From land long forgotten by history, the future is rising: Twenty-five thousand square kilometres of earth bleached by the desert sun, the size of 30 New York cities, will blossom into a global hub for renewable energy, biotechnology and robotics. Neom—derived from Neo, Latin for new, and “m,” for the first letter in mustaqbal, the Arabic word for future—is without doubt the great civilisational project in the region since Emperor Marcus Traianus seized Arabia to safeguard Rome’s trade with India, laying the ground for the great cities of Petra, Hejra and Mada’in Saleh.
Last week, an unannounced flight arrived at Neom’s airport, recorded on flight-tracking software—bearing, credible accounts have it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin for a secret meeting with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.
In its simplest form, Saudi Arabia’s outreach to Israel meets simple ends. As a candidate, United States President-elect Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state, and said he would support its war in Yemen. The President-elect asserted human rights and democratic values would shape his foreign policy, and criticised outgoing President Donald Trump for coddling dictators. The new president, though, has also committed himself to unconditional support of Israel—and establishing diplomatic relations with Israel would give Riyadh substantial insurance against being frozen out by Washington.
The outreach to Israel, though, is just part of a more complex—and more important—story unfolding in Saudi Arabia, with Neom at its heart.
For generations, the Saudi monarchy has used religion as an instrument to legitimise its authority in the face of a succession of challenges: the secular pan-Arabism that swept the Middle-East in the 1950s and 1960s; the radical Islamism unleashed by the Iranian revolution in 1979; the jihadism of the 1990s. Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who ruled from 1964 to 1975, frequently identified leadership of the Islamic world as the Saudi state’s very raison d’être—making concrete that claim by building a global of religious patronage that survives into the present day.
The enemies of the Saudi monarchy, in turn, used Islam as a language of resistance: zealots from among the king’s own Ikhwan guards rebelled in 1929; Prince Khalid bin Musa’id revolted against King Faisal’s efforts at modernising tribal society in the mid-1960s; religious hardliners led by Juhayman al-‘Utaybi occupied the Grand Mosque in November 1979.
Like in so many other pre-modern polities, the nation-state of Saudi Arabia marked a tenuous compromise between tradition and the new global order created by Western colonialism. In essence, the state marked an alliance between the tribal power of the al-Saud family and the puritanical order founded by Sheikh Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, underwritten by colonial power.
The deal worked, with the clerics helping beat off challenges to the monarchy’s legitimacy. Then, with consequences the world is still battling, it fell apart.
In 1979, the Soviet Union’s armies marched into Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia placed itself on the frontlines of the United States-led war to force it back into Afghanistan. In addition to emerging as the principal source of funding for Afghan jihadists, the kingdom encouraged thousands of its young people to visit the battlefields—even subsidising their flights to Afghanistan.
Few Saudi youth left for Afghanistan with anything resembling a world-view. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, though, they encountered jihadists from countries like Egypt and Syria, veterans of political struggles to replace their authoritarian governments with new orders based on the utopian promise of Islam and the shari’a. They returned, moreover, with a highly militarised vision of politics, convinced only violence could sweep aside their corrupt, petroleum revenue-fattened rulers.
Through the 1980s, Osama Bin Laden’s Office of Service in Peshawar emerged as a magnet for this new cohort of jihadists, their numbers swelling once al-Qaeda’s founder set up a full-fledged training facility in Afghanistan.
“Ironically”, the scholar May Darwich has noted, “its claim to be the protagonist of ‘true’ Islam in the world sowed the seeds of the Saudi state’s ultimate vulnerability to other emerging Islamic models in the region.”
Faced with this phenomenon, the Saudi state chose compromise over confrontation—with disastrous consequences. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Saudi ruling family allowed United States troops to be based in the kingdom—enraging the jihadists, who sparked off a war al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to wage from bases in Yemen even today.
In the 1990s, a second threat also emerged: a new generation of educated Saudis, who grouped themselves into what became known as the Sahwa movement. In the course of the Gulf War, Sahwa-affliated clerics like Salman al-Awda and Safar al-Hawali grew an enormous audience to attack the monarchy for allowing infidel troops on to Islamic soil, adroitly used new technologies like audio-tapes to bypass restrictions on enormous politics. The Sahwa movement also grew deep roots among intellectuals and in the universities.
The movement led, from 1991, to a series of manifestos, demanding drastic reforms: among them, more respect for human rights, as defined by the shari’a; greater democratic representation; most important, a greater role for the clerical establishment in the affairs of the state. In the end, the Saudi state cracked down hard, incarcerating much of the Sahwa leadership, and forcing key leaders into exile in the United Kingdom.
Following 9/11, though, as the Saudi state came to understand the full scale of the threat from the jihadists, it sought to use Sahwa intellectuals as a counterweight, and political Islamism flowered again. The battle against the jihadists, meanwhile, dragged on. In 2011, the Arab Spring empowered Islamists across the Middle-East, while the rise of the Islamic State, which drew over 2,500 Saudi nationals to its ranks demonstrated the durable power of jihadism.
The kingdom’s political order had reached a dangerous stalemate.
King Salman ibn Abd al-Aziz’s accession to the throne in 2015 marked the beginning of a dramatic effort to rebuild, foundations upwards, the foundations of Saudi power. In 2017, the king announced his son, Muhammad Ibn Salman, was now crown prince, in place of First Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Mohammed Ibn Nayef al-Saud, who was reportedly put under palace arrest and compelled to resign. Experts believe Nayef was sacked for having resisted the kingdom’s decision to embargo Qatar—punishment for its defying Saudi policy on Iran—and voicing doubts about wars against Tehran’s proxies in Syria and Yemen.
Inside months of taking power, Prince Salman initiated a thoroughgoing purge, jailing 11 princes, along with 38 top businessmen and former ministers. The most visible target was Prince Talal al-Waleed, a philanthropist and businessman then worth over $17.1 billion, spread across Citibank, NewsCorp, Apple, Time-Warner and Twitter.
The purge also saw the imprisonment of Prince Mutaib ibn Abdullah, the son of the former King, Abdullah ibn Abd al-Aziz and head of the National Guard, the only military force operating outside the ministries of interior and defence, which Prince Salman already controls. Largely drawn from Saudi Arabia’s tribes, the National Guard is the regime’s last line of defence. Key tribal leaders, like the sheikhs from the Mutair and Otaiba tribes, loyal to Mutaib’s father, also had their assets seized.
For Saudi elites, the message was clear: to fall in line with Prince Salman’s vision of building a post-Petro State, based on industry and entrepreneurship rather than oil revenues. Analysts had long been warning that if Saudi failed to undertake harsh measures to curb state budgets and cut subsidies, the country could reach fiscal exhaustion by the end of the decade.
Saudi Arabia also broke away decisively from jihadists: The new regime even quietly deported several terrorism suspects to India, in the face of Pakistani protests, and proceeded to kill discussion on Kashmir in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. At home, both political Islamists and jihadists came under savage pressure.
“Earlier Saudi leaders”, scholars Jon Alterman and Will McCants have recorded, “faced similar Islamist dissent and managed it with more velvet glove and less iron fist than today’s leaders, who are worried with good reason”.
In Prince Salman’s vision, the Saudi state can only emerge as a globalised, technological society if profound cultural changes sweep aside its traditional and religious foundations. His decisions have included encouraging more women to enter the workplace, and ushering in “moderate Islam”. Neom’s promotional material, interestingly, has images of a ballerina, an orchestra, and women in work-out gear. Key ally, the United Arab Emirates, has transitioned to a civil code that abandons shari’a as a guiding principle—a move some see as a test run for Saudi Arabia’s future.
Liberalism clearly isn’t on the agenda: the barbaric murder of dissident journalist Jamal Kashoggi, and the brutal treatment of jailed feminist Loujain al-Hathloul, make clear the new, modernist Saudi state will be no more pluralist than the old, Islamist-leaning one. Prince Salman might be seeking modernity, but democracy is not on his agenda.
The plan to transition to a post-Petro State will clearly be a perilous one. In a post-COVID world, Prince Salman will find it increasingly difficult to raise the revenues needed for his ambitious plans to build an economy that can accommodate the growing Saudi youth cohort. The wars against jihadists and Iran’s proxies in Yemen and Syria are very far from won; conflict with Teheran and escalated terrorism at home remain real possibilities. In 2015, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service warned in a leaked report against Prince Salman’s “impulsive policy of intervention”, and the risk “he may overreach”.
Fail or succeed, though, Prince Salman’s plans will shape the contours of the Middle-East’s geopolitical landscape through this coming century. India’s energy security, and the futures of hundreds of thousands of its citizens, will depend on its outcome.