The Saudi silent revolution

Dr Mohamed Chtatou

The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmane (MBS) is shaking up the ultraconservative Al-Saud Kingdom to its very roots. Is he doing the right thing, at this point in time, or is he duly opening a pandora box, the consequences of which could bring the “Middle East chaos,” resulting from the failed Arab Spring, home to this rich, conservative, tribal and patriarchal kingdom?

As a matter of fact, things are not looking up for this country, the oil prices are plummeting dangerously, the country is bogged down in an unwinable war in Yemen against the Shiite Houthis armed by Iran and the Iranian nuclear threat is looming  in the east. The country needs undoubtedly to reform but is doing it, at this very moment, safe and feasible?

Soon MBS will become the king and he, surely, wants to start his rule with a tabula rasa, by opening up his country to the world culture and modernist ideas, this “revolution” is certainly welcomed by women, youth and all the thousands of Saudis who were educated in the West, but certainly not by the conservative religious caste and the tribe of princes, who made so much hay in the traditional  and opaque kingdom. They will certainly not accept the “clean slate” and, by all means, will put up a fierce fight to safeguard their privileges and power.
Eradicating extremist ideas

MBS wants to “eradicate extremist ideas” thriving in his country to rid it from Wahabism that is equated, worldwide, with terrorism and violence. In a historical speech, he promised to return his country to a moderate Islam, without explaining what he meant by moderate Islam and he has indirectly, however, accused Wahabism, the state religious doctrine, of giving the country a bad image and vicious reputation.

On the occasion of the Riyadh Forum which took place last October 24th in the Saudi capital, the Crown Prince Mohammed has come to present the creation of a new economic zone on the shore of the Red sea. While listing 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 radical Islam taught in the country of the two Holy Mosques.

Against all odds, the country’s new powerful man has, then, clearly, denunciated the “extremist ideas” disseminated in the Kingdom. Mohammed bin Salmane also promised to “abolish” them immediately. 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.

“We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,”

The 32-year-old crown prince said.

“We will eradicate the remnants of extremism very soon … We represent the moderate teachings and principles of Islam,”

He added, forcefully.

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 fact, since the alliance sealed in 1744 between Mohammed bin Saud, the patriarch of the family and the ultraconservative Imam Muhammed Abdul Wahhab, politics remain the exclusive domain of the Saud household in exchange for the dissemination of “original and pure Islam” by the Wahhabi Ulemas in the Saudi society.

For the time being, the future King seems to have succesfully scored points not only by being responsible for the decision to allow Saudi women to drive, but, also, by letting them,for the first time, attend sporting events in some stadiums of the country. Will MBS win the arm-wrestling contest with the Ulemas or will he be toppled, in the name of the pure religion?

Not to forget of course that MBS is, also, 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 and modernist 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 into corruption in public sector, Al Arabiya Englishreported immediately after, the arrest of dozen of Princes and dozens  of former ministers in the framework of an anti-corruption offensive. According to several newspapers, the very 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 evictions seem to fall within the framework of a strategy carried by the Saudi Crown Prince and aiming at getting rid of the conservative group in power.

By controlling the main levers of the Government, from defense to economy, it seems that Mohammed bin Salmane is seeking to silence all the internal protests before any formal transfer of power is done by his father, King Salmane, 81 years old.

No doubt, the decision to rid the country of corrupt officials and corrupt members of the business community goes along with what MBS has promised at the end of October: to deliver a “moderate” Arabia, in complete break from 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.

The Crown Prince has launched many reform projects to date – right to drive for women, the opening of movie theaters amongst others- which mark the biggest cultural and economic upheaval of the Kingdom’s modern history, with a real marginalization of the conservative religious castes.

Simultaneously, he has worked on strengthening his political control on the power by conducting a wave of arrests of dissidents, among which influential religious and intellectuals.
Are these moves sincere or else?

Is the purge okayed by King Salmane and effected by his son the Crown Prince  truly a permanent set of reforms to change the country in depth or only power games to allow MBS to sit on the throne, in the near future, unhindred by the traditional religious powerhouse and the influential and powerful 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 undertaking, 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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