How extraordinary to see a world-historical revolution unfolding before one’s eyes and not know how it will turn out: that’s what’s happening right now in Saudi Arabia. Mohammad bin Salman, a 32-year-old too young to be a partner in most law or finance firms, has managed, by intrigue not yet fully disclosed, to supplant his cousin Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef as heir to the throne and to carry out a purge of the royal family breathtaking in its sweep. Imagine: not only did bin Salman order the arrest of at least ten other princes and a score of former government ministers, now held in luxurious restraint in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton; he also supposedly had Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men and a major shareholder of 21st Century Fox, Citigroup, Apple, Twitter, and a host of other giant Western corporations, hanged upside down and beaten in an “anti-corruption” investigation.
No matter that “wasta”—corruption, kickbacks, and cronyism—has long governed Saudi Arabian business dealings. Now, the kingdom’s economic crown jewel—Aramco, the Saudi state oil company—is headed for sale on the public stock markets, and the financial future of the kingdom and its oligarchs is on the line. Sadly for the Saudis, Aramco is no longer as valuable, economically and geopolitically, as it once was. Natural gas from fracking has displaced oil as the fuel of the Western economy, with the result that OPEC (and, less critically, Russian oil) can no longer hold anybody’s economy hostage. For the Saudi government, moreover, no longer can cartel-inflated oil revenues pay for the gigantic welfare state that supports so much of the population in non–working, gilded, state dependency. What can’t go on, won’t, said economist Herb Stein sagely; and MbS, as the new crown prince is called, saw this reality and stepped in to take precautionary measures before a rapidly collapsing economic order sparked social anarchy, with an outcome no government could foresee or control.
Economic modernization and diversification, the prince saw, were essential, and they required social liberalization as the first order of business, beginning with allowing women to drive cars, the royal road to women’s liberation. Already, Saudi women are casting off the hijab and seizing modern social pleasures. The important point is that half the kingdom’s potential workforce will become free to produce, with hugely positive consequences for the economy.
But that’s only part of the social revolution that the prince’s economic transformation entails. Crucially, the royal family will find it harder to fund the radical Wahhabi Islam that OPEC has let grow like mushrooms. It’s hard to imagine that this well-established, well-fed worldwide network of terrorist-supporting fanatics, in their opulent mosques and madrassas—and especially in the more Spartan ones in Pakistan—will go quietly; little wonder that the prince has surrounded himself with a repressive security apparatus reminiscent of the Shah of Iran’s. He appears to be a quiet but inexorable foe of Muslim extremism, and consequently it is uncertain that he will emerge from his heroic and visionary remaking of the Saudi order with his head intact on his shoulders. Many a social liberalization has spun out of control and produced anarchy or fascist counterrevolution. But well-wishers have long hoped that some Muslim Martin Luther would purge Islam of its quotient of bloodlust and allow the self-perfecting, ethical version of its peaceful adherents to prevail in a secular society, where separation of mosque and state makes religion a private matter. In a medieval region like Arabia, it turns out, a king might do the job equally well—if he can survive to inherit the throne and rule from it. And then the question will be whether his revolution can last, as the Pahlavis’ and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s did not.
It’s not just the Wahhabi mullahs, along with the royal kleptocrats, who will try to kill this project in its infancy. So will the Iranian Shiite fanatics, who, for all their vehement and resentful disagreements with their Sunni “brethren,” don’t want to see a strain of moderation take hold. So will a Sunni–Shia war ensue?
Recall that the Protestant Reformation ignited three decades of ferocious religious warfare in Europe, laced with massacre, torture, and forced exile. Let’s hope that the Islamic version is short and mild, but conclusive enough to deglamorize the dream of terrorism not only in the Middle East but also in the minds of those Western Muslims whose cultural alienation has sparked so much vile carnage. They, like so many others, have nothing to lose but their ideological chains.
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