For years Saudi Arabia has been a country defined by its exceptionalism. The only country in the world were woman can’t drive, one of the few with a religious police force that infamously stalked the streets and a nation that couldn’t kick what its own Crown Prince has called its “addiction to oil”. Ask most people what they think about Saudi Arabia and they will tell you it is an oppressive kingdom known for oil and a female populace with seemingly infinite patience. At least they would have said that five years ago, in a series of changes so rapid even the news is struggling to keep up with them. A kingdom that normally embraces change at the same rate a mountain erodes now seems to be becoming the new economic and politically dynamic power in the Middle East. Most of these changes have been driven by one-man Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salam a strong contender for the world’s most powerful millennial.
The 32-year-old has enacted a series of economic and political reforms that are staggering in their scope, especially when looked at in the context of the history of the Saudi Kingdom. But we shouldn’t look at the lessening of restrictions on women as just the river of reform washing outdated ideas to the sea of history past the shrubs of global geo-politics. Instead we should see it for what it is, a major power move in a country where balancing power has helped keep the house of Saud strong for over two hundred years. The house of Saud, the ruling family for which you may have summarised after long hours of work, the kingdom is named after, has always shared power with the religious establishment.
The powerful clerical elite in Saudi Arabia has been a major source of legitimacy for the Saudi monarchy. In exchange for letting the clerical elite have incredible amounts of control over the daily lives of Saudi citizens, using the famous religious police. The monarchy has sought the blessings of the clerics not wanting to see what happened in Iran happen on their side of the gulf. It was the 1979 Iranian revolution alongside internal uprising in Saudi itself that lead to stricter pro-cleric positions from the monarchy as it attempted to avoid a similar fate to the princes of Persia. This is why the Saudi Arabian Kingdom has funded extremist groups, gotten tougher on social policies in the past and why the Saudi Arabia of fifty years ago was more liberal then the Saudi Arabia of twenty-five years ago.
But all that is changing and we should see the religious police losing their power to arrest or women gaining the right to drive as a tremendous surprise, because the monarchy is standing up to its major internal ally. A move being lead by the Crown Prince but building upon earlier reforms that have been tipping the scales slower than an all sugar diet. Now Saudi woman have more freedom and all citizens can attend concerts and movies two changes almost unthinkable a decade ago.
Not only in the social sphere but in the economic sphere we’ve seen such quick changes that anyone following the politics of the region is likely to get motion sickness. Previously the economy of Saudi Arabia was heavily focused on oil and most of that industry was state run, but now the Crown Prince has made it clear he plans to break up this industry and start diversifying the economy. He is planning on creating a new city on the Red Sea with its own tax and investment laws for the almost ludicrous sum of $500 billion bookmarked for its infrastructure and creation. To put this into context its estimated the UK government spent £72 billion on infrastructure for the whole country in 2014. Pair this with the Saudi Crown’s encouragement of tech companies and its major tourism plans for the Red Sea and its clear that Saudi Arabia isn’t going to let potential price drops in oil shake its economy again.
Corruption too seems to be under attack in Saudi Arabia, with last year’s headline grabbing detention of several princes, business men and former ministers in the dark and dank cells of the infamous Riyadh Ritz Carlton hotel. Whilst the prison may not have been Alcatraz, the imprisoned were kept away from their lawyers and were only released after giving up parts of their companies, including major media outlets and cash, both of which amounted to $107 billion to the government. Some have criticized this as a cash and power grab, whilst others see it as the Crown Prince truly tackling corruption in the family to ensure it rules for decades to come.
So is Saudi Arabia becoming the new UAE, will Riyadh resemble Dubai in the near future and the images we have of Saudi Arabia be replaced by the images we have of Abu Dhabi? Only time will tell, what ever the future holds its clear that the Saudi Arabia of headlines past is fading and that for better or worse this ancient land is changing forever.
Article by Jonathan Rhodes