If there is one country that is garnering the headlines for all the good reasons these days (as opposed to Trump’s US for all the – well you know what I mean) it is Saudi Arabia. The cradle of Islam has best been known for confirming the maxim “there is no FUN in FUNdamentalism” as the regime allowed dour, misogynist clerics to ban everything remotely pleasurable in life: movie theatres, mixing of the sexes, women behind the wheel of a car, etc. If there is one place not on the Lonely Planet top ten tourist havens to visit it has to be Saudi Arabia. And that is a shame (I traveled there three times while with CSIS and can attest that the Empty Quarter is starkly beautiful. There are also some very old vestiges of pre-Islamic civilisation I did not get a chance to see but which I hear are spectacular, although the fuddy duddy old men that run the religious establishment long dismissed anything prior to the life of the Prophet Muhammad as ‘irrelevant’).
It seems however that there is a new sheriff (a new Sharif?) in town and he is effecting change at a dizzying pace. The 32-year old Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman al-Saud – the mere fact that a stripling was named Crown Prince over a lineup of geriatric princes was in itself remarkable – is the mastermind behind a number of tectonic shifts in Saudi society, among which have been highlighted:
- a crackdown on the erstwhile monopolistic power of conservative clerics
- a revamping of the education system to remove any influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (long a Saudi bugbear) and introduce ‘moderate’ Islamic teachings
- allowing women to drive (hey! no jokes allowed about women drivers!)
- opening a movie theatre for the first time since the 1980s (so Saudis can watch the same Hollywood dross we can?)
- cozying up to Israel
So three cheers for these monumental developments in the Kingdom! Hip, hip…hmm, perhaps celebration is a bit premature. For all the good this does there are still some things the Saudis do that should give us pause to hold judgment, including:
- the continued arrests of female activists the regime accuses of having contact with ‘foreign enemies’ (why does every two-bit authoritarian state use language like this?)
- a silly dispute with Qatar over that alleged nation’s support for ‘terrorism’ (more likely the fact the Qatar hosts Al Jazeera which is as independent as a media outlet gets in the Arab world)
- its role in the war in Yemen, ostensibly to stop Iranian influence (highly exaggerated by the way), which has led to mass death, starvation and disease
- the regime’s continued practice of incarcerating political prisoners.
It seems then, at least to me, that the recent record is mixed: some good, some not so good. As a former intelligence analyst who not only interacted with Saudi counterparts but who was focused on the Middle East for three decades I can’t help but think there has to be more to this. Don’t get me wrong: I really hope that Saudi Arabia does join the list of normal nations if only for the benefit of its own people. But can it really be as rosy as all this?
We must not forget that it was only 17 years ago that 19 men – 15 of whom were from Saudi Arabia – hijacked four planes in the US and killed thousands of people. The ideology that drove these terrorists was inspired in large part by Wahhabist Islam, a hateful, intolerant version of the faith that has ruled the roost in Arabia since the 1740s (in cahoots with the Al Saud family). Can this really be the end of all this after more than two and a half centuries? Did it only take the next generation of Saudi emirs to make it happen? Remember that MBS (as he is called) is only Crown Prince, not yet king. Can we expect more changes once he ascends the throne? Or will a darker, more nefarious side emerge when he finally dispenses with the Al Saud family machinations and power plays? Only time will tell. Hope springs eternal but true trust in change must be verified.