The need for modernization
For a naïve spectator, who doesn’t understand the interplay of geopolitics, economy, and regional power struggles; the reforms which Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia is championing will be nothing short of revolutionary. Thinking that MBS’s realization for the Arab society’s need to come at par with the western powers in terms of freedom of movement/expression along with the emancipation of women has no strings attached; is wishful thinking. The following paragraphs will shed light on the requirement for Saudi Arabia to modernize and become an inclusive society.
Saudi Arabia’s economy is mostly dependent on oil extraction and its distribution, which contributes around 40 percent of the share of its GDP. The fluctuation in the oil prices at the global stage has a direct bearing on Saudi Arabia’s economy, which remains largely unstable as a result. The country’s financial well-being becomes at stake once the oil prices are lowered. An example is the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund falling to $500 billion in 2018 from $736 billion in 2015. Until and unless the Kingdom diversifies its economy and make it less oil-dependent through the introduction of structural and economic reforms, it is bound to run out of money in the foreseeable future.
Saudi Arabia has certainly much more to offer the world than just oil, as it also has an abundance of other natural resources and a great cultural heritage seducing both investors and tourists. This realization has made economic reforms the foremost priority of the government; with MBS introducing an ambitious plan (Vision 2030) to lure international investment into the private sector. It is only logical to bring changes to the social and political structure, or at least show the world that the Kingdom is willing to shed its conservative veil; in order to showcase the country as open for the investors.
With the introduction of Vision 2030, MBS is also trying hard to open up new pathways for arts and cultural development for the country’s youth while focusing on its health, education, and recreation. The plan also includes an increase in women’s participation in the workforce while investing in the recreational sector (mainly entertainment) creating jobs for the locals; hence the project of building a recreational city named NEOM on its western borders. This will have a positive bearing on outsiders who are interested in tourism.
As for investment, MBS hinted at privatizing a portion (5 percent) of the state’s oil company, Aramco in a bid to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. Hence, a sizable portion of the Kingdom’s economy/GDP will be contributed by the private sector through the provision of employment and sharing the government’s burden. In a nutshell, Vision 2030 strategizes to transform the Kingdom into an international investment powerhouse in a bid to diversify its revenue by expanding cultural and economic ties. The world is already seeing the fruits of MBS’s policy with foreign investments in the Kingdom doubling in 2018 according to the government’s official statement.
Reforms and authoritarianism
The reforms being introduced by MBS initially fascinated the Westerners regarding his persona. As he reopened cinemas, organized concerts, allowed women to drive/enter sports stadiums, and limited the powers of religious police; they took him as a Messiah who will break the shackles of authoritarianism within his country, eventually transforming it into a democracy. For the majority, reforms are synonymous with democracy as they tend to not focus on who is bringing the reforms. This is where the naivety lies.
According to the Oxford English dictionary, “In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people. Authoritarian leaders often exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law, and they usually cannot be replaced by citizens choosing freely among various competitors in elections. The freedom to create opposition political parties or other alternative political groupings with which to compete for power with the ruling group is either limited or nonexistent in authoritarian regimes.”
The definition is a perfect portrayal of Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom and its strongman MBS. Parallel to all his celebrated reforms, MBS ordered the arrest of a large number of religious leaders, activists, bloggers, women rights campaigners, and journalists; detaining them on the pretext of undermining national security. Later, he detained businessmen and senior government officials (including Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal) in his anti-corruption crackdown; releasing them only after extracting substantial financial settlements with the government.
Many believe that initiating this anti-corruption crackdown by the MBS was primarily to brand himself as the “financially responsible leader”, though later MBS was seen purchasing the most expensive mansion in the world worth $350 million and a $450 million de Vinci’s painting. These and other various expenses put MBS’s credibility as a financially responsible leader to question.
Furthermore, the killing of self-exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by rogue Saudi intelligence officials hasn’t brought a good name to the crown prince either. MBS divided the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) by starting a catastrophic war with Yemen and a diplomatic dispute with Qatar. He even placed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri under house arrest in his capital, forcing the country to side with the Kingdom in its conflict with Yemen and Qatar. The way MBS overreacted on the Canadian Foreign ministry’s tweets showing its concern over the detainment of two human rights activists by closing all political and economic ties without caring for any diplomatic norms also does not bode well for his future economic plans.
The relevance of modernization theory with authoritarianism and reforms
We cannot justify the actions of a dictator and sympathize with him with the argument that any reform or modernization in developing countries is inherently slow and it has to pass through an authoritarian phase before maturing into a democracy. This is what “Modernization theory” inherently professes. The theory, although not attributed to a single person, was the main driver of Western societies’ foreign policies with regards to developing countries between the 1950s and early 70s. Non-Western societies were believed to be devoid of stable political institutions, energetic civil society, and a thriving middle class, regarded as the basic elements necessary for a sustained democracy. Hence, the introduction of democracy prematurely i.e. before bringing modernization and reform within such countries will only bring parochial views, anarchy, and intolerance.
So, as per the theory’s suggestion, an autocrat with an authoritarian government was deemed necessary to establish strong institutions and organize the society for its subsequent transformation into a mature democracy. The autocrat was thus seen as a reformer, the only one who had the will to sustain popular pressures in his quest to make the right economic decisions. Thus, in the words of Samuel P. Huntington, it is ordered that is the need for modernizing societies, not liberty.
Unfortunately, the theory has been debunked by our recent history. Western governments, especially the USA have supported strongmen and authoritarian regimes throughout the past century on the same pretext and it has proven that these countries neither turn out to be economically strong nor cultivate democratic norms. Instead, they inch closer to chaos, as the dictator starts to press dissent in order to solidify his reign. Ironically, countries like South Korea, Chile, and the Philippines, whose support was withdrawn by the USA turned out to be better democracies than the Middle East; where authoritarianism was allowed to nurture. Adding to that, we also saw that even communist countries like China and Russia emerged as economic stalwarts by introducing democratic reforms, no matter how frail.
Sadly for MBS, he is also on the same path as he has not been seen to create independent political institutions, nurture the rule of law or allow freedom of expression; since these are the very things threatening his authoritarian regime. We can safely conclude that the reforms brought by MBS are a means to lure foreign investment into the country in a bid to diversify its oil-dependent economy and therefore, have no linkage with bringing democracy. These reforms do not undermine the authoritarian nature of the Kingdom in any way, as we see the grip of MBS tightening on the state with the passage of time.
Amna Gul Khattak has done her BS (Hons) in Defense and Diplomatic Studies from Fatima Jinnah Women University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.