With turmoil and transformation as key elements of a changing global order, where retrenchment of American power and rise of China are pointers to a New Cold War and competition, the Middle East is now at the centre stage of this emerging conflict.
A recent expression of this new reality is the historic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by China, which has drawn attention to the huge geopolitical change taking place in the Middle East, with China displacing the United States as an ‘honest broker’ in disputes. Interestingly, apart from the growing intimacy between China and Saudi Arabia, it would look like that the once bastion of conservatism and orthodoxy may well be inspired by China’s reform model.
The shift in global power politics notwithstanding, is less talked about, and is actually an epochal, tectonic shift in the Middle East is the remarkable transformation taking place in Saudi state and society. It is a silent revolution spearheaded by their young reformist Prime Minister and heir apparent, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). An almost obscurantist monarchy is slowly but surely being transformed into an open, liberal society, where women’s rights now go hand-in-hand with Saudi Arabia’s leap into a 21st Century high-tech, digital economic hub in the heart of the Muslim World.
Interestingly, the closest example of such a transformation is China’s ‘Reform and Opening Up’ initiated by the great visionary leader, Deng Xiaoping, four decades ago which changed China from a poor, weak, and isolated country into a rich, strong, global leader that today competes with United States.
Is MBS embarked on a similar path to assume the mantle of an ‘Arab Deng Xiaoping’?
Comparing the two reformers, certain similarities stand out. Both Deng Xiaoping and MBS demonstrated single-minded determination in pursuing what they felt was a necessary ‘course correction’ for their respective countries to move forward and change lives of their people for the better. Both were products of an entrenched and closed system, which they felt needed reform and overhaul. Both showed a pragmatic streak and a practical ‘can do’ approach, dispensing with ideology, which earlier influenced most decisions. Deng Xiaoping famously emphasised to ‘seek truth from facts’. Both successfully unloaded political ‘extra baggage’ to move forward (Tien A Men 1989 in the case of Deng Xiaoping and Khashoggi 2018 in the case of MBS). Both produced economic visions of a better tomorrow through focus on ‘model’ cities as success stories to showcase the changes (Shenzhen in China and Neom in Saudi Arabia). Both reformers shifted their country’s foreign policy focus from a narrow, ideological prism to a broader, inclusive globalist worldview, prioritising trade, investment, reconciliation and education. Both had to overcome Western sceptics, who were convinced that neither Deng nor MBS could overcome the odds which they inherited by building anew and presiding over a peaceful, silent revolution in their respective countries!
China’s entry into the international system has managed to lift 800 million out of poverty within two generations, provided for a better quality of life for their people, and today, 130 out of 193 members of the United Nations have more trade with China than they have with the United States. Reinforcing this domestic transformation is a foreign policy of peace and connectivity, with initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Global Development Initiative (GDI), which are mainstays of China’s March to modernisation. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a process that is focused on a people-centric development approach which is seeking to propel the Kingdom into the 21st century, with MBS seeking progress on a tripod of trade, technology and tourism.
What are implications of the Silent Revolution in Saudi Arabia for the Muslim World?
Three are noteworthy. First, by bidding goodbye to clerical control of domestic decision making, Saudi Arabia is no longer a theocratic monarchy, rather moving towards becoming a more vibrant society that is inclusive, not dictated by a ‘killjoy’ mindset or suffocated by antiquated harsh regulations, with a general openness of society, where women’s rights and youths’ outlets in sports and culture are now accepted as the ‘new normal’.
Second, given that the Muslim World’s politics was defined for the past four decades by an ideological foreign policy of Saudi Arabia with its triangular mixture of money, militancy and madrassahs peddling conflicts with the ‘other’, the manifestation of which was an unending and debilitating proxy war with its traditional rival, Iran, the result was destabilising for the entire region, ranging from Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen, even extending to non-Arab regions like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, Iran too played the game of the proxy wars, with its own ideologues aggressively ‘marketing’ their theology! Thankfully, that phase has now come to an end, which is very positive for peace, stability, and harmony in the Muslim World.
Third, a significant component of MBS’s Silent Revolution is that Saudi Arabia is no longer an extension of American foreign policy strategy in the Middle East, as was the case in the past. From funding the Afghan jihad (Saudi Arabia provided matching funds worth $ 2.1 billion to match CIA’s supply of arms and cash for the Afghan Mujahideen) to combating Iran to supporting the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia always came in handy for Washington’s foreign policy adventures. Saudi Arabia was viewed as the American ATM with a ‘have cash, will dispense’ approach at the behest of Washington power brokers. That is no more the case, much to the shock and chagrin of the American Establishment.
MBS rejected Biden’s request to increase oil production to offset the energy shortages caused by the war In Ukraine on which Saudi position is nuanced, bordering on neutrality. He has agreed to be an enthusiastic partner of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, willing to trade in yuan, he rejected the U.S. boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics last year and he’s still refusing to recognise Israel, despite US pressure to the contrary.
The Saudi Silent Revolution augurs well for the Muslim World as most Muslims take their cue from the guardian of the Holy Places, on what kind of society to build and how to place Islam in the quest for modernisation in the 21st century. MBS is setting an excellent example by squarely presenting the two as compatible in building a better and progressive tomorrow for their people. Islam and modernity can not only coexist, but these can be ingredients of competitive Muslim societies who are seeking partnerships in education, science, technology, human rights with rights for women and equality for minorities that Islam professes and practices and which is in consonance with the needs of the 21st century.
The political coming of age of MBS as the architect of a new, modern, proud, and sovereign Saudi Arabia was best evident in his landmark interview in April 2022 with the influential ‘The Atlantic’ magazine published in Washington, DC. When asked for his reaction that President Biden is ‘treating you like a pariah’, MBS responded with casual confidence: ‘I don’t care’! Three months later, in July 2022, President Biden had to eat humble pie when he visited Saudi Arabia to meet and pay homage to MBS, a reflection of a new reality of how the world and Saudi Arabia have been transformed. Lenin once said that ‘there are decades when nothing happens, and then there are weeks when decades happen’. So it is with the Middle East, with changes at a dizzying speed: apart from Iran-Saudi normalisation, other changes are Syria’s return to the Arab fold, Qatar’s reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and UAE, ceasefire and peace talks in Yemen, Iran-UAE rapprochement.
For the first time in half a century, these developments have originated inside the region, with Washington or the European capitals having no role in this process. Finally, it is Asian hands shaping the future of West Asia in the ‘Asian Century’.