Asia Watch

Why it will not be easy for Prince Salman to reform Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia isn’t the first country that comes to mind when there’s talk of radical social and political change. Nor the second or even the tenth.

Nov 7, 2017
Saudi Arabia isn’t the first country that comes to mind when there’s talk of radical social and political change. Nor the second or even the tenth. A combination of a monarchy legitimised by an orthodox clergy and funded by the world’s largest reserve of accessible oil and gas has usually mitigated any desire for change. Little wonder then, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s aggressive push to upend the Wahhabi applecart surprised everyone. His plans to list Aramco, the trillion-dollar State-owned oil company, and encourage local entrepreneurship and employment were unremarkable. Then came his announcement that women would be allowed to drive cars, a move that raised eyebrows. Now comes what is effectively a purge of the Saudi ruling establishment -- the arrest of 10 princes of the blood including billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, four ministers, and dozens of former senior officials . To be sure, this could be the heir to the throne consolidating his position, but it could also be a sign that the crown prince wishes to remodel Saudi Arabia into a nation that is more modern and more moderate.
India has benefited to some degree from the crown prince’s reform attempts. Riyadh has diluted its long-standing strategic relationship with Pakistan. It has also become much more helpful in providing intelligence about Islamic terrorists to New Delhi. And it has also expressed its interest in developing a larger economic footprint in India’s energy sector. If Crown Prince Salman takes his reforms to their logical conclusion, it might mean the end of the largest source of funding for the most extreme strands of the religion.
This is all good, but the Narendra Modi government will be rightly wary. A country with weak political institutions such as Saudi Arabia is notoriously difficult to reform. The prince’s strategy seems to be centralise power with himself rather than seek a consensus among the various players. That he replaced the head of the National Guard, a force loyal to the ruling family, was a reminder that some sort of political backlash, potentially violent, cannot be ruled out. His anti-corruption campaign, promise of a more open society and, most dangerously, an aggressive military posture in fighting perceived signs of Iranian influence in Yemen and elsewhere seem to be the base on which he hopes to rally popular support in favour of his agenda. It is almost impossible to tell in a country that remains quite opaque as to whether this will work.
Hindustan Times, November 7, 2017

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