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Postcard from Saudi Arabia: Changing to stand still? I don’t think so…

May 3, 2015
King Salman and heirs

King Salman (c), Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (r), Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (l)

Big changes have been taking place in Saudi Arabia of late. Professional Saudi watchers are not the only ones with plenty to do right now. These are happy days for the printing trade.

Within a day of the government reshuffle that left the Kingdom with a new line of succession to King Salman, I saw the first giant poster of the monarch with his nephew Muhammad Bin Nayef, the new Crown Prince, and his son Mohammed bin Salman, whom he has appointed Deputy Crown Prince. That was pretty quick on the draw.

Pictures of those who sit at the apex of the ruling family are to be found everywhere across the country – in hotels, schools, government offices and in massive roadside hoardings. With the passing over the last four years of two crown princes and more recently of King Abdullah, the printing presses have been busier than ever.

Now, two months after Abdullah’s death, the crown prince who was appointed immediately afterwards, Salman’s half-brother Prince Muqrin, has disappeared from the royal portraits, just as did leading Soviet luminaries in Stalin’s time. The difference is that Muqrin moves into a graceful retirement with the thanks of the King and the nation, whereas those airbrushed from Stalin’s history had usually met their end in a dank cell underneath the Lubyanka. That, fortunately, is not the Saudi way.

I’ve just finished my first visit to Saudi Arabia for several months, so it was a good chance to catch up what’s been happening since I’ve been away.

Lots is the answer.

For starters, there’s the new king on the throne. Not an unfamiliar face, because King Salman has been at the heart of the Saudi government for over forty years as governor of Riyadh and lately Crown Prince and Minister of Defence. In my country, when the Queen dies she will be replaced by her eldest son Prince Charles, assuming he survives her. Nothing much will change except that we will have a king who delights in talking to plants. No change in government, no change in society, except a different face at the Buckingham Palace garden parties.

But in Saudi Arabia the accession of a new monarch is more like the arrival of a new occupant in the White House. He brings his team with him, and out go many of the trusted servants of the previous king. Thus it was with King Salman, who removed a number of King Abdullah’s lieutenants while taking care not to disrupt the balance of interests within the royal family. Some of Abdullah’s favourites remain – most notably his son Prince Miteb, the head of the powerful National Guard, which has always been fiercely loyal to Abdullah’s branch of the family. But without going into the arcane details of the various comings and goings, Salman has his people firmly in the commanding heights of the government.

One of the dangers of Saudi watching – in which I am only an amateur – is that new monarchs tend to confound the most “informed” predictions of the direction they would take. King Abdullah was supposed to be a hard-line conservative and anti-American to boot. Yet he ended up presiding over a steady trickle of social reform, and his relationship with the US was no less cordial – until the Arab Spring – than that of his predecessor King Fahd. When the US effectively abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and started talking to Iran again, Abdullah became less impressed with US foreign policy. The US, he considered, was no longer a reliable partner.

King Salman promised upon his succession that little would change. But quite a lot has. Believing, as Abdullah did, that he could no longer count on America as the region’s policeman, he has taken the Kingdom to war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen – a Shia tribe supported, to a greater or lesser extent according to who you talk to, by Iran.

Other less dramatic indicators of a change in style as well as substance surface occasionally in the media. A few weeks ago, the recently-appointed Minister of Health was fired for speaking disrespectfully to a member of the public who asked him an awkward question. And last week he took severe action against a minor member of the royal family, Prince Mamdouh bin Abdulrahman, for making racist remarks on a radio show. The prince will never be allowed to speak in public again. To single out a member of the extended family for such public humiliation is a rare action among an elite that traditionally closes ranks behind its members. As the newspaper that ran the story commented, it sends a powerful message to the thousands of other princes and princesses that nobody is above the law.

Twenty years ago, the offending family member would have received a sharp slap on the wrist in private, and would have slinked away, never to take to the airwaves again. Someone I spoke to about the story pointed out that what the prince said in public only reflects what many people say in the privacy of their homes. But you could also say that of Britain and America too. You can’t eliminate racism with a hammer, but making it difficult to express racist opinions in public without consequences will surely influence attitudes in the course of time.

Some credit for the king’s swift action can probably go to the social media. Twitter was so full of adverse comments on the prince’s behaviour that some official action was perhaps inevitable. As one commentator pointed out the other day, the social media has become the voice of people who are normally not heard. Outrageous behaviour, especially if it ends up on YouTube, can result in almost instant action by government departments, many of which are known for their heavy, slow-moving bureaucracies. A few days ago a video of a man slapping a woman in public so hard that she fell to the pavement went viral. Police are actively looking for the perpetrator as I write this.

Nonetheless King Salman – who has always been known as a man with strong opinions and a willingness to take swift action – seems to be creating a new atmosphere by his own initiative in which those who cut through official inertia are encouraged and rewarded. Among the people I have encountered during my visit, he has gained almost universal plaudits both for his policies and his style.

Apart from changing the senior hierarchy, Salman has presided over two serious cabinet reshuffles. Those who believe that he’s rolling back some of Abdullah’s modest reforms cite as evidence the dismissal of the only female minister of any consequence, Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez, who was Deputy Minister of Education. She apparently incurred the wrath of the religious conservatives by paving the way for physical education in girl’s schools.

I wouldn’t be so sure that the move has long-term significance. Saudi rulers have long danced a delicate two-step with the religious establishment, as with other vested interests in the Kingdom. Pragmatism is the secret of the monarchy’s success, and King Salman is nothing if not pragmatic. Progress often comes not so much with two steps forward and one step back, but also with a couple of steps sideways thrown in.

I suspect that the national security is the top priority of the moment, with the Islamic State raging on the northern borders and the Houthi rebels of Yemen in the south. The well-publicised recent arrest of 93 alleged IS sympathisers within the Kingdom is an indication of the current concern.

Then there’s the economy. Low oil prices are affecting all oil-producing countries. Although Saudi Arabia has the reserves to ride out the current period of low revenue without seriously affecting its spending plans, it would be surprising if the government were not on the lookout for economies. Although generous subsidies and welfare payments are an obvious target, it’s clear that the king is also looking for improved efficiencies in the government apparatus.

And a third topic high on the agenda is the replacement of foreign workers with Saudi nationals. Saudization is a perennial objective, for social as well as economic reasons. Over the past three years the pace has stepped up, with a raft of regulations intended to force the private sector into greater efforts to employ Saudis, especially women. At the same time hundreds of thousands of illegal residents – many of whom have overstayed their visas or have been employed in contravention of the labour laws – have been rounded up and deported.

Weaning Saudi business off its addiction to cheap foreign labour is not a simple matter. Part of the price is the cost of helping young Saudis to become ready for work, which requires continued investment in education, both on the government’s part and by the businesses themselves. And then there’s the additional burden of paying the new Saudi employees a living wage. But whatever the cost, the dangers of the alternative – huge numbers of young Saudis living for long periods in the wilderness of unemployment – are far greater.

So it’s easy to understand that the social reforms that many would like to see – the most high-profile of these is women being able to drive, although there are many others that reform-minded citizens consider more important – are not at the top of the new king’s agenda. He will consider that there are many other issues worthy of his attention right now. And the last thing he will feel he needs is the inevitable clamour of protest from the religious conservatives at any attempt to disturb the social status quo.

One commentator recently suggested that you need continual change in order to stay in the same place, and that King Salman’s measures are for exactly that purpose. I’m not sure I agree. Saudi Arabia is a vastly different place to what it was when I first visited it thirty-odd years ago. Aside from all the infrastructure that has transformed its cities, for me the biggest difference lies in the country’s young people. In the eighties they were relatively compliant socially. Also there weren’t so many of them.

Now, according to the Saudi Gazette, 67% of the population is under 30. Whereas three decades ago there were no mobile phones, social media and satellite TV, today’s youth is assailed by multimedia influences both within and from outside the Kingdom. Young people are more vocal, and have ready outlets for their views. So have those who seek to manipulate them. From a Saudi perspective those influences are not always benign. It’s not just movies, videos and TV shows from the decadent west that concern them. The seductive messages from religious extremists – especially those from Iraq and Syria – are as much a worry to the Saudi government as they are to us in the west. For every young Briton who slips into Raqqah to join the IS jihadists, the BBC last year reported that five times as many Saudis have made the trip.

The reality is that there is no such thing as the status quo for the Saudis any more than for their neighbours in the Middle East. The political landscape is more volatile than at any time in the past thirty years. So King Salman and his younger heirs, as well as all the new technocrats who have moved into key positions over the past couple of months, will need to be fast on their feet, sometimes reactive and sometimes pro-active.

Standing still is not an option. I expect more developments in the months to come. Even in the last couple of days, changes to the governance of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company and the jewel in the Kingdom’s economic crown, are evidence that there’s much more to come. After all, why put all these new people in place if you don’t intend to shake things up?

The people of Saudi Arabia will have to get used to each dawn looking a little different from the one before. And the printers no doubt will be delighted with the prospect. There may be no need to change the roadside awnings for a while, but all the new regulations and announcements running off their presses will keep them busy for some time to come.

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