaction between young men and women is rapidly increasing and religious police have largely lost most of their authority. However, Saudi youth remain pensive and uncertain about the country’s future and job prospects are extremely competitive. Unemployment is around 40 percent.

Women make up more than 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s university graduates, 16 percent of the workforce, with around 5 percent of which are in the private sector. Saudi Arabia has periodically been embarrassed by human rights campaigns carried out by women to end gender-based discrimination. The ban on driving was lifted but one potential cultural time bomb remain, such as the guardian system that requires women seeking to travel, obtain official documents, and undergo medical procedures to have the permission of a mahram (male relative).

The United States, Saudi Arabia’s closest ally, is in part unsure what to make of the purges. While many are lauding the drastic changes as remarkable social and economic reforms necessary to make the Kingdom competitive in the 21st century, others have urged caution. One White House official spoke in early November following the wave of arrests, “If the crown prince alienates too many other princes and other pillars of the regime, pursues costly regional conflicts and scares off foreign investors, he could undermine the prospects for the very reforms he is trying to implement.”

Widespread coverage has focused on the number of fallen royals and economic elite now being held at the five-star Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh. One of the most startling targets of MBS’ anti-corruption drive was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the so-called “Arabian Warren Buffett,” is an extremely well-regarded figure in the West for his generous donations to educational institutions and charitable foundations and always appeared to occupy a place outside of the traditional Saudi political elite. The charges against him, according to Saudi authorities, include money laundering, bribery, and extortion.

Speculation surrounding the reasons for his arrest included bin Talal’s plan to launch an Arabic language TV channel called Alarab, that was shut down after critical coverage of Bahraini politics. Bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding Company remains heavily invested in Western tech companies, such as Twitter and its future tentative. Another immensely wealthy figure, Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi, who holds dual Saudi-Ethiopian citizenship, was also among the corruption sweep, led to speculation that his absence could jeopardize the entire economy of Ethiopia due to his significant investments in the country. Another famous figure staying at the Ritz is Bakr Bin Laden, the chairman of the Saudi Binladin Group based in Jeddah, and half-brother of the late Osama Bin Laden.

Saudi Arabia’s social reforms are aimed in part at appeasing the United States, where from time to time, political populism takes on the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers during the 9/11 attacks were Saudis. In 2016, for example, bilateral tensions arose when both Republicans and Democrats in Congress proposed legislation that would allow U.S. citizens to take legal action against foreign countries for damages caused by terrorism. In the final year of the Obama Administration, the bill was extremely controversial and provoked a political debate on the role of Saudi Arabia in global security.

The Kingdom, for its part, threatened to pull out $750 billion USD worth of US assets. It is also essential to keep in mind the Kingdom is still highly suspicious in the eyes of most Americans and Wahhabism is occasionally blamed for supporting or inspiring a global network of extremist groups, such as the so-called Islamic State. Other countries in the European Union have fretted the human rights situation in Saudi Arabian and occasionally landed in hot water with Riyadh. In 2015, Sweden was locked in a bitter spat over the imprisonment of Saudi human rights activist Raif Badawi.

The efforts of the MBS to enact fast-paced social reforms have prompted fears of what could happen to the future of the country’s political establishment. The Economist noted that “balance of power across the sprawling royal family; the blessing of Wahhabi clerics; and a cradle-to-grave system of benefits for citizens” is now at risk.

MBS’ Vision 2030 aims to diversify the economy, reduce the country’s bloated public sector, and privatize the economy. This ambitious plan will depend on the cooperation of the various royal power brokers and tribal elites. Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House, explained to Al Jazeera, “Some have argued that a consolidation of power could make it easier for MBS to push ahead with the Vision 2030 reform plans…there’s a risk of a further shift away from consensus-based policymaking. The big risk here is a backlash against MBS that undermines his authority and threatens Vision 2030.”

Iran’s own reforms also come to mind. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has granted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani a level of latitude to negotiate an unprecedented nuclear deal with the West, support a limited amount of foreign investment, cut back bureaucracy, and subsequently grow Iran’s economy. However, the increasing level of hostile rhetoric directed at Tehran from both Riyadh and Washington has endangered the power of Iran’s reformists and has shifted popular support towards the conservatives.

Occasionally, voices emerge from the storm to call for dialogue and calm. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently said the Kingdom’s plans for modernization could not be realized without ending the war in Yemen and encouraged talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran will continue to position itself as the stable and pragmatic partner and watch the unfolding drama in the Kingdom with a mix of concern, anxiety, and perhaps amusement. Whether Saudi Arabia is going through the painful process of simply airing out its dirty laundry or revealing its true colors as a corrupt Arab autocracy teetering on the uneven ground, Iran will have plenty of reasons to gloat.

For the Saudis, the reforms are not only an opportunity, but a test of historic proportions. In 1979, Crown Prince Fahd struggled to come to terms with the fate of the Shah, and turned to a hardline religious experiment after the Grand Mosque incident, setting the Kingdom on the path to its present situation with devastating regional and international consequences. How the repercussions of the rapid social modernization and economic reforms will play out, remains to be seen. But if history yields any signs, nothing may be as it appears. This is especially true for Saudi Arabia.

This article was originally printed in Farsi for the December 2017 issue of The Diplomat, an Iranian reformist international affairs magazine.

Author Bio:

Christopher Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has also been a guest lecturer at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, speaking on the U.S.’ strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has appeared on Global Risk Insights, Raddington Report, the Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA).

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Christopher Solomon

Chris Solomon is a writer and analyst specializing in Middle East history and international politics. He is the author of In Search of Greater Syria.