This month, the Saudi government expelled the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh, and canceled flights, educational exchanges, and trade and investment activities between the two countries. This crisis was precipitated by a tweet – published both in English and, crucially, in Arabic on August 3 from the Canadian foreign ministry saying it was “gravely concerned” about the arrest of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia and urging the Saudi government to “immediately release them”.
To many observers, especially in the West, this incident is proof that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is not the reformer he claims to be, but rather an impulsive authoritarian. That’s understandable. On the surface such a series of drastic steps seem like a massive overreaction. But there is far more going on here than meets the eye. First of all, several aspects of culture require more inquiry. Literature is more a process of discovering people rather than gathering information. It is a two-way street. So, if we take stories out of the context, or if we isolate stories from the phase in history, their social and cultural background, or if we do not engage with a story as one of its characters, they tend to become meaningless.
The situation this month must be understood in the context of Saudi and Islamic culture. Any Arab leader, particularly a young one who has recently assumed power in a traditional and mostly tribal society, has to carefully maintain his and his country’s stature and prestige, what classical Muslim scholars called “hayba”. This refers to the awe and respect that a ruler and his state must command in order to maintain order and stability without having a resort to excessive coercion, and without which there is no basis for legitimate rule. This means that Prince Mohammed cannot allow himself of his country to be publicly lectured by Western leaders – especially in his own language. This was particularly the case since the Canadian embassy in Riyadh posted the tweet in Arabic, ensuring a wide circulation on local and social media. Such perceived blatant interference in Saudi Arabia’s domestic affairs could not go unanswered without damaging the prestige of the state in the eyes of its people. Let’s be very clear: This has nothing to do with Prince Mohammed’s status as a reformer. The crown prince’s stated goal is social, economic, and cultural and religious transformation of his kingdom – not political reform. This is a point his Western critics often forget.
Prince Mohammed’s reforms and transformation of his kingdom is urgently needed in terms of competitiveness, the whole Arab region must increase its effort to expand the use of latest digital technologies. Already by 2020 one in five jobs in the Arab world will require digital skills in our opinion. Diversifying the economy, developing the private sector and creating opportunities for the youth will require increasing the innovation content of the non-oil sector and navigating through the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is something where the Arab region needs support from the West.
In fact, to implement the enormous changes he wants, he has felt the need to further limit the margin of free speech in order to control public debate on these reforms and ensure that they do not escalate into civil unrest. What he has been doing – and at warp speed – is reforming the economy by eliminating wasteful subsidies, a perilous political task even under the best of circumstances. Furthermore, he is taking on an entrenched reactionary religious establishment: carrying out an aggressive fight against extremism, working to eliminate extremist materials from school curriculums, and changing the message that the clerical establishment sends to the Muslim world. He is also working aggressively to eliminate many of the constraints on women, like lifting the driving ban and, gradually and quietly, tempering the restrictive guardianship laws imposed on women. Religious conservatives are pushing back. One of the ways they try to undermine Prince Mohammed is by claiming that his reforms are the product of an “American agenda” that aims to Westernize Saudi society and distance it from its Islamic roots. Given the close ties that the kingdom maintains with the West, these false allegations resonate with the masses. And Saudi leaders have surely not forgotten what happened to the shah of Iran when he was accused of implementing an American agenda: Clerics used the charge to inflame the people against him and he was deposed in a revolution.
The Canadian government’s public scolding was therefore seen as an unacceptable affront that required a vigorous response. For Prince Mohammed, it is imperative that his reforms are not seen to be a result of Western political pressure, but rather in the interests of the country, the people, their faith, their culture and their future. He cannot allow outsiders to try and dictate their views to the kingdom’s leadership or attempt to reach out directly to the Saudi people in such matters without impacting the “hayba” of the state.
Does this mean that the Saudi government didn’t overreact?
No. But Western nations have a vested interest in the success of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to transform itself, and so they must understand the political limitations and treacherous risks under which the leadership is attempting to bring about change. Prince Mohammed has every interest in maintaining good relations between his country and the West. The crown prince is very open to Western leaders and is in constant communication with many of them. Feel-good public pasturing may play well with liberals in Canada and other Western countries, but quiet diplomacy in a country which goes through its biggest ever transformation plan is in our opinion far more effective.