The Saudis and the Arab spring

The entire world was astonished when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embarked on a sweeping crackdown and purged some of the kingdom’s most important princes and businessmen. Within a day, he announced the creation of an “Anti-Corruption Committee.” Saudi Arabia’s billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was arrested along with at least ten other princes, several government ministers and former ministers, as well as two of the late King Abdullah’s sons. They have been corralled into a luxurious hotel once frequented by Saudi sheikhs. This is indeed a coup. Politicians and commentators are crossing fingers for the young prince in the hope that this gambit pays off, and that Mohammad bin Salman will succeed in taking control of all branches of power that are now held by the 15,000 members of the House of Saud.

The crown prince aims to change the world order in a kingdom where time has stood still since 1932, the year of its founding, thanks to oil resources that once seemed inexhaustible. The Saudi kingdom was created on oil wells, and it is because of this that its distorted economy has survived. It’s a kind of welfare state that allows the people of the kingdom to live without working as long as they adhere to Sharia law. Saudi women are at the mercy of men in all respects, and work is done by foreign workers without rights.

But like every good thing, the petrodollar celebration is coming to an end. The fall in oil prices has pushed the Saudi economy towards an abyss. Economic growth is near zero, and the kingdom will not survive unless it changes radically. When historians mark the beginning of the end of the kingdom, they will have no trouble noting the date – September 11, 2001. After all, Saudi Arabia exports not only oil, which lubricates the wheels of the global economy (and has made countless petrodollars which were invested in American banks and enterprises), it also exports a version of Islamic jihad. The Shiite Islamic revolution in Iran in the late 1970s frightened the Saudis, and in response, they established a wide global network for the spread of Wahhabism. This is an Islamic doctrine that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Saudi Arabia was founded on Wahhabism, and it is its dominant faith today.

September 11 changed the world. The same oil that moved the world economy also spread destruction by funding Sunni fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda. The West realized that dependence on Saudi oil must be reduced – the sooner the better. While the Americans discovered a way of extracting oil from shale, the world learned that oil not only spreads radical Islam, but also pollutes the air and brings about global warming. That’s why the Saudi kingdom switched from being a strategic asset to a huge problem. Obama did not hide his opinion about the Saudis when he abandoned them in favor of the nuclear agreement with Iran. And although Trump chose to make his first visit outside the US borders to Saudi Arabia and to withdraw from the Paris agreement, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions, this will not change the historical trend – the abandonment of oil and fossil energy in favor of renewable energy.

The kingdom has set a date. Mohammed bin Salman announced the year 2030 as the goal, and “Vision 2030” is the name of an economic plan that is supposed to launch the medieval monarchy into the 21st century. However, this dramatic program in the social and economic spheres ignores the need to change the regime, which will remain an absolute monarchy. Even though Saudi Arabia is hungry for overseas capital to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil sales, anyone who looks at the initial data, which are amazing and frightening, finds it hard to understand how the young and energetic prince can succeed in squaring the circle: In Saudi Arabia there is no civil legal system except for Sharia courts, there is no restriction on the age of marriage, and there are no rights for women. It is not clear that Western investors will invest in a country where the law is in the hands of Sheikhs who rule according to such an extreme and rigid tradition. Equally amazing is that one-third of the kingdom’s 30 million residents are foreign nationals who serve as the labor force in industry and services, while 20 million Saudis work in the public sector and/or live on subsidies.

There is no question that the Crown Prince must make drastic changes if he wants his country to move toward modernity. Having decided to stop dependence on oil sales, he must also wean the economy of foreign workers and train Saudis to work for private employers according to the rules of a modern economy. Although it will be possible for women to get a driver’s license (taking effect only in June 2018), in order to work they will have to have a valid identity card and passport, plus a male guardian’s consent. In order to overcome the deficit in the state budget, instead of subsidizing citizens, taxes will have to be placed on them, and a profound reform of the education system will need to be undertaken. This will mean a shift from religious to scientific studies in order to integrate workers into a high-tech economy. No less crucial, the prince must eliminate the corruption that has crept into every corner of the kingdom. Saudi citizens will not forever cooperate with a regime in which taxes and oil revenues finance the bloated royal family.

It can be said that Saudi Arabia is at the same point that the Arab regimes reached in 2011, when they fell like dominoes in the Arab Spring. The purges conducted by Mohammad bin Salman are evidence that the Saudi regime suffers from wide-scale corruption, oppression, and lack of democracy, just like those regimes that have already disappeared. The only difference is that Saudi Arabia has held out longer because it breathes petrol fumes.

The Saudi regime is currently trying to do exactly what its predecessors did two decades before they collided with the Arab Spring. Assad and Mubarak dismantled the welfare state and enforced a neo-liberal market economy that only widened the gap between the ruling elite and the general public. Corruption and oppression caused people to rise up, and the regimes collapsed. Mohammed bin Salman’s attempts to gain global recognition, his commitment to stop promoting radical Islam, his war on corruption, and his promise to invest billions in a modern, green economy, will not convince those who understand that such an economy cannot tolerate dictatorship. Modernization must be based on intellectual pluralism, sharing instead of centralization, and a total democratization of the regime.

Here we should remember another important detail. One of the reasons why the Arab Spring failed was the resolute opposition of the Saudis to the revolutionary wave. Saudi money financed el-Sisi’s military coup, which was grounded in political terrorism and corruption; it also backed jihadist militias that put down democratic forces in Syria (thus indirectly serving the Syrian regime and providing an excuse for Russian and Iranian intervention). In spite of all the bloodshed and prophecies about the demise of the Arab Spring, the Saudi Kingdom now faces the very same challenge: either to embrace modernity, democracy, alternative energy, and the freedom of information that flows through the internet – or to disappear.

The Arab Spring was a wake-up call. The young people in the Arab world set a clear path for the future. The Saudis did everything to obstruct the course of history in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. However, history knows no mercy. It is now knocking at the gates of the kingdom itself. Saudi Arabia must decide whether to stand on the side of progress or to oppose it and disappear. Mohammad bin Salman’s purge campaign is no more than a desperate attempt to ward off the inevitable: regime change in Saudi Arabia as a prelude to regime change in the entire Arab world. A democratic transformation in Saudi Arabia, when it happens, will determine not only the fate of that country but of the entire Arab world. The writing is on the wall. It was written in the winter of 2011, and it cannot be erased.

* Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman

About Yacov Ben Efrat