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Feature Article

Mixed Signals: Falling in Line or Falling Behind?

As the Kingdom seemingly opens up to modernization, while at the same cracking down on any kind of dissent at home, confusion abounds. Are even senior members of the royal family fully on board with the reforms of the crown prince, or are they reflexively reacting to perceived threats to the old order, imagining a state of affairs which has already been superseded by the new realities around them?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Saudi officials have put out a warrant for the arrest of a female rapper, identified as Ayasel Slay, who sings about her pride in being from Makkah, home to the holiest site in Islam, the Ka'ba. In a video (since taken down from social media), she appears in a coffee shop, dressed in hijab and ankle-length dress, according to traditional custom, and raps that, "with her [bint Makkah], you can complete the Sunna". Yet, Governor Khalid al-Faysal gave orders that Ayasel and the video production team be prosecuted, saying that the video "offends the customs and traditions of the people of Makkah and contradicts the identity and traditions of its esteemed population," adding that "they are not the girls of Makkah."

Social media was divided, with many of the opinion that her actions were immoral, although there appeared to be a racial element involved too, pointing out her African roots. Others remarked that the apparent hypocrisy of arresting a Saudi for doing the very same thing which Western acts are in recent performances in the country. In fact, a rapper by the name of Leesa A released a video in June 2018 where she celebrated the country's lifting of a ban that prohibited women from driving. The video proved popular, and there were no repercussions. Ayasel's project may have been more controversial due to the association with Makkah, but no one can fail to notice the discrepancy in how local artists and musicians are treated when compared with the big-name acts that have been invited to perform at festivals in Riyadh. While a few such as Nikki Minaj refused to attend due to concerns over Saudi's human rights record, many others have featured in Western-style shows that were previously unthinkable in the Kingdom. While Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) has encouraged such events, critics have denounced it as a charade for foreign consumption, with the aim of presenting reforms in a more positive light. "Artwashing" and "sportswashing" have entered common parlance.

In one way, it is unsurprising that the Makkah Governor was outraged by the rap performance. Khalid is something of a custodian of the city's holy places by virtue of his position, and most likely felt duty-bound to step in to avoid possible offense among the citizenry. He is also much older himself, and has been brought up with the nation's religiously conservative mores, but with an even greater sense of responsibility present - the royal family itself feels entrusted with the guardianship of Makkah. Looked at another way, it would be remarkable if Khalid had let it slide, quite apart from the Kingdom's drive to modernization going on around him. And despite the reputation of his branch of the family for relative liberalisation and a Western mindset, Khalid is unlikely to have fully bought in to MbS' vision of reform. Incremental (if not glacial) change has been a hallmark of the family for decades, and the senior royals are generally opposed to the disruptive efforts of the crown prince.

It is this division within the family that has caused the most confusion. On the one hand, even the senior royals must stand behind the king, Salman, who is still in charge, nominally at least, even if he has for all intents and purposes handed over the reigns to his son Muhammad. On the other, there is bitter resentment both at the way the crown prince has sidelined almost everyone else in the family apart from his own small circle of trusted allies, and at the fact that he has effectively altered the dynamic in such a profound way, without input from the larger family. Another of the hallmarks of the royals has been the involvement of a fairly large circle of influential princes (and in the past, even non-royals, such as members of the powerful al-Sudayri clan and merchant families) as part of the decision-making process. Now, everyone else is excluded, making it a matter of both present (domestic policy) and future (royal succession).

Related articles: Phone Hacks And Hangers-On: Change Of Course Or Character In Action?
New Face At The Top: Cleanup Or Counterweight?
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Page 2: toeing the line?
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Phone Hacks And Hangers-On: Change Of Course Or Character In Action?

Tech experts have agreed with "high certainty" that the phone of billionaire Jeff Bezos was compromised, and personal data stolen, by the crown prince through messaging app trickery; there is now concern that British PM Boris Johnson may have been been similarly hacked. Does this campaign represent an intensification of Muhammad bin Salman's ongoing efforts at repression and control, or are the revelations merely an accidental glimpse into his character?

Hitmen and Masterminds: Drawing a Line or Trouble Ahead?

News that eight defendants had been found guilty by a Saudi court of participating in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappointed those who had been hoping for closure, since the alleged architects of the killing at the consulate in Turkey were not even put on trial. Does the Kingdom's willingness to defy American demands for accountability reflect a broader desire to move out of Washington's orbit, or is Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman betting on his personal relationship with U.S. President Trump to ride out the storm?

Disappearance of a Princess: Private Dispute or Royal Affair?

Princess Basma bint Saud, along with one of her daughters, is said to be under house arrest in the capital, Riyadh. Was she detained for clashing with the crown prince, or are his critics too quick to assign blame?

The Evolving Foreign Policy Of MbS: Pragmatism Or Chaos?

The elevation of Prince Faysal bin Farhan to Foreign Minister, one among many young, Western-educated careerists to rise to prominence under the de facto governance of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), underscores the rapidity of change within Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, secretive talks with Israel, and an official visit by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, complicate the narrative of the Kingdom reaching out to the West in the face of an Iranian threat. Is a co-ordinated strategy in place, or is the confusion a hint of disfunction within the royal family?

New Face At The Top: Cleanup Or Counterweight?

Unprecedented attacks on the Kingdom's oil infrastructure have focussed attention on the leadership's failure to defend even the most critical facilities, despite overseeing the third-largest military budget in the world. Will royal patience finally wear out with crown prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman?