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.

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

The Impossibility of Unilateral Withdrawal from the West Bank

Feb. 19 2019

Since throwing his hat into the ring for the Israeli premiership, the former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz has been reticent about his policy plans. Nonetheless, he has made clear his openness to unilateral disengagement from the West Bank along the lines of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, stating the necessity of finding “a way in which we’re not controlling other people.” Gershon Hacohen argues that any such plan would be ill-advised:

The political and strategic precepts underlying the Oslo “peace” process, which Gantz echoes, vanished long ago. The PLO has unequivocally revealed its true colors: its total lack of interest in peace, unyielding rejection of the idea of Jewish statehood, and incessant propensity for violence and terrorism. . . . Tehran is rapidly emerging as regional hegemon, with its tentacles spreading from Yemen and Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea and its dogged quest for nuclear weapons continuing apace under the international radar. Even the terror groups Hizballah and Hamas pose a far greater threat to Israel’s national security than they did a decade ago. Under these circumstances, Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank’s Area C, [the only part still under direct Israeli control], would constitute nothing short of an existential threat.

Nor does Israel need to find a way to stop “controlling other people,” as Gantz put it, for the simple reason that its control of the Palestinians ended some two decades ago. In May 1994 the IDF withdrew from all Palestinian population centers in the Gaza Strip. In January 1996 it vacated the West Bank’s populated areas (the Oslo Accords’ Areas A and B), comprising over 90 percent of the West Bank’s Palestinian residents, and handed control of that population to the Palestinian Authority (PA). . . .

This in turn means that the real dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as within Israel itself, no longer revolves around the end of “occupation” but around the future of eastern Jerusalem and Area C. And since Area C (which is home to only 100,000 Palestinians) includes all the Jewish West Bank localities, IDF bases, transportation arteries, vital topographic sites, and habitable empty spaces between the Jordan Valley and the Jerusalem metropolis, its continued retention by Israel is a vital national interest. Why? Because its surrender to a potentially hostile Palestinian state would make the defense of the Israeli hinterland virtually impossible—and because these highly strategic and sparsely populated lands are of immense economic, infrastructural, communal, ecological, and cultural importance, not to mention their historical significance as the bedrock of the Jewish ancestral homeland

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More about: Benny Gantz, Israel & Zionism, Two-State Solution, West Bank