Saudi Arabia: keeping the lid on
The recent arrests of around 30 clerics and intellectuals show that the king-in-waiting won’t tolerate dissent
For the past 18 months, the once-quiet and unadventurous kingdom has witnessed a range of developments resulting in many of the traditions and practices of the past being discarded. Subtle diplomacy has been replaced by an assertive regional policy, resulting in the Yemen war and the blockade of Qatar. At home, crown prince Naif was replaced by King Salman's young son and defence minister, prince Mohammed. Rumours have circulated since then that the new crown prince could soon find himself on the throne.
For now, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, in his role as economic supremo, is the architect of Vision 2030, an ambitious strategy aimed at weaning the kingdom off its dependence on oil. This will entail selling off 5% of the state energy giant, Aramco, and introducing a wide range of reforms aimed at boosting the private sector and creating jobs. The idea is to create a dynamic economy that in decades to come will win the kingdom a place among top global performers.
Inevitably there's been some resistance to such abrupt changes after many decades of quiet continuity. The recent arrests of alleged dissidents—clerics accused of links with extremist Islam, along with liberal intellectuals demanding greater human rights—reflect the crown prince's determination that the immediate priority is economic and social liberalisation. Political liberalisation may come at some point in the future. For the time being, diplomats with many years of experience in Saudi Arabia say, personal political space is more restricted than in the past.
The Saudi authorities' argument is that the drive for economic and social reform needs strong leadership and the compliance of the population if the goals are to be achieved. The stability of Saudi Arabia can't be threatened by dissent, which might intensify the jihadist Islamic terrorism threat that the kingdom already faces.
But for some advocates of change in the kingdom, it's too high a price to pay. Prominent liberal journalist Jamal Khashhoggi wrote in the Washington Post that while he supported the crown prince's social and economic reform programme, he'd gone into voluntary exile because of a "climate of fear and intimidation… I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better."
Even for establishment figures in Saudi Arabia, like those serving on the advisory Shura Council, the blizzard of changes over the past couple of years has been bewildering. "These days," a prominent Shura member said privately, "everything is being done according to rules and principles that seem alien to me and my generation."
Saudi Arabia is in a period of rapid transformation—a generational shift is bringing with it a new style of leadership. In the long term, this may prove positive. For now, with previous centres of power abolished, authority emanates solely from the royal court, allowing much swifter and crisper decision-making than in the past. But until everything settles down, life for Saudis will be much less predictable and secure than it used to be under the old system.