David Rundell brings to his book, Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads (I. B. Tauris, 2020), a granular analysis and insider’s understanding of the inner workings of the kingdom garnered as a US foreign service officer who served a total of 15 years in the country.
Rundell skilfully weaves history into a multi-layered portrait of the transformation for good and bad that Saudi Arabia is experiencing under King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The former diplomat illustrates Salman’s long-standing focus on combatting corruption with the picture he paints of his governing of the Saudi capital Riyadh for nearly five decades before ascending to the throne.
Anti-corruption has played a dramatic role since Salman became king in solidifying and concentrating power in the kingdom and breaking with a past of slow and gradual change, introducing instead rapid reforms with little consultation.
To do so, Salman picked his son, Mohammed, as crown prince because he saw in him a bulldozer with the needed ambition, drive, and ruthlessness to undermine traditional pillars of support of the Saudi system like elite cohesion and the maintenance of rival armed forces.
Elite cohesion was disrupted by disenfranchising or subjugating key elements of the Saudi power structure, including included significant segments of the bloated ruling Al Saud family and the religious establishment, who would have likely slowed down or opposed reforms that would enable economic diversification and a reduction of the kingdom’s dependence on oil exports.
In doing so, Rundell argues that Salman may have made Saudi Arabia less stable particular in a country in which absolute political and military power has been concentrated in the hands of one man and a population that is in majority young and aspires for greater transparency and accountability.
Identifying a defeat in the war in Yemen or a failure to make good on promises of job creation as potential catalysts of resistance to the rule of the Salmans, Rundell warns that any organized opposition would be cloaked in the mantle of religious ultra-conservatism rather than concepts of secularism or democracy.
In the ultimate analysis, Rundell has produced one of the most historically grounded and informed evaluations of the significant change Saudi Arabia is experiencing and the prospects and pitfalls of far-reaching of social and economic reforms while severely curtailing political rights.
The curtailing, mass arrests of religious and more secular activists, and the killing in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul have already cost the kingdom dearly in terms of its reputation, complicating its diplomatic relations with the West at a time of a global economic downturn.
Rundell’s book constitutes a major contribution to a mushrooming literature on Saudi Arabia, a country that has long been and in many ways still is cloaked in secrecy.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist, senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer
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