Saudi Arabia mayhem or democracy?

Muddasser Ahmed asks whether the young leader is ushering in a Saudi Arab Spring

“This is the Saudi Arab Spring” said a well-connected Riyadh socialite to me last December in a private Twitter exchange. His message, as well as his chosen medium, speaks volumes about the new Saudi Arabia unleashed by Mohammed bin Salman (known as MbS). 

I’ve worked as a communications consultant in Saudi Arabia for 10 years. Recent events show that Saudi Arabia is finally facing up to its deep-rooted economic, social and foreign policy challenges. 

Its economy is in dire need of diversification. Its foreign policy must be made more ambitious and nuanced. And its society must become fairer. Bin Salman has proven that he has the political capital and the diplomatic muscle to face up to the enormity of the problems he has inherited – and perhaps begin to solve.

It’s difficult for outsiders to really understand Saudi Arabia – I’m still struggling. And my Saudi friends each have their own take.

The familiar vocabulary being used by outside analysts doesn’t do justice to the complexity and significance of bin Salman’s actions. “Purge” and “putsch”, “coup” and “crackdown” have been thrown around. Wild conspiracy theories (even by the already hallucinogenic standards of the Middle East) about bombed helicopters and yachts containing $1 billion have circulated unthinkingly.

More than anything, the Saudi street is frustrated at being caricatured – by the global commentariat, and by parts of its own ruling elite.

Without question, parts of Saudi Arabia are a pampered petrostate. But beneath the surface, the Saudi Middle Class – who rarely make international headlines – have been squeezed for years. It is those Saudis who are riveted by bin Salman’s talk of anti-corruption and a return to moderate, open Islam.

Nearly half of Saudis are younger than 25, and this demographic bulge could almost double the size of the labour market by 2030. Many of those young people are foreign educated, thanks to the late King Abdullah’s policy of providing a global education in an attempt at sustainable economic development.

Those who stayed at home for university have grown up in a social media-saturated environment few of us in the UK can imagine: Saudi Arabia tops both Twitter and Snapchat usage worldwide. 

Bin Salman instinctively understands this – he is, after all, 32 years old. He has the potential to be a millennial head of state, with all the possibilities and fears that brings. His appetite for risk and apparent comfort with seismic shifts are seen by many as a trait not specifically of his nation or his class, but ultimately of his generation.

The fear among the old guard, including many of those connected to individuals detained by bin Salman’s new anti-corruption unit, is that those risks will not pay off. 

Important constituencies in the religious establishment are already feeling marginalized. Brotherhood sympathisers are aggrieved by recent Saudi policy against Brotherhood-supporting Qatar, while the Wahhabi establishment are shocked that the religious police (informally called the Hai’a by Saudi youth) has been all but shut down.

It would be unfair to view this as blind social liberalism on the part of bin Salman. He simply appears more worried about young Saudis’ livelihoods than their dress codes. He is as concerned about Saudi girls being able to drive as he is about them having jobs to drive to.

All Saudis – with the exception perhaps of the very old, conservative and very rich – are excited by headline-grabbing projects like the $500 billion NEOM city in the desert, the Vision 2030 economic diversification programme and the potential for reform driven by Nazaha (the new anti-corruption commission that led arrests to arrests in mid December).

This excitement is equaled only by worry – how will the newly disenfranchised elite react? Will the revolutionaries become the new conservatives the morning after the revolution? And most of all, will these high-level changes trickle down to more equality across society, (even in ‘the other Saudi Arabia’ in the Eastern province)?

This is on the home front, but foreign policy is a different matter. Yemen is looking more and more like Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam – with the key difference that Yemen’s Vietcong are armed with missiles that can reach Riyadh, as one such missile did in November. And the situation in Lebanon is unpredictable at best, particularly after Prime Minister Hariri resigned – from Riyadh.

Bin Salman has joined the new generation of young leaders taking huge risks and potentially making transformational leaps because they stare down generational challenges and don’t blink: Trudeau in Canada, Macron in France, and Kurz in Austria.

If this is the Saudi Arab Spring, Mohammed bin Salman will have to work overtime if it is to be the one instance where the Arab Spring delivered on its promise, rather than being hijacked by mayhem and destruction. If anyone in the Saudi ruling class is up to the challenge, it is him.

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