If Thomas Jefferson were able to look over the last forty years of Gulf politics, he may wish to add a third concept to his old adage; ‘only three things are certain: death, taxes, and the rule of the House of Saud’. In the most tumultuous region of the world, Saudi Arabia has stood alone as a paragon of stability and continuity.
The extent of this certainty relative to its neighbours merits some attention. A quick glance across the Red Sea to Egypt reveals a country that has experienced over the last century (deep breath): freedom from British colonial rule, the 1952 coup d’état and revolution, the Suez Crisis, a union with Syria to form the United Arab Republic, the dissolution of that union, the Six Day War with Israel, the assassination of a sitting president, the 2011 revolution and counter-revolution in 2013. Each of these events threatened to profoundly alter the nature of the Egyptian state, and this is one of the more stable, successful countries in the region. Meanwhile in that same century, Saudi Arabia has been lead by members of just one family, the House of Saud, and with minimal changes in style throughout the period.
What we mustn’t forget here, of course, is the astonishing effect of oil. It has transformed the country from a mostly uninhabited desert to perhaps the most important geopolitical players in the region, able to exert control not just over its well-paid citizens but also the wider Muslim world, most strikingly through its funding of mosques, schools and imams sent to preach the Saudi brand of Islam to the world.
It comes as quite a shock, then, that the country is undergoing its most tumultuous internal period in decades. Women, it has been announced, will soon be allowed to drive, and then can already attend football matches for the first time. Cinemas have been opened for the first time in Saudi history. A fund of $64 billion is to be provided for the development of the Saudi entertainment industry (a contradiction-in-terms if ever I saw one). And perhaps most shockingly the arrest of dozens of Saudi royals under charges of corruption, held against their will in the palatial Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.
All of these developments can be laid squarely at the feet of one man: Mohammad bin Salman. Shortened quite unpoetically to MBS in the West, bin Salman has in the space of a few short years gone from being a rather minor royal to the new Crown Prince, a title he took from his uncle, and thereby the next in line to lead the country. He has helped shape much of Saudi Arabia’s new social policy, including the aforementioned changes for women and the arts, as well as curbing the powers of the religious police. His social reforms are matched by his plans for the Saudi economy, after announcing his ‘Vision 2030’ plan to diversify and privatise much of the country’s assets. And over the last year, there have glimpses of what the new foreign policy for the regime could look like, with the united front against Qatar and intervention in Yemen hinting at a more active role for the Saudi state itself, rather than simple funding of interests in the region.
This doesn’t quite cover what is causing all the fuss, though. The Saudi state is predicated upon an agreement between the ruling House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious clerics. In exchange for religious legitimacy and their continued allegiance, the House of Saud provides the clerics with religious and cultural control over Saudi society, and enormous levels of funding, to push its Islamist agenda abroad. This relationship has been in place in one form or another since the establishment of the first Saudi state in 1744, and in real terms it is difficult to argue with its effectiveness (not to excuse the torture, the stonings, the murder committed as a direct result of it).
It is this relationship, upon which Saudi Arabia has been built up to this point, that bin Salman threatens to undermine with his sweeping reforms. There are fears, both in his own country and elsewhere, that as one of the only royal family members not to be educated abroad, with minimal political experience and aged just 32, that MBS doesn’t know what he’s doing. Let’s hope for the sake of the region that he does.
Photograph: Israel National News