Newspaper Article - Wall Street Journal

Saudi Arabia Is Changing Fast

| Nov. 04, 2019

Social liberalization has outpaced economic reform, but there doesn’t seem to be any turning back.

For Saudis these days, life is a roller coaster. Even as Iranian missiles threaten their national security and livelihood, previously unimaginable social freedoms accelerate. All this leaves some Saudis squealing with delight; others are frozen with fright.

During a three-week visit, the public delight is visible everywhere from the capital city to remote rural provinces like Jizan in the south and Tabuk in the north. Teenage Saudi girls scream hysterically at a performance here by the Korean boy band BTS. Young Saudi women with bared faces run a 5K through city streets clad only in short-sleeved T-shirts and tight leggings. Groups of young men and women relax together in Starbucks. Hotels are no longer permitted to ask Saudi couples for proof of marriage at check-in. All this change and more in a society where until very recently women, uniformly clad in floor-length abayas, couldn’t exercise, drive or appear in public with men other than close relatives.

This most puritanical of Islamic societies is increasingly mirroring Western mores as the government seeks to attract foreign tourists and investors whose money is needed to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy.

The regime no longer worries about the erosion of the kingdom’s distinctive culture. Its view is 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.

Exactly how this is affecting the average Saudi is difficult to assess. Open debate and discussion aren’t allowed, leaving public opinion in a fog. Some Saudis undoubtedly are frightened by the arrests of even mild dissenters, the violent death of critic Jamal Khashoggi last year, and the public stripping in 2017 of prominent princes’ wealth and right to travel. Such fears are expressed only in deep privacy. The country is operating under what might be called the Thumper Rule, after the little rabbit in “Bambi” whose father teaches him, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

“We are all riding in the back seat of a speeding car,” says one nervous Saudi. “We can’t see where we are going. We just pray the driver knows so we avoid crashing.” This is as close to overt criticism as Saudis dare get these days. Another Saudi sums things up this way: “We used to debate and never decide. Now we”—or rather, the king and crown prince—“decide but never debate.”

There is no doubt that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 34, effective ruler of the kingdom, has decided to press ahead full speed with economic and social change (the former much tougher than the latter). Nothing will deter him. The crown prince, those close to him say, is absolutely convinced his reforms are essential and urgent. So in his view, debate is pointless. There is no possibility of reversing course—and no apparent concern about a conservative backlash. The once-powerful religious authorities have been reduced to mouthpieces for the regime and are widely ignored by the public. Even immediate foreign threats are more distraction than deterrent to Crown Prince Mohammed’s domestic agenda.

Thus change continues at a dizzying pace. The government is spending billions on bringing entertainment—wrestling, tennis, car racing, expensive restaurants, musical performers—to the kingdom to jump-start tourism. Joining a Saudi family for dinner, I am driven by golf cart through a park to the restaurant by a young Saudi woman with a bare face, cropped hair and no abaya. Such dress or employment for a Saudi woman was unthinkable even a few months ago. “I feel out of place in my own country,” says one Saudi woman in shock at seeing a Lebanese singer entering a Riyadh hotel in a sleeveless midthigh dress. Such “indecency,” unlike dissent, runs no risk these days.

Economic reform, unlike social change, will require massive investment as the nation transforms from an oil-dependent kingdom into a diversified economy. One big step to finance investment is the decision, announced days ago, to sell the public shares in Aramco, the kingdom’s oil company. The main threat to the reform agenda comes not from within Saudi Arabia but from outside. Shortly before dawn on Sept. 14, Iranian missiles and drones struck Saudi oil fields, knocking out 50% of the country’s production. Aramco restored most production within a few weeks, but the strike underscored the vulnerability of the Saudi economy.

“I wept the night of the attack,” admits Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the new Saudi oil minister and a half-brother of Crown Prince Mohammed. “The next morning I wept tears of gratitude when our Aramco engineers assured us they could repair things quickly.”

Remarkably, hardly anyone I meet here speaks of the attack on the oil fields. If pressed, almost all Saudis insist the kingdom did the right thing by not retaliating. “We have too much to lose” is the typical comment. The truth is Saudi Arabia is in no position to go to war with Iran even if it were so inclined. The Saudi military is too weak, its U.S. ally too reluctant. And war would spell the end of ambitious domestic reforms.

To rule out retaliation, Saudi government officials insist the attack wasn’t really aimed at Saudi Arabia; they say the kingdom is simply a proxy for Iranian anger at the U.S. “This was not an attack on Saudi Arabia,” says the oil minister, “but an attack on every household in the world.” He insists the Iranians lash out at Saudi Arabia because they are feeling the pain of U.S. economic sanctions but can’t strike the U.S. directly.

Crown Prince Mohammed has privately called the Iran strike “super stupid,” insisting that Tehran, not Riyadh, is the loser. The evidence: Iran is more isolated than ever as Germany, Britain and France all blamed it for the attack—even though Europe hasn’t imposed sanctions on Tehran. Also, Saudi officials say the Houthis, whom Iran blamed for the attack, are now more willing to find a solution to the war in Yemen, which is draining Saudi Arabia’s finances as well as its international reputation. The Saudis are putting the best spin possible on the vulnerability revealed by Iran’s attack, but those at the top seem to believe it.

Meantime, the Saudi government is putting maximum pressure on the U.S. to provide additional military support 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 for the U.S. and world-wide. Or the Saudis could opt to price oil in a currency other than the dollar, with severe ramifications for the U.S. and the global economy.

Crown Prince Mohammed is said to have been livid about the slow U.S. reaction but mollified by the Trump administration’s recent decision to dispatch 2,000 additional American troops to Saudi Arabia along with two Patriot missile batteries and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad. The American buildup looks intended 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 made no response to Iran’s downing of an American drone in June or its attack on Aramco six weeks ago.

  – Via Wall Street Journal.

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