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Middle East / Saudi Arabia

Why Saudi Arabia has Yet to Undergo Its Own Arab Spring

On November 28, 2017, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah was released from his makeshift “prison” in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He was the first of more than fifteen high-profile Saudi businessmen and high-ranking officials detained by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to be freed, yet only after he paid over one billion dollars in an undisclosed “settlement agreement” with authorities.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman originally categorized these arrests as part of “an anti-corruption crackdown,” but many have since speculated that these severe measures kickstarted Prince Salman’s sweeping consolidation of power in order to implement a variety of new reforms without hindrance; the Crown Prince has pushed these reforms, which consist primarily of a modernization program involving tentative social liberalization and an expansion of the private sector, to the forefront of his domestic and international agenda. Yet many are questioning whether or not these reforms will actually have beneficial and liberalizing effects on the Saudi economy and society. According to former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas W. Freeman, “all power has now been concentrated in the hands of Mohammed bin Salman.”

Crown Prince Salman’s Vision 2030 plan involves many ambitious initiatives, including over 750 transportation programs involving the construction of a new airport and a new railroad, which will ideally attract double the amount of tourists. Crown Prince Salman has also released information regarding plans to create an “entertainment city” the size of Las Vegas, which he hopes will entice Saudis to vacation in their own country. However, some have speculated that, although the government will employ thousands of Saudi people to construct and execute these new reforms, the profits of these improvements will not go to the people themselves. Income inequality and the consolidation of wealth in the top echelons of society remains one of the most prevalent issues in the country; the Saudi Royal Family itself is the richest in the world, worth an estimated $1.5 trillion, while over twenty percent of the nation’s people still live in poverty.

These modernization reforms are accompanied by the intention to return to a more moderate interpretation and practice of Islam, which many hope will loosen the reins on social repression within society. Some analysts believe that these far-reaching modernization reforms, which contrast greatly with Saudi Arabia’s generally consistent policies, will finally bring about a top-down Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia. However, this may not be the case.

Since the 1950s, Western newspapers have been using the word “reform” to describe the processes occurring within Saudi Arabia, and yet it has been deemed one of the most repressive, corrupt nations on the planet. Until late September 2017, Saudi Arabia was the only state in which women were not allowed to operate a vehicle, and the government often carries out public executions. So how is it possible for a state possessing such hierarchical, centralized power to bring about a revolution? Professor Madawi al-Rasheed of the London School of Economics is one of the many people who perceive the short-term impacts of these reforms as a distraction from the further consolidation of centralized power: “What we are seeing is not a reform programme at all. It is cosmopolitan liberalisation…They are doing what other dictators do, in allowing certain personal freedoms to make people forget about the big picture.”