By Guest Columnist Mona Al Ghussein.
In a series of breath taking actions Mohammad bin Salman bin Abulaziz, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, has shaken public perception of Saudi Arabia and stirred the very foundations of the Gulf kingdom.
The dramatic arrests of prominent Saudi citizens, including former government ministers and princes, on corruption charges marked the prelude of a series of actions carefully orchestrated for maximum impact at both local and international levels.
These were soon followed by announcements of ‘progressive’ changes that included more rights for women and the re-opening of cinemas and entertainment centres. An enlightened period was about to emerge.
All good stuff, or so it would appear.
But how genuine is this shift towards progress? What do these reforms mean without an overhaul of the Saudi political system that is entrenched in absolute monarchical rule?
How will this ambitious driven young Prince who has been promoted as ‘visionary’ ‘courageous’ and a ‘breath of fresh air’ fare in bringing about true reform to Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of Arab states?
Only time will tell whether the highly orchestrated PR campaign to present the Saudi Crown Prince as an enlightened reformer will achieve results in a country mired in an entitlement culture, with an abysmal human rights record; a deep rooted custom of deference that bars legitimate criticism, and the total absence of a free press with the ability to question, challenge,investigate or debate without fear or favour.
The latter issue will be the key that unlocks the core question of this would be transformation? Will the culture of media obsequiousness melt away? Will the media finally be free to question and inform?
In short, is this ‘transformation’ about a power grab or the genuine implementation of much needed reforms?
Can opposition groups expect to be allowed to freely dissent? And will these conversations take place and be allowed to take place in the Saudi public sphere? Indications so far in the Saudi media don’t suggest that will be the case.
This ‘revolution’ appears to be full of catchy worded intentions designed to appeal to western governments but which fail to address any substantive political reforms, yet there has been no public or media debate in the Saudi press that has raised or challenged what these ‘reforms’ are about.
Political activists still languish in jails and the Saudi media continues to self censor while remaining actively barred from voicing any hint of criticism or raising questions that might provoke a meaningful national conversation.
Clearly the ambitious Prince has the support of the US and the UK governments but again there has been no internal public discussions as to why they support him? His recent tour of the US and Europe was more akin to a celebrity promoting their latest venture, than the official visit of a leading member of a foreign royal family.
The massive purchase of American arms, agreed during the Prince’s visit, was certainly to the advantage of the US, but what advantage is it to the Saudi people? In the UK, the extent of British Government support was witnessed by slick and swift meetings arranged with the Queen and high ranking members of her government, all designed to pump up this emerging new power force. Pragmatist might rightly point out that the advantage to the British Treasury of selling billions in arms to the new kid in town outweighed any reservations about his long term intentions.
The Crown Prince may well herald a new era of change; he could well go on to achieve massive reforms that bring about equity, the rule of law and a more democratic society in his homeland. Time will tell.
However, the way he began his mission understandably raised questions. There was something perverse in the wholesale arrest of dozens of prominent Saudis, who were subsequently held in confinement at the five star Ritz Carlton Hotel until they ‘repaid’ their ‘ill gotten gains’. A laudable mission many would say and long overdue.
Yet no questions were raised either about the methodology of the operation, rumoured to be based on the contents of a confidential list allegedly given to the Crown Prince by the son in law of President Donald Trump, Jared Kuchner, adherence to the rule of law or indeed how the Crown Prince himself had amassed such enormous personal wealth. It could, of curse, be argued that his family’s position gave him untold advantages for business. His father is, when all is said and done, the King of one of the richest countries in the world. Yet these legitimate questions are not publicly debated or even alluded to in the mainstream Arab press .
If one looks closely at that whole affair, a wider audience might well perceive it as nothing more than a powerful whim, a tactile ploy to consolidate power internally and ‘buy’ western support through the purchase of massive amounts of arms, while giving a cursory nod to reforms.
But with the consolidation of power for the Crown Prince, a whole host of issues has risen and we must now question whether these changes are about consolidating power or initiating substantive changes and reforms?
Take the women’s issue, in reality the new changes are no more than grains of ‘progress’ and ‘liberalisation’ that are long overdue but remain a long way from equality. The Saudi Arabian system continues to bar women from travel or marriage without the approval of their legal male guardian. Conversely, it can be argued that this is just the beginning and, while it may well be, why are these questions not being raised and debated?
Prince Mohammad is in a difficult position. He has to take into account the powerful religious clergy that traditionally have resisted change, and an increasingly young population savvy with social media who want more than platitudes. It was never going to be a smooth or easy ride. His actions may well justify the old cliché of providing a ‘means to an end’.
Political change and reform takes time and was never going to happen overnight but one of the very first indications of genuine transformation is usually the opening up of the media by allowing the press to challenge the political system without fear of repercussions.
The French and American Revolutions contributed largely to the beginnings of a free press in their respective homelands.
Such openness also provides an opportunity to state exactly where these reforms will eventually lead.
At the core of both these revolutions was the concept of equality for all. The American constitution begins with the words: ‘We the people’. Meanwhile, the French revolution publicly embraced the age of enlightenment and adopted the philosophies of Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Diderot of ‘equality’ and ‘freedom of the individual’. The recent statements of reforms by the Saudi Crown Prince don’t even touch on this.
We are increasingly moving into a Trumpian world where PR takes precedence over substance, where criticism, dissent and debate are arbitrarily dismissed as ‘fake’ news, a warm environment for autocrats of all nationalities and political stripes to thrive without accountability, responsibility or transparency.Saudi Arabia has the potential to be a leader in bringing about substantive reforms, much needed in the region. It could be a shining light on a new era of enlightenment, progress and sacrosanct rights for the individual but to achieve this the Saudi media in all its forms must have a role in raising questions both of accountability and the rule of law.
But its main constituents should and must be the people and not their rulers.
Mona Al Ghussein is a British Palestinian writer, educated in the UK and Paris.
She has contributed to many international newspapers and magazines on the subject of international conflict, on which she is a specialist. Mona has, at various times, sat on Boards focusing on conflict issues and is currently Vice Chair of the organisation British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BBMSD)