Saudi stands up to be counted

The kingdom is making progress, according to Emile Hokayem, a columnist for my former employer, The National.

While the hardware remains firmly in the hands of the ruling elites, the state is reasserting ownership of the “software” through gradual educational and judicial reform. Clerics are gradually losing their dominant say in courts and classrooms while the civil service and merchant class, the country’s lead reformers, are empowered.

Plainly, without the leadership of King Abdullah – whom many Saudis regret came to power too late – this progress would not have happened. At a time when his country was facing threats from radicals at home and challenges abroad, his personal credibility shifted the debate from whether the Saud family could still hold the reins of the country to whether the progress of the past few years will be sustained.

But the thrust of Hokayem’s argument is that greater Saudi independence from the United States enhances its position as a regional power and global force. Its massive oil wealth already gives it importance, but it is actively seeking friendly terms with the likes of Russia and China.

The rise of Asian consumers makes the Saudis less susceptible to leverage or pressure from their Western partners. One can already see a more evenly balanced set of “special” relationships between Saudi Arabia and its key customers, although it is doubtful that any of these new friends could provide the security guarantees that are implicit in the US-Saudi strategic partnership.

It will be interesting to see how far this political change goes, and whether Saudi can consolidate its position as a global actor.

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