The Telegraph, which appears to be the chosen vehicle of the Saudi regime to speak to Britain, had a fascinating article yesterday. They report a statement apparently approved by the King and his senior advisers most notably his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that surprisingly seems to take a conciliatory line. The statement claims that they may allow international human rights organisations to monitor what is going on in their country.
A few weeks ago the Saudi Ambassador in the UK, in an article also in the Telegraph, took a remarkably different and threatening tone to those like Corbyn who have protested about their human rights record.
But in their “manifesto for change” yesterday (12th November) , not published in full by the Telegraph, they try to beef up claims about progress on women’s rights and appear to acknowledge that they have failed to do more.
They do however maintain their belligerent attitude to their Shia minority and make no concessions about their treatment of the two al-Nimrs, both awaiting execution. Nothing is said either about free speech blogger, Raif Badawi.
But the most interesting thing about the article is what it says about the economy and the desire for a closer economic relationship with US, UK and European businesses. The Telegraph doesn’t publish their full statement but designates it as a Thatcherite one – saying that it will cut public spending and privatise the economy with the help of inward investment.
We shouldn’t confuse Saudi public spending with the British nationalised industries that Thatcher destroyed or sold off. The Saudi economy is a massively corrupt economy. The vast oil income in the past was wasted by its ruling class on their personal wealth, on vanity projects, on bribing both domestic and international friends when it was needed. It is a pretty stagnant economy although in recent years there has been a phenomenal infrastructural development but little growth in industries.
Meanwhile Saudi’s oil income has drastically diminished as Saudi has lowered prices to maintain its share of the fuel market. And, of course, oil exports will eventually diminish.
So yesterday’s statement is one made on behalf of Saudi’s capitalist modernisers wanting to create a more diverse and market-regulated capitalist economy.
But the Saudi regime often faces blatantly in more than one direction at the same time – usually through leaks.
For other than its desire for capitalist development in conjunction with the US, UK, and France, there is also its desire to maintain its imperialist project across the Middle East. That project to re-establish Sunni Islamist hegemony is not going to end. Saudi endured years of been sidelined by movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and Daesh as well as their cocky competitor Qatar.
Now they have created their Sunni armed coalition with other Gulf states as well as Pakistan, Egypt and Morocco in Yemen
Image from Business Insider
They also have ambitions in Syria to be central to Sunni sectarianism and pursue further their proxy war with the Iranian state.
To re-establish hegemony they have needed to beef up their oppressive use of Sharia, and make conciliatory gestures to the Brotherhood, to Qatar and even to sections of Al Qaeda like the one in Syria, Al Nusra.
Bizarrely the ones seeming to be behind the statement issued yesterday for capitalist development are the same ones pushing their reassertion of brutal Wahhabism.
They possibly believe that they can go in both directions at once: promoting medieval reaction throughout the region whilst having Western supported accelerated capitalist development at home. The aggressive posture to the Shia indicates that they will continue to promote their proxy wars with Iran and need to stoke that up at home.
But what about their words about allowing monitoring of human rights in Saudi Arabia? It is hard to believe that they are genuine.
They are perhaps said in order to counteract the aggressive and diplomatically damaging “keep out of our business” statement of their ambassador to the UK. There are international conventions on human rights that the Saudi regime cannot ignore, particularly after the British Tory government gets them the chair of the UN Human Rights Council.
Maybe they think they can use the UN Human Rights Council to create some compliant body that will selectively look at and exaggerate the limited gains on women’s rights at the top of Saudi society whilst ignoring the real oppression, the beheading of atheists or of women migrants, the denial of democratic and workers rights etc.
But regardless of any dishonesty in Saudi rulers statement, it also reveals their weakness. They need international help from western governments and businesses. The same businesses that we work for and that are based here. The same governments that are supposedly democratically accountable to us.
They can’t pretend that they can ignore what we do. We should do more to expose their records.