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Letter from Saudi Arabia

By Thomas L. Friedman

November 25, 2015

Saudi Arabia is a country that is easier to write about from afar, where you can just tee off on the place as a source of the most austere, anti pluralistic version of Islam — the most extreme versions of which have been embraced by the Islamic State, or ISIS. What messes me up is when I go there and meet people I really like and I see intriguing countertrends.

Last week I came here looking for clues about the roots of ISIS, which has drawn some 1,000 Saudi youth to its ranks. I won’t pretend to have penetrated the mosques of bearded young men, steeped in Salafist/Wahhabi Islam, who don’t speak English and whence ISIS draws recruits. I know, though, that the conservative clergy is still part of the ruling bargain here — some of the most popular Twitter voices are religious firebrands — and those religious leaders still run the justice system and sentence liberal bloggers to flogging, and they’re still in denial about how frustrated the world is with the ideology they’ve exported.

But I also ran into something I didn’t know: Something is stirring in this society. This is not your grandfather’s Saudi Arabia. “Actually, it’s not even my father’s Saudi Arabia anymore — it is not even my generation’s Saudi Arabia anymore,” the country’s 52-year-old foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said to me.

For instance, I was hosted by the King Salman Youth Centre, an impressive education foundation that, among other things, has been translating Khan Academy videos into Arabic. It invited me to give a lecture on how big technological forces are affecting the workplace. I didn’t know what to expect, but more than 500 people showed up, filling the hall, roughly half of them women who sat in their own sections garbed in traditional black robes. There was blowback on Twitter as to why a columnist who’s been critical of Saudi Arabia’s export of Salafist ideology should be given any platform. But the reception to my talk (I was not paid) was warm, and the questions from the audience were probing and insightful about how to prepare their kids for the 21st century.

It appears that conservatives here have a lot more competition now for the future identity of this country, thanks to several converging trends. First, most of Saudi Arabia is younger than 30. Second, a decade ago, King Abdullah said he’d pay the cost for any Saudi who wanted to study abroad. That’s resulted in 200,000 Saudis studying overseas today (including 100,000 in America), and now 30,000 a year are coming back with Western degrees and joining the labour force. You now see women in offices everywhere, and several senior officials whispered to me how often the same conservatives who decry women in the workplace quietly lobby them to get their daughters into good schools or jobs.

Finally, just as this youth bulge exploded here, so did Twitter and YouTube — a godsend for a closed society. Young Saudis are using Twitter to talk back to the government and to converse with one another on the issues of the day, producing more than 50 million tweets per month.

What’s been missing was a leadership ready to channel this energy into reform. Enter the new King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, the 30-year-old deputy crown prince, who, along with the moderate crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, has embarked on a mission to transform how Saudi Arabia is governed.

I spent an evening with Mohammed bin Salman at his office, and he wore me out. With staccato energy bursts, he laid out in detail his plans. His main projects are an online government dashboard that will transparently display the goals of each ministry, with monthly K.P.I.s — key performance indicators — for which each minister will be held accountable. His idea is to get the whole country engaged in government performance. Ministers tell you: Since Mohammed arrived, big decisions that took two years to make now happen in two weeks.

“The key challenges are our overdependence on oil and the way we prepare and spend our budgets,” Mohammed explained. His plan is to reduce subsidies to wealthy Saudis, who won’t get cheap gas, electricity or water anymore, possibly establish a value-added tax and sin taxes on cigarettes and sugary drinks, and both privatize and tax mines and undeveloped lands in ways that can unlock billions — so even if oil falls to $30 a barrel, Riyadh will have enough revenues to keep building the country without exhausting its savings. He’s also creating incentives for Saudis to leave government and join the private sector.

“Seventy percent of Saudis are under age 30, and their perspective is different from the other 30 percent,” said Mohammed. “I am working to create for them the country they want to be living in in the future.”

Is this a mirage or the oasis? I don’t know. Will it produce a more open Saudi Arabia or a more efficient conservative Saudi Arabia? I don’t know. It definitely bears watching, though. “ “I’ve never been more optimistic,” Mohammed Abdullah Aljadaan, chairman of the Saudi Capital Market Authority, told me. “We have a pulse that we’ve never seen before, and we have a [role] model in government we thought we’d never see.”

Bottom line: There are still dark corners here exporting intolerant ideas. But they seem to now have real competition from both the grass roots and a leadership looking to build its legitimacy around performance, not just piety or family name. As one Saudi educator said to me, “There is still resistance to change,” but there is now much more “resistance to the resistance.”

Mohammed has had the important backing of his father, King Salman, who has replaced both the key health and housing ministers with non-royal business executives as part of a broader shift to professionalize the government and stimulate the private sector to take a bigger role in the economy. The new health minister was the most important C.E.O. in the country, Khalid al-Falih, who was running the national oil company, Aramco.

Streamlining government, Mohammed said, is vital to “help us fight corruption,” which “is one of our main challenges.” Moreover, only by phasing out subsidies and raising domestic energy prices, he added, can Saudi Arabia one day install “nuclear power generation or solar power generation” and make them competitive in the local market. That is badly needed so that more Saudi oil can be exported rather than consumed at home, he said.

But this will all be tricky. Saudi workers pay no income tax. “Our society does not accept taxes; [citizens] are not used to them,” said Mohammed. So the fact that the government may be increasing taxes in some way, shape or form could have political ramifications: Will the leaders hear declarations of “no taxation without representation”?

How far things will go in that direction — Saudi Arabia already has municipal elections where women can run and vote — is unclear. But the new government does seem to intuit that to the extent that its welfare state has to be shrunk, because of the falling price of oil, its performance and responsiveness have to rise.

“A government that is not a part of the society and not representing them, it is impossible that it will remain,” said Mohammed. “We saw that in the Arab Spring. The governments that survived are only those that are connected to their people. People misunderstand our monarchy. It is not like Europe. It is a tribal form of monarchy, with many tribes and sub-tribes and regions connecting to the top.” Their wishes and interests have to be taken into account. “The king cannot just wake up and decide to do something.”

There were other little things that caught my eye on this visit — like the Western symphony orchestra playing on Saudi state-run television one afternoon and the collection of contemporary paintings by Saudi artists, including one of a Saudi woman by a Saudi woman, on display in the Ministry of Information.

As for ISIS, Mohammed disputed that it is a product of Saudi religious thinking, arguing that it was in fact a counter reaction to the brutalization of Iraqi Sunnis by the Iranian-directed Shiite-led government in Baghdad of Nouri al-Maliki and to the crushing of Syrian Sunnis by the Iranian-backed government in Damascus. “There was no [ISIS] before America departed from Iraq. And then America leaves and Iran enters, and then ISIS appears,” he said.

He complained that at a time when ISIS is blowing up mosques in Saudi Arabia in an effort to destabilize the regime, the world is accusing Saudi Arabia of inspiring ISIS: “The [ISIS] terrorists are telling me that I am not a Muslim. And the world is telling me I am a terrorist.”

This is the legacy, though, of decades of one part of the Saudi government and society promoting Salafist Islam and the other part working with the West to curb jihadists. As I said, the world has been frustrated with that dichotomy.

Mohammed argued that the ISIS narrative is beamed directly to Saudi youth via Twitter, and that the message is: “The West is trying to enforce its agenda on you — and the Saudi government is helping them — and Iran is trying to colonize the Arab world. So we — ISIS — are defending Islam.”

He added: “We don’t blame the West for misreading us. It is partly our fault. We don’t explain our situation. The world is changing rapidly, and we need to reprioritize to be with the world. Today the world is different. You cannot be isolated from the world. The world must know what is going on in your neighbourhood, and we must know what is going on in the world — [it’s] a global village.”

In Yemen, a Saudi-led Gulf coalition has been fighting a coalition of Houthi militants and rebels loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who are backed by Iran. The rebels pushed the official Yemeni government out of the capital, Sana, in March and the Saudi coalition is trying to restore it to power. So far, the U.N. reports, some 5,700 people have been killed, many of them civilians. Saudi officials made clear to me that they are ready for a negotiated solution, and don’t want to be stuck in a quagmire there, but that the Houthis will get serious only if they keep losing ground, as they have been.

“The other side has trouble reaching a political consensus,” said Mohammed, who is also defence minister. “But whenever they sustain loses on the ground and international pressure, they get serious [about negotiating]. We are trying to bring this to an end.”

Like just about every official I spoke with on this trip to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Mohammed voiced a desire for America not to abandon the region. “There are times when there is a leader and not a leader [in the world], and when there are no leaders, chaos will ensue.”