Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Saudi Arabia is known for its conservative and moderate policy on domestic and foreign affairs. Since King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud came to power in 2015, the country has undergone top-down reforms.
On the political front, he announced the setting up of an anti-corruption committee on Saturday and had several princes and ministers arrested, showing the deepening of reforms. Economically, after a "Saudi Vision 2030" was announced last year, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman declared that $500 billion would be spent in building a free special economic zone like one in Dubai.
Socially, the country for the first time lifted the driving ban on women and let them watch matches at stadiums. The Crown Prince also vowed to destroy "extremist thoughts" and to return to "moderate Islam."
In terms of diplomacy, Saudi turned away from its tradition of being close to the US against Russia. King Salman visited Moscow for the first time last month to strengthen relations with Russia.
Saudi undertook these major reforms in an attempt to sustain the regime and get rid of the difficulties it faced.
First, the country wants to address succession. Since Saudi Arabia was set up, it has kept the nomadic tradition of passing down the throne to brothers instead of sons. But after 79-year-old King Salman ascended the throne in 2015, he abandoned the over-six-decade-long practice and made his nephew the crown prince. In June, he named his son Mohammed the crown prince and delegated special powers to him.
However, radical reforms have put Saudi at enormous risk. Change in the way power is passed from one ruler to another can cause internal strife and conflict, and is unacceptable to other Saudi royal lines. Besides, Mohammed lacks the capacity to manage complicated situations. Israeli intelligence thinks that tensions among Saudi royals have been the most serious in the last 30 years. To consolidate the current power structure, King Salman has centralized authority. His latest moves are meant to lay the ground for his son inheriting the throne in the future.
Second, Saudi aims to cast off its dependence on oil. The country, whose economy largely depends on oil exports, has been sensitive to volatile oil prices. Since June 2014, international oil price has fallen from as high as $115 a barrel to about $60 nowadays. According to International Monetary Fund, to balance the Saudi budget, oil price needs to be around $106 a barrel.
Low oil price has slashed revenues in the Gulf Cooperation Council nation. Rising fiscal deficit threatens the country's system of maintaining stability with welfare measures. For now, two-third of Saudis are under 30, and 45 percent college graduates cannot find jobs. It is estimated that considering the increase in population, till 2030, Saudi can meet social demands only when oil price rises to $300 a barrel, which is almost impossible. Therefore, Saudi needs to diversify its industries and become less reliant on oil exports.
Third, Saudi wants to be less bound by religion. The country was established based on religion and is representative of conservative forces in the Middle East. It doesn't have a constitution and women did not have voting rights until the end of 2015. In the Democracy Index of The Economist, Saudi is ranked 160 among the 167 countries. Although Saudi strengthens its soft power by exporting Wahhabism, it leads to the spreads of extremism, seriously damaging Saudi's international image. Hence Riyadh wants to change.
Fourth, Saudi wants to study the problems caused by rash diplomacy. After the political upheavals in the Middle East in 2011, Saudi became the leader of the Arab world and has turned its cautious diplomacy into aggressiveness. But sending troops to Yemen in March 2015 cost Saudi dear. The government had to dump its funds of $70 billion and issue national bonds several times. The war has become a bottomless pit draining Saudi's wealth.
Another diplomatic failure of Saudi Arabia has been severing of ties with Qatar in June. But Qatar didn't buckle easily and instead restored its relationship with Iran, enhanced military cooperation with Turkey, which weakened Riyadh's influence in the Persian Gulf. Saudi is in need of improving its diplomacy. Wooing Russia is a step in the right direction.
Samuel Huntington once said, "Modernity breeds stability, but modernization breeds instability." The well-intended reforms of Saudi have high stakes.
The author is associate research fellow on Middle Eastern studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. firstname.lastname@example.org