Changes in the political scene of Saudi Arabia, which are ostensibly called “Reforms”, are actually in the interests of authoritarian and arrogant Saudis.
The excessive proximity of Bin Salman to Jared Kushner and their backstage relations have caused the young Crown Prince to courageously pursue his political reforms, both inside and outside, in the foreign policy, powerfully and speedily. Centralization, or rather, excessive self-centeredness, is what Mohammed Bin Salman wishes to achieve in the coming years of his rule. In the internal scene, Bin Salman does not want to confront Saudi powerful jurisprudents who have a legitimate public and governmental base. Instead of direct confrontation with them, he intends to harness them by setting up quasilegal agencies. Economic dimensions in Saudi Arabia’s reforms cannot be disregarded. Bin Salman is vehemently seeking to reduce the dependence of the Saudi economy on oil. Therefore, the Saudi giant, Aramco, will be the first victim of Mohamed Bin Salman’s plan.
1. Propping up Saudi Government
Many princes of the House of Saud and those arrested are of the opinion that Mohammed Bin Salman’s actions are not for the purpose of modernizing the country, rather they are for the purpose of preventing the fall of the Saudi regime. In their views, Mohammed Bin Salman has adopted measures, which before him, were not taken seriously by Hosni Mubrak in Egypt and Bin Ali in Tunisia. Bin Salman is trying to attract the attention of the young generation of his country through modernization and the fight against corruption. The younger generation was the main actor in the fall of Arab dictatorships. Therefore, by arresting elites in the government, Bin Salman is trying to obtain a new form of legitimacy. This legitimacy does not require the consensus of the corrupt and religious elites of the House of Saud. According to Washington Think-tank, Bin Salman intends to establish “the second kingdom” just like the “second republic” in Saudi Arabia. In this second kingdom, the young generation will be the most significant component in governmental decision-making. The Washington Institute described Bin Salman’s rush for making reforms in Saudi Arabia as dangerous. According to the institute, this will increase the likelihood of an “internal coup” against Bin Salman in the Saudi family.
In last month’s arrests in Saudi Arabia, Bin Salman also sought the appeasement of the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars as the highest religious institution in Saudi Arabia. In a statement in support of the fight against corruption, the council stated that eradication of corruption was also prescribed by Islam, and that the fight against corruption is tantamount to the fight against terrorism. Some sources have mentioned the establishment of a new anti-corruption committee. In addition, Bin Salman closed the runways of Riyadh airports to private flights and aircrafts. That is why, it is said that he was going to arrest more wealthy and powerful businessmen and figures.
Bin Salman plans to set up the largest national fund of the world, called the Public Investment Fund, by the year 2030, with a wealth of $2 trillion. A quarter of the assets of this fund will be invested outside Saudi Arabia. The main purpose in setting up the fund is to reduce dependence on oil. The financial resources of the fund will be supplied by the investment of world economic giants. As an example, the chairman of the Japan Softbank Group, Masayoshi Son, has promised to invest $25 billion in the fund. The Saudi side will also reciprocate the Japanese investment with a $20 billion investment in the technology of the group. Moreover, Blackrock Investment Company plans to help increase the capital of the fund. In line with foreign investment, by cooperating with the American Financial and Multinational Service Company, Blackstone, the Fund intends to spend $20 billion in US infrastructure. The fund intends to diversify Saudi revenues and has set a target to collect $400 billion by 2020. The fund currently has $230 billion worth of assets.
Thus, outside the country, Saudis have invested $20 billion in Blackstone, $45 billion in the Soft Bank Group, $3.5 billion in Uber and $1 billion in the Virgin Greenhouse Tourism Company, and inside the country, they plan to invest $500 million in a new energies business, $2.4 billion in a dairy factory near Riyadh, $1.1 billion to support small and medium-sized businesses, and $4.8 billion to develop the Jeddah Jetty along the Red Sea. Along with these investments, the Saudis intend to transfer the ownership of Saudi Arabian oil giant, Aramco, to the Public Investment Fund. By selling just 5% of the Saudi shares of Aramco, the Saudis have earned $1.6 billion in cash and have deposited it in the fund. This transfer will allow Saudi Arabia to rely on foreign investment, rather than on oil revenue.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund plans to reach $2 trillion investment by 2030. Economic experts believe that $2 trillion will be generated through the sale of Saudi Aramco Oil Giant stocks to the fund. At the time being, the Aramco Oil Company is worth $1-1.5 trillion and its sale to the fund will bring about the largest national fund in the world. Mohammed Bin Salman has indicated that the investment fund should be launched in 2018. The head of the fund is Yasir Al-Rumayyan.
The Atlantic Council Think tank has also referred to the arrest of 11 Saudi princes and capitalists. Quoting Wall Street Journal, this think tank has indicated that Mohamed Bin Salman intends to offset part of his budget deficit by seizing $800 billion of these funds. In foreign media, the night at which the arrests were made has been called the “Night of the Long Knives”.
On the “Night of Long Knives”, on June 30, 1934, Adolf Hitler began extensive cleansing of the Nazi party and the elimination of his internal enemies. The Atlantic Council reported that the attack was coordinated with the Trump administration, because in the evening of the same day, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was in Riyadh. Experts believe that Bin Salman is going to extremes to demonstrate to the Trump administration that he is an ally to be trusted. In September, Bin Salman spoke of “moderate Islam” as a way to progress in Saudi Arabia. However, it should be noted that at the same time more than 20 radical scholars opposed to Bin Salman’s reforms were arrested in Saudi Arabia.
3-US Administration’s Support
In a speech in the UAE, Ed Rogers, the famous American lobbyist in the Congress, pointed out that Trump’s unconditional support for Bin Salman’s foreign policy is cancelled out by Rex Tillerson’s and James Mattis’s actions and statements. On the other hand, although the Congress is now dominated by Republicans, in the 2018 election, the current situation may reverse and the Democrats can surpass Republicans. In this case, Bin Salman and his Arab allies in the Persian Gulf can no longer consider the Congress as their ally, as they do the US administration. The House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution last month, criticizing the crisis in Yemen. The non-binding resolution calls on the US administration to send US military equipment and weapons to Saudi Arabia with the knowledge of and permission from Congress. In Obama’s era, Mohammed Bin Salman, along with Emirates Ambassador to the United States, Al-Otaiba, tried very hard so that Obama would put the Middle East in his top priorities. Obama’s administration was not that much interested in the Middle East and the US commitments. “They are a superpower the world over, and must act like one” Bin Salman said about the US in 2016. Trump’s agendas for pushing back Iran, fight against terrorism and the Palestinian-Israeli peace plan have made the Middle East a top priority again for the United States, a matter which makes Bin Salman and the Persian Gulf states extremely happy.
4-The Saudi Arabian Society
Given the activities of the young Crown Prince over the last two years, it is not difficult to predict Saudi Arabia’s future if he is on the throne. It seems that in future, with Mohammed Bin Salman’s being the king in Saudi Arabia, government centralization will be even more, because in the past, Abdul Aziz’s princes and descendants were at the head of a governing body, and there was no formal and centralized structure of power in Saudi Arabia. However, Bin Salman is vehemently seeking to give Saudi Arabia a centralized and formal structure of power inside the country. Therefore, the reforms will affect not only the country, but also the entire Saudi family. Saudi Arabia, as a society without any political party and without elections, is divided into tribes, ethnicities, religions (with varying degrees of religiosity) and social classes. Although these rarely group out systematically outside the government, some of these groups have managed to relate to some governmental agencies and have been able to attract the attention of these government bodies in Saudi Arabia. This has led to a lack of any social dynamism in Saudi Arabia, since any new initiative taken should be coordinated with the relevant organizations.
As the Carnegie Foundation put it, because Saudi Arabia is rich in oil, the princes exercised some degree of power and authority, and increased their sphere in the institutions they were governing. This would make the governmental institutions act as isolated and separate islands, and it would be very hard, or even impossible, to coordinate them. The result of this situation in Saudi Arabia in the past was the creation of masses of profit-seeking networks, contractors and employers that were influential in the country’s various bureaucracies. Therefore, each bureaucracy and government institution in Saudi Arabia would transform into autonomous groups of government, and in a sense to the “freehold estate” of the princes who ruled them.
Now, the advent of Mohammed Bin Salman is a threat to the old and decentralized system, and the power of these princes will be on the decline. Some analysts and political think tanks in the United States have strongly supported the actions taken by Bin Salman and called them “effective decision” to overcome “political stagnation”. Stefanie Lacroix has said, “Decision-making in Saudi Arabia has entirely been horizontal and consensual. Therefore, in order to make a decision, it was necessary to win the approval of all influential people. But now it’s time to make decisions vertically, from top to bottom without their opposition”.
Without official representatives and elections in Saudi Arabia, on social networks, the people in the country are talking about various political and sensitive issues such as the royal family and the fight between them. But the Saudi intelligence and security agencies are vigorously monitoring social networks and are trying very hard to prevent the dissidents and those opposed to them from taking the control of government organizations. In addition to the opposition, the Saudi regime is monitoring those Saudi individuals and authorities who keep silent on social networks. For example, Salman Al-Awad, the Saudi preacher, has been banned from traveling after welcoming the mediation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
5-Managing the role of Islam in Government
In most Arab countries in the region, the Islamic jurisprudence plays an irreplaceable role in the regional countries’ rules and laws. The Persian Gulf states have managed to establish a judicial system based on Islam and in some areas, this system of judicial, legislative and legal procedures acts independently of Islam. The Wahhabi jurisprudents who also serve as judges are vigorously opposed to drafting and revisions of the country’s laws. For example, commercial tribunals that were established at the time of the establishment of the Saudi Kingdom in Saudi Arabia, were later abolished by the same judges because they believed that the purpose of these tribunals was to form a judicial system, independent of Sharia, just like the western countries.
One of the reforms that Benjamin has in mind is reviewing and, if necessary, limiting some aspects of extremist Islam, at least to the public scene of Saudi Arabia’s community and to reduce hardline Islamic rules. Saudi Arabia’s Religious Committee for Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong, dubbed the Religious Police in Saudi Arabia, is an example of an institution that was strongly supported by the Saudi judicial system. On April 11, 2016, the Saudi Parliament passed a law to reduce the executive authority of the Guidance Board. One of the most important articles of this law was the removal of the authority of the board for criminal and administrative detention, prosecution, questioning, interrogation and examination of the identity card. After removing these powers, the role of this board was reduced to Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in the context of good intention. Instead of direct intervention, the Bboard has the sole responsibility of reporting to the police or the Counter Narcotics Office.
As seen so far, Bin Salman’s ultimate objective is not transforming the entire jurisprudential and religious system in Saudi Arabia. Rather, he intends to make changes in religious institutions and structures and through these changes, to pave the way for reforms in the judicial system, just like what the Saudi Arabia’s Board of Ministers did to the Committee of Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong and limited the authority of this religious institution.
- Reforms in Saudi Arabia cannot come about without serious and significant repercussions. The expectation is that Bin Salman will increase his authoritarianism, or as Americans put it, his ‘centralization’ in government in future. For many years, Saudi Arabia’s governing body has been composed of influential princes and grandchildren of House of Saud. With extensive arrests last month, Bin Salman took the first step toward ending this form of government. Crown Prince has in mind to rule for several decades in the future political sphere of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, in order to get rid of the consensus-based system of princes, he wants to be a monarch in Saudi Arabia. Practical steps taken indicate that he has put an end to the system in which “princes rule”. Right now, in Saudi Arabia, the princes who oppose Bin Salman do not feel secure. It should be noted that all the young Crown Prince’s actions have been taken with the green light given by the White House and with the prior knowledge of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
- In economic respects, Bin Salman intends to merge the Saudi oil giant, Aramco, into a national fund. The fund’s vision for the year 2030 is to reach a capital of $2 trillion. That’s why he wants to sell at least part of the company’s shares. Donald Trump and his team also try to convince Bin Salman to offer the shares of this oil giant on New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq Stock for sale. However, according to Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JUSTA), the victims of the 9/11 attacks can pursue their civil lawsuits against the Saudi government in the US courts. Therefore, in the event of a court order, the US government must compensate the victims of terrorist activities with Saudi’s assets in the United States.
- The role of Islam in government is another relevant issue for Bin Salman. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia reacts to everything that threatens his authority. Saudi jurisprudents have a strong and powerful role in Saudi politics. Bin Salman wants to harness the centers of power in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, after the princes, he intends to reduce and limit the powers of the theologians and the jurisprudents in the government. Americans refer to these acts as “moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia”. However, these reforms emanate from Bin Salman’s personal ambitions. For example, one can mention the rise of legislative and quasi-legislative entities in Saudi Arabia’s internal scene to restrict the powers of the Wahhabi jurisprudents, such as the Committee of Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong, or the Saudi judicial system. These are among Bin Salman’s actions for the future of Saudi Arabia.