Saudi Woman Driver MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia’s Revolution From Above

After becoming the heir apparent to the Saudi throne earlier this year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has quickly consolidated his power and begun to usher in a period of radical change. But as he overhauls the country's domestic and foreign policies, he is also heightening the risk of another conflict in the Middle East.

BERLIN – Seven years after the Arab Spring unleashed a wave of revolutionary fervor across most of the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi Arabia is finally catching up, albeit in its own unique way. A younger generation is demanding that the arch-conservative Kingdom modernize, and it is being led not by revolutionaries in the streets, but by Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the country’s 32-year-old crown prince and heir apparent.

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In terms of population and geography, Saudi Arabia is one of the largest Arab countries, and its staggering oil wealth has made it an indispensable strategic partner for the West, and particularly for the US. But, as a country caught between the Islamic Middle Ages and Western modernity, it has always abided extreme contradictions. State-of-the-art infrastructure and American-style shopping malls have come to Mecca and Medina, home to Islam’s most important holy sites.

But, even to this day, Saudi Arabia is home to an anti-Western tribal society, ruled by one family, the House of Saud, as an absolute monarchy since the country’s founding in 1932. Its moral and legal codes appear medieval to most outsiders. And it adheres to the extreme reactionary version of Islam known as Wahhabism, a Salafist doctrine that influences many of today’s most radical Islamist groups.

Owing to the long-term decline in oil prices and the need to provide education and employment to a fast-growing young population – who might otherwise turn to extremism – King Salman and MBS have apparently concluded that the country needs to modernize. To avoid a slow decline, or even an eventual disintegration, they are taking measures to open up the country, not just economically, but socially and culturally, too.

Earlier this month, MBS – who seems to have studied Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own consolidation of power – ordered what the Saudi government has described as an anti-corruption purge. Already, dozens of high-level princes, former ministers, and wealthy and influential businessmen have been arrested and had their accounts frozen. The purge came not long after an announcement that Saudi women will no longer be banned from driving cars or attending public sports events. Clearly, the new leadership in Saudi Arabia intends to orchestrate a veritable revolution from above.

But, lest we forget, the last autocratic ruler in the Middle East who attempted to bypass his country’s Islamic clergy and carry out a top-down revolution was the Shah of Persia, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He and his “White Revolution” were eventually swept away by Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

One can only hope that MBS’s revolution will fare better. If it fails, the radical Salafists who will assume power in Riyadh will make the Iranian mullahs look like liberals. If it succeeds in modernizing the leading bastion of reactionary Islam, the stage would be set for other countries throughout the Islamic world to do the same.

As part of his agenda, MBS has also launched an aggressive new foreign policy, particularly toward Iran. The modernizers around MBS know that the revolution’s success will require breaking the power of Wahhabism by replacing it with Saudi nationalism. And in order to do that, they need a compelling enemy. Shia Iran, with which the Kingdom is competing for regional hegemony, is the ideal foil.

These domestic considerations help to explain why Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet and escalated tensions with Iran in recent months. Of course, from the Saudis’ perspective, they are merely picking up the gauntlet that Iran already threw down by interfering in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, and other countries.

So far, the battle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been limited to proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, with disastrous humanitarian consequences. Neither side, it seems, wants a direct military conflict. And yet that outcome can hardly be ruled out, given recent developments. In the Middle East, a cold war can turn hot rather quickly.

Over the long term, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry will shape the Middle East in much the same way that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once did. Consider, for example, an episode that occurred just hours before MBS launched his anti-corruption purge: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while visiting Saudi Arabia, announced his resignation from office. According to Hariri, the Iran-aligned Shia militant group and political party Hezbollah, with which his government had a power-sharing relationship, had made governing Lebanon impossible, and may have been plotting his murder.

But Hariri, whose father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, was assassinated in 2005, raised more questions than answers. Why leave office now? Was he acting under Saudi pressure, and, if so, to what end?

Shortly after Hariri’s announcement, Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile that Houthi rebels in Yemen had fired at Riyadh. According to Saudi Arabia, because the Houthis are backed by Iran, their attempted missile strike was tantamount to an Iranian “act of war.”

This flurry of unusual developments in such a short span of time can hardly be a coincidence. The question now is whether civil war will return to Lebanon, and whether Saudi Arabia will try to involve Israel and the US in a confrontation with Hezbollah to push back against Iran.

For now, the Saudis lack the power to do that on their own. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has suffered major defeats in the regional struggle for hegemony. The Sunni minority has been ousted from power in Iraq; and Bashar al-Assad’s Iran-backed regime has managed to hold on to power in Syria. MBS may be looking for ways to offset these defeats, in Lebanon or elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia’s revolution from above is a high-risk endeavor that neutral observers must regard with ambivalence. Although it cannot be allowed to fail, given what that would entail, its success is likely to be accompanied by a dramatic increase in regional tensions and the possibility of war.

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