The emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia has produced some unexpected changes in the conservative desert Kingdom, where succession is smooth and socio-economic change slow. In a revolutionary move, the Crown Prince has permitted women to drive cars and sit in sports stadiums. Plans to expand facilities for women’s employment are being finalised. Girls in public schools have been permitted to play sports and get physical education. There has even been an instance where a woman taunted of being immodestly dressed, because strands of hair were visible, publicly turned on her male tormentors.
The Crown Prince is also seeking to diversify the Saudi economy from its almost exclusive dependence on its oil resources.While it remains to be seen how all this will impact the past Saudi fondness for promoting Islamic fundamentalism abroad, India has, in recent years, benefited from increasing Saudi readiness to cooperate on issues of terrorism. The quiet but significant transformation in the Saudi-India relationship has been accelerated in recent years by India’s readiness to cooperate extensively with Saudi allies like the UAE and Egypt. India has become the first country to receive Saudi approval for its national carrier—Air India—to overfly Saudi air space, en route to Israel.
There also appears to be increased recognition that India can play a constructive role in the security of the Gulf region. We are, however, far from matching the Chinese ability to quickly seize economic opportunities.The Crown Prince is also set on altering the traditionally low-key and cautious Saudi foreign policy. While the civilisational Arab-Persian and sectarian Shia-Sunni rivalries with Iran have been played out with little public rhetoric in the past, the Saudis are now more open and vociferous on such issues. The old charade of keeping the Saudi-American partnership under wraps has been discarded. Leaders of important Sunni Islamic countries were invited to a Summit meeting during President Trump’s visit to the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia backed the US in the “Financial Action Task Force” on action against Pakistan, despite Pakistan’s offer to increase the deployment of its military in the desert Kingdom”.
Some significant muscle flexing towards neighbours has followed the Trump visit. An economic blockade and a diplomatic boycott were impulsively imposed on Qatar, which in Saudi eyes was attempting to challenge its leadership. Not surprisingly, the blockade failed on resource rich Qatar, where busybody Turkey stepped in to help out. More importantly, the Saudis are facing international criticism for their military intervention in neighbouring Yemen—the most impoverished country in the Arab world. The human suffering caused by Saudi bombing of Yemen has been appalling. Sadly, there seems no end to the bloodshed in Syria and Yemen.