Epochal Saudi changes await the new year. At stake is the meteoric rise of Muhammad bin-Salman (MBS), first through his 81-year-old father, representing the last son of the founding father of the current Saudi dynasty, becoming king so unexpectedly in 2015; then in MBS's tailored ascendancy to the Crown Prince position this year; and finally, in the royal rumour that he may actually sit on the throne sooner than expected. At 32, his Vision 2030, 'night of the long knives', and sabre-rattling abroad have not only caught the attention of policy-makers far and wide, but also drawn battle-lines forthrightly wherever he feels his country has an interest (note, wherever it is threatened). How these will unfold is less the million-dollar question than when in 2018, given the urgency behind each issue. As the increasingly popular quip has it, if a 'B' letter is added to his initials, he would become a qualified doctor with a MBBS (Bachelor in Medicine, Bachelor in Surgery, in Latin), with the new 'B' standing for 'battle-mindedness'; if not, he remains a quack.
Whether quack or certified, the MBS era will depend on whether he understands each of the battles he has summoned, and then, what they mean comprehensively for a staunchly conservative country. Internally, these include (a) the Wahhabi segments he has displaced, and which fuelled Saudi Arabia's hard-line response to Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in 1979; (b) the public sector, given the petroleum-price collapse, unproductive revenue distribution, the resultant corruption, and the widespread poverty from income inequalities; (c) the youth, given the rising expectations from long-term income-growth now confronting diminishing job-returns; and (d) a parochial hinterland at odds with a handful of excessively modernised metropolitans.
Of course, two of the touchstone issues behind these various sectors have already begun impacting society: not just extending rights to women, but how many more and which ones to begin with, being the more pertinent questions. Driving licenses is a start, but society is far more than driving, or built around auto-centric cultures. Dress-codes and social horizons have to be recalculated; and the limits set along these frontiers may inform us if women's liberation is on the fast-track (constituting a revolutionary change), or the slow (simply an evolutionary progress), or just another one of those well-intentioned reforms crashing.
The other relates to hiring foreign workers. Hitherto they filled every slot at every rank, the higher up the position, the more the pecuniary benefits, and typically going to a western citizen; and the lower the recruit, the greater the exploitation (physically, financially, sexually), typically going to someone from Africa or Asia, with South Asians leading those ranks. A Vision 2030 track implies many upper-level jobs will increasingly go to Saudi recruits, thus absorbing skilled and crony-filtered workers, while the expected construction boom and attending household chores would continue keeping low-wage Asian and African migrant-workers in high demand (since Saudis would not, by and large, stoop too socially low to perform those tasks). Thus the setting predicts an increasingly westernised Saudi Arabia, with bars, beaches, and booming music bites, or movie snippets at the extreme, and simultaneously, a parallel growth in discrimination and a noblesse oblige mindset against 'easterners'.
An increasingly assertive and nationalistic Saudi Arabia (as opposed to patronising and excessively religious), might accentuate existing migrant relations: further pressure at the low-wage levels; more competition and continued embrace at upper-wage levels. Broadly profiling the current migrant sources, the consequences of these expectations would further marginalise Muslim migrants (especially from South Asia), while westernising the new Saudi Arabia further, given the high priority Vision 2030 places upon the tourism sector.
It is premature to predict future fallouts from Vision 2030 plans as related to migrant workers, but the sensitive issue of promoting jihad and funding foreign madrasas will have to be addressed by any MBS regime. Foreign terrorist groups have benefited from such supports in the past, thereby consolidating a string of bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and many Muslim countries, on the other. Development funding, for instance, has often been coupled with madrasa promotion, thus also raising questions if a MBS regime will reform Islam by weakening its fringe, fundamentalist segments, or throw Islam to the wolves by continuing to encourage terrorist training abroad while modernising Saudi religious practices.
Already MBS footprints abroad expose a more assertive and aggressive foreign policy, this time with Saudi Arabia directly behind the steering wheel than as a fund-facilitating front-seat passenger. More than those footprints, the MBS nemesis has been identified as Iran. This may be less a doctrine-driven collision than geopolitics, although the MBS strategy already shows making maximum religious mileage out of the Shia-Sunni disagreements as possible with geopolitics as hand-maiden, rather than the other way round.
We have already seen (and discussed) the contours of this Iran-Saudi rift. Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, and Yemen have already become battlegrounds with direct involvement of the major rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia in all four, as well as Syria through lateral forces; and Saudi forces directly engaged in Yemen. So much more is expected to be said and done on all of these fronts at the military level that one merely awaits a misstep to turn flashing-points into fire.
Present attention goes to the region's power-balancing game erupting into a global-level face-off. One no-longer-secret consequence of the emergent Iran-Saudi brinkmanship is the brewing warmth in Israel-Saudi relationship, with the United States as both a complicit and comrade-in-arms. Behind the MBS strategy of befriending an Arab Muslim adversary, Israel, and revamping US relations, is the even more shrewdly-designed plan to minimise Iran's expanding foreign alliance network: the superpower suddenly losing (or shedding) global steam has been directly responsible for the destruction of many Muslim countries, from Afghanistan to Syria, with Libya and Iraq in between, thus paving the way for Iran's ascendancy.
By virtue of the Islamic State successes in Iraq and Syria, Iran managed to connect, through its long-time ally, Syria, with Russia and Turkey, two countries it has had historical problems with. The MBS counter-punch was to get King Salman to visit both China and Russia, two countries heavily engaged in Iran, the former building gas pipelines and ports, the latter firing cruise-missiles into Syria from Iran. What the MBS strategy did was to commit long-term oil-supplies to China, thus building an income-base for its oil-sales just as petroleum prices predict a long-term industry evaporation; and keep Russia as a potential alternative to the United States (if not because of continued US isolationism, then to force the United States to raise its ante, particularly military).
That is a mouthful for a country still seen through such symbols as desert sand, camel-driven transportation, rusting oil-wells, and Islamic fundamentalism. That is what the MBS emergence means: if he turns out be a quack, we will see violent reaction everywhere, at home and abroad; if he emerges as a trained professional, we will still see the Saudi landscape change too drastically to instantly absorb. Either way, it is not if the expected results will flow, but when; and such has been his rapid rise that Scopus predicts 2018 will begin furnishing some sort of an answer to questions like that.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.