Monday, 29 January 2018

Geopolitical debt and Saudi Arabia's curious motive for reform

The Saudi kingdom has been rushing through some fairly intense changes over the past few years. For a country that prides itself in its Islamic values and culture, you'd expect those changes to be in the direction of perfecting Islamic culture. But you'd be wrong.

Quite the opposite. The Saudi royal family has enjoyed a conservative Islamic ideal for decades. It hasn't led to incredible cultural advances - in fact, there seems to be something deep within Islam that stifles innovation - even if the royal family is one of the richest on the planet. The country has plenty of fossil fuel resources, which is exactly why it has been left alone to practice anti-progressive values for so long.

The old Saudi king is dying, and over the past four or five years, two major figures have emerged to take his place. Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammad bin Nayaf (known in intelligence circles as MbS and MbN respectively) were the frontrunners. MbN is an older fellow with decades of experience as head of the country's intelligence service, while MbS is a 30-something without much experience at all - unless you count hobnobbing with blondes and billionaires as "experience."

The ruckus in Riyadh recently revolved around the essential victory of MbS in this race to the throne. Both princes were accepted by the international community as good candidates for Saudi Arabian future policy drivers. So to the people who matter, it wasn't too concerning who won the internecine wrestling match. But that makes me suspicious, especially when you hear phrases like this so often:

"Saudi Arabia is in so many ways behind on the arc of history"

Whose arc? Whose ideas is MbS enacting? Letting women drive and attend football games don't look like Islamic ideas to me. Is it just me who finds it weird that the McKinsey Institute has been hired by the regime to develop a programme of "change" for the kingdom? Will the ideas from this institute be more Islamic or more American? As Stalin once said, "Who? Whom?"

No, I'm not pointing out a conspiracy theory. All I'm saying is although it appears MbS is enacting Saudi reform, he is really only enacting Harvard's ideals onto his society. All those years of being left alone because Saudi Arabia was doing its job of supplying oil to the modern world have built up a lot of debt for the kingdom. And now that the international community no longer needs Saudi Arabia in the same way, the "reform" project is simply the public display of the debt collectors knocking on the door. OPEC is a cartel in itself, but it's is a 60-pound weakling compared to the 500-pound gorilla cartel known as the international American progressive movement.

Knock knock, Riyadh.

Like the weakling Saudi Arabia actually is, MbS heard the knocking and is now fully in the swing of paying back the debt. He knows the score. MbS recently said in a speech that Saudis "are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world ... We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today." He hasn't been tricked, and neither does he truly believes what he's saying. He's just saying what he's told to say because he doesn't have a choice.

MbS (right) might look taller, but that's just an illusion.
'Mad Dog' Mattis is a giant.
There is no such thing as moderate Islam. It is an invention of US universities. Moderate Islam is simply a Unitarian, progressive and Americanised version of Islam. It is a version of Islam moulded by a global political power. It is an Islam that retains benign characteristics (such as sartorial standards and spiritual activities) but carves off the political aspirations inherent in all religions. And although it may not be the most powerful version of Islam today, give it a few generations and check back it. If this keeps up, the Ahmed your son goes to school with will make you say "wow, he wants the same things we do. I don't mind his beard at all!"

Islam and its holy books are not simply religious texts, they are prescriptions for government and social structure. The only direction in which Islam's ideas can be "destructive" is against a rival formation of government and society. Yet Islam hasn't developed the tools to withstand the dilution of its core religious tenents underway across the Middle East. That process has been going on for decades.

Where is MbS getting his ideas from? What is the source of this rival form of government the young prince says must "destroy" his country's traditional beliefs?

Where else have "traditional" ideas been attacked and destroyed? Hmm...

Consider that a sovereign wealth fund is not an Islamic idea, and yet MbS says his country needs one. Is removing the power of clerics in government an Islamic idea? Are female rights, human rights and "being open to all religions" Islamic ideas? Is being part of the "international community" an Islamic idea? These are progressive American ideas, straight from Harvard, and brought to Riyadh by McKinsey.

MbS gets congratulatory interviews from the New York Time's Thomas Friedman because he doesn't threaten the status quo. In fact, MbS is reinforcing the progressive status quo. From the NYT's perspective, it's perfectly acceptable for Saudi Arabia have its own religious beliefs, but the core of its government and social constitution must align with US ideals. If some parts of Islam threaten that reality, then a bit of surgery is needed.

You can be Islamic, say US scholars, but you have to be moderate. Women can wear burqas, but they have to be able to vote, attend football games and drive. Men can pray five times a day, but they must use the internet, defer to the UN and respect freedoms of speech.

"You better have my money by next week, MbS"
Are these Islamic values? Are these even Saudi ideas? Did MbS invent any of these himself?!? What you're seeing in Saudi is a controlled fire burning away traditional Islamic ideals. It's the continuation of the Arab Spring, just with a little more finesse. Those movements towards "secularism" in Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere the result of decades of State Department and Harvard agitating and setting the fires of democracy, freedom and US values.

What's happening in Saudi Arabia is simply the latest chapter in the "Arab" Spring with lessons learned.

Saudi Arabia is not "behind" some universal arc. Islam was created as a black flag against Europe's Christianity for control of Arabia, the Mediterranean basin and beyond. And it did pretty well for a while. But MbS’s “reform” is proof that Christianity under US progressivism has won this long war so entirely that it can even rename its foe “moderate” Islam – and they accept it.

It would be fantastic if the arc of Islam were to bend along the same path as Christianity, completely independently, and lead to the development of human rights and all that stuff. This would prove once and for all that all humans really do have the same goals and values "deep down," and just need someone to uncover them.

But Saudi Arabia's "reform" is not evidence of that. It is plain old Machiavellian power struggles and the capture of a weaker civilisation by a stronger. Throughout history, the vanquished always adopt the values and traditions of the victor. MbS is not a maverick. He is just another Ptolemy, Herod, Theodor Heuss or Shigeru Yoshida. His job is to do what he's told.

If Saudi was truly "independent" in the way it chose its structure, would you expect to see more burqas or more jeans? More voting or more clerical dictation? More mosques or more universities? The regime is simply paying back what it owes. But this is a strategic loss for Islam. That the fires haven't spilt onto the streets of Riyadh yet is because money can buy anything – even time. But ultimately, not even Saudi has enough money to hold back US soft power.

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