“The Wahhabi ideology of sectarian supremacism is the driving force behind the crimes that Saudi Arabia carries out against its own Shiite population,” Andrew Korybko said in an interview with Tasnim News Agency.
Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, journalist and a regular contributor to several online journals, as well as a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia.
The full text of the interview is as follows:
Tasnim: Recently, Saudi Arabia, 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 next June. What is your assessment of the dramatic changes in the country’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?
Korybko: Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) social reforms are a step in the right direction and motivated by two interconnected impetuses. The first is that Saudi Arabia, like Iran, is experiencing a massive youth bulge where people under the age of 30 comprise approximately 70% of the population, thereby necessitating that their changing social interests be accommodated in order to retain stability in the Kingdom. Concurrently with this, the country must also urgently transition to a real-sector economy that is not dependent on energy exports, as this is the only way to ensure that the next generation will have reliable employment. Loosening the formerly strict social restrictions on Saudi citizens is intended to please its majority-youthful population and facilitate the eventual incorporation of women into the workforce, something that must occur with time in order for MBS’ ambitious Vision 2030 economic reform agenda to be a success.
While some have voiced suspicion about MBS’ true intentions in doing all of this, the fact remains that he is compelled to initiate substantial changes in an attempt to responsibly guide his country through this socio-economic transition influenced by its growing youth bulge and inevitable depletion of natural resources, thus suggesting that he is truly sincere about this. At the end of the day, it is in his self-interest to see that these policies succeed if he wants to perpetuate his rule, which he evidently does following the “deep state” coup that he carried out recently under an “anti-corruption” pretext. Now that his royal and oligarchic enemies have been neutralized, the next step in his power consolidation plans is to manage Saudi Arabia’s socio-economic structural transformation.
Tasnim: Do not you think that one of the objectives behind the reforms is to silence the voices of dissent and the 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?
Korybko: MBS has shrewdly used his Vision 2030 socio-economic reform agenda to sideline the once-powerful Wahhabi clerics in the Kingdom so as to make the monarchy the most powerful uncontested force in the country, ergo why he sent shockwaves through the region late last year when he condemned Saudi Arabia’s runaway extremism since the 1979 Grand Mosque seizure. The clerics formed the only institutional counterforce to the monarchy, but now they’re “defanged”, and any possible royal and oligarchic “rebels” have been taken care of through MBS’ “anti-corruption” power play late last year.
As for human rights defenders, this category of dissenters has occasionally been weaponized by foreign forces in whatever country it is that they’re operating in, which is just as true at times for Saudi Arabia as for Iran, for instance. That is not to dismiss the serious human rights abuses that Riyadh commits against its own people, especially its Shiite minority, but just that human rights defenders never had any realistic chance of stopping them, which will continue to be the case after MBS’ “deep state” coup. If anything, the Crown Prince will try to gain their superficial support by encouraging them to praise his social reforms in order to distract from his government’s suppression of the Shiite minority.
As for the geopolitical reason behind Vision 2030, MBS is not doing this to curry favor with the US since some of the figures who he arrested (Al-Waleed bin Talal) and sidelined (Wahhabi clerics, human rights defenders) are tools of American foreign policy. Instead, given that Saudi Arabia has made enormous advances in its relations with Russia recently ever since the King’s visit to Moscow and the subsequent sale of S-400 missile systems to it, as well as the over $130 billion of Silk Road investment that China agreed to pump into the country’s economy in the past 12 months alone, it is much more likely that he is trying to preemptively mitigate any possible American-backed threats to his rule while nevertheless retaining balanced relations with his decades-long ally.
Tasnim: The reforms are in apparent contradiction with systematic oppression 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 the crackdown on Shiites?
Korybko: The Wahhabi ideology of sectarian supremacism is the driving force behind the crimes that Saudi Arabia carries out against its own Shiite population, and while MBS has veritably worked to lessen the clerics’ influence in society, no one should get any false hopes that Riyadh will ever change its ways towards its confessional minorities. The Kingdom is paranoid that these people are Iran’s “fifth column” for carrying out an Islamic Republican revolution in the country, but it counterproductively feeds into these fears by repressing them because of this speculative “danger” and resultantly inspiring acts of resistance against Riyadh’s rule.
In the meantime, Vision 2030 is going to affect the oil-rich Eastern Province where most of the Shiites live a lot more than other parts of the country because of the program’s focus on transforming Saudi Arabia’s entire economic structure. It is foreseeable that MBS intends for Chinese investment to redevelop this region and provide future commercial and manufacturing jobs for its people who will eventually be out of work in the oil industry. The area’s location on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf is ideal for connecting to the nearby China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in expanding Saudi-Chinese trading ties, something that has to happen if the country is to successfully weather its inevitable systemic transition and craft an enduring solution to its forthcoming socio-economic crisis.
With this in mind, MBS may be wagering that he can “buy off” Shiite loyalty to his government through jobs and development at the expense of personal respect and dignity throughout continued rights abuses by his government. Truth be told, plans such as this one have indeed succeeded in other parts of the world in the past, but they are not indefinitely sustainable without an improvement in the social living standards of the said minority population, which in the Saudi context necessitates that the authorities stop suppressing the Shiites. If they do not, then MBS might ironically end up sabotaging his signature Vision 2030 strategy by laying the seeds of future revolutionary unrest in his country’s most economically significant region and undermining Saudi Arabia’s impending inclusion in China’s Silk Road.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.