The Prince of Arabia?
Reform in the House of Saud: remodelling the kingdom for a brighter future
photo by David Jones (Flickr)
by Michael McKean
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited London last week, received cordially by a welcoming UK government, but also by protestors challenging his country’s questionable human rights record. His trip, which also took on Cairo and New York, was the Prince’s first foreign tour as heir to the Saudi throne, seen as a chance to project the kingdom as a youthful society determined to reform. Charismatic and forward-thinking, he is overseeing a shift in Saudi policy and is the driving force behind his father, King Salman, who recently granted women the right to drive. The country is also set to lift a decades-long ban on cinemas. Furthermore, Prince Salman will spearhead Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’, a plan to transform the Saudi economy into a market-based economy. He realises the oil won’t last forever so the plan is to utilise other sources of income. These are all welcome changes.
I do, however, think the British stance on the country is hypocritical and at times inconsistent with the values these British officials claim to uphold. Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and others have all praised the Saudis with open arms. Yet they fail to mention the Yemeni civilians who continue to die as a result of the Saudi-led, British-backed bombing campaign on that nation. The Saudis may or may not be taking the right side in this conflict, but that’s beside the point: their planes are slaughtering defenceless children. Crown Prince Salman, as Saudi Defence Minister, is complicit in this injustice. By implication, we are also supporting the Saudi stance on Iran, the other major regional power, one with a Shi’a-majority population whom the Saudis practically regard as infidels. Saudi nationalism is a big problem. I had an Egyptian acquaintance who spoke of a Saudi superiority complex, thinking they have the correct interpretation of Islam with their extreme Wahhabist version. His words reflected a large perception across the Middle East.
Why do we therefore support the Saudis? In an old interview [from when?] David Cameron, pressed by presenter Jon Snow, gave the answer: “the Saudis provide information vital to our national security. Of course, there’s the oil too, but he’s not going to mention that, is he?” Theresa May has said that the visit to London by the Crown Prince was about “strengthening our relationships around the world and standing up for our values.” However, it must be said that there is a big ‘values gap’ between Riyadh and London which these government officials tend to overlook. The Saudi system of justice has been rightly criticised for its harsh sentencing and Inquisition-style judges. Witchcraft and ‘sorcery’ are punishable by beheading, but these same judges are also overly-lenient in cases of rape or wife-beating, leaving thousands of women unable to secure a divorce. And, unlike in Britain, the Royal Family dominates politics. Alcohol in the desert kingdom is of course heavily frowned upon. (Ironically, the English word for ‘alcohol’ somehow comes from an Arabic source. Goodness knows how that happened.) Neither Saudi citizens nor guest workers have the right to freedom of religion. Atheists are legally designated as terrorists. Basically, parts of the system are incompatible with the modern world.
That being said, although the Prince’s reforms represent a welcome shift away from some Draconian aspects in the country’s laws, I don’t want to see Saudi Arabia turned into another Dubai with heavy Westernisation: glittering and pleasing to the eyes perhaps, but artificial and plastic.
The Crown Prince must seek a middle ground between the two extremes of backwards Draconianism and heavy Westernisation, a line which I think he’s straddling quite well.
Many Saudi practices may seem horrific to us, but hey, that’s their way. Middle Eastern countries have tended to be more authoritarian; that’s just a difference in culture. Our ways are not their ways. Many of them equally look down on our excesses in drugs, binge-drinking and pointless TV series, though Wikileaks cables indicate the Saudi royals secretly indulge in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll behind closed doors. These leaked cables tell of an underground Halloween party thrown in 2009 with liquor and prostitutes which broke every one of the kingdom’s laws. Oh, the joys of corrupt power! As you get older though and experience different cultures, you come to realise that different practices and beliefs are born out of the soil of the land, the climate, the environment and the people. You just have to take them as they are. As I said though, Crown Prince Salman can and is doing a good job of wiping out some of the more extreme elements in the country’s make-up. Long may it continue.