Fuelling Saudi Arabia’s anger, Turkey sent additional troops to Qatar in December 2017, and the two countries signed an agreement in March 2018 to establish a naval base and training centre and to send 60,000 more soldiers. In response, Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) described Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil” along with Iran and hardline Islamist groups.
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Some see in the arrests and smear campaign against the activists an attempt to erase the history of hard-fought grassroots struggle by women demanding reforms. Others have suggested that the arrests were a tactic by the crown prince to appease more conservative elements in Saudi society who may be upset by the erosion of religious authority, including the reining in of the religious police.
Many media reports speculate that MBC’s decision was made to punish Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for rushing to the aid of Qatar after it was subjected to a Saudi-led blockade. Turkey has also supported and harboured members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia considers a terrorist organization.
The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.
Samah Hadid, the deputy director of Amnesty International, said that most human rights activists in the country were either in prison or on trial, their whereabouts still undisclosed. The others, she added, risk arrest at any time. MBS is clearly remaking Saudi Arabia in his image, while proving to be just as authoritarian as the rulers before him.
The prince is known for his business empire, philanthropy and for being the wealthiest man in the Middle East on Forbes’ billionaires list. Unlike other Saudi princes, bin Talal is self-made, meaning that he used his inherited wealth and royal privilege to build his business empire and invest around the globe
But due to (still relatively small) Iranian influence in Yemen, the Saudis and Emiratis will be obliged to work together in the medium term. As the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel put it, ‘The war costs Tehran a few million dollars per month, while it costs Riyadh $6 billion per month.’ Any disagreement between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could increase Iran’s influence.
However, investing in the infrastructure alone will not free Saudi society from the shackles of a medieval mindset that governs all aspects of life: the relationship between the ruler and those ruled, between men and women and between native and migrant labour. Scientific thinking needs a socially and intellectually fertile environment to flourish. That environment has yet to emerge in Saudi Arabia.