TEHRAN (Press Shia Agency) – A senior political analyst from Britain likened recent “cosmetic reforms” in Saudi Arabia to those introduced under the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last monarch of Iran, back in the 1960s and 1970s and said what happened to the Pahlavi regime awaits the Saudi rulers.
“Both Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s actions previously and Mohammed bin Salman’s actions are in fact responses to the growing crisis of their respective regimes as they each sense that opposition to their regimes in their respective countries is growing and internationally is increasing,” London-based Alexander Mercouris said in an interview with the Press Shia Agency News Agency.
“Moreover, it is now generally acknowledged that Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s industrialization program in the 1960s and 1970s ultimately destabilized Iran’s economy and weakened his regime, and I expect the same to happen in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Alexander Mercouris is a writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law. He has written extensively on the legal aspects of NSA spying and events in Ukraine in terms of human rights, constitutionality and international law, being a frequent commentator on television and speaker at conferences. He worked for 12 years in the Royal Courts of Justice in London as a lawyer, specializing in human rights and constitutional law.
Following is the full text of the interview:
Press Shia Agency: Recently, the Saudi regime led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced dramatic social reforms. The oil-rich kingdom, which has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, has long barred women from sports arenas. The kingdom’s General Sports Authority announced in October that stadiums in Jeddah, Dammam, and Riyadh will be set up to accommodate families from early 2018. The announcement is in line with bin Salman’s ambitious reforms shaking up the kingdom, including the historic decision to allow women to drive from June. What is your assessment of the dramatic changes in the Saudi regime’s domestic policy? What objectives is the kingdom pursuing by such social reforms? Do not you think that the increasing protests in the Arab country have led to them?
Mercouris: I should say first of all that I take issue with the claim in the question that these are ‘dramatic social reforms’. On the contrary, they appear to me essential cosmetic reforms, which will leave the essential social and political structures of the Saudi Kingdom untouched. There has been some easing of social restrictions, but these do not change essential social conditions in Saudi Arabia in any significant way. Note that nothing Mohammed bin Salman is proposing in any way dilutes the power of the King or of the Saudi family or gives Saudi citizens outside the Royal Family and the elite any role in decision making or in the country’s government.
The objectives behind Mohammed bin Salman’s policies are in my opinion as follows:
to increase radically the power of the Saudi regime by grafting on to Saudi Arabia an industrial base bought wholesale from abroad (principally the US) and a further upgrading of the Saudi military also based on wholesale imports of sophisticated weapons mainly from the US; and
to increase Mohammed bin Salman’s personal power within the regime, converting the regime from what it has been up to now – an oligarchy of the leading of Princes of the Royal Family – into a personal dictatorship centered on himself. This is being done – or at least attempted – by a process of eliminating Mohammed bin Salman’s rivals amongst the Princes under cover of a fundamentally bogus ‘anti-corruption’ drive.
The social easing which you refer to is intended to increase Mohammed bin Salman’s personal popularity with younger middle-class Saudi citizens who have long chafed at the social restrictions that the Saudi regime imposes on them so that he can achieve his two main objectives with their support.
It is a very similar set of policies to those attempted in Iran by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in the 1960s and 1970s: a rushed, unbalanced and in the end completely unsustainable industrialization program based not on an organic development of Iran’s economy and society but on wholesale imports of factories and technology from the West, and reckless spending on the military, also based on massive imports of sophisticated weapons and military technology from the West.
Both Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s actions previously and Mohammed bin Salman’s actions are in fact responses to the growing crisis of their respective regimes as they each sense that opposition to their regimes in their respective countries is growing.
In both cases, the intention is to buy off, intimidate and overawe growing opposition, by pretending that the regime is a force of ‘modernization’ rather than being what it really is, which is a repressive dictatorship which is holding the country back.
In reality, the steady pattern in Iran under Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was for the regime to become more brutal and more repressive towards its opponents over time, and I expect the same to happen in Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman.
Moreover, it is now generally acknowledged that Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s industrialization program in the 1960s and 1970s ultimately destabilized Iran’s economy and weakened his regime, and I expect the same to happen in Saudi Arabia.
Press Shia Agency: Do not you think that one of the objectives behind the reforms is to silence the voices of dissent and human rights defenders? In your opinion, are these reforms only a show by bin Salman to ingratiate himself with the US as his staunch ally?
Mercouris: As I said in my response to your first question, I expect the Saudi regime under Mohammed bin Salman to become more repressive towards is domestic opponents over time, not less.
It is important to remember that his ‘reforms’ are themselves a response to the crisis of the Saudi regime. Since Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘reforms’ are of a sort which are actually calculated to deepen and extend that crisis, more repression in the future is inevitable.
Already we see ‘anti-corruption’ being used to silence Mohammed bin Salman’s critics within the regime itself. I expect that sort of repression to start to extend outward to include more and more of the population before long.
As to the second part of your question, the social easing that Mohammed bin Salman is engaging in is indeed to a certain extent intended to impress Saudi Arabia’s friends in the West – especially of course in the US.
To a very great extent they are succeeding, just as Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s equally bogus ‘reforms’ were used by him to win support in the West in the 1970s.
That way Mohammed bin Salman now – like Mohammed Reza Pahlavi previously – can pretend to his friends in the West that he is leading his country forward along the path of ‘Westernization’.
To a degree that is truly remarkable Western governments and Western commentators are remarkably easily swayed by rhetoric of this kind, especially when the dictator who is engaging in it is already one of their friends.
Doubtless in Mohammed bin Salman’s case there is also a further factor, which is that by posing as the Saudi regime’s great ‘reformer’, ‘modernizer’ and “Westernizer’, he is able to win Western and especially US support in any conflict in which he finds himself pitted against the other Saudi Princes. In that respect, he already appears successful as shown by how readily the West is taking the anti-corruption rhetoric he is using to eliminate his rivals amongst the Saudi Princes at face value.
Having said all this, there is also I think a genuine domestic populist aspect to Mohammed bin Salman’s social easing, in that he does appear genuinely to believe that it will win him popularity with Saudi Arabia’s middle class younger population.
It might actually do so for a short time.
However in reality, as it becomes clear that the social easing does not point to any actual change in the essentials of the Saudi system, this social easing will in time lead to further discontent as it becomes clear how limited and cosmetic the changes Mohammed bin Salman envisages actually are. Before long he will find himself faced with an increasingly disaffected and disillusioned younger population whose hopes and expectations he has first increased and then dashed.
Press Shia Agency: The reforms are in apparent contradiction with systematic genocide of Shiites and violations of human rights in the Shiite-populated city of Awamiyah. Saudi military bulldozers have recently almost razed the besieged town to the ground amid the deadly crackdown there, forcing hundreds of its residents to flee their homes. Do not you think that the Wahhabi ideology is behind this genocide?
Mercouris: It is essential to understand that this brutal treatment of the Shiite people of Saudi Arabia is all of a piece with Mohammed bin Salman’s social ‘reforms’.
Mohammed bin Salman’s comments show that he is every bit as much of a Wahhabi sectarian as any other member of the Saudi Royal Family. In no sense is he any sort of ‘moderate’ and it is utterly wrong to think him so. His ‘reforms’ are intended to strengthen the Wahhabi based Saudi regime, not to change it, and that leads directly to the ever more brutal repression of the Shiite people within Saudi Arabia which we are now witnessing, who as a Wahhabi sectarian Mohammed bin Salman axiomatically opposes.
It is, in fact, consistent with Mohammed bin Salman’s other policies that repression of the Shiite people of Saudi Arabia is intensifying at the same time that he is engaging in a certain social easing for the Saudi people as a whole. The two policies do not contradict each other; in his mind, they complement each other, with the second policy intended to win him support so that he can more actively pursue the first.
I said previously that the Saudi regime finds itself in a condition of crisis.
It is important to say that one of the principal factors behind this crisis is the succession of disasters Saudi Arabia has suffered in recent years in its – entirely self-chosen – duel with Iran.
Saudi Arabia has lost against Iran in Syria and Iraq, and it is now bogged down in a war in Yemen which it also (wrongly) blames on Iran.
A major motivating factor for Mohammed bin Salman is to strengthen Saudi power so that it can reverse these defeats and intensify its campaign against Iran as well as against the Shiite people in general.
The result is that we are going to see over the next few years as Mohammed bin Salman consolidates his power intensifying pressure from Saudi Arabia against Iran, intensifying repression against the Shiite people within Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, intensifying repression before long against the whole Saudi people, all of it carried out against the backdrop of heightened rhetoric about ‘modernization’, ‘industrialization’ and ‘reform, until the whole system eventually unravels, as in the end it will.
The latter is bound to happen eventually, and Mohammed bin Salman’s policies will probably make it happen more quickly than it otherwise would have done.
However, we must expect an atmosphere of intensifying repression and heightened aggressiveness coming from the Saudi regime until then.