The Iran Project

Bin Salman’s gamble to stay in power

Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (AFP photo)

Alwaght – The so-called reforms campaign, or better to say the socio-cultural pseudo-modernization, in Saudi Arabia, after two years still moves in the not-that-much-sturdy route. Although the media no longer give the efforts much coverage, the campaign seems to still move on. Some reports and measures inside the Arab kingdom even talk about upcoming speeding up of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s controversial project to transform the ultra-conservative socio-cultural structure of the country.

On last Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Entertainment in an unprecedented move announced that all of the restaurants and cafes across the kingdom now are allowed to add arts like music to their services. Mujtahed, a Saudi whistleblower on Twitter, has recently revealed that Prince Mohammed considered lifting the ban on alcohol sales in the country. Mujtaged also claimed that the next stage of bin Salman’s Westernization of the society will include allowing sales of alcoholic drinks first at the luxury hotels then at the restaurants. He would, the whistleblower revealed, open nightclubs and casinos. It is noteworthy that in early 2018, according to a law issued by the Royal Court alcohol imports to the country were legal under the condition that they were sold only to the foreign nationals and thus the Saudi citizens were still banned from drinking.

Two major reasons are believed to push bin Salman to take radical reform actions in the upcoming weeks.

Covering the scandals by reforms

Over the past two years, the crown prince, with advice and help from the West, took largely ostensible reform steps including giving women the right to drive and opening cinemas. The measures mainly served an aim to buy legitimacy for Prince Mohamed’s ambitions for the throne and counter his major domestic rivals. But all of the work done to paint him the champion of reforms was marred by killing of his critic Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October by a hit squad sent by the young prince. The killing of the prominent journalist abruptly mobilized the global media atmosphere against the de facto ruler and his policies. In fact, all of the measures that could help him sell himself as a progressive person and meet the Western expectations in the kingdom’s society and culture without a fear of the collapse of the ruling Al Saud regime were spoiled by Khashoggi assassination.

In the middle of this situation, bin Salman finds his position seriously shaky. Recently, the European Union added Saudi Arabia’s name to the list of terror supporters, sending a new warning to the ambitious prince. In the US, Most of the Democrats of the Congress and many of the Republicans, citing the US intelligence community’s reports, held bin Salman directly accountable for the journalist’s killing. And Turkey, on the other hand, is insisting that the murder case should be pursued internationally to bring the culprit to justice.

In such a scandalous situation, it seems that the crown prince now seeks to restore his heavily destroyed prestige in the eyes of the media, the public, and the Western governments. He finds the solution in radical socio-cultural freedoms, hoping that he once again take a center stage in admiring media reports. Lifting the ban on alcohol and allowing opening of casinos in a quite Western style are the measures that are expected to represent bin Salman’s new round of reforms.

Oil income falls amid rising costs

Another reason Bin Salman heads to the tradition-breaking cultural reforms is the government’s plans to increase its non-oil incomes and cut the reliance on oil, an intention marked by Vision 2030 roadmap released in 2016.

Saudi Arabia has seen a fall in the oil income as the prices kept falling over the past few months. The country also has on its shoulder the heavy burden of Yemen war, now in its fourth year. And furthermore, the kingdom pays the foreign states to save its purchased alliance and maintain its regional plans. These all disrupt the flow of funding to the country’s ambitious economic projects. The open doors policy implementation, Saudis think, can help curb the funding deficit by attracting tourists and investors. The policy has not worked so far. Khalid bin Faisal Al Saud, the wali (governor) of Mecca, earlier made revelations about the country’s worsening economic conditions and the exit of investment capital from the country. Many experts read the revelation a sign to the failure of bin Salman’s reforms.

Bin Salman himself seems to see scanty the reforms so far made and sees it necessary to make bigger ones. In Mid-December 2018, music stars including Enrique Iglesias and The Black Eyes Pears hip-hop band performed at an entertainment festival including Formula E race in the capital Riyadh. At the time, Reuters reported that the highly conservative kingdom witnessed an event rarely seen before and it was the flow of the Western tourists to Riyadh city. This was the first time, Reuters reported, that the country hosted an electric car race.

Furthermore, in September 2018, during a Saudi Arabia-Argentina friendly football match, an Argentinean wine brand installed an ad banner in King Fahad Stadium. The banner was massively circulated online, with many uses condemning the move and calling it anti-Islamic.

Additionally, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF) says it is launching a resort project on Red Sea coasts for “luxury entertainment lovers” to put the country’s name in the world’s tourism map. The emphasis on the international standards in the project will possibly mean that women will be allowed to have a sunbath or swim with a bikini, something unprecedented in the whole history of the Arab monarchy.

An aim to stop capital exit from the country is also driving these measures. Every year, thousands of Saudi citizens travel abroad for vacations, taking out millions of dollars of money to the destination countries. Prince Khalid bin Sultan, the head of Saudi Cycling Federation, said “we do not just open the door to the foreign sports fans but also introduce new and exciting sports entertainment to our own people.”

With regard to the largely conservative and religious nature of the Saudi society, such radical and even anti-Islamic reforms are seen as a gamble which not only will not help improve bin Salman’s position but also with the opposition of the religious circles it will lead to his further collapse.

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