Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The Saudi renaissance

Saudi Arabia’s bold and ambitious vision for 2030 and beyond could spur a regional renaissance and bring real progress to a troubled Arab world, writes
Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

One of the most famous works in world literature is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which opened on stages across Europe in 1953. Perhaps part of the reason this play is so famous is that it has been the subject of numerous interpretations by diverse philosophical and ideological schools.

The play revolves around two characters — Vladimir and Estragon — who are waiting for a certain “Godot” who never arrives. People — human beings in general — are always waiting for something missing to deliver them from their predicament. But the continued absence makes the search for the “expected one” turn inward, into the self, which is as mysterious, dark and complicated as the outside world.

Oddly, the presence of the awaited element does not make things easier or less complex. The Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt opens his play The Visit (1956) not with the anticipation of the longed-for salvation but with its appearance, in this case in the form of a wealthy elderly woman who arrives in the destitute and decrepit town of Güllen.

The woman offers the townspeople enough money to rescue them from their poverty and resuscitate the town, but she stipulates one condition: they must kill the man who got her pregnant and abandoned her when she was a young girl. The tragedy of the human condition thus comes full circle when we find that the presence of a certain element is just as problematic as its absence, thus calling into question Al-Nafari’s maxim, “Appearance is incomplete without absence.”

This brings us to the widespread confusion in our region regarding the US’s presence or absence here. The question as to which of the two is more disastrous is a dilemma similar to being caught between the problem of depending on a Godot who never arrives versus accepting the actual arrival of the visitor and her stipulated condition with its heavy costs.

There is no way to solve this dilemma other than to grapple with the political, economic, social, cultural and even psychological questions it poses with the seriousness they merit. Only then is it possible to move forward in a process of discovery of the future, relying primarily on the rich legacy of the large numbers of the world’s citizens who currently live at a stage somewhere between underdevelopment and progress.

In general, countries that have waited endlessly for Godot have suffered the torments of waiting and all the perplexing questions this posed, while those that embraced the “visitor” found themselves faced with disaster of some sort or another. The Arab city, state or region in its entirety has undergone the agonies of waiting for Western civilisation to solve their problems with governance, industrialisation and modernism in general.

They suffered more when this civilisation arrived as a visitor, whether in the capacity of ally, friend or invader. Meanwhile, while the region was caught on the horns of that absence-versus-presence dilemma, the rest of the world did not remain still. It changed and evolved with every passing day due to advances in technology and the forces of production — which are now in their fourth revolution — or due to the magnum leap in relations of production as forged by international commerce, stockmarkets, ease of travel and the movement of peoples and of refugees.

Back here, in this region, Arab youth, stirred by the philosophical dilemmas above, arose and headed to the squares, at which point they stopped, at a loss for what to do next. Then along came the Muslim Brotherhood, followed by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, to reap the political fruits and power, leading not to a discovery of the future but rather to a return to the past, and all its mayhem, violence and brutality.

Finally, there is a possibility of some light at the end of this bleak tunnel. To reach happiness perhaps there has to be torment, but after the depth of anguish in Yemen and the fury of smoke and fire in Syria, it is obvious that reform is essential. We now see the signs of this in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt and the UAE. In this framework, Saudi Arabia seems a special case.

This is not just because it has always been the most conservative Arab state but also because today it appears the boldest and most daring. I am not speaking here about strategic affairs, the war in Yemen, the management of relationships and conflicts in Syria and Lebanon or with Iran, or the Saudi-Egyptian relationship. Rather, I speak of a vision and a project whose very courage may help stimulate change throughout the entire region.

Historically, there have been two renaissance projects for the region. The first began in the 19th century and essentially entailed breaking free from the Ottoman Empire and establishing independent Arab states after World War I. Although this project began in the Levant, its application extended eastward to Iraq, westward to Egypt and southward to Saudi Arabia.

The second project, which began after World War II, was based on direct state intervention in the affairs of society, whether through brute force and coercion or through money and persuasion. Egypt pioneered this experiment that then extended to all corners of the Arab world and to all states, whether monarchies or republics.

Amidst all the clouds and smoke of conflict, are we today seeing the beginning of a third renaissance, emerging from the Arabian Peninsula — and specifically Saudi Arabia — the effects of which will spread through the rest of the region? In fact, the beginning, as we know, was in the UAE, which is actually the first federated Arab state and which has a market economy that has proved to have the power to diversify so extensively that oil now only makes up 30 per cent of GDP.

However, the Saudi Vision 2030 adds to this experiment a country that is over two million square kilometres in size, with a population of over 30 million, a foothold on the Red Sea, a maritime horizon from the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean, and the rays of the divine message whose influence extends to the Mediterranean and beyond throughout the entire world.

The Saudi project may appear encumbered in many ways by the enormous challenges to be found in an Arab state where heritage weighs heavier than elsewhere and the traditions of the past dominate. Fortunately, however, the youth are filled with enthusiasm and endowed with the benefits of advanced education in various capitals around the world, while the country itself has acquired latest technologies.

Thus, it has been possible to set into motion a process of political reform marked by local elections in which women participated for the first time. This big step forward, which worked to restrict the hand of the conservatives, heralds further progress towards healthier and more balanced human relations.

Ultimately, however, the economy is what shapes and reshapes relations and transactions and, to a large extent, dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. In this regard, the goals of the vision are ambitious. They extend beyond emerging from the era of oil dependency and using its revenues to remedy and management poverty, to wealth generation and using it to promote progress and catch up with the many countries that have preceded us. Is it not amazing that so far not a single Arab state is equivalent to South Korea in economic strength and technological efficiency?

We will hear much about the Saudi Vision 2030 and its interim 2020 vision in the coming weeks and months. These projects are laying the foundations for an important transformation in Arab countries: the transition to a “normal” state. By “normal” I mean a state that is neither waiting for something to come nor mesmerised by what came, but rather one that is steadily working to build its scientific capacities, its economic strength, and its communicative efficacy in order to keep pace with the rest of the world.

This may hold the promise of the salvation that we have long been searching for. Perhaps this is the key to the acquisition of the will and power to grapple with the conditions of a region that has been mired in warfare and strife for the past five years.

In all events, we are seeing the beginning of a process that, if it continues to progress, will manifest itself in changing structures of government, a boost to the private-sector economy, the establishment of a free market, the development of more effective institutions, the restructuring of the service and industrial sectors, and the generation of revenues surpassing those of the petroleum sector.

At that point, the rentier economy will end and, along with it, the dilemma of waiting for the visitor who never arrives versus having to contend with unanticipated shocks delivered by the visitor who does arrive.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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