Rabat – The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmane (MBS) is shaking up the ultraconservative Al-Saud Kingdom to its roots.
The failed Arab Spring has ushered in a new age of chaos and social conflict across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, home to a rich, conservative, and patriarchal kingdom, may be next.
Things are not looking up for the Saudi kingdom. Oil prices are plummeting dangerously, and the country is bogged down in an unwinnable war in Yemen against the Shiite Houthis, armed by Iran. Meanwhile, the Iranian nuclear threat is looming in the east. The country needs to reform, but its current political, military, and financial problems may render this unfeasible.
Soon MBS will become the king and he wants to start his rule with a tabula rasa, by opening up his country to the world culture and modernist ideas. This “revolution” is largely welcomed by women, youth, and the thousands of Saudis who were educated in the West, but certainly not by the conservative religious caste and the tribe of princes, who benefitted in the traditional and opaque kingdom. They will certainly not accept the “clean slate” and will put up a fierce fight to safeguard the status quo.
Eradicating extremist ideas
MBS wants to “eradicate extremist ideas” from his country, thereby ridding it of Wahabism, a belief system that is equated, worldwide, with terrorism and violence. In a historical speech, he promised to lead the Saudi people in a return to moderate Islam, a term which he failed to sufficiently define. Iindirectly he accused Wahabism, the state religious doctrine, of giving the country a bad image and vicious reputation.
During the Riyadh Forum, which took place October 24th, 2017in the Saudi capital, the Crown Prince Mohammed came to present the creation of a new economic zone on the shore of the Red Sea. While listing to the objectives of this mega-project that could attract investments totaling more than 425 billion euros, the son of the King Salmane was questioned about the sect of radical Islam taught in the country of the two Holy Mosques. He responded:
“We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world…we will eradicate the remnants of extremism very soon … We represent the moderate teachings and principles of Islam.”
Against all odds, the country’s new powerful man clearly denunciated the “extremist ideas” disseminated in the Kingdom. Mohammed bin Salmane also promised to abolish them immediately. His comments represent a thinly veiled attack on the Saudi conservative Ulemas, who, till now, governed Saudi society following the Wahhabi doctrine, an ultrarigorous version of Sunni Islam.
In an article published by the Iranian paper Financial Tribune, the anonymous writer wonders quite rightly if MBS is making history or just a mess:
“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, MBS 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.
MBS 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 problem is that, by criticizing radical Islam this way, the young 32 year-old prince is attacking the very foundations of Saudi Arabia. In 1744, Mohammed bin Saud, the patriarch of the family, and Muhammed Abdul Wahhab, the ultra-conservative Imam,[ii] sealed an alliance that made politics the exclusive domain of the Saud household. In exchange, the Wahhabi Ulemas in Saudi society were given exclusive rights to the dissemination of original and pure Islam.
For the time being, the future King seems to have successfully scored points not only for the decision to allow Saudi women to drive, but also, by letting them attend sporting events in some stadiums for the first time. Will MBS win the arm-wrestling contest with the Ulemas, or will he be toppled in the name of the pure religion?
In addition, MBS is the primary force driving “Vision 2030,“ an initiative designed to wean Saudi Arabia off of its traditional dependency on oil revenues by creating a more dynamic and diverse Saudi economy open to international investments and propitious for a modern \way of life.
The purge year: arrest of princes, ministers, senior officials and prominent businessmen
Some sources informed the Lebanese news media outlet “L’Orient Le Jour” of the setup of an ad hoc commission in Saudi Arabia, in charge of investigating corruption in public sector. Immediately after, Al Arabiya English reported the arrests of dozen of Princes and former ministers under the guise of an anti-corruption offensive. According to several newspapers, the rich and powerful Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was among the prominent personalities arrested.
According to Al Arabiya, the anti-corruption Commission is led by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmane. These expulsions seem to fall within the framework of a strategy carried by the Saudi Crown Prince, aiming to unseat of the conservative group in power.
By controlling the main levers of government, from homeland defense to economic policy, it seems that Mohammed bin Salmane is seeking to silence all the internal protests before any formal transfer of power to him from his father, King Salmane, 81-years-old.
In this regard, Patrick Wintour, the diplomatic editor of The Guardian argues that:
“No one doubted that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was a man in a hurry. But the Saudi royal’s decision to arrest 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers shows he is a risk-taker on a scale the Middle East has rarely seen.
The fact that the billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns the investment firm Kingdom Holding, was among the wave of late-night arrests (and is thought to be held in the luxurious confines of Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel) suggests MBS, as Salman is known colloquially, is willing to take on the kingdom’s most powerful figures to implement his reforms and consolidate power.”
The decision to rid the country of corrupt officials and members of the business community goes along with what MBS has promised at the end of October: to deliver a “moderate” Arabia, changing the image of a country that has long been regarded as the exporter of Wahhabism, a rigorist version of Islam, which has influenced many jihadists around the world.[x]
The Crown Prince has launched many reform projects to date: allowing women the right to drive, and opening of movie theaters amongst others. These reforms mark the biggest cultural and economic upheaval in the Kingdom’s modern history, an upheaval that has marginalized the conservative religious castes. Simultaneously, he has worked on strengthening his political control by conducting a wave of arrests of dissidents, among whom are influential religious leaders and intellectuals.
Are these moves sincere or else?
Does the purge represent a permanent set of reforms or power games to allow MBS to sit on the throne, in the near future, unhindered by the traditional religious powerhouse and the influential business community?
Saudi Arabia is breaking slowly but nervously from its traditional moorings to move into modernity while its allies, friends, and supporters are sitting on the sidelines, hoping and praying that MBS succeeds in his risky undertakings. bearing in mind that Wahabism has been often rightly blamed, now and then, for spawning terrorism and intolerance around the world, for quite some time.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter : @Ayurinu
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