Saudi Arabia loosens up

Saudi Arabia will loosen up and, eventually, get a new king

Middle East

Behind the scenes, the event looked like any other held in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Men in white robes sat on gilded couches and ate dates. Some prayed towards Mecca. No women were present. Nor was there alcohol, which is banned in the conservative kingdom. But when the attendees took their seats, they were treated to something unusual. Until 2017, there had not been a concert in Riyadh for nearly three decades. Yet on this night Toby Keith, an American country-music star, whose hits include “I Love This Bar” and “Rum is the Reason”, crooned for the audience.

A prince with a purpose

Saudi Arabia is changing—and it will continue to do so, haltingly, in 2018. The young crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS, as he is called), is shaking things up, socially, politically and economically. His ascension is itself a break with tradition. King Salman, the father of MBS, is the sixth son of the kingdom’s founding monarch to sit on the throne. In 2015 he passed over his remaining brothers in naming his nephew as crown prince. Then, in 2017, he pushed him out and promoted his son, concentrating power in one branch of the family tree. MBS has grand ambitions to reform the kingdom.

Those ambitions start with the economy. MBS’s plan, known as Vision 2030, aims to wean the kingdom off the revenues from oil, which have long paid for generous benefits and cushy government jobs. That is no longer sustainable (see chart). So MBS aims to cut subsidies and diversify the economy. Faced with popular discontent, he backtracked on austerity measures in 2017. But the biggest test of his reformist mettle will be the sale of 5% of Saudi Aram­co, the state-owned oil giant. Though it is scheduled for 2018, it will be delayed. Moreover, Aram­co’s valuation will be much lower than the $2trn that MBS hopes for, in part because his own meddling in the firm worries investors.

Some analysts think the government might undo tax cuts granted to Aramco in order to prop up government revenues; or continue offering cheap energy to Saudis, at the expense of Aramco’s profits. The authorities, though, are trying to mollify the population—70% of which is under 30—in other ways. A new General Entertainment Authority (GEA) held thousands of events in 2017, up from a few hundred the year before. There will be even more in 2018, as the government chips away at restrictions imposed under the kingdom’s strict Islamic social code. Conservative clerics are perturbed. But Ahmed al-Khatib, the chairman of the GEA, is pushing on. Expect to see cinemas, banned since the 1970s, in Riyadh soon. “We’re moving to a more open society,” says Mr Khatib. 

The government has stifled conservative voices, and curbed the power of the mutaween (religious police). In 2017 King Salman ordered government agencies to stop arbitrarily denying women access to services because they did not have a male guardian’s consent. Still, he did not completely do away with the so-called guardianship system, which requires women to get male approval for marriage and travelling abroad. 

More progress will be made in 2018. By June women will be allowed to drive (Saudi Arabia was the only place that prohibited this), thanks to growing pressure and because an increasing number of them need to get to work.

All of this change has not only upset the clerics. Royals have been irked by the rapid rise of MBS and his placement of other young princes in important positions. The crown prince has heightened their concerns with his rash interventions abroad, such as a disastrous war in Yemen and the isolation of Qatar. So great is the rancour that some observers think the king and his son could be deposed. In order to forestall such an event, MBS cracked down on perceived opponents in 2017. A more likely scenario is that King Salman, who is fading, will abdicate in favour of his son. And that King Muhammad will continue to change the kingdom.

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Credit: Reuters
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