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17 December 2017 18:03 (South Africa)
Opinionista Muhammad Sheik

Are Saudi reforms doomed to fail?

  • Muhammad Sheik
    Muhammad-Sheik.jpg
    Muhammad Sheik

    Muhammad Sheik is a Masters researcher in International Relations at UKZN specialising in Sino-Iranian Relations and is also a radio producer and broadcaster. 

Crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s aggressive moves towards modernising the Saudi kingdom in line with his “vision 2030” plan is a smokescreen designed to detract attention from Saudi Arabia’s disastrous global image.

Saudi Arabia has, by royal decree, announced that women will now be allowed to drive and obtain a driver’s licence without the permission of a husband or male guardian, in one of the most socially unequal societies in the world.

The move comes as part of plans to implement social and economic reforms in the kingdom in line with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s ambitious “Vision 2030” plan. The Crown Prince is also the First Deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, the president of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs and the youngest minister of defence in the world. He has been described as the power behind the throne of his father, King  Salman.

According to analysts Saudi Arabia has vastly overstated its oil and natural gas reserves, placing its once thriving, oil-rich economy in a precarious position. In order to move away from its reliance on oil revenues, the reformation agenda aims to bolster tourism and trade by integrating women, who have always played a less prominent role in society, into the workforce.

In the 1970s the last of Saudi Arabia’s few remaining cinemas were shut down on the insistence of hard-line clerics, many of whom have now been jailed for speaking out against the reasons behind these sweeping reforms. The kingdom has also sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into the development and construction of a new Red Sea beach resort which “allows” women to dress in swimwear, in a country whose judicial system has striking similarities to other despotic regimes across the world. Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it. So how effectively can such a society enforce a new era of reforms with the ulterior motive of reshaping its public image?

In a country where about half the population is under the age of 25, technology has been efficiently exploited by the 32-year-old crown prince whose ailing father has effectively handed control of all major decisions in the kingdom to his heir apparent. His wide-sweeping reforms have been promoted on social media and hailed by close ally the United States as a “step in the right direction”.

However, for many, including Saudi rights group Citizens Without Restrictions’ founder and spokesman, Abdul Azeez Al-Muayad, certain questions remain.

“We really want to understand how this decision was made, why did they ban it in the first place and how did they allow it now? How did this happen? We deserve to know.”

It’s no secret that Mohammed Bin Salman has sanctioned the ongoing war in Yemen which, according to the UN, from March 2015 to March 2017 has seen 16,200 people being killed. According to Human Rights Watch, “Saudi Arabia has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law.”

The Crown Prince has also been at the forefront of the ongoing diplomatic row and economic blockade of Qatar along with fellow Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) member states Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates shifting the sands of Gulf politics. The GCC accuse Qatar of financing terrorism (The irony! I know...) and Al Jazeera of biased reportage. The drastic measures have been exposed as a deliberate attempt to thwart freedom of the press, demanding that the Al Jazeera Media Network be shut down along with a laundry list of ridiculous demands. However, as a tiny oil-rich state with powerful global allies, Qatar has managed to survive and will continue to do so.

A recent secret rendezvous between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman has done little to suppress rumours of a possible re-establishing of diplomatic relations between the two states; a move which some analysts warn could increase the presence of extremist networks in the region as the monarchy faces increased dissent which is being ruthlessly quashed.

How is it that a country with this much blood on its hands, a puppet government courted by an inept US presidency and a purveyor and producer of off-shoot propaganda, be celebrated for granting a basic right to women which should never have been withheld in the first place?

Let us not forget that the royal decree is only effective in June of 2018, which is in eight months’ time, and in the realm of global politics we’ve come to see that a lot can happen in eight months. A misogynistic, kleptocratic bigot can be elected president of the United States, a Nobel laureate can be accused of genocide and ethnic cleansing in her own country, and a relatively obscure football club from Leicester City could win one of football’s biggest prizes. Eight months is a lifetime.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, tried to implement a similar system of reforms, an aggressive campaign towards westernising Iranian society, enraging the country’s mostly conservative Shia population in an attempt to appease the US regime which installed him as Shah through a coup engineered by the United States and Britain. The move backfired severely, fuelling the Iranian Revolution which overthrew the Shah and installed Ayatollah Khomeini as the nation’s supreme leader. This mirrors the Saudi Arabian experience, with extensive reformation being used as a publicity stunt to win support for the monarchy and its intelligence service, acting similarly to the Shah’s ruthless internal police, the Savak, who acted to crush dissent of any form against the establishment. With the Iranian experience, the reforms failed, the people starved and eventually the Shah was forced to flee his own country, seeking asylum in the United States.

The right of allowing women to drive can be revoked by monarchal edict just as easily as it was passed by royal decree. The hypocrisy is overwhelming. From accusing Qatar of financing terrorism to enforcing these reforms, Saudi Arabia has grossly underestimated the capacity of its citizens to see through this desperate charade.

The idea that Saudi Arabia is trying to present itself as a good guy is laughable. The regime will most definitely shoot themselves in the foot with this latest PR campaign as the sudden reforms are nothing more than an attempt to exert hegemony over the region. Nothing explains why this reform is taking place now, this suddenly, as opposed to 10 years ago. It would seem that the political motives lie behind the machinations of a new Crown Prince trying desperately to prove he can rule. DM

  • Muhammad Sheik
    Muhammad-Sheik.jpg
    Muhammad Sheik

    Muhammad Sheik is a Masters researcher in International Relations at UKZN specialising in Sino-Iranian Relations and is also a radio producer and broadcaster. 

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