Monday, November 6, 2017

In Saudi Arabia, another Modernizing, Dictatorial King

In the Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries several kings tried to shake up their kingdoms and bring them up to date. Casting aside traditional alliances with the nobility and the church they sought a new power base among the educated, moneyed class of rapidly growing cities, and in a newly professionalized officer corps. To compensate for the loss of prestige rooted in tradition, they glorified themselves as reformers. They often relied on hired foreign experts to carry through their schemes and add glamour to their regimes.

It struck me, reading about the recent moves of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that they might fit into this pattern: he wants to be the Frederick the Great of Saudi Arabia. His iron fist moves against his own relatives have been accompanied by others designed to win the support of the urban middle class: more freedom for women, limits on the power of the conservative clergy and a call for a "more moderate Islam," moves to modernize the economy. He launched this house cleaning as head of a new committee to root out corruption, which seems to me like a transparent bid to ally himself with the urban populace against the rest of his own family.

In Saudi Arabia the king has been more of a first among equals in the princes of his generation, rather than a sovereign, and Mohammed's moves can also be seen as an attempt to break free of these limits. After all there are hundreds of princes in his generation, and if the rule-by-family consensus tradition is not broken there would be a veritable Parliament of royals. So here is another reason for an ambitious man to attack Saudi tradition and seek new sources of authority: because the tradition would set stark limits on royal power.

I am not sure how Mohammed's aggressive foreign policy fits into his plans. Maybe that's just how he and his father think. But maybe taking a very tough line against Iranian influence and stepping up the war in Yemen is another attempt to unify the kingdom around the king and his son. If so, this seems to me like a bad omen for the next several years.

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