BEIRUT — The changes that have characterized Saudi Arabia’s domestic and regional policies in the past three years are among the most important developments in the contemporary Arab world — but like most developments in Arab public policy, they are managed in secret by a handful of men, usually with unpredictable outcomes and uncertain motivations.
First came the deep involvement in arming rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian president and regime. Then came the support for Field Marshall-turned-President Sisi in Egypt in his successful overthrow of the elected President Morsi, followed by the collapse of the traditional royal family succession system as King Salman named his son Mohammad bin Salman as Deputy Crown Prince and then Crown Prince. The war on Yemen was then launched with the close cooperation of the United Arab Emirates; both countries flexed their regional muscles in a bid designed to show that they were willing and able to use their resources to defend themselves against what they perceived to be serious security threats from Iran and its surrogates around the Arab region, though it remains unclear if these threats were real or imagined.
The sudden announcement of Saudi Vision 2030 followed soon after that, as Mohammad bin Salman and a thousand hired consultants single-handedly revealed the new trajectory of Saudi Arabia’s national development, with apparently little or no consultation among ordinary Saudis whose lives would be significantly changed by this new national development strategy. A year or so after Vision 2030 was announced, it was quickly revised, either because the American consultants had no idea of what they were doing in a land they perhaps did not fully understand, or because the ambitions of the dynamic young Mohammad bin Salman were way too big in comparison with the economy’s and society’s ability to adjust quickly.
Then Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched the siege of Qatar some three months ago, radically upending decades of attempted integration and cooperation among the six countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council. A hundred years of Saudi diplomatic traditions of working quietly and discreetly were discarded in favor of the Chicago Gangsterism School of using crude and brutal means to convince your friends to fall in line with you, if they know what is good for them. The most recent dramatic moves include a sustained security operation in the Eastern Province, especially the town of Awamiya, which resulted in many deaths and the destruction of some quarters of the town, and this week’s arrest of several dozen activists and clerics who represent both the conservative Islamist and liberal wings of society.
The sheer scope, scale, and severity of these unusual Saudi moves (and some other ones, like withholding $3 billion of promised financial support for the Lebanese armed forces, or drawing close to Shiite leader Muqtada Sadr in Iraq) suggest a historic change that could have shock waves across much of the Arab region and further afield, given Saudi Arabia’s extensive links with Islamic, Islamist, and Salafist groups around the world. Yet the exact extent of the events in Saudi Arabia and their motivations promise to remain elusive, because Saudi policy-making is a secretive process that is not open to either public participation or accountability.
The fact that Saudi Arabia is no longer a sleeping giant but instead has woken up and become a feisty and dynamic giant throwing its weight around the region cannot be judged very easily yet, because the outcomes of Saudi moves remain to be fully revealed. What is clear to date is that new policies that have been initiated in almost all cases have failed badly, especially in Yemen, Syria, Qatar, Lebanon, and against Iran. Saudi statesmanship has proved to be largely unsuccessful to date in its regional dimensions.
The domestic changes will take a longer time to bear fruit. The sudden roundup of individuals from all sides of the ideological spectrum who showed a willingness to speak freely (without necessarily directly opposing or challenging the state) is a troubling sign. The worst to come could see Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman adopt Egyptian Field Marshall-turned-President Abdelfattah Sisi’s manual of governance that simply detains and imprisons thousands of people whose views differ from the state’s ordained truths.
The many Arab countries, media institutions, private companies, and other organizations that depend on Saudi financial support might then have to fall in line. This would be a catastrophe for an Arab world that is already struggling with many challenges, whose solutions need us to expand and tap into the minds and energies of our young people. The current trajectory that we witness is closing Arab minds, restraining cultural and artistic dynamism, reducing the indigenous pluralism that many of our societies enjoy, destroying the last vestiges of a free and deliberative press, fostering greater warfare and sectarian tensions, and shattering the economic potential of our lands by encouraging tens of thousands of our brightest young men and women to emigrate permanently.
Saudi Arabia in the past half a century has played an important role in fostering national development across many Arab lands, but the drastic recent changes in its policies suggest that perhaps this era has ended, and we now venture into the unknown.
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: 19 September 2017
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