Such reliance makes the Gulf nation extremely vulnerable to oil price fluctuations. Reforms are needed in the long term, as is recognised by Saudi Arabia's new strongman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi authoritarianism in flux

Central to the question of reform is gauging the actual power of the comparatively young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "The character of Saudi Arabian authoritarianism has changed," said Steinberg. "An oligarchy dominated the country between the 1970s and 2015. Today, you only need to know two people who can make decisions."

The first is the autocratic duo King Salman (Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud) of Saudi Arabia, born in 1936 and currently suffering from ill health; and the second, the active head of the Saudi government Crown – Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was born in 1985.

"After the Khashoggi murder, there was a brief hope that [their power] would be weakened," said Steinberg, referring to the murder of the U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, 2018. "But that does not seem to be the case."

Guido Steinberg, senior associate with the Middle East division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs – SWP (photo: picture-alliance)
King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman hold the reins of power in the Kingdom: "The character of Saudi Arabian authoritarianism has changed," says Steinberg. "An oligarchy dominated the country between the 1970s and 2015. Today, you only need to know two people who can make decisions"

According to Steinberg, reforms and authoritarianism are no contradiction for bin Salman. "A few years ago in Saudi Arabia, it was easy to criticise government policy. There were two taboos: religion and rulers. You could happily have constructive policy discussions. Today, you have to expect that you will land in prison for very, very weak criticism."

And yet Salman may still be seen as a source of hope for the younger Saudi generation, even after the Khashoggi murder that he allegedly ordered.

Steinberg said that the current regime has been willing to liberalise some aspects of Saudi society, including allowing women to drive cars, and to travel without the permission of a male guardian such as father or husband.

Such reforms "give him support," Steinberg said of a leader who is said to be slowly breaking down an ossified system. "I believe that he really has the chance to become a great reformer, if he is economically successful," Steinberg added.

And Iran?

While Germany, Britain and France agreed this week that Iran was behind the attack on Saudi oil facilities in early September and called on Tehran to avoid further "provocation", Steinberg is unwilling to apportion blame. Instead, he has tried to understand how the situation has presented itself from the perspective of many cosmopolitan Saudis.

According to Steinberg, these Saudis have complained that the Iranians were now ruling four capitals: Baghdad, where Iranian influence is very strong; the Syrian capital Damascus, where Iranian militias have kept Bashar al-Assad in power; Beirut, which is controlled by Iranian-backed Hezbollah; and Saana in Yemen.

Paradoxically, Iranian influence has increased dramatically as a result of U.S. intervention in Iraq, with the ousting of Saddam Hussein having destabilised the region. "On the other hand, we see new alliances that we have not thought possible," Steinberg noted. "Saudi Arabia and Israel have a nearly identical Iranian policy."

Sabine Peschel

© Deutsche Welle 2019

Guido Steinberg is senior associate and member of the Middle East and Africa Research Group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

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