What’s Next for Saudi Arabia?

November 21, 2017

The forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad al-Hariri in early November after an unscheduled visit to Saudi Arabia was the latest in a series of consequential decisions shaking up the conservative monarchy and the region as a whole, coinciding with the meteoric rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old son of the ailing King Salman. The curtailment of the authority of the country’s religious police, a relative loosening of the stifling restrictions placed on women, and the arrest of a number of high-profile businessmen and royals on corruption charges: taken together, are all indications that bin Salman is moving aggressively to consolidate his control over the country and implement the program described in the much-ballyhooed ‘Vision 2030’ development plan.

While the Crown Prince and his admirers are keen to entrance Western allies with talk of social and economic reform, neither democratization nor any meaningful political liberalization are on bin Salman’s agenda. The strongest indication that his so-called “reformist vision” is nothing more than a fig leaf for the Crown Prince’s monopolization of political authority is the conspicuous absence of any genuine vision for including Saudi Arabia’s citizens in the country’s decision-making process.

The most attention-grabbing reforms have been the proposed changes in the status of women, including allowing them to drive and the planned creation of special tourist zones where the country’s strict gender segregation rules would be relaxed. As part of his development plan, bin Salman has promised to return Saudi Arabia to a ‘moderate Islam’ that he claims the country enjoyed prior to 1979, lifting many of the onerous restrictions governing life in a kingdom that has always been ruled in part by a powerful clerical establishment. However, the weakening of the state’s religious bona fides could deprive the monarchy of a key source of legitimacy, embolden hardline clerics who decry the deleterious influence of the West on Saudi Arabia’s Islamic values, and possibly galvanize jihadis who deny the monarchy’s legitimacy outright, like Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

Reducing the influence of state clergy would also increase pressure on the government to allow more liberal ‘ulema and reformist intellectuals access to the public sphere. Some of these scholars have already established significant followings on social media, indicating that, particularly among the country’s youth, there is an increased openness to new religious and social ideas. But demands for social liberalization are inseparable from the necessity of negotiating a new social contract, one that gives citizens a greater role in political life. These powerful challenges to the royal family’s grip on power will be increasingly difficult to repress, especially when economic reforms render the state’s traditional method of patrimonialist wealth distribution unfeasible.  

Another plank of the reform program is a concerted effort to encourage transparency and resolve Saudi Arabia’s endemic corruption problem. The wave of anti-corruption arrests in early November was billed as a decisive step towards the achievement of that laudable goal, but the choice of targets in the round-up suggests that political and financial considerations were a key motivation behind the arrests. In a country like Saudi Arabia, where the personal wealth of the royal family is intimately bound with public funds, the line between corruption and legitimate business is especially blurry. That some of those targeted by the crackdown seem to have been opponents of bin Salman’s economic plans, especially of the partial privatization of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, lends credence to the claim that the arrests were designed to cement elite loyalty to the regime and refill state coffers in one fell swoop.

Saudi Arabia’s need for comprehensive reform is undisputed. But if Saudi rulers were truly interested in embarking on the path of systemic change, they would address the serious challenges of ensuring political buy-in from its citizenry, promoting reformist voices inside and outside the clerical establishment, and negotiating a genuine social contract that accounts for all Saudi citizens. The consequences of failing to do so may be stark, not only for the kingdom but for the Middle East as a whole. The Crown Prince has already shown a disturbing penchant for shoring up his domestic legitimacy by picking fights with regional adversaries. If the monarchy’s refusal to reform sharpens internal discontent, bin Salman could respond by dragging the kingdom into yet another disastrous intervention abroad, which could compound the dangers of economic stagnation with serious regional overextension. In that case, failed reforms would only be the start of bin Salman’s problems.