Talking with a group of neoconservatives in Washington in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, I asked what the next target for regime change would be. They were unanimous: “Saudi Arabia.” The kingdom urgently needed modernising to become a constitutional democracy. “That,” I was told, “is what the Saudi people want.” It was a moment of high comedy. Saudi Arabia and the United States have radically different origins and historical trajectories. American government was founded in 1776 on a basis of Protestant Christianity and English common law, the Saudi absolute monarchy on Sunni Islam, to which around 90 per cent of the largely tribal population adheres, and a medieval theocratic jurisprudence. The idea that “the Saudi people” yearned for liberal constitutionalism was patently absurd, possibly more so even than the neocon fantasy that toppling Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship would energise a democratic revolution throughout the Middle East.
The Saudi state was founded in 1932 after a series of wars of conquest by King Abdulaziz ibn Saud (1875-1953). When the British colonial intelligence officer Harry St John Philby (1885-1960), father of the Soviet agent Kim Philby, became Ibn Saud’s principal adviser, betrayed his Foreign Office masters and began to work for Standard Oil of California, the new state moved into an American sphere of influence. It remained there until Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) came to power in 2017 and made it into one of the key players in global geopolitics.
Courted by a fumbling Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak, who plans to meet the prince “at the earliest opportunity”, Saudi Arabia has become one of the world’s most important swing states. Successfully playing off larger strategic rivals against one another and forging new relationships with Russia, Israel, China and India, MBS has no intention of returning to the Western fold. Nor is he going to embrace a modernity that manifests itself in unsustainable debt, rotting infrastructure, collapsing public services and lawless streets.
At heart, modernisation means no more than the spread of new technologies and means of wealth-creation. A process that has no specific ethical content, it has no single destination and does not underwrite any particular regime, but is commonly associated with progress towards some radiant future. As used by Western leaders, it means repeating the failed political experiments of the recent past.
Tony Blair urges engagement with Saudi Arabia in the faith that it will become more like the West in the Nineties – a glorious era he is urging Keir Starmer to revisit. Despite the fiascos of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the West is staking the outcome of the war in Ukraine on regime change in Russia. As the conflict drags on and the mirage of Russian democracy fades, Western leaders will be forced to accept a humiliating stalemate. Russia will most likely end up a vassal state of China, which for all its current economic weakness is still capable of exploiting the natural resources of Vladimir Putin’s stagnant Eurasian empire to become the world’s dominant industrial power.
MBS is pursuing a different modernity. As the world’s largest petroleum exporter and one of the lowest-cost producers, Saudi Arabia controls an indispensable source of global energy. With over 80 per cent of the world’s energy needs currently met by fossil fuels, oil will remain part of the energy mix for decades to come, but the Saudis are not relying on it for their long-term future. Drawing inspiration from the UAE, where hydrocarbons now account for under a third of GDP, they are diversifying into finance, tourism and high tech, and buying up Western sport, real estate and telecommunications assets.
For those who cling to the faith that modernity and liberal values go together, the continuing rise of the Saudi Arabia that MBS is constructing is unthinkable. He was one of the leaders who in 2015 made a ferocious intervention in Yemen’s civil war, which produced a humanitarian crisis. In November 2017 he neutralised domestic rivals and consolidated control of the country’s security forces by arresting prominent business people, ministers and princes in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, allegedly torturing them into revealing and handing over portions of their wealth. He is widely believed to have been complicit in the murder of the dissident journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed on entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018.
In the eyes of its critics in the West, an authoritarian state with such a ruler cannot be regarded as modern. Yet MBS resembles no one so much as the prince portrayed in Machiavelli’s early modern manual of statecraft. Even as he refuses to emulate what the West has become, MBS is following a Western playbook.
If the West engages with the Saudis – as it must – it should do so without indulging the feeble conceit that they will become “more like us”. Instead, unable to square a growing dependency on the kingdom with their image of themselves as the vanguard of human progress, Western leaders are behaving exactly as its ruthless prince must have expected. With their model of what it means to be modern in precipitate decline, they are cultivating him in a struggle to stay afloat in a world they do not understand.
[See also: What happens if the Russian state collapses?]
This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers