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Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms in Saudi Arabia: Threats and Chances

Javad Heirannia

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Samuel Huntington believes that phenomenon of revolution is related to the characteristics of new communities and product of the fast process of social – economic renovation beside of non – development of the political institutions in order to attract and participation of the new forces. He says: “Revolution is an aspect of renovation. Revolution happens mostly in those communities who have experienced some kind of social and economic change and their derivations of renovation and political changes have been lagged. Fast expansion of political awareness and fast move of new entered forced into the political sphere is the ink of revolution.”

According to this assumption, unbalanced development is one of the main causes for revolution. Unbalance of economic and political development is one of instances for unbalanced development where we are witnessed for existence of economic development without political one.

Dictators of the Arab states recognize grant of essential rights and freedom of their citizens illegitimate. They believe that the Arab states need such strong authorities who are able to fulfill social and political stability of their states in post-colonialism era.

They see the social and political stability more important rather political freedom and rights which are prevalent in West while the new Arab generation are most globalized and ask for having relations with abroad thanks to means of mass communication and social media. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia needs some reforms in various aspects and the future this kingdom will be faced to serious threats without these reforms. Saudis and US as their supporter knows this fact very well.

Fall of oil price during past three years and vast deficits of Saudi Arabia demonstrated that those states that are relied on oil incomes will not be able to assume it as constant income.

Muhammad ben Salman, the son of the king, prince and minister of defense of Saudi Arabia tried to show his militaristic majesty by attacking Yemen. He tries to prepare required ground for those economic and cultural reforms which Saudi Arabia will face more economic and social problems without them.

Ben Salman’s Revealing and hidden attempts to control all key centers of decision making in Saudi Arabia after rise of his father as the new Saudi king demonstrates that he follows the two projects of reforms and integration at the same time.

He used his father power to dethrone the stated prince to get appointed as the prince deputy in the first step in order to get closed to achieve kingship. Then, he captured the major part of power in his hands and changed Prince Muhammad Ben Nayef as a useless element in the political structure of Saudi Arabia and finally enforced him to resign in order to announce himself as the new prince. His second serious competitor was Mutab Ben Abdullah who had been appointed as the commander of the National Guard after rise of King Abdullah. Ben Salman could sweep him from power also successfully.

He could prepare the required field for deposition of their other competitors one by one after his presidency on the committee for fight against corruption. He has the power to enforce the travel limitations or distraint against the other princes because of his post as the president of the Anti – Corruption Committee.

Financial disarmament of the heads, capitalists, Turki Ben Naser and Valid Ben Talal as the head of this pyramid has been because of preventing them to use their capitals against Ben Salman in future. Specially, some of them are opposed to full capture of power in his hands.

Ben Nayef and Motab both were dissatisfied to Yemen War and siege of Qatar. Therefore, Ben Salman has started these arrests in security aspect in order to integrate his policies in this sphere.

Ben Salman’s measures against the prominent figures of Saudi Arabia demonstrates that he wants to set the new rules of the power game for the future decades by his hands.

But these reforms include some risks and it backs to how he could manage and control these reforms? Will these reforms be expanded into the political field also? Will these reforms create serious and critical demands by people in the sense of political power?

The historical experiences of Perestroika in USSR and modernization process of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran shows that development needs enough capacity, specially fast and commanding development in closed states which will end to eliminate political regime sometimes.

According to the 2030 Vision for Sustainable Development, Ben Salman follows decrease of Saudi dependence on producing and sale of oil to eliminate this dependency. Saudi Arabia is going to eliminate its dependence on the oil dollars as it’s only source of income till 2020 and wants to establish a governmental fund with 2 billion dollars save in order to fulfill the needs of its country by using the revenues of this deposit. Then he tries to change Saudi Arabia to a modern state and great financial power.

One of Ben Salman’s destinations was consolidation of his power in Saudi family who could expunge the opponents one by one. He could made control over oil, economic, defense and militaristic politics to expand the Saudi power in Middle East by establishment of the economic committees. He could put many of Saudi princes aside from power structure and consolidated his power using the policy of moderation and control.

But about the Ben Salman’s reforms, we have to ask what the reasons are behind these reforms and which areas are covered by these? The Saudi government granted the right to drive for women in social sphere and has promised to allow them to enter the sport stadiums. The Saudi officials also talk about construction of opera house and creating tourism related industries.

There is no doubt that one of the main aims behind these measures is improvement of the Saudi Arabia’s face in international community that is damaged because of leading war against Yemen, increase of global awareness about the role of the Wahhabi ideology in terrorist acts of ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

But this is the questions that will the “Moderate Islam” create political development and democracy? Will Saudi Arabia as the leader of suppression against the roots of those movements like Muslim Brotherhood, moves into more tolerance?

We have to pay attention that the current conditions of Saudi Arabia’s society is one of the implications for these reforms. In fact, these reforms are not avoidable and the Saudi community will be spoiled if their officials couldn’t find a treat for these conditions. More than 70 percent of Saudi community members are below 35 and they are among the most active users of Tweeter.

The old social contract which was affected by the high prices of oil under support of the Wahhabi clerics is going to be eliminated. Most of Saudi population asks for change this contract with the new one that is able to fulfill more jobs along political, social and cultural freedom. For example, making new decision on cancelation of driving ban for women has not been faced to significant critics. The young defenders of reforms and even the opponents of patrimonial political regime are aware of this point that Ben Salman is the best choice for change of freedom agenda of Saudi Arabia.

That’s why Mohammad ben Salman is following introduction of a kind of “Moderate Islam” in Saudi Arabia as a new model opposed to the classic structure of the conservative Wahhabi clerics. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s high fear from Iran is one of the main causes of such decision. The assumption of “Moderate Islam” is a part of an ideological structure relating religious radicalism and the 1979 revolution of Iran while it declines the siege of Masjid Al- Haram in the same year by Wahhabis, existence of Salafi roots of thought in the ideologies of Al – Qaeda and ISIS beside of subversive actions like war of Yemen and support for extremists in Syria or interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs. This is a dangerous gamble. Because Iran has fully demonstrated its retaliation capacity to defend its national interests when it is facing endanger.

Ben Salman says: the newly created religious extremist method in Sauidi Arabia is result of the Iranian Revolution and siege of Masjid Al – Haram by extremists in Mecca. I’m young and about 70% of our citizens are young also. We never want to put our lives in such mire which have been lasted for 30 years back because of the Iranian Revolution. Now, we want to eliminate this era and focus on improvement of our community beside of keeping our religion and traditions safe. We don’t continue our lifestyle created after 1979. That era is finished!

It has to be attended that reforms could compose the most parts of modernists, youth and social castes as supporter forces for Ben Salman and his probable successor to make a modern face from him in media networks of the world and attract the world elites.

Beside of all, enforcement of these reforms could change the negative face of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism into positive one and demonstratesWahhabism as the symbol of moderate Islam that is responsible facing new needs of the communities.

We have to pay attention to this fact that changes in Saudi Arabia is enforced to execute from up to down and not vice – versa. Most of Saudi Arabian people are more conservative rather their rulers. The history of Saudi Arabia is full of cases for facing between Al – Saud family and the religious extremists. The Religious opposition to reform can lead to the polarization of the Saudi society and weakening of the value environment of Al – Saud regime. Those religious clerics who many of them have been linked to the generations of Muhammad Ben Abdul Wahhab compose a part of Saudi political regime. They had done some threatening revolutions.

One of the causes for these reforms is increase of Saudi attraction amount in eyes of other Islamic states. At the present time, there is no kind of theology or social system in Saudi Arabia to deliver a moderate interpretation of Islam like Turkey as its competitor. As the model of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is sectarian one, it covers just some parts of the Muslims world and it is not attractive for Shiite Arab or non-Arab Muslims. Because at least the drawn short time image of Saudi Arabia is a Salafi sponsor regime that supports the extremist groups like Al – Qaeda or ISIS.

Reforms in Saudi Arabia is defined following reduce of dependence to oil. Saudis are aware that oil could not be a stable source of income to fulfill the economy of their country. That’s why attempts for getting independent form oil economy have begun from the era of Malik Abdullah. He tried to revive Islam as a moderate and scientific force which this assumption inspired the idea for establishment of Malek Abdullah Technology University. The attempts of Mohammad ben Salman are have been done in the same direction.

That’s why try for attraction of tourist in such regions like the new city of Neom that is located in seashores of the Red Sea is getting done as a more liberal area. But the fact is that having economic freedom in a conservative society and interest economy like Saudi Arabia is impossible. Because it is necessary to create some changes in cultural norms of Saudi society like what were happened in in the era of reform in evangelic Christian world in order to achieve these reforms.

There has been emphasized on economic and social development in 2030 Vision while there is no evidence of political one in this document. In addition, the personality and adopted approaches by be Salman shows putting many past political traditions aside like relative family consultation and keeping moderation and conservatism. Then, the political authoritarianism of Ben Salman in internal sphere and his offensive behavior in external sphere along economic and social reformism has changed him as a specific and creative person in the historical process of Saudi Arabia.

The highly attended point here is that social and Bureaucratic reforms will be led to political reforms finally. Because awareness and expects of the new strata of society will be increased. This fact that how much Ben Salman is able to manage the changes is a dangerous gamble.

Ph.D Student of International relations in Islamic Azad niversity،Science and Research Branch (Iran) Visiting Fellow of the Persian Gulf Department in the Center for Middle East Studies

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Climate change: UAE and Russia eye geopolitical and commercial mileage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Climate change, much like war, could prove to be a geopolitical and commercial gold mine. At least, that is the take of DP World, Dubai’s global port operator, and Russia’s sovereign wealth fund.

DP World is partnering with the fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) to create an all-year round maritime sea route from Europe to Asia through the Arctic.

“Time is money in business and the route could cut travel time substantially more than traditional trade arteries for cargo owners in the Far East wanting to connect with Europe, coupled with benefits to the Russian economy,” DP World chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem told the Arab News.

In partnering with DP World, RFID brings to the table Rosatom, Russia’s atomic energy agency, which operates nuclear-powered ships that could ply the route, and Norilsk Nickel, a mining and commodities company.

Dubai and Russia are betting that climate change, which has dramatically shrunk the Arctic ice sheet in the past two decades, has made possible what eluded Europeans for centuries: ensuring that the Northeast Passage linking the Northern Atlantic with the Pacific is accessible all year round even if rail remains faster than carrying cargo by ship.

The commercial and geopolitical implications of all year-round passage are significant.

Beyond challenging the status of the Suez Canal as the foremost link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Artic route would grant Russia the one thing it has so far failed to achieve in its partnership with China: a key role in the transportation linkages between Europe and Asia that the People’s Republic is seeking to create with massive investment in its Belt and Road initiative.

That role would be bolstered by the fact that the Arctic route would cut the maritime journey from Northeast Asia from somewhere between 34 and 45 days through the Suez Canal to 23 days via the Northeast Passage.

“Because of global warming, there are some things happening that open some opportunities. Russia has this frozen coast all of the seasons. Now it’s opening up and it’s possible to navigate for nine months. When you have special ships, you can actually have 12 months navigation,” RFID CEO Kirill Dmitriev told the Saudi paper.

The partnership with Dubai gives a new laese on life to Russian aspirations to become a key node in Belt and Road linkages after Russia failed to persuade China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEC) to invest in converting the Trans-Siberian Railway into a high-speed link that would connect St. Petersburg with the Far East.

CREEC  last year definitively dashed Russian hopes, declaring that the “the high-speed rail through Russia will never pay off.

In a further setback, China simultaneously opted for an east-west road link through Kazakhstan after efforts to complete a Moscow-St. Petersburg highway as well as a ring road around the Russian capital and a Volga-Kazakhstan road stalled.

Frustrated with the lack of Chinese interest, state-run Russian Railways is itself investing heavily and reaching out to Japan to significantly increase freight traffic on the almost 9,300-kilometre-long trans-Siberian route.

The rail company aims to increase by a factor of 100 the number of containers transported from Japan to Europe from 3.000 last year to 300,000 and tonnage by 50 percent from less than 90 million to 180 million, according to Russian Railways first vice president Alexander Misharin.

Mr. Misharin told Nikkei that the investment, including US$745 million last year, involves laying double tracks, linking the railroad to seaports and automating the system.

Mr. Misharin was hoping to cooperate with Japan Railways Group to create a door-to-door cargo transportation system between Japan and Europe that would reduce transportation time to at most 19 days. He said the Russian rail company was looking at building logistics centres with Japanese trading firm Sojitz.

Upgrading the Trans-Siberian Railway would significantly bolster Russia’s geography as a key bridge in the emergence of Eurasia, the gradual integration of Europe and Asia that ultimately would erase the seemingly artificial division of one landmass into two continents.

It would also significantly facilitate linking the railway to the Belt and Road by making it financially feasible.

That is less far-fetched with China Railway International Group lending Russia US$6.2 billion for the construction of a 790-kilometre long Moscow-Kazan high speed rail line, envisioned as the first phase of a link between the Russian capital and Beijing that would cut travel between the two cities to two days.

To secure the loan, Russia agreed to use Chinese technology and construction equipment.

Russia has also expressed interest in linking its Trans-Siberian Railway to the Chinese-controlled Pakistani port of Gwadar, a Belt and Road crown jewel.

Russia is betting that the combination of the Northeast Passage and upgraded Trans-Siberian rail links would make its positioning as a transit hub significantly more attractive.

That is true even though the Northeast Passage is too shallow for giant box ships that traverse the Suez Canal and lacks the kind of ports capable of accommodating those vessels. The Passage is likely to see primarily smaller container ships.

One way or the other, DP World, expecting to operate ports that Russia plans to build along an Arctic route, would emerge a winner by expanding its global footprint. “We were always missing Russia. Russia is a link,” DP World’s Mr. Sulayem said.

Said Russian shipping giant Sovcomflot CEO Sergey Frank: “Trade is growing and there is space for everybody. If the cargo originates in the south part of China, it will go through the Suez. If it originates in Northern China, the NSR (Northern Sea Route) will be seriously considered. Cargo will always find the fastest way to move.”

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Iran-US Tensions Are Unlikely to Spill into War

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To the south of Georgia trouble is brewing as Iran and the US (and its allies) are almost openly engaged in a military competition around the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

True, Georgia does not share a border with Iran, but its close economic and cultural relations with Tehran might be further endangered. It is unlikely that the US will tolerate Georgia’s neutral position in a potential conflict between the two states. Therefore, the Georgian government will find itself in a difficult position but will most likely act according to wider US interests in the South Caucasus. Even if a military conflict does not ensue (as explained below), Georgian-Iranian relations will take a hit.

The US recently announced plans to set up a multinational military coalition to protect the waters around Iran and Yemen, particularly commercial routes where about $554 billion worth of trade, mainly oil and gas, passes through the Straits of Hormuz each year. The military confrontation between Iran and the US could cause disruption, costing the biggest trader, Saudi Arabia, $3.5 billion a week, but also negatively impacting many Asian shippers.

This comes on top of what happened last month when Iran came close to war with the US after Tehran’s unprecedented decision to shoot-down a US drone with a surface-to-air missile. Back then, the US officials, including President Donald Trump, said that this could trigger retaliatory strikes. According to various sources, Trump green-lighted a limited air-strike against Iran’s surface military capabilities but cancelled the decision some minutes later when fighters were in the air.

The root of Iranian-American tensions lies in the differences regarding Tehran’s nuclear program. Washington abandoned the nuclear agreement the world powers reached in 2015 and Iran recently announced it has reached a high level of uranium production.

The tensions, as said above, induced the US and its allies, primarily in the Persian Gulf, to create a coalition. This is a very good example of what kind of future naval coalitions the US will be able to muster to prevent a certain group of countries from controlling vital economic choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz or the Strait of Malacca in Asia. But this also raised an alarm among politicians and the world’s analytical community that we might see a military confrontation between the US (and its allies) and Iran. First, it should be emphasized that Iranians understand well that a military confrontation would be deadly for the country’s economy, leading to potential unrest in various regions. Second, a military confrontation with the US is simply beyond the Iranian resource base. However, it is also true that the US does not want to engage Iran as the latter is a completely different story from what the American forces did during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And it is not about Iran’s far superior military capabilities than those of Iraq: the major difference lies in geographic factors.

A look at the map shows that Iran’s major population centers are surrounded by almost impregnable mountains and deserts as well as water barriers. In the west and northwest are the Zagros Mountains, which bar Iran from Iraq. In the north, the Elburz Mountains as well as Armenia’s mountainous lands serve as a defensive shield. The Caspian Sea to the north and the Arabian Sea to the south are yet more impregnable barriers. To the east and northeast lie the harsh climate of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turkmenistan’s semi-barren steppe-lands keep Iran’s provinces more or less safe (barring occasional attacks by nomadic peoples).

The fact of being both geographically contained and geographically defended has defined the Iranian grand strategy from the ancient Persian empires to modern Iran. The country’s mountains and deserts have made it almost impossible to conquer and then keep under control. Consider, for example, several of history’s greatest conquerors. The Mongols and, later Tamerlane successfully invaded the Iranian plateau, but to keep it, they either had to deploy tens of thousands of troops (which they were unable to do) or co-opt the local population (which they did) by allowing them to participate in the country’s governance. The same goes for Alexander the Great, Iran’s most successful conqueror. Following his conquest of the land, he co-opted the local elites to hold onto the state – and after he died, Iran quickly regained its independence.

Iran and the US want to avoid a direct military clash, but also do not want to lose their face among their respective allies. Still, the attempts to diminish tensions between the two powers become less and less effective as Iran grows its nuclear-related capabilities and the US sees less and less room to entice Tehran into a mutually beneficial understanding.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Algerian soccer success is a double-edged sword

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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It took Algeria barely two weeks to charge Algerian soccer fan Samir Sardouk and sentence him to a year in jail for harming the national interests of his country.

Mr. Sardouk was convicted for shouting “There is no God but Allah, and they will come down” during the African Cup of Nation’s opening match in the Egyptian capital of Cairo on June 21.

Four other Algerians were given six-month suspended sentences for lighting firecrackers in the stadium.

Mr. Sardouk’s slogan referred to demands put forward in months of mass anti-government protests that all those associated of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s long-standing president who was toppled in April, be removed from office.

Mr. Sardouk’s sentencing casts a shadow over the Algerian squad’s achievement in reaching the African Cup final for the first time in 29 years after defeating Nigeria.

Together with celebrations of Algeria’s earlier qualification for the African Cup’s semi-finals after defeating Ivory Coast, it demonstrates the risk for autocrats and illiberals who use sports in general and soccer in particular to project their country in a different light internationally and polish their tarnished images by associating themselves with something that evokes the kind of deep-seated passions akin to the power of religion.

If celebrations of Algeria’s semi-final qualification and subsequent victory over Nigeria are anything to go by, an Algerian triumph in the finals, like past soccer victories in countries like Egypt and Iran, are likely to inspire rather than distract anti-government protesters.

Algerians fans in France took to the streets in Paris, Marseille and Lyon within hours of Algeria reaching the final. Their celebrations were mired by violence.

Similarly, the semi-finals celebrations spilled over into mass anti-government protests despite a huge police presence on the streets of Algiers and Paris added to the significance of Mr. Sardouk’s conviction. The protesters demanded a “civilian, not a military state”

Algerian police reportedly detained a dozen demonstrators. “There is a clear desire to prevent peaceful marches in Algiers, the deployed security device says it all.” tweeted Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH).

African Cup-related Algerian fan violence precedes the 2019 tournament. A massive brawl between players and fans mired a 2014 Libya-Algeria African Cup qualifier.

Violence associated with this year’s tournament was nonetheless minimal when put into the context of violence in Algeria having become a norm prior to this year’s revolt and the fact that the uprising has been largely peaceful.

The apparent shift away from violence is all the more remarkable given Algerian psychologist Mahmoud Boudarene’s assessment in 2014, a time of multiple soccer-related incidents.

“Violence in Algeria has become ordinary and banal. Hogra, the word Algerians use for the government’s perceived contempt for ordinary citizens, has planted a sickness in Algerian society. People feel that the only way to get anything done is to have connections or threaten the peace. It is a system where hogra and social injustice rule. Social violence has become the preferred mode of communication between the citizen and the republic — today in our country everything is obtained through a riot,” Mr. Boudarene told the Associated Press at the time.

This year’s popular revolt, inspired by lessons learnt from the 2011 popular Arab revolts, has emboldened protesters and given them a sense of confidence that is likely to ensure that potential African Cup final celebrations-turned-protest remain largely peaceful.

With Algeria having qualified for the final, the Algerian defence ministry, despite the police posturing, was preparing six military planes to fly 600 fans to Egypt for the African Cup final.

The gesture underlined soccer’s political importance and constituted an attempt by the military to align itself with the Algerian squad’s success.

The significance of soccer makes Mr. Sardouk’s sentencing all the more remarkable despite the assertion that his slogan mired Algeria’s march towards soccer victory.

For starters, it sought to draw a dividing line between national honour and protest in a country where a majority are likely to be soccer fans.

He was convicted at a time that Algeria has been wracked by protests since February in support of political reforms that would dismantle the country’s long-standing, military-dominated regime with a more transparent and accountable government.

The conviction is also noteworthy because Mr. Sardouk’s protest, coupled with acts of defiance by militant Egyptian soccer fans, threatened to turn the African tournament into a venue for the expression of dissent from across the Middle East and North Africa, a region populated by autocratic, repressive regimes and wracked by repeated explosions of poplar anger.

Finally, the sentencing was striking because it violated the spirit of both the military’s effort to retain a measure of control by co-opting the protests and a long-standing understanding with militant soccer fans that preceded the recent demonstrations that allowed supporters to protest as long as they restricted themselves to the confines of the stadium.

The Algerian military’s attempt to curtail fans and co-opt the revolt bumps up against the fact that the protesters, like their counterparts in Sudan, Morocco, Pakistan and Russia, have sought to avoid the risks of the military seeking to implement a Saudi-United Arab Emirates template to blunt or squash the protests.

The core lesson protesters learnt is that the protests’ success depends to a large extent on demonstrators’ willingness and ability to sustain their protests even if security forces turn violent. An Algeria that emerges from the African Cup final as the continent’s champion would give the protesters a significant boost.

It also constitutes an opportunity to ensure that Algeria does not revert to an environment in which violence is seen as the only way to achieve results.

Said a former senior Algerian intelligence official: “We will return to violence if there is no real democratic transition. The African Cup doesn’t fundamentally change that but does offer a window of opportunity.”

Author’s note: This story first appeared on Africa is a Country

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