By Opening Its Movie Theaters, Saudi Arabia Is Rewriting Its Social Contract

Dec. 13 2017

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or “MBS” as he is often called), in the latest step in his sweeping program of reforms, recently lifted a decades-old ban on movie houses. Arguing that Westerners ought not dismiss the importance of this decision, Sohrab Ahmari explains how it fits into Mohammed’s overall plan for his country:

MBS is rewriting the Saudi social contract [by removing restrictions on movie theaters, the presence of women at soccer games, and so forth]. For decades, the kingdom [mollified] its people with generous lifetime entitlements, in exchange for which Saudis traded in most of their citizenship rights. That arrangement worked for a time, but it is increasingly unsustainable, especially with oil prices hovering at $50 a barrel and unlikely to climb anytime soon.

It was this looming economic crisis that spurred MBS to act. Granting young Saudis greater personal freedoms, the thinking goes, will encourage them to see themselves as citizens rather than subjects and welfare-state dependents. In parallel to this social opening, the kingdom under MBS aims to expand the private share of the gross domestic product, boost women’s participation in the labor market, and scrap a number of subsidies and benefits. These are politically challenging economic reforms. MBS is wisely adding spoonsful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Second, MBS’s liberalizing reforms will help secure his own position. . . . [T]he crown prince is creating a permanent constituency of women and young people who are determined to see him succeed. Here is a prince, from their own age cohort, who makes bold promises and delivers. Other princes and princelings within the House of Saud will now be that much more reticent to challenge MBS for fear of incurring the wrath of these young people. This is populism, Saudi-style. . . .

Riyadh still has far to go. One important area, so far left untouched by MBS, is the status of religious minorities. The crown prince can put Iran, [which likes to sell itself as more enlightened than Saudi Arabia], to shame, and further bolster his regime’s legitimacy, by ending the restrictions and petty persecution targeting the kingdom’s Shiite minority. Extending a hand to the Shiites and appointing them to positions of responsibility within the government would help alleviate the community’s sense of grievance and inoculate Shiites against Iranian anti-Saudi propaganda. Similarly, it is long past time to permit non-Muslim believers to practice their faith openly in the kingdom.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Read more at Commentary

More about: Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia, Shiites

The Dangers of Diplomacy with Iran

Aug. 21 2018

Although President Trump’s offer to meet with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic was rejected, the possibility of direct negotiations remains. Ray Takeyh and Mark Dubowitz warn that Tehran could use talks to stall and gain leverage over Washington:

The mullahs understand that just by staying at the table, Americans usually offer up concessions. [They] are betting that the Trump administration may become weaker over time, preoccupied with domestic politics. Best to entangle America in protracted diplomacy while awaiting what the regime expects will be midterm Republican losses in Congress and the return of a more flexible Democratic president to power in 2021. This is what [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei probably meant when he stressed that negotiations have to wait until America is softened up.

Diplomacy would surely blunt the impact of U.S. pressure. The mullahs believe they can undermine the escalation of [U.S.] sanctions by being diplomatically flirtatious and know well that America seldom disrupts negotiations with military action. Indeed, as a prelude to the talks, Iran may even resume its nuclear activities to frighten the Europeans and gain leverage by putting even more pressure on Washington to adjust its red lines.

Should negotiations begin, the Trump team should take sensible precautions to avoid the predicament of the Obama negotiators. The administration will need to maintain its maximum-pressure campaign and its negotiating demands. . . . Any negotiations with the Islamic Republic should be time-limited, and Washington must be prepared to leave the table when it confronts the usual pattern of regime bombast and mendacity.

Donald Trump should insist on direct talks with the supreme leader, as he did with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un: Rouhani is a lame duck without any real influence. The administration also should demand that Europeans join its sanctions policy targeting Iran’s ballistic-missile program, support for terrorism, and human-rights abuses as a price for their participation in the talks.

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Read more at New York Post

More about: Ali Khamenei, Donald Trump, Hassan Rouhani, Iran, U.S. Foreign policy