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In 2015 King Abdullah died and was succeeded by Salman, his half-brother. Salman is son of Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia and likely to be the last of the founder’s sons to sit on the Saudi throne.

Abdullah had made some modest political reforms, increasing consultation with the populace and improving tertiary education, for example.

Salman’s policies so far have stressed a firm approach to internal security and if anything a tightening of the screws on dissent. Mohammed bin Nayef, son of the long-serving interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz, was appointed interior minister, first deputy Prime Minister and Crown Prince.

Salman’s son Mohammed bin Salman was appointed second deputy Prime Minister and defence minister. He is very young for a Saudi cabinet minister at 31, and is thought to be highly influential. Some see him as a breath of fresh air with a welcome enthusiasm for more dynamic policies and faster change. Others think he is impetuous and takes dangerous gambles. Many analysts see his influence behind the decision to take military action in Yemen (although moves towards a more independent and activist foreign policy were already underway under the previous King, conditioned by a cooling of the relationship with the United States, particularly since 9/11).

Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS as he is often known) is also seen as the driving force behind Saudi Vision 2030, a comprehensive strategy document that foresees economic reform aiming at weaning the state and its citizens off oil revenues. The strategy foresees increasing the size of the private sector and charging for public services, for example. It also implies some social changes, making education more practically useful, increasing opportunities for cultural expression and encouraging healthy lifestyles. The strategy also sets out a target of increasing transparency and enhancing engagement with citizens.

Sceptics wonder whether the Saudi state is capable of delivering the changes at the speed envisaged, when many public servants are steeped in traditional ways of doing things.

Saudi foreign policy is conditioned by a distancing from the United States, the surge in regional instability since 2011 and the struggle for regional dominance between Riyadh and Tehran.

The Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi/Saleh rebellion in Yemen, seen by the Saudis as an example of Iranian aggression, is the biggest test for the newly activist Saudi foreign policy; some observers think that it will damage the reputation of Salman’s defence minister MBS. The Yemen campaign has come in for increasing criticism, as it appears to be making little progress and is causing immense suffering to Yemenis. While Western governments, including the UK, have signalled their disapproval of events such as the attack on the funeral in the Yemeni capital Sanaa that killed some 140 people, they have also come in for criticism themselves for supporting the Saudi-led operation.

Human rights groups and others allege that UK-supplied weapons have been used in ways which violate international humanitarian law, and there have been questions about the role of UK military advisers in the conflict. In September 2016 the House of Commons Business and International Development Committees recommended a suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia until a full international investigation had taken place.

The protection of human rights in Saudi Arabia remains weak. Freedom of expression has been further curtailed in recent years; new anti-terrorism laws introduced in 2014 were very widely drafted, giving the authorities wide scope to use them to repress dissident opinions. The right to assemble and to form associations is also severely restricted.

Shias are frequent targets of repression and discrimination. Their standard of living is lower than that of Sunni Saudis. Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite sheikh, was executed in 2016, on charges of

The number of executions has increased in recent years; Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest users of the death penalty, along with Iran and China.

The justice system is deeply flawed, according to rights groups such as Amnesty International, and torture and ill treatment of prisoners remains “common.”

Women were included in the innovation of elections to municipal councils and have been appointed to the Consultative Assembly, under reforms brought in by King Abdullah. They are also increasingly entering the workforce and more than 50% of graduates are women (one of the aims of the Vision 2030 strategy is to increase their participation from 22% to 30% by 2030). There remain, however, significant obstacles to their full participation in society – they are still banned from driving for example and their freedom is hampered by the male guardian system.

Although Saudi society remains very conservative, faster change may be inevitable:

  • The Saudi population is young on average
  • the take-up of social media and other internet services is very high
  • Saudi Arabia’s economic model cannot last for ever
  • the government has policies in place to accelerate social and economic change
  • a generational change is taking place in the highest leadership
  • there are as many women as men in higher education
  • the whole region is in flux.

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