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Home Current Saudi News & Analysis 2017: The End of an Archaic Saudi Era?

2017: The End of an Archaic Saudi Era?

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2017: The End of an Archaic Saudi Era?

CDHR Analysis: 2017 will go down in history as the irreversible end of the absolute archaic Saudi monarchy. This inevitable implosion was necessitated by events the Saudi rulers could no longer control or avoid. It is long overdue and would have been a welcome development for the Saudi people and their right of self-determination if the establishment of a representative governing system were the reason to replace the obsolescent and cronyism-based political landscape that has impeded political, social, economic and scientific progress since the establishment of the Saudi kingdom 86 years ago.

Faced with unprecedented domestic economic predicaments and political inertia, regional conflicts and formidable strategic rivalries, King Salman has been compelled to embark on dicey domestic and destabilizing regional maneuvers. He subverted his family’s succession tradition, marginalized hundreds of experienced princes and bestowed the state’s fate on his novice, but energetic and exceedingly ambitious son, Crown Prince Mohammed. Prince Mohammed has been exalted by many Western media, businesses and think tanks as a reformer based on his promises and embryonic diversionary social initiatives, which are, nonetheless, unprecedented steps with potentially far-reaching implications.

Despite lessening some political and social taboos, such as introducing entertainment, allowing women to drive and to enter sports arenas, arresting a number of corrupt princes, businessmen and former officials and curtailing some of the anti-modernity religious establishment’s repressive practices, Prince Mohammed was not chosen to reform the monarchy’s oligarchical political system. He was chosen to implement his father, King Salman’s life-long commitment to ensure the eternal rule of the Saudi ruling family.

Thus far, Prince Mohammed seems to be fulfilling his father’s wishes. He has hand-picked a new generation of young dutiful and like-minded princes and appointed them to powerful positions. Prior to King Salman’s ascendance to the throne in 2015, government decisions were made by consensus between the king and powerful senior princes, including Salman. That deliberative decision-making process has changed since King Salman inherited the throne in 2015 and designated his son Mohammed Crown Prince and de facto ruler in 2017. Judging by his actions thus far, Prince Mohammed is positioning himself to become the sole decision-maker after his father no longer rules. This transition has created political instability and economic uncertainty, two major concerns of potential investors, without whom Prince Mohammed’s economic reform is likely to fail. In addition, this transition will make the state more autocratic than at any time since the death of its ruthless founder, King Abdul Aziz, Prince Mohammed’s role model.

The question is how Prince Mohammed (when he inherits the throne) would use his inclusive autocratic powers and for what purpose? Will he unite the divided, distrusting and callously ruled population and deliver on his promises or will he and his hand-picked royal subordinates focus on maintaining exclusive royal control over the country and its wealth, a task his father selected him to carry out? Only time will tell, but if Prince Mohammed’s social initiatives are indicative of his intent to break away from the dark past and the royals’ methods of deception, unfulfilled promises and divisionary practices, he might be the right dictator to begin a social process none of his predecessors has dared.

Prince Mohammed has taken unpopular and risky domestic steps that gave the disenfranchised population a glimpse of hope for a better governance and future. He introduced, publicised and politicized an ambitious economic reform plan (Vision 2030) that required unpopular domestic actions; he curtailed some of the excessive repressive religious practices, introduced entertainment, removed the ban on women’s right to drive and allowed them to go to sports arenas. Furthermore, he arrested a number of prominent royals, military personnel, officials and businessmen whom he accused of corruption, a move that resonated positively with the population. He also began a process of weaning the population off reliance on the government’s subjugating handouts by cutting some funded programs and by imposing taxes on subsidized commodities. In the 21st century, these are microscopic and nascent steps by any standard, but in Saudi Arabia these are major breakthroughs.

By taking these minute steps, Prince Mohammed alienated powerful groups, including most of his ruling family and their religious establishment legitimizers and powerbase. However, he has gained public support for now. He also sent mixed messages to potential investors whose financial investments and know-how he needs for his ambitious economic plans. Additionally, he has been exalted by some Western interest groups and condemned by others. His exalters consider him an energetic, risk-taking and ambitious reformer. His critics see him as a power-hungry ambitious ruler who will do whatever it takes to ensure his supremacy.

Prince Mohammed may have acted impetuously, but he had very few options and limited time to save his family and the country from domestic and external threats and havoc that have engulfed most Arab countries in recent years. Given this reality, Prince Mohammed’s best gamble is to distance himself further from his publicly-loathed family and give the people reason to rally behind him, regardless of temporary economic austerity and intolerance of those who are likely to try to undermine his iron-fisted approach.

How can he succeed in rallying public support for himself and his agenda? Be honest with the population. He can use the state controlled visual, audio and print media to explain his vision and intended goals. More effectively, he can hold town hall meetings in communities and regions throughout the country. He can also invite respected and independent royals and commoners (male and female volunteers) to travel the country and try to convince the people of Prince Mohammed’s commitment to do what’s best for them. He can release and meet with prisoners of conscious and ask for their understanding, patience and help. He can enlist the support of influential individuals in every community and assure them that he is serious and can deliver, but not without their help.

Prince Mohammed has to convince the marginalized population that this is a new beginning and he needs their help to succeed. Following these and other steps can go a long way in a country where people (subjects) are not asked to help but ordered to obey.

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