The budding Saudi revolution

A powerful crown prince has upended the old pillars of governance with major arrests and the sidelining of religious clerics. But will he anchor new pillars in democratic ideas?

AP Photo/ Saudi Press Agency
Saudi men and women attend national day ceremonies at the King Fahd stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 23. Women will be allowed into sports stadiums as of next year, the kingdom's latest step toward easing rules on gender segregation -- but they will only be allowed to sit in the so-called family section.

A revolution not only changes who governs a country but the type of government. This is rare in history but may be happening right now in Saudi Arabia. For the past six months, the Middle East oil giant and guardian of Islam’s holiest sites has been in the early stages of what may be a top-down revolution, led by a powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

The key question for the young crown prince is whether he can also swap out the old ideas that have propped up the regime in favor of ones that will endure in modern times.

His latest revolutionary act came on Nov. 4 with the surprise arrest of 11 princes in the ruling royal family and three dozen other senior officials and wealthy businessmen. They were charged with corruption, all in the name of bringing transparency and rule of law to a country seeking to woo foreign investors and reduce its dependency on oil.

The arrests come after another key part of this budding revolution. Islamic clerics in the religious establishment have lately lost much of their ability to police the public mores of young Saudis. This has opened new social freedoms. Most notable is that women will soon be able to drive, mingle with men at public sports events, and not have a male guardian with them in accessing public services. 

In addition, the crown prince – with a nod from King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud – has consolidated his power over the security forces, including troops tied to the kingdom’s reigning tribes.

In effect, he may be challenging the idea that Saudi Arabia must always be ruled by one family, by entrenched tribes, and by religious clerics under a consensual style of elite governance. He clearly wants to end the “extremist thoughts” of political Islam in favor of what he calls a “moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.”

Many revolutions have ended hereditary and personal rule, or tribal dominance. But to succeed, any new pillars of governance must be based on solid ideas. These include equality before the law, respect for minority rights, transparency in government, and pluralistic politics.

So far, Saudi Arabia has little of that. In fact, many human rights activists and liberal journalists were recently arrested. It is not yet clear what model of governance the crown prince really seeks as he steadily dismantles many of the old pillars.

Prince Salman often states that his changes are based on the need to accommodate the country’s large population of young people, many of whom are unemployed. More than 70 percent of the population is under age 30. His would-be revolution may so far be top down. But it is racing to fulfill the idealism and the wishes for freedom of those at the bottom of Saudi society.

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