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Will Saudi Arabia become the sick man of the Middle East?

Mohammad bin Salman (C) attends a ceremony to crown him as the successor of the throne in Mecca, Saudi on 21 June 21, 2017 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]
Mohammad bin Salman (C) attends a ceremony to crown him as the successor of the throne in Mecca, Saudi on 21 June 21, 2017 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

In 1839, Sultan Abdulmejid I of the Ottoman Empire carried out legal, administrative and social reforms, later known as the Ottoman Tanzimat, in an effort to modernise the empire and keep pace with the European countries. The Sultan’s reforms were a continuation of those made by his father, Mahmud II, which he started when he took the throne in 1808 and were focused on the military. These continued under his successors until the end of Abdul Hamid II’s rule, the last Ottoman Sultan who was deposed in 1909.

The Ottoman reforms led ultimately to the fall of the empire, which lasted for six centuries. Although there were several reasons for this fall, not least of which was the stagnation and rigidity that afflicted the Ottoman state, the main reasons were political domination and tyranny, as well as the fact that the political reforms did not keep up with the military, administrative and legal reforms.

A similar situation is occurring in Saudi Arabia at the moment, with the implementation of an impulsive and ill-conceived modernisation process, led by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. He is trying to burn all of the historical stages in order to modernise the state economically, administratively and socially at a time when political tyranny is imposed on Saudi society, which cannot breathe or express itself freely.

Bin Salman’s reforms began with the programme that he launched in April last year, called Saudi Vision 2030. This was an attempt on his part to build legitimacy for himself, especially amongst the youth, as well as to justify his succession to the throne of his father, King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, particularly after the overthrow of the former Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef. The current heir to the throne is also trying to break the historic link with the religious establishment, which has been an integral part of building the Saudi state and maintaining its legitimacy since the creation of the Emirate of Diriyah in the mid-18th century.

Read: The real reasons why Saudi women can now drive. 

While Bin Salman’s reforms had started to rectify a flawed historical situation concerning the ban on women driving cars, which was considered a major sin by the Saudi clerics due to the “evil” it would cause, they did not stop there. There has been serious talk of abolishing the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or at least reducing its powers until it withers and dies. There has also been talk of legal and administrative measures being taken to permit things that were forbidden in the past, such as opening cinemas in the country and establishing tourist areas where bikinis and alcohol would be allowed.

Like Sultans Mahmud II and Abdelmejid I, whose eyes were fixed on the prospering West, Bin Salman’s eyes are locked not only on the economically and militarily superior West, but also on his close UAE neighbour with its social and cultural westernisation, which only took the “accessories” of modernisation, according to my colleague Hassan Abu Haniyeh.

Just as there were European advisers, especially from France, who helped Abdelmejid I formulate and implement his administrative and legal reforms, Bin Salman and his allies have American and British advisers who have been vetted and selected by the ally in the UAE, which has much greater experience in such matters.

The Ottoman restructuring and reforms, the formulation of which did not involve ordinary people, were imposed forcibly and led to the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century and the emergence of separatist movements in different parts of the Caliphate, including Turkey, Egypt, southern Europe and the Balkans.

Read: Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s prince of chaos 

Europe and Russia also ventured into Ottoman territories and began to divide them up at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth. The Ottoman Empire was then labelled as the “sick man of Europe” and slowly lost its strength and power, until it completely withered away and died in 1924.

Bin Salman and his successors do not realise that trying to impose reforms by force on a society as traditional as Saudi Arabia’s may ultimately achieve the opposite of what he is aspiring to achieve. Saudi Arabia could well become the sick man of the Middle East, because the society there needs a long time to accept such changes.

Nor does he realise that the economic, social and administrative reforms will eventually lead to a demand for political reforms, as a result of increased awareness and higher expectations among emerging social groups. This may ultimately lead to the overthrow of him and his family.

Mohammed Bin Salman also seems to be unaware that the unprecedented repression he is now imposing could pave the way for the emergence of radical cells and networks, which may use his hasty reforms as a pretext to oppose him and disrupt his programme. The Crown Prince and his allies should read the history of the end of the Ottoman Empire in order to understand that every reform has a price; it’s a price that must eventually be paid.

This article first appeared in Arabic in the New Khaleej on 2 October 2017

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