Saudi crown prince: Zealous reformer or power-hungry tyrant

Prince Mohd. bin Salman’s espousal of “moderate” Islam is founded on a misrepresentation of his country’s religious traditions. His “moderate” posture is also questionable, given his sectarian mindset

Getty images
Getty images

Talmiz Ahmad

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has just returned home after a triumphant tour of the UK, the United States, France and Spain. Besides the political leadership, he interacted with business leaders, technology pioneers and defence manufacturers, and engaged with enthusiasm and delight with entertainers, film makers and media-persons.

Across these bastions of western power, he projected himself as a fervent reformer, leading his country into the modern era of technology, accommodation and achievement, and warmly invited the world’s business persons and creative artists to participate in this endeavour.

Reformist Zeal

Three years at the helm of his country’s affairs, including ten months as crown prince, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has gripped the imagination and media space across the world.

On his father’s accession, this 29-year old prince became defence minister, head of the royal court and head of the supreme economic council. He became crown prince in June last year, elbowing out two senior royals who had considerable experience and a fine record of service to their nation.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman has rejected almost every norm and principle that has informed royal family functioning. When earlier decisions were based on consultation and consensus among senior royals, Prince Mohammed is now the sole decision-maker. While earlier royal pronouncements reflected gravitas and moderation, the prince is viewed as impulsive and hot-headed. Above all, while royal family members avoided the media, this prince is garrulous and basks in media attention.

Prince Mohammed captured world attention when he announced his “Vision-2030” programme in April 2016, a blueprint for a thoroughgoing reform of the Saudi economy to prepare it for the post-oil era. It envisaged a scenario dominated by the private sector, training of young Saudis for their participation in the new prospects thrown open to them, and massive development of Saudi industry and the services sectors.

At regular intervals the prince has maintained the momentum of reform by announcing exciting, even mind-boggling projects – the high-tech NEOM city, spread over 25,000 sq km and covering the kingdom, Jordan and Egypt, forty times bigger than New York; the female robot, Sophia, who was given Saudi nationality, and massive nuclear and renewable energy projects.

It is likely that he will increasingly expose his tyrannical face, so that his only supporter left will be Donald Trump

Alliance with Trump

But, his greatest achievement has been in the social and religious spheres. The prince announced in October last year that all restrictions on women’s driving would be lifted, thus reforming the one area which has most persistently tarnished his country’s image.

He followed this up by reducing the powers of the obnoxious religious police, removal of the insistence on women wearing the abaya, the black cloak that ensures that women are modestly attired in public, and opening up spaces for public entertainment, without insistence on gender segregation.

Finally, in public remarks he set out his commitment to “moderate” Islam, the Islam of peace and accommodation that, the prince argued, had been practised in his country till the baneful influence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 brought in serious distortions.

These pronouncements have helped cement Saudi Arabia’s political, military and economic ties with the Trump administration and corporate America that now sees great opportunities for mutually beneficial engagement with the desert kingdom, now shorn of its ugly face and habits. Saudi Arabia’s robust Iran posture and the promise of lucrative defence contracts have cleared the pathway to Washington, buttressed by low key but important interactions with Israel and discreet support for Trump’s initiatives to achieve his “deal of the century” that would ensure the fulfilment of the Israeli agenda in the disputed areas of Palestine.

Prince Mohammed’s reforming zeal has been celebrated by wide sections of US opinion. David Ignatius of Washington Post is convinced that “the door is opening in the kingdom – toward a more modern, more entrepreneurial, less-hidebound and more youth-oriented society”. Bernard Haykel of Princeton University, applauds the prince for addressing effectively the “harsh truth” about his country, that it is “economically and politically unsustainable and headed towards a disaster”.

The dark side

This applause for reform camouflages the dark side of the prince’s role in putting in place a harsh and intolerant tyranny that, instead of strengthening the national fibre, is making the national order even more fragile.

The cacophony surrounding reform, applauded by sections of the domestic establishment clergy who have always accepted royal bidding, fails to note how superficial the reforms actually are. For instance, the initiatives relating to women have failed to address the principle that fundamentally disadvantages them – the “guardianship” system, in terms of which the woman has no legal personality of her own, but is always the ward of a male relative.

Again, in his so-called anti-corruption drive, the prince actually sought to consolidate his political power by getting rid of senior royals who could challenge his untrammelled authority. He also sought to seize their assets and those of other prominent business persons to boost state coffers to fund his grandiose visions. In the event, he seems to have got a paltry $13 billion, even as he has spread disquiet among international business persons about the arbitrariness and absence of transparency in the entire episode, while irreparably damaging royal family unity.

The prince’s espousal of “moderate” Islam is founded on a misrepresentation of his country’s religious traditions that have placed it among the most intolerant and violent of Islam’s movements, with the state frequently supporting extremist elements for political advantage. The prince’s “moderate” posture is also questionable, given his sectarian mindset. Again, over 300 Saudi scholars representing the reformist clergy, were arrested in a ruthless crackdown in September last year, along with several human rights activists, with hardly a murmur from the western media.

It is thus difficult to be optimistic about the kingdom’s reform prospects. It is likely that, as the prince finds it difficult to deliver on his promises to his young constituency, he will increasingly expose his tyrannical face, so that his only supporter will be Donald Trump with his hand stretched out for more contracts.

The author is a former diplomat

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