You've probably all heard by now that the (out)House of Saud recently took a gigantic leap forward into the sixteenth century by allowing women to drive. What they're allowed to drive is not entirely clear at this juncture, but presumably it means horseless carriages, in which case it has leapt forward, under its dynamic, enlightened and progressive leadership into the late nineteenth century.
All joking aside, there is something going on in the (out)house of Saud, and in Russia, that might require a little high octane speculation. First, consider this story about the recent summit between President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman:
What's of interest here is not only the American suspension of joint exercises with regional allies like Saudi Arabia, but much more importantly, this statement:
The timing of the suspension may not be a coincidence: it comes just one day after Saudi King Salman met with Vladimir Putin, the first ever visit to Moscow by a sitting Saudi ruler. Saudi Arabia and Russia signed billions worth of energy and military deals and MOUs. (Emphasis added; MOU=Memoranda of Understanding).
Recall that recently President Trump and King Salman held a summit in Riyadh, which resulted in an American arms deal(which included a manufacturing capability), and the Saudi King and Mr. Trump holding hands on a glowing globe of the world, which contained what looked like either Antarctica, suspiciously out of place in the northern hemisphere, or a poorly executed North America. An actual Russo-Saudi summit would have been unthinkable years ago, and it's a measure of how much things are changing in that region that it has finally occurred. But it has not been without its precursors. Saudi princes have already made the trek to Moscow, and attempted to make "deals" which were turned down. Now, they appear to have been inked, with Memoranda of Understanding about matters to be dealt with further down the road, and presumably those matters including more deals, and quiet discussion about Syria and Iran. One wonders whether the Russo-Saudi deal includes a similar provision for a manufacture capability for Russian arms. If so, then it is highly unlikely that the Russians would be selling their top line equipment manufacture capability, but these are after all strange times, and one cannot rule out anything. The end result of it all is that the kingdom is getting a first hand look into the military-technological capabilities of both countries. I don't know about you, but I have my profound doubts that this is a good thing over the long term, for reasons that are far too obvious to rehearse here.
But what's really going on here? It's difficult for those of us sitting at a distance on the sidelines to make out, and hence, anything one might say in this respect really has to be qualified as very high octane speculation; indeed it may just boil down to be absurd speculation. But in any case, the speculation in this instance boils down to this proposition: the Kingdom is weak, very weak, both domestically and geopolitically. Its backing of Mr. Obama's absurd Syria venture has backfired, and with it, Iran's position in the region has increased. For the desert kingdom, with significant Shia population in the country, located precisely in the kingdom's oil producing regions, this is a nightmare. And sooner or later, no matter how repressive the kingdom is, that problem will boil over. And looking at it from the secularized eyes of the (out)House of Saud, domestic unrest equals the loss of their power and wealth.
Which brings us to that business of allowing women to drive. While this might seem a small and laughably late thing to us, it is perhaps not such a small thing in Saudi Arabia. The (out)house of Saud knows what its backward Wahabbist imams do not, though they will never admit this publicly: the kingdom must reform if it is to survive. The (out)house of Saud also knows, though they will never admit this publicly either, that this reform must include its Shia population. It also knows that even in some parts of the Muslim world, it is looked on with disdain and disgust. To put all this country simple, the (out)house of Saud knows that there are but two courses for it: reform, or isolation and collapse in a fundamentalist backwater when either the oil runs dry or technological advancement makes oil obsolete as an energy source. The Saudi royal family reads the same scientific literature we all do, and they know it's coming; after all, they and their allies the Bin Ladens have made heavy investments in satellite and communications technologies, not to mention an infrastructure in the region that is quite impressive.
If this sounds implausible, then turn the speculation on its head, and imagine the regional consequences of a kind of "secularized" Saudi Arabia, one resembling, say, Indonesia, and let's crawl way out on to the end of the twig and imagine that within this "secularized" Saudi Arabia, Suni and Shia Muslims are actually managing to live and work together in relative calm. If such a thing were to occur, the geopolitical consequences in the region would be almost entirely reversed, for then it would not be Saudi Arabia in the crosshairs of world opinion, it would be Iran. Imagine the effect of a Shia population treated better in Saudi Arabia that it is in Iran itself. Of course, imams in the one and ayatollahs in the other won't like it at all. Such a reversal would position the kingdom not as the butt of jokes, but as a leader in the Muslim world.
So, what was up with allowing women to drive? A symbolic gesture, to be sure, perhaps even a deceptive one ("See? we're modernizing!") but in either case a significant one. And it is also intriguing (to me at least) that the gesture preceded King Salman's summit with Mr. Putin, and this time, unlike previous Saudi attempts to court Russia, this time it appears that several real deals were inked, and that further ones are on the way. So maybe, just maybe, we're looking at the beginning of a very long domestic process for the kingdom.
Time, of course, will tell.
See you on the flip side...