It’s true that MbS, as he’s known, is allowing women to drive. But—despite the lavish publicity blitz unleashed for his visit to Britain—this isn’t going to make Saudi Arabia a feminist paradise.
MbS has been the dominant figure in Saudi Arabia since his father Salman ascended the throne in 2015. He has moved very quickly to shake up the kingdom, the broader Middle East region, and indeed the world economy.
Saudi Arabia’s position as the world’s biggest oil exporter is central to its power. This has been threatened by the rise of the US shale industry, which has exerted downward pressure on the prices of oil and gas.
In an effort to break the competition from shale, the Saudis refused to cut output—a measure normally taken by the Opec oil cartel when prices are falling.
But most shale producers were able to hang on thanks to support from US banks. Eventually the Saudis backed down and agreed to cut production.
This failure is typical of MbS. He has also tried to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil by launching an ambitious “Vision 2030” of economic reforms.
But when MbS announced a clampdown on corruption and detained leading businessmen, including members of the royal family, many would-be investors had second thoughts.
The planned stock market float of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, has been delayed until 2019.
The anti-corruption drive was aimed mainly to eliminate MbS’s rivals within the huge ruling family at a time when his father had just made him crown prince. Reforms like the decision to allow women to drive were intended to show that, as the ads claimed, “He is changing Saudi Arabia.”
But there are definite limits to how far MbS can go.
He is the product of a highly repressive dynastic regime that legitimates itself on the basis of an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. Any real democratisation of
Saudi Arabia would very quickly unravel this set-up.
Not that MbS is any kind of democrat. After all, he will become king on his daddy’s say-so. At the regional level he has mobilised Saudi power against its two great rivals—the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
This has involved invading Yemen, backing jihadi militias in Syria, propping up the dictator Abdel Fatah el-Sissi in Egypt, and blockading Qatar. As in the case of MbS’s economic policies, none of this has gone very well.
The war in Yemen has become a quagmire as well as a humanitarian disaster.
Blockading Qatar has pushed it towards Iran, whose influence in the region is growing.
The defeat of Isis in Syria and Iraq has strengthened Iran’s allies, who control both countries’ governments.
So Rhoula Khalaf, the very experienced Middle East journalist and deputy editor of the Financial Times, argued that “Saudi Arabia’s strongman is doing too much, too fast.”
But for the bulk of the British establishment it’s business as usual with Saudi Arabia, judging by other headlines elsewhere in the same newspaper.
One said, “Business chiefs flock to build bridges with Saudi Arabia”. Another, “Saudi moves towards buying
48 Typhoon fighters from BAE.”
This latter article skates over the fact that these warplanes are inflicting death and misery on a daily basis in Yemen.
This perfectly sums up the relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia.
Ever since the Second World War the US has been the dominant Western patron of the Saudi regime.
But the British defence industry has found rich pickings there, ignoring domestic repression and now external aggression.
All credit then to Jeremy Corbyn for becoming the first leader of a major British party to challenge this corrupt connection.