By Matt Ellison
One of Lebanon’s top cardinals departed Beirut on Monday for Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where Lebanon’s prime minister is suspected of being held against his will by Saudi authorities.
Cardinal Bechara el-Rai, who shepherds the largest Catholic sect in the Middle East, had planned his visit even before Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation on November 4th.
The announcement, believed by many to have been coerced by Riyadh, comes as tensions between the Kingdom and Iran have ratcheted up to levels never before seen in recent weeks.
An escalating proxy war encompassing the myriad factions battling in the Syrian Civil War along with Iraqi government forces and Kurdish rebels in the north of both countries grew hotter on the 4th when a missile was fired over the Saudi capital. Although US intelligence accused Iran of firing the missile, Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility on behalf of their Iranian backers.
Saudi Arabia has been intervening in the Yemeni Civil War since 2015, supporting the Sunni government against Iranian-backed Shi’a rebels.
Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation is the latest action taken by the Kingdom against Iran, seen as removing a key Iranian proxy in the region from power. Fearing the grip Iran-backed Hezbollah holds over the Lebanese government, the Saudis may hope to replace Saad Hariri with his brother in a bid to strengthen the government against Shi’a influence.
Saudi Arabia’s increasing boldness without is more and more a reflection of the rapidly advancing pace of reforms within the Kingdom.
Crown Prince Muhammad ibn Salman made headlines at the start of the month for leading a veritable purge of Saudi Arabian leadership in what is seen by Western media largely as a power-grab to solidify his grip on the throne.
As well as 11 fellow princes, ibn Salman has orchestrated the arrest of some 38 Saudi ministers in an ostensible anti-corruption drive. The chief admiral of the Kingdom’s Navy and the minister for the National Guard were also arrested, consolidating ibn Salman’s status as supreme commander of the Saudi armed forces.
But perhaps most incredible of all has been ibn Salman’s move to arrest dozens of hardline Saudi clerics in the string of purges in a bid to move Saudi Arabia away from the fundamentalist Islamist doctrine that has coloured its politics and fuelled terrorism on the Peninsula and beyond for decades.
Advances; None Miraculous
In September, ibn Salman announced that Saudi Arabia was set to roll back its controversial ban on women being allowed to drive.
Ibn Salman’s decree ordained that women who wanted driving licenses could apply for them without the permission of a male guardian.
That same month, a Saudi cleric was banned from preaching for stating that women were not intelligent enough to be trusted with licences, as their brains shrunk to a quarter the size of a man’s when they went shopping.
When questioned about continued expansion of women’s rights, such as unshackling them from the authority of male guardians outright, ibn Salman refused to elucidate on whether there were any further reforms being mooted.
The Prince’s willingness to tackle the conservative religious establishment is part and parcel of a modernising sweep designed to overhaul Saudi religious practises.
In October, ibn Salman called for the world to get behind his bid to return the Kingdom to “moderate Islam” and away from the hardline bent of Saudi religion that has existed in part since the Iranian Revolution as a Sunni reaction to the explosion onto the scene of the Shi’a theocracy in 1979.
Speaking to The Guardian last month the Prince said that he would “destroy” Islamic extremism “now and immediately.”
As well as the sweep of arrests targeting hardline Wahhabist clerics in the country ibn Salman has also curtailed the once-expansive powers of the Saudi religious police.
Religious puritanism in other areas has been steadily peeled back, too.
In September women were also allowed to attend a concert in Jeddah for the first time, as well as entering the Riyadh National Stadium to celebrate the 87th anniversary of the founding of the state.
The beginnings of a cultural revolution in the Kingdom’s relationship with Islam marks a necessary step in the House of Saud’s continuing efforts to modernise and diversify the economy away from an over-reliance on oil exports.
“Economic transformation is important but equally essential is social transformation,” one of the country’s businessmen said of the reforms. “You cannot achieve one without the other.”
Nytt Flertall, Ny Kraft
The Saudi drive to step away from oil began early last year in an announcement by King Salman ibn Abdulaziz that was seconded by his son, the Crown Prince.
Falling oil prices combined with inflamed tensions with Iran contributed to the decision, but in the longer term the diversification programme aims to liberalise the Saudi economy and retool it for survival in a world more and more preoccupied with green energy alternatives to fossil fuels.
The proposals will be in part funded by a 5% sale of the state oil company, Aramco, with its IPO scheduled to hit stock markets next year.
Speaking to al-Arabiya TV, ibn Salman called oil a “dangerous addiction” and promised that Saudi Arabia could “live without oil in 2020.”
The creation of a sovereign wealth fund of some $2tn aims to replace oil as the primary generator of wealth for the Kingdom with financial investments.
In 2015, the Kingdom ran a budget deficit of $100bn, necessitating tax increases and spending cuts to patch over the gap between the scaling back of oil production and diversification of the economy.
Up until now, the House of Saud has used lavish welfare policies to maintain order over its population. Plans to liberalise the economy are hoped to spur job creation and increase standards of living, allowing the state to take a step back from overseeing the welfare of its citizens.
In this regard, ibn Salman has likened the coming reforms – set to be implemented through to 2025 – as akin to Margaret Thatcher’s massive overhaul of the British economy in the 1980s.
A new economic zone, set to be modelled after liberal Dubai and free from the crippling regulatory straitjacket much of the Saudi economy subsists in, is set to be powered entirely by wind and solar energy.
This will allow previously forbidden establishments such as nightclubs, concert venues and cinemas to operate and allow both men and women to mingle freely in public. Massive social realignments such as this are seen as crucial if Saudi Arabia is to attract foreign investment to bolster its diversifying economy.
The Kingdom will also pilot a green card programme similar to the United States’ to attract workers from neighbouring Arab countries.
Ibn Salman is in line to take over the Saudi throne
The Man Who Would Be King
All this serves to ensure that when Muhammad ibn Salman becomes king, he will do so at the helm of the world’s fastest modernising economy.
His bold social and religious reforms are part and parcel of an economic reformation that will completely transform not just how the average Saudi lives but how the world’s 20th largest economy interfaces with the global community at large.
As Defence Minister, ibn Salman orchestrated the war in Yemen that seeks to curtail Iranian expansion into the Arabian Gulf.
He pushed out his brother to take charge of the Kingdom’s relationship with Washington and in particular, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the CIA.
His new interior minister, Abdulaziz ibn Saud ibn Nayef, is mandated to root out and excoriate Islamist extremism within the Kingdom, as well as suppress opposition.
What cuts the Prince from a different cloth from his forebears is a willingness to work closely with Western allies on wide-ranging foreign policy objectives, including Israel, whom Saudi Arabia continues to refuse recognition of.
His war in Yemen against Iranian interests have made him a tacit ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who has long called for a sterner confrontational stance against the Islamic Republic.
In this vein, ibn Salman has reportedly also met with top Israeli officials, signalling that a sea change may be on the horizon for how the Kingdom deals with the Jewish state, if the sickly King Salman abdicates in favour of his reformist son.
This commitment to articulated realpolitik was further demonstrated when Saudi blogger ‘Mujtahidd’ implicated ibn Salman in a plot alongside the heir to the Abu Dhabi emirate, Muhammad ibn Zayed Al Nahyan, to use Blackwater mercenaries to stage a coup in Qatar. According to the blogger, the United States stepped in to shut down the plot before it could be executed.
Ibn Salman also shares America’s strategic outlook against continued Russian influence in the Middle East.
To this end, he supports Saudi backing of the overthrow of Syrian dictator Basher al-Assad, and has implemented an oil embargo on Egypt for their espoused support for Russian proposals over the future of Syria.
The controversial air, land and sea blockade of Qatar, ostensibly in part due to their continued support for Arabic news channel al’Jazeera, was also the work of Muhammad ibn Salman’s imperious influence over the Saudi court and mechanisms of government.
With his efforts to tackle not only Saudi’s entrenched religious elite but to meet the challenge of Iran head-on, ibn Salman has shown he has the power and the willingness to assert himself far louder and more aggressively than any Saudi monarch in recent memory.
His policies stand to transform Saudi Arabia not just as an economy and society, diversifying and unshackling the Kingdom’s business potential and liberating its people from the weight of hardline Islam, but also assert Saudi Arabia as the hegemonic power over the Middle East, even if this means joining hands with Israel against the region’s other rising power, Iran.
Yet his penchant for realpolitik and willingness to take the harder path in for longer-term gain may prove ibn Salman’s greatest asset on the throne. Saudi Arabia, and the entire Middle East, may be on the cusp of a historical epoch brought about by the sheer willpower of just one man by the name of Muhammad.
And how poetic would that be.
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