Splashed across the headlines are the images of a “kingdom in chaos” and the Saudi leadership making a traditional “Arab ruler power grab,” as the Saudi anti-corruption purge enters into its fourth week. These are two myths that should be dismantled for three reasons:
First, the portrayal of a Saudi Arabia in chaos does not stand up to scrutiny. I was just in the country this week, and all was quiet, routine activities were normal except for the .00001 percent of the population arrested.
The Saudis are among the most successful counter-revolutionaries in the world, dismantling domestic threats from the Nasserists in the 1950s, Communists in the 1960s, the Iranian revolution in the 1970s, the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, al-Qaeda in the 2000s and the Arab Spring in the 2010s. Recently, the King swiftly removed the previous crown prince in short order. These Saudi leaders knows what they are doing and I wouldn’t bet against them in the foreseeable future.
Second, the recent anti-corruption purge shows, counter-intuitively, that the Saudi leadership is removing obstacles of creaky, old-style politics as it prepares to move the aircraft carrier that is the Saudi economy into the 21st century.
Clearing the path
Mohammed bin Salman is “clearing the path” to vault the Kingdom from an inward-looking, hyper-cautious nation to embracing the most progressive development agenda in the country’s history, embodied in the country’s Vision 2030 plan. But the Saudis aren’t going to do it in the way we want them to; they must do it in their own way, on their time. And enforcing the rule of law is its foundation, which brings us to the final point:
Giving Mohammed bin Salman a chance first, before jumping to conclusions that the arrests are political, makes strategic sense.
The US, for years, has asked Saudi leaders to take measures to reduce its dependence on oil and move against corruption. Now, when Mohammed bin Salman does that, we race to call it a largely Chinese or Russian-style power grab. This is not analytically useful, and belies another possibility: Cleaning up opaque businesses, monopolies and phony contracts can reduce waste, ease the pain of economic transition.
The government was not narrowly focused on a power grab because, with one exception, none of those arrested were ever in line for the throne or involved in politics. The arrests had to have been based on something else. There is no evidence, leaked or otherwise, that they were moving against Mohammed bin Salman, so let’s not presume it was a power-grab without the facts.
As someone who has been going to Saudi Arabia for over 20 years, I had a unique perch as the previous Google head of public policy and government relations in the Gulf, dealing with the highest levels of government, including the Crown Prince’s team. For full transparency, I have never worked for the Saudi government, but am an American voice in the shadows of Saudi Arabia where I came to this conclusion: to analyze the Kingdom now, we need to use a wide angle lens:
Experts have long underestimated Mohammed bin Salman’s populist approach, as they consistently missed the rise of Trump, the Tea Party, and Brexit. We may not like populism but it clearly works.
A different country
Saudi Arabia today is a wholly different country, than the one we grew up with. Generation Y is now running the Kingdom. The country that has gone from single-digit internet penetration in the year 2000 to a user base the size of Texas’, with the world’s highest social media usage rate. Saudi youth are no longer a fringe “nice-to-have” segment to consider, they form 70 percent of the country.
When Mohammed bin Salman, 32, became crown prince five months ago, Saudi millennials told me that they finally saw in him a ruler who finally looks like them. My extensive conversations with Saudi young men the last few two weeks – priority number one for governments trying to quell domestic unrest – from all economic classes and political stripes, from conservative to progressive, reveal that there is some merit in an anti-corruption purge while up to $800bn is suspected to have been accumulated through corruption , as they struggle to find jobs.
Saudi youth like that Mohammed bin Salman is a man in a hurry, who reminds them of Facebook’s management style to “move fast and break things.” He manages the Saudi economy like a tech startup utilizing data, experimenting, developing a viable product, and constantly reiterating.
The Saudi plan to reduce its dependence on oil requires world-class, grandmaster chess multi-tasking skills. It makes smart political sense to give Mohammed bin Salman a chance, before jumping to conclusions. Caricature must no longer be a basis for how we look at Saudi policy. Evidence, conditions on the ground, and Saudi insights, should be.
The former Google Head of Public Policy and Government Relations, Gulf Countries, Sam Blatteis is the CEO of The MENA Catalysts Inc. a regional public policy advisory firm.