Real Arab Spring
By Sohrab Ahmari
November 6, 2017
Around this time of the year in 2010, a Tunisian fruit
vendor’s self-immolation triggered a tsunami of uprisings that soon engulfed
much of the Middle East and North Africa. The results were catastrophic. The
so-called Arab Spring empowered political Islamists, left four Arab states in
various stages of disintegration, and enabled the Iranian regime’s march
across the region. Seven years later, a new spring is afoot, and this one has a
much better chance of bringing real reform and prosperity to the Arabs.
I’m speaking of Muhammad bin Salman’s efforts to
transform the hidebound Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into a modern nation-state. If
the 32-year-old Saudi crown prince, widely known as MBS, can pull this off, he
will prove to be one of the pivotal Mideast figures of our time, akin to
Iran’s Reza Shah and Turkey’s Kemal Mustafa Ataturk in the last century.
The latest sign of the crown prince’s audacity came over
the weekend when Saudi security forces detained more than 60 former ministers,
royals, and business figures in an anti-corruption push that also aims to
neutralize internal rivals to MBS’s power. Those detained–including Prince
Mutaib bin Abdullah, a potential contender for the throne, and Prince
Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom’s richest men–haven’t been formally
charged or accorded any due process.
Also over the weekend, Lebanon’s Saudi-backed prime
minister, Saad Hariri, resigned while visiting Riyadh. That move suggests that
the Saudis are no longer willing to accept the Hezbollah- and Iranian-dominated
status quo in Lebanon. It will almost certainly result in the collapse of the
Lebanese government. In a separate incident, Saudi air defense intercepted a
missile launched at an airport in Riyadh by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in
Yemen. Riyadh on Monday denounced the firing of the missile as a “blatant act
of military aggression.”
Washington’s liberal foreign-policy establishment sees an
ambitious would-be autocrat overreaching at home and abroad. But the Saudi
leadership was never going to sit still in response to Tehran’s growing
hegemony, a threat that was abetted by the Obama administration’s nuclear
diplomacy and failure to check Iranian aggression across the geopolitical board.
Feeling abandoned by Washington, and with their own system’s weaknesses
bearing down on them, the Saudis were due for a big shakeup.
MBS’s project makes sense against this backdrop. His
reform vision is by no means democratic. But it is populist, nationalist, and
shorn of illusions. Which is to say, it is deeply attuned to the needs of the
Arabs today and the worldwide spirit of the age.
Start with populism. By targeting graft, MBS is
vindicating average Saudis, who stewed as they watched the well-connected cash
in on public money. By granting women the right to drive and loosening social
restrictions that made the kingdom one of the worst places to be young, MBS is
creating a constituency that is invested in his success. Saudis won’t shed
tears for princes locked up in the Riyadh Ritz.
Then there is nationalism. By liberalizing the economy
and seeking revenue beyond oil, MBS is shoring up the national foundations of
Saudi power–crucial in the confrontation with Tehran. With oil prices
depressed, Riyadh can no longer afford to run a colossal welfare state. Weaning
Saudis off petro-entitlements is likely to foster a healthier, more accountable
sense of belonging and citizenship than the kingdom has afforded citizens since
its founding. More philosophically, MBS views the nation-state form as an
enduring mechanism for confronting 21st-century challenges. MBS is thus one
among a rising group of like-minded world leaders, including Narendra Modi,
Benjamin Netanyahu, and, of course, Donald Trump.
Finally, MBS’s reform vision is realistic. As the
likes of Bernard Lewis warned and subsequent events showed, Arab society isn’t
configured to representative democracy as we in the West understand it. With the
precious exception of Tunisia, Arab “democracy” has yielded Islamism, state
failure, and civil war. Top-down change, driven by a popular figure like MBS,
promises a less perilous path to reform and prosperity for the Saudis and their
neighborhood. The U.S. should embrace this vision–and lend a hand.