Saudi reforms: The realpolitik of change

Saudi reforms are a way to preserve its political order

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

April 9, 2018

The global media has been abuzz with the pace of reforms in Saudi Arabia. And rightly so. After all the country has come a long way. From being the world’s only country to bar women from driving, it has now even made abaya, a loose-fitting robe that covers a woman’s body, optional. The country’s gender-segregation rules have eased dramatically. Once restricted to public-sector jobs, women can now even join the military. The percentage of Saudi women in the workforce — 22 — is now slightly less than India’s 27 per cent. A woman is helming the first fashion show in April that will bring top international designers to Saudi Arabia, which was until recently one of the world’s most restrictive countries for women.

On the face of it, the feverish reforms look extraordinary. But they may not look so if seen in the backdrop of pragmatism Saudi rulers have followed since al Saud family patriarch Abdul Aziz founded the country in 1932. The kingdom was built with the West’s help on the ruins of the Ottoman Caliphate, whose caliph was considered as the global Muslim religious head. The threats to the Caliph’s sanctity had triggered the Khilafat movement in India.

Nothing illustrates Saudi realpolitik more than its deep ties with the US. The relationship survived the American betrayal of Arabs with Israel’s creation in Palestine with the US help in 1948. The betrayal counted for little in view of the protection the alliance with the US offered from rival Hashemite tribe in exchange for concessions offered to American oil corporations. By 1960s, the alliance was elevated to a level just below that of the Almighty. Crown prince, who took over as the king a year later, is reported to have told US ambassador Parker T Hart in 1963 that “after Allah we trust America”.

Common foes – secular Arab nationalists and Communism – cemented the ties. Use of Islam as a political and strategic tool became par for the course. President Dwright D Eisenhower assigned the Saudi king role of Islamic pope in the 1950s. The legacy injected the poison of sectarianism that was exported at a great human cost to counter the 1979 Iranian revolution. To cap it all, the promotion of a perverse form of jihad in the 1980s led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it unleashed nihilistic forces that continue to extract a heavy toll on Afghans, who are reaping the bitter fruits of the millions of dollars Saudis poured into the anti-Communist campaign. A large part of this money was used for preparing textbooks with violent imagery to radicalise a generation of impressionable young men.

The chicken came home to roost for the Americans in September 2001 and the so-called Islamic State (IS) reared its ugly head next door for Saudis in Iraq in 2014. The developments underscored the hydra-headed monster their adventures abroad had created. The IS’s rise has played a part in the Saudi course correction while it has more to do with ensuring stability and order the Saudi rulers have always put a premium on.

Conservatism was the state policy when the situation demanded so. The rulers have shifted their ground because it is in the interest of the maintenance of political order. The dipping oil prices have hurt the economy and affected the allocation of funds for welfare schemes and patronage, which have played a key role in the ensuring political status quo. Rentier economy is no longer viable, it must diversify to end the dependence on oil and keep the welfare schemes going.

Reforms are the key to the diversification along with the demographic realities that make them necessary. As many as 75 per cent people in Saudi Arabia are aged below 30 while the adult female literacy rate was 91 per cent in 2013. The people are conditioned to see the rulers as providers and the source of their luxuries, which make it easy for them to affect change. The clergy is no different. It has endorsed the reforms and has for instance conveniently linked issues like the ban on women driving to culture. Saudi Arabia earlier had the clergy even legitimise presence of 500,000 American soldiers in the country of Islam’s holiest shrines as a cushion against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and to end his occupation of Kuwait

Whatever may be the reasons. The reforms are better late than never. Their impact will be felt beyond the Saudi borders. The position of Saudi rulers as the custodians of Islam’s holiest shrines gives them a unique leverage over Muslims globally. The positive developments will for instance hopefully accelerate the pace of women emancipation beyond Saudi Arabia. They will help end – in some cases – the less than equal status the export of their conservatism has legitimised for women. The success of the Saudi reforms would also have to be measured in terms of its impact in reversing the poisoning of minds and returning to the essence of Islam: Compassion.

The focus needs to shift to the Islamic mandate of the creation of an egalitarian society based on kindness and forgiveness. The focus should go back to the bigger jihad, the struggle against evil within and to dissuasion from fighting (qital or harb) that features in the Quran 70 times against the reference to jihad (41 times). This real spirit of Islam underlined by the Quranic verse that calls the killing of an innocent akin to slaying the entire humanity must now prevail. And at all costs to rid the world of the scourge of terrorism and Islamophobia it encourages.

Courtesy: The Indian Express

The realpolitik of change

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