Saudi Arabia at Several Crossroads
All of Them Complicated. None of Them Simple.
Understanding the current situation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is not straight forward. Currently, it stands at so many complex crossroads that a team of scholars would require several book volumes to treat them all thoroughly. One article can only focus on some of the more striking examples. Still, the crossroads are important: the paths that the KSA chooses to follow will affect relationships with its own population, with its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council, with the West and Russia. The paths taken will ultimately determine the very shape of the country over the coming decades.
For clarity, I discuss political, social, geopolitical and economic areas separately. However, they do not operate exclusively, but rather, overlap.
Politically, the fallout continues from the arrests last November of more than 200 prominent Saudi princes and businessmen on corruption charges. The sweep also netted billions in assets and negotiated fines, although it remains unclear at this time how much has actually been paid into the national treasury. The ultimate decision maker was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud whose well-orchestrated round-up appeared to be another step in his consolidation of power.
Bin Salman’s targets included powerful princes who controlled large ministries and vast amounts of economic resources. Some of those princes dealt with those resources as they wished, even feeding funds back to themselves. The arrests allowed bin Salman to strike a blow at those cozy arrangements and continue centralizing economic power in government hands.
The sweep also appealed to members of the Saudi public. Many were (and still are) discontented and disgruntled at the long history of government funds being misappropriated by members of the political and economic elite. With some of the social problems, many non-privileged individuals in the KSA could be forgiven for pondering their futures.
The prominent profile of the princes and businessmen in the last November’s wave of arrests suggests that the government will not undertake any future actions on the same scale, although lesser senior government officials could still be charged with corruption or abuse of office.
Socially, most recent developments in Saudi Arabia can be generally considered ‘startling’, but one of the most unexpected was the expansion of women’s rights. They are now allowed to drive, attend public events and carry on other commonplace activities long considered rights enjoyed by women in other cultures.
These changes appear aimed at several priorities within the country.
Relaxing the ban on women driving complements the government’s aim of shoring up its populist appeal and as part of its hopes for its Vision 2030 plan, which aims for an increase in female employment, amongst a long list of targets.
The Saudis probably suspect that public support could erode due to with the introduction of new taxes and building up populist appeal is important Also, wider admission to public events will bring in added revenues for high-cost facilities built during the days of higher oil prices.
Geopolitically, rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran appear likely to continue as both countries wage battles of words and proxy wars in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. Saudi Arabia, a staunchly Sunni nation, and Iran, a predominantly Shiite nation, have a long-standing and bitter enmity based on regional geopolitical ambitious and religious animosities.
Related: Understanding the Sultanate of Oman
Also in the geopolitical category, the KSA stands at another crossroads in its relationship with Russia as President Vladimir Putin labors to restore Russia’s place on the world stage. Putin continues to pursue his claim to global leadership, implicitly rivaling United States President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping, who is also General Secretary of China’s Communist Party. As well as staking Russia’s place, Putin also needs peace in Syria to ensure access to the Mediterranean through Syrian ports.
Russia is going to fair lengths to accomplish its targets. The visit to Riyadh in August by the leader of Russia’s Chechnya region, Ramzan Kadyrov, appeared designed to boost Russian influence. In a web post, Kadyrov referred to ‘… the traditional friendly ties between Saudi Arabia and Russia …’.
Economically, the KSA needs to find more solutions to falling oil prices and more strategies for economic diversification and the strategies outlined in its Vision 2030plan include attracting more foreign investment.
Taken together, the sum total of how KSA deals with each of these (and other) crossroads, will determine its future. What is clear is that the country is more outward looking than ever, and will build on two very important factors: it is considered one of the Western world’s best friends in the Middle East; and the environment for foreign direct investment has never been better.
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