NEW YORK — Should one welcome or worry about the new string of bold announcements by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman about his plans to remake the country in his image concerning what it requires to thrive into the coming generations? I think a bit of both is the answer, because there is cause for optimism as well as serious concern.
The cornerstone of the national reconfigurations is an instant megacity in the desert in the very northwest of the country, near the borders with Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. The new urban wonderland that will be called “NEOM” will cost over $500 billion and will operate independently from the “existing governmental framework.” This is in line with the crown prince’s two-stage vision: gradually leaving behind the traditional Saudi way of governance and social conservatism, and instead engaging in novel forms of dramatic social engineering designed to create a new Saudi society that is sustainable in a future when oil income is expected to decline steadily and the state does not control or finance all aspects of life.
The day of non-stop drama in the desert included the crown prince’s remarks that Saudi Arabia was returning to “moderate” Islam and intended to “eradicate” extremism.
“We are only returning to what we used to be, to moderate Islam, open to the world and all religions,” the 32-year-old prince said. “We won’t waste 30 years of our lives dealing with any extremist ideas. We will eradicate extremism.”
He also said that the kingdom is moving to a “new generation of cities,” powered by clean energy, with no room “for anything traditional.”
So since his assumption of power in the kingdom, the crown prince has announced and then revised plans for a major overhaul of the national economy, significantly softened restrictions on women drivers, laid the groundwork for privatizing some of the national oil company Aramco and reducing state subsidies on basic services, and announced plans for a gigantic international tourism development along the Red Sea coast that will be covered by liberal international norms instead of the austere Saudi-Wahhabi traditions.
At the same time, he has launched a terrible and endless war against Yemen, laid siege to Qatar, continued to explore how to either interfere or constructively engage in the domestic politics of assorted Arab states, such as Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria, arrested both liberal and conservative Saudis who do not fully support his plans, and engaged in a relentless and largely fruitless regional and international attempt to isolate Iran.
Mohammad Bin Salman is certainly making headlines; but is he also making history, or making a mess? For now we can only acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of his current approach.
The good news about his non-stop breaking news style of governance is that he obviously grasps that the current system of Saudi governance and economy is totally unsustainable, and must be changed so that future generations of Saudis can live a decent and dignified life. It is also refreshing to see a young Arab leader who is not afraid of taking bold decisions and making innovative changes in key dimensions of national life. The commitment to eradicating “extremism” also is welcomed, though it would be useful if he would explain a bit more whom he sees as “extremist”. Many analysts and historians feel that some extremist Islamist movements emanated from historical associations with conservative Wahhabi movements in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere; nevertheless, it is important that the Saudi leader is on record as rejecting Islamist extremism.
There is much good sense in Mohammad Bin Salman’s visions — but there is also much to worry about, for Saudis and all others in the Arab world, given Saudi Arabia’s insistence on trying to shape the region in its own image. The main negative is that the Mohammad Bin Salman school of governance is not a new turn towards liberalism; it seems more like a new form of top-heavy decision-making by a small group of men who suddenly announce new national transformation plans to their citizens, without any serious citizen participation in decision-making or any accountability in the politics or financing of the new world to come.
Also unclear is whether it is constructive or destructive in the long run to establish totally autonomous units of life and economy beyond the reach of traditional government systems, and intimately linked with private capital from other Arab and foreign countries. The message this sends is that the existing system of statehood and governance that has defined our lands for nearly a century are hopelessly beyond reform, and simply must be bypassed and ignored in the bright and happy new world ahead. It can generate massive disparities within and among countries, as islands of wealth, innovation, and dynamism create a world totally disjointed from the rest of society where the old ways persist and the dysfunction and miseries accumulate.
This is troubling because it can create resentments among millions of citizens who see themselves as lesser “traditional” beings in their own societies, left out of a shiny new city on a hill, or at least a possible appearance on a CNN special about the Modern Arabs, or The Young Prince That Could, or something like that which we will inevitably see on our screens. The predominance of a handful of Arab officials, an army of Western consultants, managers, and contractors, and endless global private capital in designing, owning, and enjoying the new institutions that are announced to the world — while tens of millions of ordinary citizens remain outside the process — is one of the most problematic aspects of this kind of development that is now common across the region.
Also, if individual men and women of liberal or conservative quarters who dare to use their minds and offer their views on the trajectories of their own societies are arrested and indicted by Arab governments simultaneously with the announcement of the glories to come in our societies, this is even more reason to wonder if this style of decision-making and national planning is the right one. National reconfiguration that denies a role to nationals who insist on using their own minds is thin at best.
I view this balance sheet and I am skeptical, because of what seems to me to be a naked truth: What Saudi and other Arab leaderships across the region have unleashed is less a drastic lurch into a bold new form of national governance, but rather is mainly a reconfigured form of the traditional autocratic, non-participatory, unaccountable ways of Arab governance that have been central to the weaknesses and occasional collapse of Arab states in the past half century or so.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 25 October 2017
Word Count: 1,108
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for Le Monde diplomatique, and The Washington Spectator, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Rami G. Khouri and Immanuel Wallerstein.