The Middle East is Unstable, but Saudi Women Can Drive Now!

Lena Gahwi is a Third Year International Relations and Women’s Studies Student at the University of Western Ontario, and has served as a Columnist of The General Assembly since its inception in October 2017. Her areas on interest are Feminist International Relations, human rights, and the democratization of developing nations. She can be reached at lgahwi@uwo.ca.

Saudi Arabia is setting out to further destabilize the Middle East through the interventionist foreign policy, but all the rest of the world can focus on is their "progressive" reforms which pale in comparison to the rest of the world

Women in Saudi Arabia have finally gained the right to drive by royal decree, and in fact, they are now even allowed to enter some sports stadiums! However, despite how entertaining live soccer matches are, these developments are nothing more than an attempt at improving the optics of a nation with a less than flattering reality.  

Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MBS), Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, is at the heart of this recent reimagining of the Kingdom’s appearance on the world stage. He has been praised for bringing forward “moderate Islam” within the Kingdom, by the likes of French President, Emmanuel Macron, and American President, Donald Trump. MBS was selected by his father King Salman as the deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister in 2015 and has been working to solidify his control over the Kingdom throughout the past two years.

At first glance, MBS is the neoliberal world order’s dream man and is taking some of the necessary steps for Western nations to comfortably support him. Aside from granting women the right to drive, the 30-year-old Prince is pushing to decrease the Kingdom’s dependence on oil, modernize its economy, and is in many cases working to combat the religious establishment. MBS has recently made the news for taking the surprising step of arresting eleven Princes, various bureaucrats, and businessmen on corruption charges, hours after he was appointed to head the new Saudi anti-corruption committee. This in part is an attempt at further mending the Saudi image, but in actuality acts as a veneer aiming to hide the clear misalignment of Saudi Arabia with the rest of the international world order.

Experts have pegged this move as an attempt by MBS to curtail his adversaries within his family and close associates. It is also a step towards centralizing governmental control into the hands of the monarch, rather than attempting to include the entire royal family and religious leadership in the decision-making process. Many have asserted that the Prince’s actions as irresponsible and impulsive. This includes the German intelligence agency, Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), which in 2015 distributed a memo entitled “Saudi Arabia — Sunni regional power torn between foreign policy paradigm change and domestic policy consolidation.” In this memo, they specifically referenced MBS and emphasized the danger of so much power and control to be concentrated in the hands of such a new and inexperienced leader.

Furthermore, the BND also warned in their memo that Saudi Arabia is functioning as a ‘destabilizing force’ within the Arab world. In his role as Defence Minister, MBS has orchestrated some of the most destructive war efforts in the Arabian Peninsula. With regards to MBS, the BND memo states that the power given to him, “harbours a latent risk that in seeking to establish himself in the line of succession in his father’s lifetime, he may overreach.” This comment is proving to be prophetic, as the Prince has spearheaded a failing and long-winded intervention in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Until recently, the country was blockaded by the Saudi-led military coalition, which has been keeping lifesaving resources out of the nation. This war effort is claimed to have been an attempt by the Saudi government at defeating the Houthi rebels, and a way to curb the Iranian support for the rebels and other terrorist groups within the nation.  However, this exertion has been described by UN officials as the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”  UN aid has not been able to enter the nation and reach millions of Yemeni citizens in months, which has culminated in the reappearance of cholera in the twenty-first century and a famine within the nation.

To make the Saudi involvement in Yemen even more interesting, the Saudi government has refused to allow the Yemeni president and his sons back into the nation for months, speaking to the strong interventionist approach the Kingdom is taking to their involvement in the civil war in Yemen, as well as to their foreign policy in general.

The convoluted and multifaceted reality of Saudi politics is difficult to properly synthesize, as it is currently experiencing massive changes. However, what is perhaps more interesting is how this shift in the nation may impact its relationship with Western powers.  Aside from their access to oil, and despite grave ideological differences, Saudi Arabia has been a powerful ally to the West due to its seemingly unbreakable national stability within a volatile region. It is unclear how the current attempts at furthering Saudi control within the region will impact its national stability.

MSB’s impulsiveness is leading to a more interventionist foreign policy and is yielding more control over to other nations and leaders in the Arab world. The Prince is showing no signs of altering this behaviour as he moves to maximize his power within Saudi Arabia and to further strengthen Saudi control regionally. Is it worth noting his attempts at progressive domestic policy? Probably not. Women may be able to drive a car, but nothing of substance has changed. Separating national policy from foreign policy may make the actions of MSB easier to digest, but it fails to paint a full picture.