Saudi Regime’s Limited Reform Cannot Fool Anyone: American Analyst
TEHRAN (Tasnim) – A senior American political commentator shrugged off recent social reforms in Saudi Arabia and said the monarchy, whose “core ruthless conservatism” has not changed, cannot fool anyone in the Arab world or elsewhere.
“The core ruthless conservatism of the Saudi leadership has not changed,” John Steppling, who is based in Norway, said in an interview with the Tasnim News Agency.
“Schools in Saudi Arabia still teach children to hate other beliefs and hate people of different cultures,” he said, adding, “And no amount of limited reform changes that and I do not think it really fools anyone, certainly not in the Arab world, not in Iran, and not in Russia.”
Steppling is a well-known author, playwright and an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theater, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. He is also a regular political commentator for a number of media outlets around the world.
Following is the full text of the interview:
Tasnim: Recently, the Saudi regime led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has announced dramatic social reforms. The oi-rich kingdom, which has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, has long barred women from sports arenas. The kingdom’s General Sports Authority announced in October that stadiums in Jeddah, Dammam, and Riyadh will be set up to accommodate families from early 2018. The announcement is in line with bin Salman’s ambitious reforms shaking up the kingdom, including the historic decision to allow women to drive from June. What is your assessment of the dramatic changes in the Saudi regime’s domestic policy? What objectives is the kingdom pursuing by such social reforms? Do not you think that the increasing protests in the Arab country have led to them?
Steppling: I am not sure the protests were necessarily the main factor here. Remember that Thomas Friedman’s fluff profile of MBS in the NY Times, this was the launch of this new remake of the kingdom and the painting of MBS as some bright forward-looking reformer. Failing to mention the destruction of Yemen, the fights with Qatar, and the growing dependence on US military assistance (the US were in Riyadh from day one of this attack on Yemen). Also the crown prince is just exporting a lot of the hardliners and hardline policies to other places. Algerian papers criticized the export of radically conservative doctrines by the Saudis while showing a new face of limited reforms. But also it should be born in mind that the Saudis were under global scrutiny for their backward medievalist culture, one of acute inequality. That inequality is causing great unrest in the kingdom itself. The truth is the monarchy has been living on borrowed time for a decade or two. The desperate cooperation with the US and Israel speaks to this. All the PR in the world (and even some genuine reform....albeit limited in scope) does not change the basic imprint of Saudi tradition.
Tasnim: Do not you think that one of the objectives behind the reforms is to silence the voices of dissent and the human rights defenders? In your opinion, are these reforms only a show by bin Salman to ingratiate himself with the US as his staunch ally?
Steppling: The relationship with the US is interesting and slightly contradictory. The US loves to sell weapons to anyone and the Saudis know this and they buy a lot. Same with the UK. But there is a lot of criticism in the US and Europe about the Saudis. I mean nobody likes them. NOBODY. They are a ruthless corrupt monarchy. And that criticism has taken a toll. The coup by MBS has actually destabilized the country further and was mostly a theft of assets and cash. The third factor is that the Saudi economy is not in great shape. These wars cost money. Funding ISIS costs money. There is a lot of PR going on now. The US Congress passed a law that demands accountability for Saudi reform. This is all show of course. But yes while there is some pressure on the monarch to live up to his reputation now, the bigger issue is the global influence. Iranian influence has grown, and Saudi influence has waned. Even with Israeli and US assistance, the kingdom is very shaky now.
Tasnim: The reforms are in apparent contradiction with systematic genocide of Shiites and violations of human rights in the Shiite-populated city of Awamiyah. Saudi military bulldozers have recently almost razed the besieged town to the ground amid the deadly crackdown there, forcing hundreds of its residents to flee their homes. Do not you think that the Wahhabi ideology is behind this genocide?
Steppling: Yes of course. Saudi legitimacy has always come from their claim of being the spiritual home of Wahhabism and the site of Mecca. But for all of this new charm offensive with the young crown prince, the reality is a genocide in Yemen, with the largest cholera outbreak in history, and 2 million starving children....and in general a continuation of cooperation with US imperialism. Look -- they see the handwriting on the wall in the halls of the palace. Iran and China and Russia now form a massive economic force and it is obvious to most everyone the US is in crises, economically and politically. The core ruthless conservatism of the Saudi leadership has not changed. Schools in Saudi Arabia still teach children to hate other beliefs and hate people of different cultures. And no amount of limited reform changes that and I do not think it really fools anyone, certainly not in the Arab world, not in Iran, and not in Russia. The purge by MBS and his associates has not signaled any end to beheadings or torture. It means nothing to the poor of the kingdom. And there is much tension with Qatar, where a good many Turkish troops are stationed, and certainly, the actions with Saad al-Hariri suggest further conflict that might include Lebanon. It is a time of desperation for many former powers. In a sense the sunset for colonial thinking in the West and the ascension of a new global dynamic power structure. The Saudis are on the wrong side of history one suspects.