Saudi Arabia: Oil, Shari'a and the pursuit of happiness

"Our constitution is the Qur'an… We are bound to implement the Qur'an in some form or another …inclusive of everybody. …But in social and personal affairs, we are only obliged to implement stipulations that are clearly stated in the Qur'an.” — Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Arabia: Oil, Shari'a and the pursuit of happiness

Sometimes there are happy accidents in the Saudi penchant for crass copying. The Bedouin tent, for example, easily becomes an architectural motif when seen in the context of tensile structures, the specialism of renowned German architect, civil engineer and philosopher Frei Otto, who ended up designing the Intercontinental Hotel and Conference Centre in Mecca, completed in 1974.

I was still a Muslim when Frei Otto came to lecture us in architecture school. My most vivid recollection is of Otto describing how he, the architect, was not allowed to visit the site on which his design was being built, because he was not a Muslim. Instead, Otto and his team had to manage everything over closed circuit television. How could that anecdote not remind me of the full-on brawl that broke out right in front of the mihrab of our half-finished mosque, after the Muslim architect had abandoned the job, and, another being impossible to find, someone had put forward the preposterous suggestion that a Christian architect be engaged? A whole new sect of Islam could have started right there and I would have witnessed it. Someone performed an adhan, which stopped the fight. Shucks!

This experience was just one more of those little things about Muslims piling up to eventually tip me out of Islam. Frei Otto and his tent structures came full circle when, years later and no longer a Muslim, I read about the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich. That outrage took place in 1972, while Otto’s Mecca construction was underway, and years before his lecture to our class. It is possible that he mentioned his famous Munich Olympic Stadium project, but I do not recall. When reading about the Munich massacre, I was left with a very weird feeling as the Bedouin tent motif came full circle with the Palestinian jihad massacre of Jews at the Munich Olympic Games, so proudly hosted under Frei Otto’s famous tent structure. From Mecca to Munich: you can take the high road via architecture and cultural motifs, or the low road via Islam and mass murder. Both roads go through Jerusalem, where they divert. Legend has it that from there, you can go either to Heaven or to Hell.

Frei Otto, born almost 90 years ago in Germany, has spent his long career researching, experimenting, and developing a most sensitive architecture that has influenced countless others throughout the world. The lessons of his pioneering work in the field of lightweight structures that are adaptable, changeable and carefully use limited resources are as relevant today as when they were first proposed over 60 years ago. He has embraced a definition of architect to include researcher, inventor, form-finder, engineer, builder, teacher, collaborator, environmentalist, humanist, and creator of memorable buildings and spaces…

Throughout his life, Frei Otto has produced imaginative, fresh, unprecedented spaces and constructions. He has also created knowledge. Herein resides his deep influence: not in forms to be copied, but through the paths that have been opened by his research and discoveries. His contributions to the field of architecture are not only skilled and talented, but also generous.

For his visionary ideas, inquiring mind, belief in freely sharing knowledge and inventions, his collaborative spirit and concern for the careful use of resources, the 2015 Pritzker Architecture Prize is awarded to Frei Otto.

If there is one thing that Saudis are widely loathed for in the Arab world, it is their alleged lack of culture, even by the standards of Islam that disparages all other cultures, its local variants notwithstanding. This dismissal of Saudis as “having no culture” seems to come down to their perceived arrogance, no small amount of resentment at their wealth, and their Wahhabi zeal, “which regards much history after the age of Muhammad, and the artifacts it produced, as corrupt, meaning that centuries-old buildings can be destroyed with impunity.”

Because Wahhābism prohibits the veneration of shrines, tombs, and sacred objects, many sites associated with the early history of Islam, such as the homes and graves of companions of Muhammad, were demolished under Saudi rule. Preservationists have estimated that as many as 95 percent of the historic sites around Mecca and Medina have been razed. [1]

This phenomenon is so much worse than the Chinese dictum “destroy the old and build the new,” because what is being destroyed in Mecca and the country is not the old, but the new, the old being what supposedly existed at the time of Muhammad. The “new” being destroyed has enough perceived significance to fall foul of Islamic puritanism, i.e., to be “corrupt”, such as the old Ottoman fort in Mecca, flattened along with the hill on which it stood. What such “old” is replaced with is not new, but rather devoid of meaning.

Yet there is hope even in meaninglessness.

It appears that with King Salman, the Saudi royalty has finally got around to recognising that their continued existence, as well as the continued existence of the Bedouin tribal confederation known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, depends on a shift away from Islam, a religion tailor-made for nomadic Bedouin raiding culture, to another mode of existence. [2] For this the old king finally bit the bullet and appointed his visionary and energetic young son, Muhammad, Crown Prince in place of his already anointed cousin.

To get the word out that Saudi Arabia is a wonderful happy place, you have to get the tourists in, maybe not to Mecca (yet), but there are other things, history things, that tourists like. How about Dir'iyah, the first Saudi capital? Everybody would want to come to a world heritage site where the House of Saud had its original seat, surely. Everyone's heard of it, right? Even if they did, there is just one problem. The House of Saud is inextricably entangled with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. And that's where Jerry comes in.

Ad-Dir'iyah, first seat of the House of Saud.
“It [Dir'iyah] is rich. It’s got 3- [to] 400 years of culture. It is to Saudi Arabia what the Acropolis is to the Greeks, what the Colosseum is [to Rome], what Machu Picchu is [to Peruvians],”
—Jerry Inzerillo, “who trained in Las Vegas,” CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA). [3]

Jerry, “who trained in Las Vegas,” appears not to have noticed that the Acropolis, the Colosseum, and Machu Picchu belong not to the Greeks, the Romans and the Peruvians, but to the whole world, as, indeed does Dir'iyah, formally, as a UNESCO World Heritage site.[4] But "three- to four hundred years of culture" is not "rich"; four thousand years is.

For a man whose cultural discernment extends as far as the distinction between a Las Vegas pyramid and an Egyptian pyramid ("a fake thing" and "a real thing"), three centuries and three millennia are the same thing. Anything older than 'Vegas is "rich in culture". The parallel with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab is closer than Jerry Inzerillo would like to admit: everything post Muhammad is corrupt. This includes, of course, the very Dir'iyah that Inzerillo is selling to the world. UNESCO gets around the problem this way:

The significance of at-Turaif District in ad-Dir'iyah, is also intimately connected with the teaching of the great reformer Shaikh Mohammed Bin Abdul Wahab who lived, preached and died in the city. From ad-Dir'iyah, following the alliance with Mohammad Bin Saud in 1745, the message of the Reform has reverberated through the Arabian Peninsula and the Muslim world.

The followers of this movement saw themselves as adherents of the faith and practices of the early Muslims and called for the return of Muslims to the pure and original teachings of the Qur'an and the sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Mohammad) and for the purification of the religious beliefs and practices from the innovations and deviations (bida) that accumulated over the centuries and were added to the teachings of Islam.

The Reform produced a formidable state and central authority that unified Arabia and imposed peace and order on its nomads and settled people for the first time since the time of the caliphs. It also brought about reforms that influenced the social practices of the Arabian people, and inspired the thoughts of many Muslim reformers since the 18th century.[5]

That's it; that is the problem. "The significance of at-Turaif District in ad-Dir'iyah, is also intimately connected with the teaching of the great reformer Shaikh Mohammed Bin Abdul Wahab who lived, preached and died in the city." MBS is preserving something intimately connected with someone who wanted his followers to destroy everything. "To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make desolation, they call it peace." —Tacitus.

The wholesale decimation of old Mecca, and that city’s transformation into a holy Las Vegas, complete with colossal phallic Big Ben worthy of the Qur’an, stand as the epitome of the Saudi attack on culture. The crassness appals even some Saudis. Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect and urban planner who focuses on Mecca as a place of pilgrimage, is one the fiercest critics of this cultural nihilism:

The closer to the mosque, the more expensive the apartments. In the most expensive towers, you can pay millions. …If you can see the mosque, you pay triple. …It is the commercialization of the house of God. [6]

Maybe it's all part of a cunning plan to diminish the Ka'bah. MBS has already declared the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock unimportant.

The Saudi royal family definitely wanted their name on that edifice, the Royal Mecca Clock Tower. The builders of the clock, SL Rasch, proudly tells us that,

The clock introduced a second time standard in addition to Greenwich Mean Time. Now Muslims in Berlin, London, New York and Jakarta know exactly when Ramadan begins as the sun rises over Mecca, when they can break their fast after sundown or when to recite their five daily prayers while facing towards Mecca.

The same "rebranding" goes for the once-proud Najd, now replaced by three administrative regions: Ha'il, Al-Qassim, and Riyadh, deepening the paradox still further. Najd was the original Saudi state, "where it all began," as Jerry put it, yet it is expunged from geography. Najd, Dir'iyah, the House of Saud and Wahhabism are all intertwined. Extricating a modern state from this mess is a challenge ill suited to a man in his eighties. But to a man in his thirties with the right kind of drive, it is just the sort of thing to get him going.

Jerry Inzerillo enthuses about his gig’s cultural significance. “So when people come to the Gulf, they’re going to want to see where it all started — the home of the House of Saud.” Where what all started, Jerry? Wahhabism and all the misery it unleashed upon the world? Dir'iyah is where it all started, but Jerry doesn’t mention that. You don’t remind the world of something your boss engaged you to help him make the world forget about.

Mohammed bin Salman's line in the sand

Between Saudi mediaeval culture and its future stands the Qur'an. To take his country into that future, his people need to to leave the Qur'an behind. To this end, MBS has drawn a line in the sand beyond which he beholds a new future into which the Qur'an cannot cross. That line is the new city of NEOM. An entire generation of Saudis care less about the Qur'an and oil than they care about happiness; they want simple happiness. Before him, the West beckons; behind him, North Korea repels. All else is mirage.

NEOM is far away from "the Two Holy Mosques" and from the Wahhabi heartland around Riyadh, and, it will not have escaped anyone's notice, it is also conspicuously close to Israel, where Saudi Arabia's new dawn will break. Why should NEOM work when previous Saudi mega-urban projects were at best sluggish to get off the ground? This is a legitimate question. Even though it is not spelt out explicitly, all the marketing of NEOM very strongly suggests that the city will form a Special Administrative Zone in which Shari'a will not apply. Its location at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba makes it a natural economic partner for Eilat, not to mention an easy weekend break for Israelis, with a whole desert between them and the unhappy Saudis. Of all the Arabs, only the Palestinians will be better placed to benefit from Israeli investment, expertise and innovation, but people who reject a $50 billion gift do not have the mentality for opportunity. NEOM will be a magnet for the brightest and the best not only from Saudi Arabia, but from other Arab states, too. Most of he inhabitants of this city will be young, both fortune-seekers, and escapees from Shari'a. The sequence of steps needs to be carefully choreographed: 1. abolish the hadith 2. severely curtail the Qur'an 3. inaugurate  NEOM.

The Bukhari Hadith collection

It has been a few centuries since the Bedouin could raid anyone and live off the spoils of attacking and raiding Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and others. Without being able to continue this life, they declined, especially after the Turks, also nomadic tribal people when they adopted Islam, became the overlords of the Arabs, and took over the raiding business. Without an alternative source of income, there was only one way Arab Muslim societies could go. When Western powers liberated the Arabs from the Ottoman yoke, raiding could no longer be resurrected. Western powers had long ago put an end to that, contributing to the decline of the Ottoman Empire itself. Since armies were for raiding neighbours for booty and this was no longer possible, there was no reason to have them except to protect the ruling dynasty and so was drawn from the dynasty's tribe. Dynasties with grander ambitions could use nomad armies, whose allegiances were fluid, to subjugate weaker neighbouring tribes and subsume then into larger tribal confederations, just like in the good old days before the Turks spoilt everything. The Saud came out on top in this intra-Arab tribal struggle for supremacy, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as we know it was born.

Arab nation? What Arab nation? Unless the Arabs could command strategic assets, such as the Suez Canal, around which they might coalesce into modern nations—and even then there was no guarantee that they would—they were doomed to a tribal existence based on fishing and primitive mining, basic cultivation, basic animal husbandry, urban crafts and trades, urban-based commerce, and the slave trade, the latter of which Western colonial powers were working very hard to put an end to.

Just when they needed it most, at the end of the Ottoman Empire, Allah stepped in to provide the Arabs with what was, in the context of the time, an infinite supply of oil. There was no need to change their ways. They faced no Ataturk imperative: change or die. Now, instead of raiding others, they could simply raid themselves and live off the spoils, oil, that they seized from themselves, and that is exactly what they did, especially when they "worked" for the government. Extremely low productivity, extremely high salaries, no income tax, etc. Even a donkey had enough economic sense to know that such an arrangement was a very bad idea. Saudi rulers, after fattening themselves and rendering their people idle (foreigners did the real work), squandered vast resources on jihad. They could now pursue jihad with money instead of armies. A juggernaut had been set on a course that was going to be hard to change. It has become necessary to change course. The 'Salman' in 'Mohammed bin Salman' was not the man for the job.

But the 'Mohammed' was. The Qur'an had to go, but if you live in the Islamic world, let alone being the guardian of Islam's most holy places, that is not the kind of thing you say, especially not when your old man is still alive and very much attached to old principles, such as the Palestinian cause. You will get on with the job because you're a there's-no-time-like-the-present kinda guy, but you'll also tread easy because you have lots of brothers, palaces have lots of shadows, and there can be only one crown prince. So you'll assure everyone that the Qur'an is safe, and take aim at the dodgy hadith, while you prepare the ground for your eventual assault on the Qur'an.

In April 2021, in an interview with Al-Arabiya, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman caused a quiet stir. He declared:

Our constitution is the Qur'an… We are bound to implement the Qur'an in some form or another …inclusive of everybody. …But in social and personal affairs, we are only obliged to implement stipulations that are clearly stated in the Qur'an. So, I cannot enforce a Shariah stipulation without a clear Qur'anic stipulation. When I talk about an explicit stipulation from the Sunnah, most Hadith writers classify Hadith based on their own typology, like Bukhari, Muslim, and others, into correct Hadith or weak Hadith. But there is another classification which is more important, namely, whether a tradition or Hadith has been narrated by many people or a single narrator, and this is a main reference for jurisprudence for deducing regulations, Shari'a-wise. So, when we talk about a mutawattir Hadith, i.e., narrated, and handed down from one group to another group ...starting with the prophet... these Hadiths are very few in number, but they are strong in terms of veracity, and their interpretations vary based on the time and place they were revealed and how the Hadith was understood at the time...

So when MBS says, “We are bound to implement the Qur'an in some form or another …inclusive of everybody,” we are seeing bid’a, innovation, the very thing Wahhabism came into existence to eradicate. When he says, “I cannot enforce a Shari’a stipulation without a clear Qur'anic stipulation,” it is nothing less than an assault on Shari’a. Since much of the Shari’a is based on the Hadith, insisting the “clear Qur'anic stipulation” takes precedence is also an assault on the Hadith. The emphasis on “clear” also means that he will have no truck with ijmaa’, scholarly consensus, either, meaning that he is not interested in their “knowledge” in the first place. “There is another [hadith] classification which is more important [than whether a hadith is reliable or weak],” says the Crown Prince, “namely, whether a tradition or Hadith has been narrated by many people or a single narrator.” This further eliminates a great many Hadith. As he deduces, “So, when we talk about a …Hadith …handed down from one group to another group ...starting with the prophet …these Hadiths are very few in number.” While admitting that these hadiths, “are strong in terms of veracity,” he also adds that “their interpretations vary based on the time and place they were revealed and how the Hadith was understood at the time,” again, leaving himself a great deal of room for manoeuvre.

Yet, there might be something else afoot. Diminishing the perceived scale the Ka'bah, by overwhelming it with gargantuan protects, undercuts its stature. Big Ben is the new centre of Islam. The poor Muslims from around the world spend all their and their families' hard-earned savings to fulfil their fifth sacred obligation, hajj, only to find Big Ben watching them, even when they're kissing the black vagina. MBS, who has already declared the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock unimportant, is degrading Islam, and the clergy will keep their mouths shut. They have seen the purges, and who's going to forget the gross Khashoggi murder?

Firmly in control of Saudi military strategy, foreign policy and economic planning. MBS has gathered "a team of technocrats who are much younger and more activist than the kingdom’s past leadership". David Ignatius of the Washington Post put it this way, "A young prince is reimagining Saudi Arabia. Can he make his vision come true?", adding, “The most concerning thing is if the Saudi people are not convinced. If the Saudi people are convinced, the sky is the limit.” No kicking and screaming, then.

The entertainment industry is the wedge MBS is driving between the people and the clergy. It is a social change engine: overseas orchestras that include female performers, playing before mixed gender audiences. Comedy clubs feature stand-up comedians (but no female comics, yet — sabr, sabr). Monster trucks deafening the crowds. OK, it's all blokes' stuff, but think of all the wives who are not getting beaten. A famous leader of a nearby rival Islamic theocracy once said, "There is no fun in Islam," etc. Next thing MBS will be inviting Salman Rushdie to do stand-up at The Satanic Verses, a comedy club overlooking the Ka'bah in Mecca, just to stick it to the Mullahs. The Sunni clergy will behave. They've seen the purges.[7]

There is nothing piecemeal about the fledgeling Saudi entertainment sector. Under MBS's Vision 2030, entertainment is integral to the wider socio-economic transformation that includes a revolution in work ethic. According to Michael Amon and Nicolas Parasie:

In the past two years, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has raised gasoline and electricity prices, introduced Saudi Arabia to new taxes and pushed foreign workers to leave the country to make way for Saudis.[8]

Entertainment is no mere sideshow. The government has set up a special General Entertainment Authority to get the whole thing off the ground, and who better to staff it with than young people. This is a very smart move. Let the autonomous individuals create the future they will commit to.

Maya al-Athel, one of the dozens of young people hatching plans at the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, said in an interview that she’d like to bring a Museum of Ice Cream, like one she found in New York, to the kingdom.

If you're going to move forward, then it doesn't matter how far back you begin. The same bug has bitten the UAE and Oman, just in case you're still wondering what Netanyahu's been up to on all those secret desert jaunts. He's been traipsing down the road under cover of darkness for nocturnal chinwags with MBS, but we don't talk about that, at least not yet. Saudi Arabia under the monarchy and the Palestinians under the PA autocracy are each waiting for an old man to—how to put this delicately?—show some consideration. Both territories, Saudi Arabia and the PA, will be propelled by a sudden release of built-up pressure, one away from North Korea, the other towards it.

In a far cry from the daily "Death to America!" chants from across the Gulf, Mohammed bin Salman is quite open about his country's debt to President Donald Trump, about whom he was "very optimistic," and there is no doubt in my mind that Trump's 'Deal of the Century' was more about liberating Arab capital from the strictures of Islam, than about a two-bit Palestinian side-show. MBS also acknowledges the role of American culture in driving social change in the kingdom. “We have been influenced by you in the U.S. a lot,” he said. “Not because anybody exerted pressure on us — if anyone puts pressure on us, we go the other way. But if you put a movie in the cinema and I watch it, I will be influenced.” Without this cultural nudge, he said, “we would have ended up like North Korea.” This is exactly the opposite to the effect America had on Sayyid Qutb, the leading Muslim Brotherhood intellectual of his time.

Back to the Al-Arabiya interview. Mohammed bin Salman said "insha-Allah", God willing, only once in an interview about his vision for the future of his country, and when he does say it, the Arabic insha-Allah was not rendered as God willing in English, but as hopefully. "We shall retrieve these levels hopefully this year and [in] the coming years." This is hugely significant.

The previous generation thought that a great big phallic Big Ben looming over the the Ka'bah is a most wonderful thing. Maybe it has something to do with snatching the key to Paradise from Jesus before anyone else can. Be that as it may, there are Saudis who find it inappropriate, a cheapening of what is meant to be sacred. One does not have to be holy, or even a believer, to appreciate that sentiment. The Ka'bah is a beautiful building whose majesty has been destroyed. For all his readiness to do Islam's bidding, it is doubtful even Pope Francis would countenance the erection of a 600m high Big Ben where the Obelisco di Piazza San Pietro now stands.

Jerry Inzerillo's boss, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, knows very well that Islam is irreformable (the man is no fool), which is why his aim is not to reform Islam, contrary to what is almost universally assumed, but to enable its sublation into the new culture still inchoate amongst the hitherto largely suppressed and concealed autonomous youth, and thereby effect the religion's natural demise.

“Everything is gloomy, and sad,” reports one Saudi commenter on Jihad Watch, “people here don’t live the moment, they live to die, an obedient ruthless life to Allah.” For years, young Saudi women have been risking their lives to escape their oppressive country, and risked jail for simple actions everyone else takes for granted. So widespread is atheism that the Kingdom has had to bring out a law specifically to try to combat it, God's Law not being up to the task. Even ibn Abd al-Wahhab never saw that one coming. Entertainment, simple entertainment, is the most devastating attack Islam can be subjected to, for it affirms in every Muslim the human that Islam denies. The plea of the Jihad Watch reader quoted above is nothing more than a simple plea to be human.

“We want to change the culture,” says Ahmed al-Khatib, a former investment banker who’s chairman of the entertainment authority. His target is to create six public entertainment options every weekend for Saudis. But the larger goal, he said, is “spreading happiness” in what has sometimes been a somber country.

Jerry Inzerillo is super-star project manager who delivers very big, very complex projects in tourism, hospitality and entertainment. He knows where he wants to market Dir'iyah, but has no idea who would be interested in it or why. The numbers, that's what counts. Jerry Inzerillo deserves acknowledgement for his drive and his accomplishments. One can even forgive the endless tacky praise for the Saudi Royal Family. He has laudable advice for people who would like to go down his road, “Dream big, believe in yourself, be good to your word, treat people with kindness, respect and dignity, everything else falls into place automatically.” This is where many young Saudis, not least of whom their crown prince himself, now find themselves, filled with the most un-islamic sentiments and hopes. This is not where Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the man whose name is synonymous with Dir'iyah, and whose name Inzerillo dares not speak, would have the Muslims he so assiduously nurtured. Jerry's idea of culture will do just fine for now.

A great deal has changed, obscured under the boot of the Kingdom's religious police. Increasing numbers of Saudis do not want Al-Wahhab's perfect country. Seemingly, neither does their future king. With a young population of autonomous individuals, culturally impoverished as they might find themselves at this point, Muhammad bin Salman stands a far better chance of ridding his country of Islam than Mustafa Ataturk ever did, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques notwithstanding. Frei Otto, having led a remarkable life, passed away in 2015 at the age of eighty-nine. The opening of Mecca as just another holy city will come too late for Otto to see his famous Intercontinental Hotel and Conference Centre with his own eyes. But others will, and on their behalf, I say, Danke, Otto, vom gantzen Herzen.


[1] Wahhābī, Encyclopædia Britannica, archived here https://web.archive.org/web/20200626201633if_/https://www.britannica.com/topic/Wahhabi
[2] Shari’a-driven Saudi Arabia is not the only totalitarian state that has had to acknowledge their vulnerability in the face of world events beyond their control. The Communist Party of China, too, has ordered its officials to project an image of a “credible, loveable and respectable China.” We may now all look forward to a billion identical creepy smiles, and identical formulaic asking after your health, followed by confusion over why it didn’t seem to work.
[3] https://youtu.be/iBL4ANbQjpE
[4] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1329
[5] https://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/3994 To those who still hanker for Islamic reform, this is what Islamic reform means: "The purification of the religious beliefs and practices from the innovations and deviations (bid'a) that accumulated over the centuries and were added to the teachings of Islam." This is all it can mean; Islam itself sees to that.
[6]  Nicolai Ouroussoff, “New Look for Mecca: Gargantuan and Gaudy”, New York Times, 29 December 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/30/arts/design/30mecca.html
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017–2019_Saudi_Arabian_purge#Clerics
[8] Michael Amon and Nicolas Parasie, “Saudi Arabia’s Economic Overhaul Is Backfiring”, Wall Street Journal, 23 March 2019.


Comments

  1. Peter Clemerson, 21 July 2021, 17:57
    I have read your piece on SA and MBS and am of the view that it may be over optimistic. Not because there are any facts in it that I could dispute but because of the strength of your hopes for the destructive powers of the entertainment movement: “Entertainment, simple entertainment, is the most devastating attack Islam can be subjected to.” Well, it could be, if left alone to get on with the job, and this is where my doubts creep in. It strikes me that there must be a large number of influential people who are highly indignant at MBS’ prominence and ambitions for his country.

    One such set of people would be the princes who were incarcerated four years ago, albeit in a 5-star hotel. They had to endure an assault both on their dignity and on their wallets. In their shoes, I am sure that I would be resenting the humiliation of that incident even if some more oil money had been shuffled my way to make up the loss. Many of them must be seething and want to return the favour.

    There are also the clerics. I appreciate that they have been corralled to some extent as what they preach today is subject to royal approval, I believe, but this also must be generating resentment and humiliation. As you said, there are shadows in palaces, but also in mosques.

    While collectively, these two groups may not remove MBS, if they make enough noise, he could well conclude that they might in the future prior to his father popping off. This could well lead him to self-censor and/or substantially slow down or even cease his entertainment thrust.

    My point is not that your article is off the wall, but rather that it dwells on the ambitions and future events so emphatically and does not balance that with any consideration of the machinations that must be taking place to prevent or minimise MBS’ effectiveness. If you are confident there aren’t any such machinations, I think you should have said that and why, but I have difficulty in believing that this is the case.
  2. @peter clemerson anjuli 25 July 2021 19:59
    Thank you for your comment, Peter. There are two processes underway here: one is the power struggle within the upper echelons of the society; and another is the transformation of the social base of that society from people resigned to their lot, into people who have had enough. The driving process is the latter, because the rulers' ability to rule depends on the ruled either consenting to being ruled or acquiescing in their being ruled. The alternatives are constant civil war or unstable peace.

    MBS, as far as I can tell, is attempting to shift the basis of rule away from acquiescence and towards consent. Note, I am suggesting towards consent, and not to consent. This is because acquiescence has broken down, and religion was central to that acquiescence, hence the once-powerful clergy. The clergy had enjoyed power on sufferance of the ruling elite, i.e., the royal family, who needed them to be powerful.

    The days of clerical power are gone because the younger population recognises their condition as a miserable one (this includes the younger females of the ruling elite). They are both vocal and specific about the better life that they aspire to. A society based on Islam, especially when rigorously applied, cannot accommodate such aspirations. Islam destroys the humanity of Muslims in two ways: it corrupts their ethics; and it precludes their pursuit of happiness.

    MBS recognises this and tackles both head-on: the first by enfeebling both the clergy and the religious basis of law; and the second by animating young people and young families not only with unheard-of opportunities for enjoying themselves, but by putting them directly in charge of bringing such change about. He has projected himself unequivocally as the embodiment of the younger people's aspirations for a more human existence. It is a pre-emptive move against the would-be assassin brother, would-be coup-leader or would-be revivalist cleric.

    Of course, this does not mean that either he or his project is safe. It only means that he has loaded the dice in his favour. The Arab Spring is not a distant memory and all players are well-aware of the fate of several of their Arab ruling brethren, not least in neighbouring Egypt, Iraq and Yemen. His domestic detractors also know from recent experience that their irksome ruler would not hesitate to do the necessary, should they give him a spot of bother, and next time, it is unlikely to be five-star. They have more reason to keep their noses clean than they might have had under different circumstances.

    The entertainment industry is only the start. Soon the new happy Saudis are going to want to move on to something more substantial. That's where NEOM comes in: a way-off place in a far corner of the Kingdom where post-Shari'a Saudis will mingle and do business with start-up-eager Israelis. The ferry lines between NEOM and Eilat are going to be very busy. Those streams of ferries passing by Aqaba might be the catalyst for Jordan and Saudi Arabia to finally bury the hatchet. Sharm-al-Sheikh, just across the Strait, is going to want a piece of the action. There are many more implications, but I don't want to stretch this out.

    You might be right that I am overly optimistic, and my assessment might well be tainted by what I would like should happen. I might change my mind after the next big news breaks.