The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing a vast transformation that will have ramifications around the globe. The world’s most-visible oil supplier is undergoing radical economic and political changes that have the potential to destabilize the entire Middle East.
The most interesting; and least appreciated, paradigm shift in Saudi Arabia is the country’s slow transformation from an oil-based to a tourism-driven economy. The Kingdom has one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions in the form of Mecca. The Koran requires every Moslem to make the Hajj pilgrimage to that city at least once.
Since there are around 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the potential market for the Hajj is vast. More importantly, unlike oil, the demand for the Hajj is growing as the world’s Muslims population increases. Demand for oil is expected to fall as more nations require the adoption of electric cars.
Governments in China, the United Kingdom, and France have announced plans to ban the sale of internal combustion powered vehicles by 2050. Several other nations and regions; including the most populous American state of California, are considering such bans.
Saudi Arabia is trying to Rebrand Itself
To that end Saudi Arabia is trying to rebrand itself as a tourist-friendly destination, a Bloomberg Markets podcast reported. Part of that rebranding includes such liberalizations as allowing women to drive. The hope is to attract female Muslim tourists that want to drive rental cars while in the Kingdom.
Liberalization is needed because the official Sunni faith in Saudi Arabia is more far more conservative than the mainstream Sunni and Shia varieties of Islam; practiced by most of the world’s Moslems. This drives away many potential pilgrims and their money – which the kingdom desperately needs.
Even politics are being driven by the shift to a tourist economy. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the arrest of dozens of potential political opponents; including 11 princes on 5 November, 2017, The New York Times reported. The goal of the arrests was apparently to eliminate opposition to liberalization.
Tourism Explains the recent Saudi Crackdown
That move gives Mohammed; the first in line to the throne, control over Saudi Arabia’s security services and military, The Times reported. Among other things, that would make it harder for religious conservatives to organize a coup against the Crown Prince.
“All power has now been concentrated in the hands of Mohammed bin Salman,” Chas W. Freeman, a former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia told The Times.
The Crown Prince has also launched a clever social-media campaign designed to discredit his enemies by exposing or labeling them as corrupt. One way, Mohammed is achieving that is by charging his critics have stolen large amounts of oil money from the nation’s treasury.
Charges of corruption are often used as a pretext for purges and crackdowns in authoritarian nations. Branding opponents as corrupt provides a pretext for arrests; and can discredit potential rebels by exposing them as no better than the ruling faction.
Tourism partially explains the Crown Prince’s actions; because a coup or attempted revolt would drive tourists away. Stability is needed to keep the pilgrims and their money coming in.
What Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is Afraid of
Another goal is to silence radical clerics and scholars some of whom have inspired terrorism in the past. The Times reported that many scholars in Saudi Arabia now live in fear of the secret police.
The crackdown on scholars is partially designed to prevent violence such as the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by opponents of the House of Saud. The seizure ended in a battle in which hundreds of people were killed by the Saudi Army and forces of Pakistani and French commandos.
Many of the radicals involved in the 1979 seizure were theology students from the Islamic University in Medina. They used the Royal Family’s supposedly lax enforcement of Sharia law as a pretext for their attempted revolution. Mohammed probably fears today’s radicals will follow their lead.
The most likely outcome of the Crown Prince’s weekend coup is that his opponents will be put on a jet to Switzerland and told not to come back. A more dangerous outcome is that opposition will be driven underground and lead to terrorism.
The Danger from a Tourist-Based Saudi Arabia
That should worry people in other nations because some of the world’s terrorist atrocities; including the September 11 attacks, were carried out by Saudi radicals. Another obvious goal in silencing the radicals is to prevent travel bans on Saudi citizens in countries like the United States, and criticism from politicians like Donald J. Trump.
There is one certainty; a Saudi Arabia with a tourist-based economy is going to be a far less stable place. There will be less money, fewer high-paying jobs, and more social unrest. People used to high-paying oil industry jobs and big governments, are not going to enjoy carrying luggage and cleaning hotel rooms for tips. That will undoubtedly drive more political unrest and class warfare, which will be cloaked in the guise of “religious reform.”
Expect to see even more radical changes in Saudi Arabia soon, and some sort of violent reaction. Hopefully, that violence will not spread to neighboring countries, or around the world.