Change is coming at an unprecedented pace in Saudi Arabia, long the kingdom of silence and gerontocracy. The economic crisis that has hit Riyadh is turning structural, with the falling price of oil and few prospects of getting back to the $100 a barrel mark, a costly war in Yemen and reverses on the Syrian battlefield.
The Saudi Binladin Group let go more than 75,000 employees and, in Beirut, staff members who depend on direct Saudi financial support have gone months without being paid.
Saudi Arabia is on the defensive after what it perceives as betrayal by the United States. Relations between Washington and Riyadh have not been so strained since the discovery of oil by American prospectors in 1938 and the agreement, signed in 1945 by King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud and US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, gave birth to the political-economic alliance between the two countries.
The nuclear accord between Washington and the Shia mullahs in Tehran is only the visible tip of the iceberg. More worrying for the Saudis is the energy independence developed by the United States since President Barack Obama took office. Today, agreements dating back almost a century are hanging by a thread.
The monarchy has reacted in two ways. The first, the traditional way, is defensive and war-like. Since last summer, Riyadh has been governed by a war cabinet whose number one enemy is expansionist Iran. With Adel al-Jubeir in the Foreign Ministry and the king’s son, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, in Defence, the gloves are off.
The Saudis have not said their last word on Syria and in Lebanon and across the region, the Shias are in their sights. Hezbollah has been officially branded as a terrorist organisation by the Gulf Cooperation Council. The execution in January of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, acclaimed as a moderate and the symbol of the oppression of the Shia region of the Eastern province, shows the extent of the intolerance towards all dissidence.
The other reaction is more intelligent. The kingdom is opening up as never before. In the political arena, where the two young leaders of Foreign Affairs and Defence have jettisoned the customary robot-speak for intelligent interviews in which they appear to think before opening their mouths. The government has been shuffled intelligently and redundant portfolios amalgamated. The cabinet has unveiled Vision 2030, promising profound social and economic change within 15 years with the Saudi citizen as the focus.
To avoid being dismissed out of hand, the Saudis must deliver — and steps towards Saudi-style perestroika are being taken at a surprising pace. The end of the unacceptable brutality of the matawi’a, officially known as the Committee to Support Virtue and Prevent Vice, has been decreed out of order.
The matawi’a are no longer permitted to arrest or even harass citizens on the street. Anyone who is not a woman cannot understand the daily humiliation dealt out by these vulgar, brutal men who strike anyone deemed to fall short of their idea of what constitutes acceptable public behaviour.
For the moment, the ridiculous ban on women drivers still stands but looks increasingly untenable for the government.
A degree of scepticism is in order. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika destroyed the Soviet Union. The leaders of Saudi Arabia know that its citizens will not be able to be treated as dispensable once the oil era is over. In the detail of the change and its rhythm will lie their success or failure.
The imposition of a value-added tax at 5% is a step in the right direction but reform needs to go further, restoring the balance between citizens’ taxes and government responsibility. Auctioning part of Aramco planned for the announced sovereign fund of $2 trillion, which would be the largest such fund in the world, is not the right way forward. It again ignores the citizen as the main source of wealth.
An analysis of the legal situation in the kingdom bodes better for the future, with fundamental reforms that are more encouraging than lofty intentions. The kingdom’s aversion to codes is well known. Yet since 2000, more than a dozen have been promulgated in Saudi Arabia, including the regulation of a legal profession that had no recognition until then and civil and criminal procedure laws. A reworking of bankruptcy law, whose centrepiece dates to 1965, is awaited eagerly; with the oil-induced collapse of companies, it is urgently needed.
Most important, and for the first time in its 100 years of history, Saudi Arabia has published thousands of rulings issued by the kingdom’s courts, decisions that hitherto have been largely secret for failure of a sanctioned reporting system. Saudi law is being normalised and, with this normalisation, and the lead taken by its young wolves, at least the kingdom is no longer the epitome of silence and gerontocracy.