For Saudi Arabia, Action Must Follow Words

Saudi woman Getty Images/Jordan Pix

Dan Glickman Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture
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I recently stood alongside 3,000 global business leaders, financiers and academics, at a spot of desert just outside Riyadh, to hear a speech from Mohammad bin Salman, known in the west as MBS, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. I was there in my capacity as Former United States Secretary of State for Agriculture and Head of the Motion Picture Association of America. I had heard that MBS was going to spell out his vision for new cities, for an eco-tourism destination the size of Belgium where agri-tech would play a key role, for a technology and entertainment-driven future where a new theme park complex would be just one of 300 attractions. The scale was most impressive. There was a scepticism among those gathered. What would we hear?

That MBS had managed to bring some of the world’s most powerful people to this spot in the desert speaks volumes about the levels of interest he and his Vision 2030 plan are generating on the global stage. All this ambition, these vast projects, would be fuelled by the proceeds of privatisation and the liberalisation of the economy and the workforce, he explained. Then he went further: “We are returning to what we were before,” he said, “a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions of the world. We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives living with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today.”

As a signal of future intent this was significant; MBS is clearly laying out his desire for Saudi Arabia to be seen as a moderate and responsible player in the region. I am no expert on the internal power plays between the Saudis but clearly MBS was asserting his authority over the clerics and claiming an end to Saudi’s funding of Wahhabi Islam which has been so destructive to the US, Israel, and other allies. The speech was carefully calibrated to appeal to the audience and while his motivations are quixotic, his actions domestically divisive, the objective of the speech was realised. Assuming appropriate follow through, the international community can begin to believe that this is a guy they can do business with. We can hope that these changes represent a more fundamental and even transformational perspective on the part of Saudi leadership.

In my talks with progressive Saudi leaders, I was impressed by the economic opportunities presented by the Royal Families’ public commitment to modernization and the three projects they are pursuing (Qiddiya – an entertainment, cultural and sports city; Neom — a $500 million mega-city next to Jordan and Egypt; and Red Sea, a luxury tourism destination, and what it can mean to the future of the region. Obviously, there will be political challenges in an historically conservative society, but if the Crown Prince’s perspectives are implemented they should be helpful in promoting democracy and stability and work collaboratively to reduce international terrorism in the region, a place where Saudi influence is so important in promoting peace and stability, and lead to a further strengthening of bilateral relations with the United States.

Wherever you stand on Saudi Arabia, the reforms taking place now under the umbrella of the Vision 2030 transformation plan are set to transform not just the country but the region at a pace few imagined possible. Saudi’s neighbors and the world look on, wondering what to make of the changes, at turns excited at the possibilities and made uneasy by the implications. I applaud Saudi efforts to create a much more positive involvement for women and young people and to secure the long-term future of the country. I do think that MBS’s vision for the future, as laid out in Riyadh, is a real breath of fresh air for the region, with appropriate follow-up, especially for younger Saudis (I was told Saudi Arabia has the highest penetration of smart phones in the world, and so they have to be especially concerned about the future of their under-30 generation), as well as the changing role of women in Saudi society.

But my concern — and hope — is that all of this leads to a more progressive and peaceful Saudi force in the region and greater democracy internally. Clearly the Saudis have at best a mixed historical record in that regard. While the Crown Prince’s words are very encouraging, I know that in the US and elsewhere people will be watching closely how well he and his team follow through on this promise. There is a need to evidence these promises, and to do so in the right way. The recent moves to curb corruption could be promising. I am not a scholar of the region and Saudi culture and politics, so you never know for sure what is going on behind the scenes. But if this move does reflect a more modern and accountable sense of internal Saudi governance, that would indeed be a very positive development. Actions always speak louder than words, and the world is judging Saudi Arabia on its actions.

Dan Glickman was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 until 2001. He also served as the CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) from 2004 to 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.