Saudi Arabia is a big part of the uncertain external environment in which Pakistan must learn to operate at this delicate moment in its history. Which way the Kingdom goes will have consequences for Pakistan’s future. A new generation of leaders headed by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Sultan is moving into positions of authority. They will take over power from the sons of King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the founding father of Saudi Arabia. He united the four distinct regions in the peninsula – Hejaz, Najd, Al Ahsa and Asir after a military and political effort that lasted for three decades. In 1902, King Saud captured Riyadh, the ancestral home of his family, and in 1932, turned the small trading town into the capital of the newly created Kingdom. He worked with the British forces to expel the Ottoman Turks from the peninsula. Like most of the countries in the currently turbulent Middle East, Saudi Arabia was a new political entity.
On his way to power, King Saud consolidated or entered into two alliances to secure his position. In 1744, Muhammad bin Saud, the founder of the current royal family, allied himself with the cleric Wahab, who wielded considerable influence over the nomadic tribes that lived in the desert land. In return for his support, the Saudis agreed to follow his highly conservative form of Islam. That alliance has lasted to this day and has profoundly affected not only Saudi Arabia but most of the Muslim world.
Britain, having helped the Saudi family establish its dominion over the land that, at that time, had few people and even fewer resources, had no reason to prolong its stay. Its main purpose was to defeat the Ottoman Empire and carve up the Middle East in ways that would help it to retain its influence in this part of the world. However, in 1938, it was discovered that huge reserves of oil lay buried under the otherwise inhospitable sand that covered much of the Kingdom. That discovery brought America into the country, displacing the British. One important consequence of World War II was the reduction in the power of Britain that had ruled the globe for over a century. The United States was now the dominant power and once the guns went silent in Europe, Washington became engaged in designing the world to its liking. The Middle East was one of the several regions of interest to America.
In February 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt, on his way home from the Yalta Conference where he met with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, divided Europe into essentially two parts: the West, over which the United States would have influence, and the East, in which the Soviet Union would have control. On his way back, the American president anchored the US Quincy, his ship, and invited King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud to come on board. The two concluded a ‘grand bargain’ which, in essence, guaranteed the security and integrity of Saudi Arabia while Riyadh would allow the free flow of oil to the West. That bargain is now under stress.
The stability of the rule by the Saudi family rests on a stool with three legs: oil, Western support and strong ties with the domestic religious establishment. All three legs have become weak with weakness caused by events that are not entirely in Riyadh’s control. Technological developments in the United States have brought ‘new oil’ to the market. This was obtained through the fracking of shale rock, of which the US along with other large land-mass countries have a great deal. America is no longer dependent on oil from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
The loosening of ties between the US and the Middle East coincided with the presence in the White House of a person who held very different views about the role his country should play in world affairs. President Barack Obama has no desire to “build nations” in the parts of the world where political institutions are weak. As he neared the end of his tenure, he did not feel constrained to express his views. Among these was the notion that the Middle East must solve its own problems. In this part of the world, he was only prepared to fight the Islamic State (IS) since its adherents posed a threat to his country. That threat was also felt by Riyadh since the political system the IS favoured was not the one the Saudis have followed for almost a century. How should Riyadh respond to these unfavourable developments?
One answer has come from Prince Mohammed who, at age 30, belongs to the generation that accounts for 70 per cent of the country’s population. This cohort has 22 million people out of the total population of 32 million. The prince understands that this generation wants change, which he is prepared to deliver via an economic programme announced on April 25. It aims not only to make the Kingdom less dependent on oil, which accounts for about 90 per cent of total government revenues and expenditure, but also calls for the economy’s diversification by allowing greater space to the private sector and increasing women’s participation in the workforce. Even though the youth-inspired Arab Spring has stalled, Prince Mohammed has correctly concluded that the monarchy needs the support of the citizenry. The youth have responded to the prince’s rise and to his economic programme by taking to social media and thanking him for laying out an optimistic vision. Change, it appears, is arriving in Saudi Arabia.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2016.