Britain beware: Mohammed bin Salman's 'shock and awe' agenda could spark a backlash


Britain must take notice of possible unpredictable outcomes of the Saudi crown prince's shock therapy

Madawi Al-Rasheed's picture
Monday 12 March 2018 14:12 UTC

In anticipation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to Britain this week, London's Conservative press has described him as the greatest reformer of all time, a youthful revolutionary thinker and the leader of a top-down transformation programme.

On Wednesday, the prince will be welcomed by Prime Minister Theresa May with much pomp.

Intimate relations

The British government is clear about its intimate relation with the Saudi regime. It considers the prince's so-called reform agenda as an opportunity for Britain to be a key partner to the Gulf state during uncertain post-Brexit times. But these new opportunities, that must be seized at all cost, are shrouded with uncertainty and danger.

Britain must rethink its unconditional support for the Saudi regime for three main reasons.

Britain's current embrace of the young prince's new extreme agenda could be counterproductive and even harmful to Britain's interests

First, Mohammed bin Salman sits at the top of a regime of extremes. His radical agenda is summed up in the prince's vocabulary to describe his reforms. He told reporters that Saudi Arabia needs shock therapy, to lift it from its current stagnation and become a vibrant society, a thriving cultural hub, a moderate religious nation, and a sustainable economy that depends less on oil and more on entrepreneurial spirit, initiative and technology.

Mohammed bin Salman's language reminds us of Victorian mental health hospitals where shock therapy was normal practice. Shock therapy, when imposed on society, has usually led to a backlash.

The crown prince uses the language of eradication and amputation, and Britain must take notice of possible unpredictable outcomes with the potential for a violent reaction. His reforms make too many promises that will entangle British businesses and the government with a web of uncertainty to be added to the current crisis in Britain over Brexit.

Extreme style

The prince's extreme style is fine for sensational media coverage but has yet to result in a major turnaround in the problems Saudi Arabia is facing, including unemployment, huge government spending on wages, unsustainable benefits, and military adventures abroad.

Yemen is unfinished business. At over $200m a day, the Saudi government must be feeling the heat from the war. The aggressive Saudi charm offensive conceals a troubled economy, a restless population with rising expectation and an increasingly engaged youth that is aware of the alternative vocabulary of human rights, entitlement, equality, and political representation. 

Then Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the opening session of the Shura Council in December 2016 (AFP/Saudi Royal Palace)

The youth may find the new entertainment appealing but they can also turn the promised fun into subversive weapons to deploy against the regime that introduced it in the first place.  

Wasn't this what they did with Wahhabism, the radical state religion imposed on them, when they turned it into a Jihad campaign against their own government? The entertainment bonanza can be yet another tool in their hands to demand more rights.

Second, Mohammed Bin Salman's extremism in opening Saudi society and culture to pop music, hip-hop concerts, and epic shows is meant to reverse decades of another kind of extremism.

The earlier phase of extremism was a response to the belief that Arabian society was religiously lax, morally corrupt and unorthodox. Bin Salman's ancestors took it upon themselves to salvage Arabian society from an imagined age of ignorance.

Mohammed ben Salman wants to impose on them fun and entertainment and turn them into cool citizens

They wanted people to be pious by force. They imposed prayer, fasting and other religious rituals on them by the sword. The result was a cultural schizophrenia in which extreme laxity coexisted with extreme piety. Now Mohammad ben Salman wants to impose on them fun and entertainment and turn them into cool citizens.

Britain supported the previous Saudi wave of extremism when it sponsored the founder of the kingdom Ibn Saud in the 1920s and sent him regular stipends and arms until he completed his conquest of Arabia.

A new generation of autocrats

Now Britain wants to be part of the economic opportunities that the prince’s new extremism offers. By desperately supporting the Saudi infitah, or opening, including the promise to open the economy to foreign investment, new contracts and possible commissions, Britain risks regretting its policy in the long term.

Britain’s historical support for the extremist Saudi-Wahhabi state in Arabia is regrettable. Its current embrace of the young prince's new extreme agenda could be counterproductive and even harmful to Britain’s interests.

Britain must remember its own so-called values, one of which is to seek consensus rather than confrontation. Mohammed Bin Salman is confronting Saudi society with a new extreme and dangerous agenda.


Why the UK must rethink its support for Saudi Arabia

Finally, Britain must cease to be a dedicated supporter of Saudi Arabia's century of extremes. When the British empire supported Saudi Arabia's religious extremism at the beginning of the 20th century, it was the first to be stung by it in Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan where its vital interests lay.

Today, by uncritically supporting Mohammed Bin Salman's extremist fun and economic transformation agenda, it risks becoming an accomplice in a possible new round of confrontations between a repressive regime and its own people.

Britain needs to urgently reconsider its Middle East foreign policy that for a long time has been closely associated with repressive regimes. Mohammed bin Salman represents a new generation of autocrats that have abandoned diplomacy and compromise in favour of shock and awe. 

Professor Madawi al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at LSE. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. She is the author of a recent book (Salman's Legacy: the dilemma's of a new era in Saudi Arabia), Hurst, 2018.On Twitter: @MadawiDr

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Demonstrators wave placards from an open top bus during a protest against the visit by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in central London, Britain, on 6 March, 2018 (REUTERS)