Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Saudi Arabia: Youth leadership inspires

Under King Salman, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a quiet but important transformation, departing from its past reliance on allies and asserting its interests with bold determination, writes Haytham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

For more than eight decades, the kings of the House of Saud have faced diverse challenges at home and abroad, but they managed to survive and persist in the Middle East, seen by many as the one of the most turbulent regions in the world.

But since the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the third Saudi state, build by Abdulaziz Al-Saud for three decades before it was officially established in 1932, has been faced with multiple threats and challenges.

“For the first time, Riyadh is facing terrorism, low oil prices, regional unrest and a war with its southern neighbour, Yemen, all at the same time,” said Fahd Nizar, lead researcher at the JTG Foundation, which provides political and economic consulting to companies and governments. “Faced with these challenges and dangers, the young generation is assuming leadership in Saudi Arabia.”

While this inspires hope for their success, it also poses questions about the ability of the new officials to meet the challenge. King Salman bin Abdulaziz, upon assuming power at the death of his brother King Abdullah in January 2015, initiated a set of changes unprecedented in the history of the conservative kingdom.

The first came when he accepted the resignation of his brother, former Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, 71, and appointed his 56-year-old nephew, Mohamed bin Nayef, in his stead, while the latter also retained the interior portfolio. According to Foreign Policy, Nayef is the most important warrior on terrorism in the kingdom, the “general of the war on terror,” according to the US-based MSNBC. With this move, Bin Nayef became the first crown prince among King Abdulaziz’s grandsons.

Prince Mohamed bin Nayef has been a strong personality since he was the deputy of his late father, Nayeb bin Abdulaziz, minister of interior from 1976 to 2011 and then the crown prince in the year before his death.

“An attempt was made to assassinate Prince Mohamed bin Nayef by what was thought to be an Al-Qaeda agent, because he rid the kingdom of their evil,” said Abdullah Mashari, a Kuwaiti journalist. “He’s a calm personality, accustomed to confrontation, so when Riyadh announces the formation of an alliance against terrorism, it’s telling the truth. The proof is the accomplishments of Mohamed bin Nayef.”

In addition to studying political science in the US, Mohamed bin Nayef worked in the Interior Ministry as a deputy to his father starting in 1990, which gave him broad security and political experience.

An equally bold appointment was that of 30-something Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the king’s son, as defence minister and chair of both the Council on Economic and Development Affairs and Aramco, the biggest oil company in the world.

In an unanticipated move, the king also accepted the resignation of veteran Prime Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who died in July 2015, on the basis of his illness, appointing in his stead Adel Al-Jubeir, aged 54, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington. With this, Jubeir became the first person from outside the royal family to hold the post.

“Adel Al-Jubeir has a strong constitution, [and is part of] a new generation of Saudi diplomat. We saw this during the recent crisis with Iran. He’s firm and doesn’t falter. He knows his strong points and has self-confidence,” said Abd Al-Rahman Al-Khalaf, a Saudi journalist.

“But his mission is difficult. He succeeded Saud Al-Faisal, with his long history. But he’s proven markedly successful. In general, we’re used to strong diplomacy in Saudi Arabia, regardless of the minister’s ways.”

Since he assumed his position in 2014, Al-Jubeir, who studied politics in the US, has not hidden his country’s tense relations with Iran. On the contrary, he has been unflinching in mobilising against Tehran’s influence in the region.

He clearly showed his disagreement with his American counterpart regarding the fate of the Syrian president, saying that “Assad has no future” in Syria, even as John Kerry said this was a matter best left to Syrians.

His ministry coordinated a meeting with the Syrian opposition. In fact, the lead negotiator for the opposition is Mohamed Alloush, the commander of the Army of Islam, which is supported by Riyadh.

Hazem Nahar, a dissident Syrian doctor who is not part of the Riyadh conference, said, “The Saudi-linked Syrian opposition has become stronger than its peers who are supported by Turkey or even Qatar.”

Al-Jubeir appears to be doing his best to increase Riyadh’s power in the regional game. Several other ministers were later appointed that were under the age of 60. Two of the most important are even under 40 — Adel Al-Trifi, 36, and Walid Al-Samaani, 36 — an uncommon event in this socially, politically and culturally conservative country.

Ahmed Abd Al-Mohsen, a professor of political science at Kharj University, said that the new Saudi officials are young people who have been well educated either in the kingdom or abroad. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Council on Economic and Development Affairs now includes dozens of young people from the Saudi elite who have “received advanced education in European and American institutions”.

Abd Al-Mohsen expects age and education levels to improve Riyadh’s chances of weathering the unprecedented challenges it faces. The US Atlantic Council agrees, saying that “these wise appointments by King Salman offer a good opportunity for stability” in Saudi Arabia and the region.

Abd Al-Mohsen added: “These appointments suit the fact that Saudi is a young country. Most of the population is under the age of 35 and many of them are well educated.”

Saudi Arabia has witnessed a population explosion over the last three decades. Youth under the age of 35 now account for 60 per cent of the population, and Saudi universities have advanced in international rankings. 

But this youthful society with high levels of educational attainment suffers from widespread unemployment, up to 30 per cent by some estimates. (Unemployment is 12 per cent according to statements made by Prince Mohamed bin Salman during a meeting with young social leaders to discuss his vision for reform.)

Bin Salman said that high unemployment is partially due to social culture. Although he did not offer details, the Saudi press interpreted this to mean that many young people refuse jobs that they consider beneath them.

Saudi women, particularly young women, have higher unemployment rates than Saudi men.

According to Abd Al-Hadi Al-Khaja, a professor of sociology in Bahrain, the phenomenon of “a large gap between education and employment is a general feature of developing states.”

He continued: “But what we’re seeing is the rapid integration of women in the labour market in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.”

According to The Economist, the Saudi leadership holds more liberal ideas that have helped to better integrate women. This was seen in the recent municipal elections in the country, where women participated as both voters and candidates, winning 17 seats.

Prince bin Salman announced his vision late last year during a meeting with 300 youth leaders in government and the business community. He said that the country’s main problem is rationalising the spending of oil revenues to diversify the economy.

Diversifying the economy to reduce reliance on fluctuating oil revenues has been a goal of governments in Riyadh since the 1970s, but the kingdom still derives 75 per cent of its budget from returns on petroleum.

Bin Salman, who appears rarely in the media, added that corruption is another problem — the kingdom was ranked 48th on Transparency International’s 2015 corruption index — but he hopes that privatisation will reduce the problem.

Privatisation seems to be the policy of the Saudi government, especially after the influential young prince announced Riyadh’s intention to put a stake in Aramco on the market for public trading, according to the Saudi defence minister’s statement to the UK-based Economist.

But the principal pressure on Riyadh is low oil prices. This has led the government to cut fuel subsidies, which has had an impact on the level of social services to which Saudi citizens have been accustomed for decades.

“These are bold steps that only a young government could take,” said Abd Al-Rahman Al-Khalaf, the Saudi journalist. “This boldness is not limited to domestic affairs, but extends to foreign policy as well.”

For decades, Saudi monarchs have shied away from demonstrating their political influence in the region, instead using the country’s wealth to support their positions without fanfare. This is now changing.

“The new leadership did not intend to make its presence known. It was forced to reduce subsidies in the face of declining oil prices. Its regional positions are also more visible because the threats are clearer and more severe,” Al-Khalaf said.

The Wall Street Journal said that Saudis are frustrated with the US, which “has not used the nuclear agreement with Iran to curb the Islamic Republic’s influence in the region”.

It seems that America’s abandonment of Riyadh has spurred the new leadership to confront the dangers alone. It has taken the lead in supporting the Syrian oppositions, especially the Islamist opposition, against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, in addition to the bolder step of the war in Yemen.

“Yemen could not be left to fall into Iran’s hands,” said Al-Khalaf. “We found no major power concerned about our interests, and so we had to move to defend our security.”

Washington and Riyadh disagree about the Iranian role in Yemen: Saudi Arabia accuses Tehran of supporting the Houthis, while the US is doubtful, according to Jean-Francois Seznec, a professor of political science at Georgetown University.

Al-Khalaf believes that “the nuclear agreement did not reduce tensions in the Gulf and Middle East. Iran continues to interfere in every Arab country.” He continued: “This leadership will not rely on Washington or any other power. We will choose our allies based on our interests. I think that’s normal and it’s our right in Saudi Arabia.”

The new Saudi leadership seems to be taking matters into its own hands, ready to take any step, no matter how bitter, to address emerging challenges.

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