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 can of worms, 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 unwinnable 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.
In an article published by the Iranian paper « Financial Tribune, » the anonymous writer wonders quite rightly if MBS is making history or just a mess :
So since his assumption of power in the kingdom, the crown prince has announced and then revised plans for a major overhaul of the national economy, significantly softened restrictions on women drivers, laid the groundwork for privatizing some of the national oil company Aramco and reducing state subsidies on basic services, and announced plans for a gigantic international tourism development along the Red Sea coast that will be covered by liberal international norms instead of the austere Saudi-Wahhabi traditions.At the same time, MBS has launched a terrible and endless war against Yemen, laid siege to Qatar, continued to explore how to either interfere or constructively engage in the domestic politics of assorted Arab states, such as Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria, arrested both liberal and conservative Saudis who do not fully support his plans, and engaged in a relentless and largely fruitless regional and international attempt to isolate Iran.MBS is certainly making headlines; but is he also making history, or making a mess? For now we can only acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of his current approach.
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 successfully 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 wear 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 English reported 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.
In this regard, Patrick Wintour, the diplomatic editor of The Guardian argues that:
No one doubted that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was a man in a hurry. But the Saudi royal’s decision to arrest 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers shows he is a risk-taker on a scale the Middle East has rarely seen.The fact that the billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns the investment firm Kingdom Holding, was among the wave of late-night arrests (and is thought to be held in the luxurious confines of Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel) suggests MBS, as Salman is known colloquially, is willing to take on the kingdom’s most powerful figures to implement his reforms and consolidate power.In theory, MBS could be in power for a half a century. The question is whether he is showing the maturity and steadiness to use such a lengthy reign to create a viable, modern Saudi Arabia.The crown prince will say the arrests show his determination to root out corruption, a precondition of a more open economy. But few think the arrests, and related ministerial sackings, are the independent decision of a new corruption body, established just hours before to replace an existing one, rather than part of a wider reshuffle to centralise all security authority under MBS.
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, unhindered 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.