Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrive for a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 22, 2017..
(photo credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Something dramatic is happening is Saudi Arabia. What started as murmurs became tremors, and are now developing into major earthquakes. Saudi Arabia is a country that – though shrouded in tradition – is undergoing changes which may impact generations to come.
There was a time in the past decade when it seemed that the era of the “Arab nation state” as we know it had come to an end. Six members of the Arab League became “failed states.”
The three superpowers of the region were undoubtedly Turkey, Israel and Iran – none of which are Arab states.
Egypt, once the undisputed leader of the Arab world, was facing a massive economic crisis, and with the price of oil in free fall, Saudi Arabia’s leadership position within the Arab world was severely diminished. In addition, the previous US administration was enacting an overall confused Middle East policy (of engagement and then disengagement), leaving its historic allies in the region out in the cold.
As if this was not enough, the recent US-led Iran deal further diminished Saudi Arabia’s position.
Almost a decade later and the world has changed. The technological revolution has indeed made the globe smaller than ever, dictating new conversations: connectivity, responsibility, fairness and transparency. Recent events indicate that perhaps Saudi Arabia has internalized those lessons, and stood up to face these new challenges, better than most Arab countries.
Even world media has begun to pay attention to what experts, diplomats and analysts have been observing for some time: Saudi Arabia is modernizing, respectfully. It is slowly shifting its religious approach and standing up against Iran and its funded extremists. It is also diversifying its economic development, opening up to the new way of the world: problem solving through innovation. All of this may result in Saudi Arabia reclaiming its economic and diplomatic leadership position in the Arab world.
On Saturday Lebanon’s Saad Hariri announced that he was resigning as prime minister. Hariri chose to make this announcement in Saudi Arabia.
This is very telling. The fact he felt he could use Saudi Arabia as a the stage to deliver such an indictment of Iran and its proxy army Hezbollah, accusing them of spreading violence and meddling in the affairs of Lebanon, is truly significant. Speaking after days of consultation with the Saudi leadership, Hariri cautioned Iran that the Arab world would “cut off its hands,” and said that he feared for his own life – sentiments quickly backed up by the Saudi authorities, who confirmed there had been an attempt on Hariri’s life just days earlier.
On Saturday, internal Saudi news was also making headlines as several members of the Saudi royal family were detained for questioning as part of a corruption probe, and a further number of senior government ministers were dismissed, notable the economy minister and the head of the National Guard. Fighting corruption is another challenge faced by Saudi Arabia’s leadership in their attempt to secure effective governance through consolidation of power.
A planned removal of the ban on women driving was announced as well. Understandably, this serves as a cause célèbre for human rights activists.
The ban’s removal could indicate that a deep change is indeed underway in Saudi Arabia. It seems that the country’s new leadership realizes the need to meet the challenges presented by modernity.
So, what is behind these shifts? Perhaps most important was the decision of King Salman in June of this year to name his son Mohammed bin Salman crown prince. Bin Salman is viewed by many as a dynamic and modern-minded leader, and with his father’s advanced age, and blessing, he has begun to drive the country in a new and potentially more prosperous direction, both politically and economically.
And why not? With its abundance of resources, there is no reason in the world for Saudi Arabia not to embrace the world’s hot commodity: human creativity. Aside from their essential struggle against Iran and its terrorist infrastructures, Saudi Arabia has been working to find answers to questions relating to innovation and alternative energy. In the new age of technology countries, societies and economies are judged by their ability to facilitate and nurture creativity and innovation. Oil is important, but ultimately insufficient.
Knowledge and creativity drive prosperity in our modern times. It was widely reported that bin Salman unveiled the “smart city” project, part of his Vision 2030 program of social and economic liberalization. It is another step in the right direction.
It seems that in the eyes of Saudi Arabia’s new leadership, these changes are not a deviation from tradition, but rather the opposite: a return to pre-Iranian Revolution order, before the spread of Islamic radicalism destabilized the region.The writer is a former Foreign Ministry official, former Israeli counsel general in New York and a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University’s School for International Relations.