Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, At Last — “The Most Significant Reform Process Underway Anywhere In The Middle East… If It Succeeds…..Will Change Not Only The Character Of Saudi Arabia; But, The Tone & Tenor Of Islam Across The Globe
The title above is from New York Times journalist and author, Tom Friedman, who last week, spent several hours with/interviewing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as M.B.S.), the 32 year-old heir apparent to King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. Mr. Friedman, who is steeped in Middle Eastern history; and, is as much an expert on the region as just about anyone I know, had some interesting observations and take-away’s from his “nearly four hour,” interview/conversation with MBS.
Mr. Friedman began his article with this observation: “I never thought I’d live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today….is in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you read that right. Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring — Saudi style.”
“Unlike the other Arab Springs — all of which emerged from the bottom up and failed miserably, except Tunisia, this one is led from the top down, by the country’s 32 year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman; and if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia — but, the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success — but, only a fool would not root for it.” I quibble with Mr. Friedman’s observation that this ongoing revolution/reform effort in Saudi Arabia had its origin from the top. With some 70 percent of the country’s population near the age of 30, I assert that this revolution — unlike the other Arab Spring movements — is being ‘fed,’ from both the bottom; and, the top. Though there is little doubt that what M.B.S. is attempting to do is unique from those other failed movements, and his personal leadership is inspiring the young and those hoping for change, and more freedom.
“To get a better understanding,” and an on-the-ground view, always important when attempting to make relevant observations about the Middle East, Mr. Friedman “flew to Riyadh to interview the crown prince, who had not spoken [publicly] about the extraordinary events here of early November, when his government arrested scores of Saudi princes and businessmen on charges of corruption; and threw them into a makeshift gilded jail — the Ritz Carlton [on the outskirts of Riyadh] — until they agreed to surrender all their ill gotten gains. You don’t see that everyday,” Mr. Friedman wrote.
Mr. Friedman wrote that “we met all night at the [royal] family’s ornate, adobe-walled palace in Ouja, north of Riyadh. M.B.S. spoke in English, while his brother, Prince Khalid, the new Saudi ambassador to the United States, and several ministers shared various lamb dishes and spiced the conversation. After nearly four hours together, I [Mr. Friedman] surrendered at 1:15 a.m. to M.B.S.’s youth, pointing out that I was exactly half his age. It’s been a long, long time though, since any Arab leader wore me out with a fire hose of new ideas about transforming his country.”
“We started,” Mr. Friedman wrote, “with this obvious question. What’s happening at the Ritz? And, was this his power play to eliminate his family and private sector rivals — before his ailing father, King Salman — turns the keys of the kingdom, over to him?”
“It’s ludicrous,” he [M.B.S.] said, “to suggest this anti-corruption campaign was a power grab,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “He [M.B.S.] pointed out that many prominent members of the Ritz crowd, had already publicly pledged allegiance to him and his reforms, and that a “majority of the royal family is already behind him.” “This is what happened,” M.B.S. said to Mr. Friedman. “Our country has suffered a lot from corruption from the 1980’s until today. The calculation of our experts is that roughly 10 percent of all government spending was siphoned off by corruption each year, from the top levels — to the bottom. Over the years, the government launched more than one ‘war on corruption,’ and they all failed. Why? Because they all [the investigations] all started from the bottom up.”
“So, when his father, who has never been tainted by corruption charges during his nearly five decades as governor of Riyadh, ascended to the throne in 2015 (at a time of falling oil prices), he vowed to put a stop to it all,” Mr. Friedman wrote. M.B.S. said:
“My father saw that there is no way we can stay in the G-20, and grow with this level of corruption. In early 2015, one of his first orders to his team was to collect all the information about corruption — at the top. This team worked for two years until they collected the most accurate information, and then they came up with about 200 names.”
“When all the data was ready,” Mr. Friediman wrote, “the public prosecutor, Saud al-Mojib took action, M.B.S. said; explaining that each billionaire prince was given two choices”: “We show them all the files we have; and, as soon as they see those, about 95 percent agree to a settlement,” which means signing over cash or shares of their business to the Saudi state treasury.”
“About one percent,” M.B.S. told Mr. Friedman, “are able to prove they are clean; and, their case is dropped right there. About four percent say they are not corrupt; and with their lawyers, want to go to court. Under Saudi law, the prosecutor is independent. We cannot interfere with his job — the king can dismiss him, but he [the prosecutor] is driving the process…We have experts making sure no businesses are bankrupted in the process,” to avoid causing unemployment.”
“How much money are they recovering?,” Mr. Friedman asked.
“The public prosecutor said it could eventually, be around $100 billion in settlements,” M.B.S. told Mr. Friedman.
“There is no way,” he added, “to root out all corruption from top to the bottom,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “So, you have to send a signal, and the signal going forward now is, ‘You will not escape.’ “And we are already seeing the impact,” like people writing on social media, I called my middleman — and he doesn’t answer. Saudi business people who paid bribes to get services done by bureaucrats, are not being prosecuted,” explained M.B.S. “It’s those who shook the money out of the government,” by overcharging and getting kickbacks,” Mr. Friedman wrote.
Mr. Friedman observes, “the stakes are high for M.B.S. in this anti-corruption drive. If the public feels that he is truly purging corruption that was sapping the system; and, doing so in a way that is transparent; and makes clear to future Saudi and foreign investors that the rule of law will prevail — it will really instill a lot of new confidence in the system. But, if the process ends up [is seen as] feeling arbitrary, bullying, and opaque, aimed more at aggregating power — for power’s sake — and unchecked by any rule of law, it will end up instilling fear that will unnerve Saudi and foreign investors in a way the country cannot afford.”
“But, one thing I know for sure,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anti-corruption drive. The Saudi silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustice of so many princes and billionaires ripping off their country. While foreigners, like me, were inquiring about the legal framework for this operation, the mood among Saudis I spoke to was: “Just turn them upside down, shake the money out of their pockets, and don’t stop shaking them till it’s all out.”
“But, guess what?,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “The anti-corruption drive is only the second-most unusual, and important initiative launched by M.B.S. The first is to bring Saudi Islam back to its more modern and open orientation — whence it diverted back in 1979. That is, back to what M.B.S. described to a recent global investment conference here as a “moderate, balanced Islam, that is open to the world; and, to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”
“I know that year well,” Mr. Friedman wrote, [as do I]. “I [Mr. Friedman] started my career as a reporter in the Middle East, in Beirut, in 1979; and, so much of the region that I have covered since was shaped by three big events that year: 1) The takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Saudi puritanical extremists — who denounced the Saudi ruling family as corrupt , impious sellouts to Western values; 2) The Iranian Islamic Revolution; and, 3) the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.”
“These three events,” Mr. Friedman wrote, “freaked out the Saudi ruling family at the time; and, prompted it to shore up its legitimacy — by allowing its Wahhabi clerics to impose a much more austere Islam on the society; and, by launching a worldwide competition with Iran’s ayatollah’s, over who could export more fundamentalist Islam. It didn’t help,” Mr. Friedman added, “that the U.S. tried to leverage this trend, by using Islamist fighters against Russia in Afghanistan. In all, it pushed Islam globally, way to the right, and helped nurture 9/11.”
“A lawyer by training, who rose up in his family’s education-social welfare foundation [M.B.S. was home schooled], M.B.S. is on a mission to bring Islam back to the center,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “He [M.B.S.] has not only curbed the authority of the once feared Saudi religious police to berate a woman for not covering every inch of her skin, he has also let women drive [will go into effect in 2018]. And, unlike any Saudi leader before him, he has taken on the hardliners ideologically. As one, U.S.-educated, 28 year-old Saudi woman told me:” M.B.S. “uses a different language.” He says, “We are going to destroy extremism. He’s not sugar-coating. That is reassuring to me that the change is real.”
“Indeed, M.B.S. instructed me,” Mr. Friedman wrote: “Do not write we are reinterpreting Islam — we are ‘restoring’ Islam to its origins — and, our biggest tools are the Prophet’s practices and [daily life in] Saudi Arabia before 1979.” “At the time of the Prophet Mohammad,” Mr. Friedman noted, “he [M.B.S.] argued, there were musical theaters, there was mixing between men and women, [and] there was respect for Christians and Jews in Arabia.” “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman!,” M.B.S. professes. “So, if the prophet embraced all this,” M.B.S. asked, “do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?”
“Then one of his ministers got out his cell phone and shared with me pictures of YouTube videos of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s — women without their heads covered, wearing skirts and walking with men in public, as well as concerts and cinemas. It was still a traditional and modest place; but, not one where fun had been outlawed, which is what happened after 1979,” Mr. Friedman wrote.
Mr. Friedman makes this, potentially profound observation: “If this virus of anti-pluralistic, misogynistic Islam that came out of Saudi Arabia in 1979, can be reversed by Saudi Arabia, it would drive moderation across the Muslim world, and surely be welcomed here — where 65 percent of the population is under the age of 30.”
“One, middle-aged Saudi banker said to me [Mr. Friedman]:” “My generation was held hostage by 1979. I know now that my kids will not be hostages.” A 28 year-old Saudi woman remarked to Mr. Friedman: “Ten years ago, when we talked about music in Riyadh, it meant buying a CD — now, it is about the concert next month, and what ticket you are buying, and which of your friends will go with you.”
“Saudi Arabia would have a very long way to go, before it approached anything like Western standards for free speech, and women’s rights,” Mr. Friedman observes. “But, as someone who has been coming here for almost thirty years, it blew my mind to learn that you can hear Western classical music concerts in Riyadh now, that country singer Toby Keith held a men-only concert here in September, where he even sang with a Saudi , and that Lebanese soprano, Hiba Tawaji will be among the first woman singers to perform at a women-only concert here December 6. And, M.B.S. told me [Mr. Friedman] it was just decided women will be able to go to stadiums and attend soccer games. The Saudi clerics have completely acquiesced.”
“The Saudi education minister chimed in, that among a broad set of education reforms, he’s redoing and digitizing all textbooks, sending 1,700 Saudi teachers to world-class schools in places like Finland – to upgrade their skills, announcing for the first time, Saudi girls will have physical education classes in public schools; and this year, adding an hour to the Saudi school day, for kids to explore their passions in science and social issues, under a teacher’s supervision, with their own project,” Mr. Friedman wrote.
“So many of these reforms were so long overdue, it’s ridiculous,” Mr. Friedman notes. “Better late than never, though.”
“On foreign policy, M.B.S., would not discuss the strange goings on with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, of Lebanon, coming to Saudi Arabia and announcing his resignation, seemingly under Saudi pressure; and now, returning to Beirut and rescinding that resignation,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “He simply insisted the bottom line of the whole affair is that Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, is not going to continue to provide political cover for a Lebanese government that is essentially controlled by the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah militia, which is essentially controlled by Tehran.”
M.B.S. “insisted that the Saudi-backed war in Yemen, which has become a humanitarian nightmare, was tilting in the direction of the pro-Saudi legitimate government there, which he said is now in control of 85 percent of the country; but, given the fact that pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, who hold the rest, launched a missile at Riyadh airport, anything less that 100 percent is problematic,” Mr. Friedman wrote.
M.B.S.’s “general view, seemed to be that with the backing of the Trump administration — he praised POTUS Trump as “the right person at the right time” — the Saudis and their Arab allies were slowly building up a coalition to stand up to Iran. I am skeptical,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “The dysfunction and rivalries within the Sunni Arab world generally have prevented forming a unified [Arab] front up to now, which is why Iran indirectly controls four Arab capitals today: Damascus, Sanna, Beirut, and Baghdad. The Iranian over-reach, is one reason M.B.S. was scathing about Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”
Iran’s “supreme leader is the new Hitler of the Middle East,” M.B.S. said. “But, we learned from Europe, appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe — in the Middle East.” “What matters most, though, is what Saudi Arabia does at home to build its strength, and economy,” Mr. Friedman wrote.
“But can M.B.S. and his team see this through? Again, I make no predictions,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “He has his flaws, that he will have to control, insiders tell me. They include relying on a very tight circle of advisers, who don’t always challenge him sufficiently; and, a tendency to start too many things that don’t get finished. There’s a whole list. But guess what,” Mr. Friedman asks. “Perfect is not on the menu here,” he adds. Or, as we used to say at work, ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of good enough.’ “Someone has to do this job — wrench Saudi Arabia into the 21st century — and M.B.S. stepped up. I for one am rooting for him to succeed in his reform efforts,” Mr. Friedman wrote — and, so am I.
“And, so are a lot of young Saudis,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “There was something to a 30 year-old Saudi woman social entrepreneur said to me [Mr. Friedman] that stuck in my ear.” “We are privileged to be the generation that has seen the before, and the after.” “The previous generation of Saudi women, she explained, could never imagine a day when a woman could drive, and the coming generation will never be able to imagine a day when a woman couldn’t.”
“But, I will always be able to remember not being able to drive,” she told Mr. Friedman. “And the fact that starting in June  that will never again be so “gives me so much hope. It proves to me that anything is possible — that this is a time of opportunity. We have seen things change; and, we’re young enough to make the transition.”
“This reform push is giving the youth here a new pride in their country, almost a new identity, which many of them clearly relish,” Mr. Friedman wrote. “Being a Saudi student in post-9/11 America, young Saudis confess, is to always feel you are being looked at as a potential terrorist, or someone who comes from a country locked in the Stone Age.”
“Now, they have a young leader who is driving religious and economic reform, who talks the language of high-tech, whose biggest sin is that he may want to go too fast,” Mr. Friedman laments. “Most ministers are now in their 40s — and not 60s. And, with the suffocating hand of a puritanical Islam being lifted, it’s giving them a chance to think afresh about their country and their identity as Saudis.”
“We need to restore our culture to what it was before the [Islamic] radical culture took over,” a Saudi woman friend who works for an N.G.O. said to me [Mr. Friedman]. “We have 13 religions in this country; and, they each have a different cuisine. But, nobody knows that. Did you know that?,” she asked Mr. Friedman. “But, I never saw one Saudi dish go global. It is time for us to embrace who we are, and who we were,”: she told Mr. Fredman.
“Alas,” Mr. Friedman observes, “who Saudi Arabia is, also includes a large cohort of older, more rural, more traditional Saudis; and, pulling them into the 21st century will be a challenge. But, that’s in part why every senior bureaucrat is working crazy hours now. They know M.B.S. can call them on the phone at any of those hours to find out if something he wanted done — is getting done. I [Mr. Friedman] told him his work habits reminded me of a line in the play, “Hamilton,” when the chorus asks: Why does he always work like “he’s running out of time.”
“Because,” M.B.S. said, ‘I fear the day I die, I am going to die without accomplishing what I have in mind. Life is too short; and, a lot of things can happen, and I’m really keen to see it with my own eyes — and that is why I am in a hurry.”
The ‘Arab Spring’ Revolution Ongoing In Saudi Arabia — Is Perhaps The Most Important Reform Effort Since Glasnost And The Fall Of The Soviet Union
A few days after Mr. Friedman’s article appeared in the New York Times, he was interviewed on CNBC’s Squawk Box. He told the CNBC hosts and audience that he puts what is happening in Saudi Arabia into 3 buckets: 1) The anti-corruption campaign and M.B.S.’s consolidation of power; 2) Foreign affairs, the country’s involvement in Yemen, leading the isolation of Qatar, and a more aggressive/muscular approach vis-a-vis Iran; and, 3) The historic reversal of the hard-line Islamic trend that started after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Mr. Friedman added a little more color and nuance to these issues he discussed in his article above. Mr. Friedman said that the Saudi leadership “freaked out,” after the 79 revolution, as Iran stepped up its criticism of the kingdom’s oversight of two of Islam’s most holiest sites — Mecca and Medina. Riyadh proceeded down a “more conservative, Islamic path; and, imposed a more severe religious reign at home that fundamentally changed the Muslim world — from Morocco, to the border of India.”
Mr. Friedman said that Saudi Arabia “arrested the bad clerics in the aftermath of 9/11; but, they never took them on ideologically.”
“If the anti-corruption campaign ends in transparency and [confidence in the] rule of law, this will strengthen M.B.S.” He needs to “show the people the evidence,” he added. so the people understand that this campaign is legitimate. If M.B.S. does not ensure transparency, “this anti-corruption campaign will weaken him,” and could ultimately lead to his downfall.
With respect to Iran, Mr. Friedman expressed concern on the asymmetry regarding how Iran conducts its proxy ‘war/s’ versus Riyadh’s money. “Iran has developed the muscles [ecosystem] of how to build underground networks and use proxies in order to extend their influence,” and strategic reach. “Tehran,” Mr. Friedman said, “in essence ‘controls’ four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sanna; and, they’re controlling them ‘wholesale.’ They’re not even paying for it,” in essence extending their sphere of influence and strategic reach on the cheap.
“Riyadh,” on the other hand, Mr. Friedman said, “has not developed these muscles,” of how to organize and utilize underground networks and proxies to do their bidding. “They are used to writing checks;” and, “have no experience nor history,” of building this kind of network; and, represents a real ‘asymmetry’ between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“Between Tehran And Tel Aviv — Is Butter”
“Between Tehran and Tel Aviv is ‘butter,” Mr. Friedman warned. “Iran is pushing, pushing, its Quds/Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s force [and the Lebanese Hezbollah deeper] into the Golan. Israel is watching Iran build military bases in Syria; and, at some point — Israel is going to strike back. Israeli newspapers have been frequently publishing satellite imagery, showing Iranian forces/surrogates, constructing these ‘bases’ in various parts of Syria.”
Mr. Friedman is a very smart man; and, though he is not always right on the Middle East, he is more often right than not. I think he is dead on with the potential historic consequences of what M.B.S. is attempting to do in Saudi Arabia; and, the high stakes/high consequences of either success….or failure.
Other than the immediate national security threat that North Korea poses, and the ascendancy of China — there is no other issue or unfolding event as consequential as what is transpiring in Saudi Arabia. Here’s one vote, that M.B.S. succeeds. RCP, fortunascorner.com