Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Saudi Spring

Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is gaining worldwide attention, though some remain sceptical whether his reform drive will survive his ascending to the throne, writes Haitham Nouri

Saudi Spring
Saudi Spring

اقرأ باللغة العربية

The unprecedented reforms initiated by the number two man in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, have riveted worldwide attention towards the leader of the global energy market for the past four decades.

In this year’s Person of the Year poll, which Time magazine has conducted annually since 1927, the crown prince is the only Arab contestant among 33 international figures. His name is up there next to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Emmanuel Macron and Pope Francis. Until last week, he ranked first place, having so far won 57 per cent of readers’ votes. Voting ends 3 December and the magazine will announce the results 6 December.

This popularity is somewhat unusual for a leader from a country reputed for its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam and, moreover, for exporting it to the rest of the Arab world, utilising its economic might to influence the overwhelming majority of the poor.

Many international news outlets have shared Time magazine’s interest. Not least is The New York Times, as evidenced by the prince’s exclusive interview with columnist Thomas Friedman, the three times winner of the Pulitzer Prize and decades-long Middle East veteran.

The long-needed anti-corruption campaign launched by King Salman when he appointed his son the head of the royal commission for this purpose was the second major step after a series of social and cultural measures targeting the hardline attitudes that have dominated the country since 1979, according to Friedman.

He writes, “I know that year well. I started my career as a reporter in the Middle East in Beirut in 1979, and so much of the region that I have covered since was shaped by the three big events of that year: the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Saudi puritanical extremists (the Juhayman Al-Otaybi group) — who denounced the Saudi ruling family as corrupt, impious sell-outs to Western values; the Iranian Islamic revolution; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These three events together freaked out the Saudi ruling family at the time, and prompted it to try to shore up its legitimacy by allowing its Wahhabi clerics to impose a much more austere Islam on the society and by launching a worldwide competition with Iran’s ayatollahs over who could export more fundamentalist Islam.”

Friedman relates that, in order to prove that Saudi Arabia had not always been so rigidly puritanical, a Saudi minister who was present at the interview with the crown prince took out his mobile phone to show the journalist YouTube videos of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s. The clips showed “women without heads covered, wearing skirts and walking with men in public, as well as concerts and cinemas.” He adds: “It was still a traditional and modest place, but not one where fun had been outlawed, which is what happened after 1979.”

Although Friedman observes that the radical change that Bin Salman has spearheaded would be certainly welcomed in Saudi Arabia, where 65 per cent of the population is under 30, the Saudi writer and university professor Turki Al-Hamad has voiced some concerns. “Revolution from the top is something never before experienced in the Middle East which has always been familiar with military coups and futile uprisings. Today, [Bin Salman] has furnished a different model.”

Yet, Al-Hamad fears that “things will return to the way they were before” if the crown prince is no longer there. He therefore advises Bin Salman to institutionalise his reforms to give them root and to “let the dream continue”.

Al-Hamad compares the Saudi leadership — King Salman and Crown Prince Bin Salman — to the “emperor of Russian modernisation,” Tzar Peter the Great (1672-1725).

Other Saudi commentators have voiced other concerns. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist residing in the US, fears that transferring the ownership of large companies, such as the Bin Laden firm, over to the Public Investments Fund is equivalent to “nationalisation” and that this could destroy the confidence of local and foreign investments. “We should not repeat [Gamal] Abdel-Nasser’s mistake,” he cautions.

Friedman, for his part observes: “If the public feels that [Bin Salman] is truly purging the corruption that was sapping the system and doing so in a way that is transparent and makes clear to future Saudi and foreign investors that the rule of law will prevail, it will really instil a lot of new confidence in the system.” But the Times columnist immediately cautions against the reverse: “If the process ends up feeling arbitrary, bullying and opaque, aimed more at aggregating power for power’s sake and unchecked by any rule of law, it will end up instilling fear that will unnerve Saudi and foreign investors in ways the country can’t afford.”

Many Saudis are of a different disposition. While foreign observers worry about the legal framework surrounding the anticorruption drive, Saudis say, “Keep up the pressure until they [the rich and corrupt] cough up all their money.”

The British Daily Mail, citing unnamed sources, reported that $194 billion has been confiscated from the bank accounts and assets of the individuals arrested. The figure is nearly twice the sum mentioned by Saudi Public Prosecutor Sheikh Saud Bin Abdullah Al-Muajab who said the investigations involved about $100 billion.

Bin Salman told Friedman that 95 per cent of the detainees being held in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh agreed to a settlement, which means returning their money or company shares to the national treasury in exchange for their release. He adds, “About one per cent are able to prove they are clean and their case is dropped right there. About four per cent say they are not corrupt and with their lawyers want to go to court.”

The crown prince dismissed as ludicrous all suggestions that the anti-corruption drive was a means to eliminate rivals to the throne. Friedman relates that Bin Salman pointed out that many prominent detainees in the Ritz had already “publicly pledged allegiance to him and his reforms”, and that “a majority of the royal family” supports him.

“Over the years the government launched more than one ‘war on corruption’ and they all failed. Why? Because they all started from the bottom up,” the crown prince explained to Friedman. This is why the current campaign is working in the opposite direction. Saudi experts calculate that “roughly 10 per cent of all government spending has been siphoned off by corruption each year, from the top levels to the bottom.”

Bin Salman added that ordinary businessmen who paid bribes to bureaucrats in exchange for services are not being targeted by the campaign. Rather, “It’s those who shook the money out of the government.”

Bin Salman was not so forthcoming on the question of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri. Friedman relates: “He simply insisted that the bottom line of the whole affair is that Al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, is not going to continue providing political cover for a Lebanese government that is essentially controlled by the Lebanese Shia Hizbullah militia, which is essentially controlled by Tehran.”

Authorities in Beirut have accused Riyadh of detaining Al-Hariri against his will. They believe that it was primarily due to French mediation that the prime minister was able to leave for Paris and then to return home — via Cairo — in time for the celebrations of the anniversary of Lebanese independence from French mandate rule in 1943.

On the subject of the war being waged in Yemen by the Saudi-led Arab coalition, the crown prince held that the balances on the ground were “tilting in the direction of the pro-Saudi legitimate government there, which, he said, is now in control of 85 per cent of the country”. Nevertheless, he made it clear to Friedman that, since “the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, who hold the rest, launched a missile at Riyadh airport, anything less than 100 per cent is still problematic.”

Naturally, the firebrand Saudi prince took the opportunity to lash out at the kingdom’s Iranian adversary. Referring to Iran’s supreme leader as “the new Hitler of the Middle East”, he told Friedman: “We learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.”

At the end of this extraordinary interview, Friedman is still left wondering whether the Saudi top-down Arab Spring will go the same way the other bottom up Arab Springs went, “except Tunisia”. High hopes are pinned on it because, “if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia, but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe.”

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