Saudia Arabia – moving into the 21st Century? Or a bubble waiting to burst?

Saudi Arabia is a theocracy ruled by a highly conservative family – the House of Saud. The current King Salman took over in 2015 and is 82 years old. Saudi Arabia adheres to an austere Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, which bans gender mixing, concerts and cinemas. It is a regime that rules with an iron fist and doesn’t bother too much about human rights.

The Crown Prince – Mohammed bin Salman – is only 32 years old and is promising major changes. He already seems to hold all the power. He has began to make significant radical progress.

The questions are many. Whether these changes are for the good? Whether they can be fully implemented or the conservative forces will topple him? Whether the idealism will translate into a better society? Will Mohammed bin Salman last or will he be deposed?

The biggest change is that he seems to be concentrating power into his own hands. Previously it has been a family affair. This will effectively become more of a dictatorship. Is that a dangerous move? In the long term will Mohammed bin Salman be a benevolent dictator?

At present the society is based on an extreme Wahhabism – a very austere form of Islam. This is the fundamentalism that gave rise to ISIS.

  • The first change that Mohammed bin Salman promises is a move to moderate Islam. That will not be easy as it challenges the power of the hard-line puritanical clerics. But he’s already locked up a number of these. Will the faithful rally to oppose him? Will he respond with ruthless violence?
  • Economic change is key. Mohammed bin Salman is attempting to look to the future and diversify so that they are prepared when oil revenue dips.
  • Anticorruption has been vital and proves very popular with young Saudis. Mohammed bin Salman has locked up many members of his own family and demanded that they pay back money they have extracted from the country.
  • The puritanism of the Wahhabi culture had suppressed women. Driving is a high profile symptom of this. Mohammed bin Salman seems to have realised tat women will have a role in the new economic vision and is bringing in liberal attitudes. Hopefully driving will be just the start of a big liberal step forward into the 21st century.
  • The new city – NEOM – is Mohammed bin Salman big idea. It will be a technological masterpiece completely powered by wind and solar and highly symbolic of this move into the modern world. Is Saudi ditching the austerity of the past and moving towards a bright new future?
  • Then there is the war in Yemen where Mohammed bin Salman is looking to oppose the influence of the Iran Houthis. What’s behind this struggle for power? Who will win out?
  • Qatar could progress into a war. Saudi has accused it of fostering terrorism and supporting Iran and has introduced a blockade. Where could this head?

It is interesting to see this power struggle play out. It is complex and the outcome uncertain. Will Saudi emerge as a modern, forward-thinking power that will help stabilise the Middle East or will it create wars and further chaos?

I would hope for a more liberal Saudi and a positive force. But maybe that is merely optimism? Are we on the brink of something good?