Apr 3rd 2018

Saudi Arabia’s Perilous Pivot

by Shlomo Avineri

Shlomo Avineri, Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, served as Director-General of Israel’s foreign ministry under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

JERUSALEM – “The most dangerous moment for a bad government,” the nineteenth-century French statesman and historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “is usually when it begins to reform itself.” Reform, after all, implies that traditional norms and institutions may have already been discredited, but that alternative structures have yet to be firmly established.

Tocqueville’s classic example was the regime of Louis XVI, whose attempts at reform quickly led to the French Revolution, and to his own execution in 1793. Another example is Mikhail Gorbachev’s effort to reform the Soviet Union in the 1980s. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed and Gorbachev was out of power. Today, something similar could very well happen to the young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS), as he takes steps to modernize his country.

Saudi Arabia has long maintained (relative) internal stability by spreading its enormous oil wealth among its subjects, and by imposing on Saudi society fundamentalist Islamic doctrines based on the austere Wahhabi tradition. After the Kingdom’s founding in 1932, many Saudis enjoyed unprecedentedly high standards of living, and hundreds of members of the Saudi royal family were transformed from desert sheikhs into enormously rich members of the international moneyed elite. Various sons of the regime’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, succeeded each other as rulers a kingdom that, following Arab tradition, bore the name of its founding and ruling dynasty (another is the current Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan).

In recent years, however, the Saudi regime has had to worry about its future. Plummeting oil prices followed the 2011-2012 Arab Spring, which brought down rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and seriously challenged the al-Assad family’s rule in Syria. MBS, for his part, has gotten the message: Since being named crown prince in June 2017, he has introduced sweeping reforms to the Saudi system.

Some of MBS’s actions have garnered favorable international press coverage, not least his decrees allowing women to drive and curtailing the power of the religious police, who have long enforced public dress codes. These are positive steps toward emancipating the Kingdom from the more oppressive elements of Wahhabism. So, too, are the crown prince’s statements calling for more tolerance of Christian, Jewish, and other non-Muslim communities, as well as his strengthening of ties with Israel.

Still, other new policies could prove problematic. MBS’s plan for diversifying the Saudi economy to reduce its dependence on oil is still on the drawing board. But, in the meantime, he has launched a (euphemistically named) “anti-corruption” campaign that has raised red flags for outside observers. Since last November, MBS has had hundreds of members of the Saudi elite – including princes and businessmen with international profiles – arrested on dubious grounds, and with no regard for the rule of law.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia lacks a basic code of laws or legally enshrined rights. And many frustrated Saudis might welcome the fact that those rounded up in the purge have agreed, under duress, to “return” some of their obviously ill-gotten fortunes to the treasury – which, of course, is controlled by the crown prince.

But even if MBS succeeds in shoring up his power and endearing himself to the people in the short term, it has become clear that he intends to rule as an authoritarian despot when he succeeds his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. This would be a radical departure from the Kingdom’s tradition of power-sharing among princes within a highly decentralized system.

MBS’s hardnosed political style also has international implications. For starters, he has taken an increasingly tough line against Iran and that country’s regional ambitions, thus exacerbating the Sunni-Shia divide. MBS’s approach – which includes ill-informed statements comparing the Iranian regime to Nazi Germany – has the support of other Sunni countries such as Egypt and Jordan, and from US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But it hardly bodes well for the region’s stability.

Moreover, MBS’s military intervention in Yemen has been a failure, and his decision to impose an embargo on Qatar – a small but wealthy Gulf country that challenges Saudi hegemony – has backfired. Similarly, his attempt late last year to depose Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri  2017 ended in a fiasco.

It is hard to say where Saudi Arabia may be heading. The country certainly needs comprehensive reforms. But the jury is still out on whether MBS’s approach is the right one. If he succeeds, he will emerge with a reputation as a reformer. Yet he clearly is not interested in establishing representative institutions or strengthening the rule of law, so his country will have become a personal dictatorship.

Alternatively, MBS’s authoritarian tendencies and embarrassing foreign-policy failures might provoke internal opposition, both from the traditional elites he has vowed to decimate, and from the sizeable Shia minority in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, whose members may look to Iran as a protector.

And, on the international front, MBS’s escalation with Iran could spin out of his control. Despite its recent weapons purchases from the US, Saudi Arabia would still be outmatched in a military confrontation with Iran. If such a confrontation does take place, one must hope that it will not lead to a wider regional war.


Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Nov 16th 2018
For while Iran has been receptive to Chinese investment in the past, it has equally sought European investment to balance this out and to prevent China from playing too dominant a role in the country. The sanctions have now made China’s dominance all the more likely. ..........possibly the most significant implication is how sanctions have led to widespread de-dollarisation, whereby the dominant global status of the dollar has been challenged. Since sanctioned states are no longer attached to the established system, it is easier for them to adopt an alternative way of operating. An example is the Petro Yuan – whereby China’s oil imports have been priced in yuan rather than in dollars – which has been adopted by oil-rich states targeted by sanctions, most notably Russia and Venezuela. The sanctions on Iran will only exacerbate this process.
Nov 12th 2018
It is clearly time for New Deal II. Instead of promising more tax breaks for the richest citizens, a more equitable fiscal policy could pay for necessary bridges and other public goods and services that would improve everyone’s life. Affordable health care for all citizens is a mark of a civilized society. The US is still a long way from that goal. The same is true of high-quality public education. It is grotesque that so many people who stand to benefit from such “socialist” policies are still persuaded to vote against them because they are supposedly “un-American.”
Nov 2nd 2018
The cold-blooded killing of the journalist Khashoggi, however gruesome, pales compared to the brutality and gross human rights violations Saudi Arabia is committing in Yemen. The Saudis are deliberately preventing food and medicine from reaching areas where children are dying from starvation or disease. Their indiscriminate bombings are killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children, leaving whole communities in ruin. The saddest part of this unfolding tragedy is that the US and other Western powers are supplying the Saudis with the weapons they need to massacre the Yemenites, who are trapped in this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran (which neither can win), and the Yemenites will continue to pay with their blood.............Out of a total population of 28 million people, 22 million are in need of humanitarian aid. Nearly 5.2 million children are starving to death, and nearly one million are believed to be infected with cholera. Over 8 million people are facing famine, and 2 million are displaced and deprived of basic needs.
Oct 29th 2018
The nightmare election possibility for the Democrats is continued Republican control of both chambers. In that case, Trump will feel vindicated and more liberated than ever. He might then fire a raft of officials, treat immigrants still more harshly, and try to shut down Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s possible collusion with the Kremlin and Trump’s probable obstruction of justice. The conventional wisdom may prevail, with the Democrats winning the House but not the Senate. But the polls have been fluctuating. And since Trump’s stunning election victory in 2016, most observers have become more cautious about predicting outcomes.
Oct 23rd 2018
As the Brexit negotiations peter out this week in Brussels, fevered Brexit fanatics – from Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees Mogg in the Telegraph, to many others on Twitter – are ranting and raving about the most sensible thing Theresa May has done in two and a half years of Brexit negotiations by suggesting extending the transition period in an attempt at genuine compromise. This would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of some salient facts. These Conservative MPs are speaking on behalf of the hardest of Brexiteers, a collection of somewhere between 60-80 of the Tory MPs. That’s somewhere between 60 and 80 MPs out of a total of 317 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. And while having 317 MPs means the Conservatives are the largest party at the last election, they did not win enough of the votes to form a majority. Therefore, for all their bluster and bloviating, let’s just state clearly what the members of this small group are: they are a minority faction, holding a minority view, in a minority government.
Oct 23rd 2018

A billboard at a construction site, with a photo of an Ottoman-style mosque with four minarets and the flag of Turkey, was erected recently in the center of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

Oct 17th 2018
Yemen is a country of some 29 million persons, but over a third of them are at risk of starvation if Saudi and UAE bombing campaigns continue.
Oct 14th 2018
Now the Trump administration is eroding the dollar’s global role. Having unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran, it is threatening to penalize companies doing business with the Islamic Republic by denying them access to US banks. The threat is serious because US banks are the main source of dollars used in cross-border transactions. According to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), dollars are used in nearly half of all cross-border payments, a share far greater than the weight of the US in the world economy. In response to the Trump administration’s stance, Germany, France, and Britain, together with Russia and China, have announced plans to circumvent the dollar, US banks, and US government scrutiny. “Plans” may be a bit strong, given that few details have been provided. But the three countries have described in general terms the creation of a stand-alone financial entity, owned and organized by the governments in question, to facilitate transactions between Iran and foreign companies.
Oct 5th 2018
There are a lot of oddballs in US President Donald Trump’s entourage, but few are as odd – or as sinister – as 33-year-old Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser. Miller resembles a type on the far right that is more common in Europe than the US: young, slick, sharp-suited, even a trifle dandyish. He is a skilled rabble-rouser, whose inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants and refugees – “We’re going to build that wall high and we’re going to build it tall !”– drives the crowds at Trump rallies into a frenzy. One of his crowd-pleasing notions is that migrants will infect Americans with terrible diseases.
Oct 3rd 2018
.....here we are in 2018, 40 years after Camp David. The Palestinian dream of an independent state is not only unrealized but is most likely unrealizable. With many Palestinians now favoring a one state solution......the once "Arab minority"  is now a majority.....
Sep 25th 2018
The US stock market, as measured by the monthly real (inflation-adjusted) S&P Composite Index, or S&P 500, has increased 3.3-fold since its bottom in March 2009. This makes the US stock market the most expensive in the world, according to the cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio that I have long advocated. Is the price increase justified, or are we witnessing a bubble?
Sep 23rd 2018
Global debt recently hit a new record high of 225% of world GDP, amounting to US$164 trillion. The world is now 12 points deeper in debt than the previous peak in 2009, with advanced economies’ ratios at levels not seen since World War II.
Sep 18th 2018
To understand them, it is worth looking at three reputable leaders who died this summer: former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former British Foreign Secretary and NATO Secretary-General Peter Carrington, and US Senator John McCain. Having worked with Annan and for Carrington, I can vouch for their grace, honor, and commitment to truth. McCain plainly had the same qualities, not to mention a level of personal bravery far beyond what is expected of most of us (though it should be noted that Carrington was also a war hero). These leaders’ combination of honor and commitment to truth – two attributes that are intrinsically connected – is nowhere to be seen in Trump or Johnson.
Sep 18th 2018
From controlling the media to stoking nationalism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has always known how to keep his approval ratings high. But Russians’ lives are not getting any better, especially after the latest round of Western economic sanctions – and Putin’s declining approval rating shows it.
Sep 15th 2018
As we mark the decennial of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there are still ongoing debates about the causes and consequences of the financial crisis, and whether the lessons needed to prepare for the next one have been absorbed. But looking ahead, the more relevant question is what actually will trigger the next global recession and crisis, and when. The current global expansion will likely continue into next year, given that the US is running large fiscal deficits, China is pursuing loose fiscal and credit policies, and Europe remains on a recovery path. But by 2020, the conditions will be ripe for a financial crisis, followed by a global recession. There are 10 reasons for this. First, the fiscal-stimulus policies that are currently pushing the annual US growth rate above its 2% potential are unsustainable. By 2020, the stimulus will run out, and a modest fiscal drag will pull growth from 3% to slightly below 2%.
Sep 12th 2018
Next month, a judge in Oregon will begin hearing a case brought against the United States government on behalf of 21 young people, supported by the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust, who allege that the authorities’ active contributions to the climate crisis violate their constitutional rights. The government defendants have repeatedly tried – so far without success – to have the case thrown out or delayed, and the trial is currently scheduled to start on October 29.
Sep 5th 2018
Wars are expensive, as the Russian people are now learning. The Kremlin is pursuing military adventures in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, and though these conflicts are limited in scope, one wonders if the country can really afford them.
Sep 1st 2018
This week, the California state legislature voted to mandate that all the state’s electricity come from non-carbon sources (chiefly wind, solar and hydro) by 2045. Since California if it were a country would have the world’s fifth largest economy, and since so many other states are economically integrated with it, this plan, if signed by governor Jerry Brown, could help transform the entire country. The goal is less difficult than it seems on the surface. California had already committed to getting one third of its electricity from renewables by 2020, and reached that goal in 2017. It committed to getting 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030, and in fact will likely reach that goal 10 years early, in 2020.
Aug 29th 2018
Quote: "This may ultimately result in creation of a new accounting standard - the Enterprise Value of Data – which could become an integral part of financial statements, capturing the value of the largest and most ignored corporate asset: data."
Aug 29th 2018
What comes through clearly in polling on US public opinion is that there is a deep partisan divide on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, with key demographic groups increasingly more supportive of Palestinian rights and antagonistic to hardline Israeli policies. In some ways, the Netanyahu/Trump "marriage" has also helped to fuel the partisan divide. A Pew poll from earlier this year found that support for Palestinians far surpasses support for Israel among self-described "progressive" and "liberal" voters. And a recent Gallup poll shows that only 17% of Democrats now have a favorable view of the Israeli leader.