Saudi Arabia Is Evolving Rapidly
For the Saudis, life is a roller coaster these days. Even as Iranian missiles threaten their national security and livelihood, previously unimaginable social freedoms are accelerating. All this leaves some of the Saudis squealing with delight; others are frozen with fear.
During a three-week visit, public delight is visible from the capital city to remote rural provinces such as Jizan in the south and Tabuk in the north. Teenage Saudi girls scream hysterically at the performance of the Korean boy band BTS. Young Saudi women with bared heads race a 5 K through the city streets wearing only short-sleeved T-shirts and tight leggings. At Starbucks, teams of young men and women relax together. Hotels are no longer allowed to request proof of marriage from Saudi couples at check-in. All this shift and more so in a culture where, until very recently, women, invariably dressed in floor-length abbeys, could not exercise, ride or appear in public with men other than close relatives.
This puritanical Islamic society increasingly reflects Western mobs as the government seeks to attract foreign tourists and investors whose money is needed to diversify the oil-dependent economy of the kingdom.
The regime is no longer concerned about the erosion of the distinctive culture of the kingdom. It believes that in a world of ubiquitous social media, all cultures are destined to blend, and it is no longer feasible, let alone desirable, for Saudi Arabia to shut itself off from inexorable global trends.
It’s difficult to assess just how this impacts the average Saudi. Open debate and discussion are not permitted, leaving the public in the dark. There is no question that some Saudis were frightened by the arrests of even mild critics, the violent death of critic Jamal Khashoggi last year, and the public stripping of influential princes ‘ riches and the right to travel in 2017. Those concerns are articulated only in a profound sense of privacy. The country operates under what might be called the Thumper Rule, after the little rabbit in “Bambi” whose father teaches him, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
“We’re all riding in the back seat of a speeding car,” said one nervous Saudi. “We can’t see where we’re going. We’re just praying that the driver knows so we can avoid crashing.” This is as close to open criticism as the Saudis plan to do these days. Another Saudi summed up things like this: “We used to debate and never decide. Now we — or rather, the King and the Crown Prince—”decide but never debate.”
There is no question that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 34, an active kingdom monarch, has agreed to press ahead with economic and social reform at full speed (the former far tougher than the latter). Nothing is going to dissuade him. The Crown Prince, those close to him say, is absolutely convinced that his reforms are essential and urgent. In his view, therefore, the debate is futile. There is no hope of reversing course — and there is no obvious worry about a conservative backlash. The once-powerful religious figures have been reduced to jargon for the government and are widely ignored by the public. Even immediate external threats are more distractive than dissuasive to the domestic agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed.
So the transition continues at a dizzying rate. The government spends billions on introducing entertainment — fighting, tennis, car racing, expensive restaurants, musical performers — to the kingdom to launch tourism. To meet the Saudi family for dinner, I’m driven by a golf cart across the park to the restaurant by a young Saudi woman with a bare face, cropped hair, and no abaya. Only a few months ago, such a dress or a career for a Saudi woman was unimaginable. “I feel out of place in my own country,” said one Saudi woman in surprise when she saw a Lebanese singer entering a hotel in Riyadh in a sleeveless mid-high top.
Economic reform, unlike social change, will require massive investment as the nation transforms the oil-dependent kingdom into a diversified economy. A major step towards funding investment is the decision announced days ago to sell public shares in Aramco, the Kingdom’s oil company. The main threat to the reform agenda comes not from within, but from outside, Saudi Arabia. Shortly before dawn on September 14, Iranian missiles and drones targeted Saudi oil fields, killing 50 percent of the country’s inventory. Aramco recovered most of its goods within a few days, but the strike underscored the weakness of the Saudi economy.
“I cried the night of the attack,” admits Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the new Saudi oil minister, and Crown Prince Mohammed’s half-brother. “The next morning, I wept tears of gratitude when our Aramco engineers assured us that things could be repaired quickly.”
Remarkably, hardly anyone I encounter here is thinking about an attack on the oil fields. When asked, almost all Saudis insist that the monarchy did the right thing by not retaliating.”We’ve got too much to lose” is a typical remark. The truth is that Saudi Arabia is not in a position to go to war with Iran, even if it is so inclined. The Saudi army is too weak, its U.S. ally too reluctant. And war would put an end to ambitious domestic reforms.
To rule out retribution, Saudi officials maintain that the attack was not really directed at Saudi Arabia; they say that the kingdom is just a front for Iran’s indignation at the US. “This was not an attack on Saudi Arabia,” says the oil minister, “but an assault on every household in the country.” He insists that the Iranians lash out on Saudi Arabia because they feel the pain of U.S. economic sanctions, but can’t strike the U.S. directly.
Crown Prince Mohammed privately called the Iranian attack “crazy dumb,” insisting that Tehran, not Riyadh, is the loser. Evidence: Iran is more isolated than ever, as Germany, Britain, and France have all blamed it for the attack, even though Europe has not imposed sanctions on Tehran. Moreover, Saudi officials say that the Houthis, who were blamed by Iran for the attack, are now more willing to find a solution to the war in Yemen that drains Saudi Arabia’s finances and international reputation. The Saudis are putting the best possible spin on the vulnerability revealed by Iran’s assault, but those at the top seem to believe it.
Meanwhile, the Saudi government is putting maximum pressure on the U.S. to provide additional military assistance to the regime. Failure to stand visibly with Saudi Arabia, say officials here, could encourage Iran to strike again and lead to higher oil prices in the US and around the world. Or the Saudis could opt for a price of oil in a currency other than the dollar, with serious consequences for the US and the global economy.
Emir Mohammed is said to have been livid about the slow U.S. response but has been frustrated by the recent decision by the Trump administration to send 2,000 additional U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia along with two Patriot missile batteries and the High Altitude Terminal Defense System, or Thaad. The American buildup seems to be designed to deter future Iranian aggression, but whether the Trump administration would engage or duck is anyone’s guess given the lack of a formal U.S .- Saudi mutual-security treaty. The Saudis are understandably nervous after President Obama failed to enforce his “red line” in Syria, and President Trump did not respond to Iran’s downing of an American drone in June or its attack on Aramco six weeks ago.