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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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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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