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Steinberg: When did Saudis become more progressive than we are?

Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the key figure behind the unveiling of a vast plan to restructure the kingdom's oil-dependent economy. | Getty Images

Saudi Arabia, despite great wealth, is one of the most socially backward countries in the world. Women can’t drive, or open a bank account without permission of a male relative. They only got the right to vote, in municipal elections, in 2015, a year that saw Saudi Arabia conduct 151 beheadings.

Despite being mired in the 12th century, Saudi Arabia still manages to be forward looking when it comes to important business matters.

Such as oil. Oil is what brought Saudi Arabia from being a sandy nowhere of nomadic tribes to a wealthy global power. So it might be surprising, to those paying attention, to see a dramatic shift this week. I will spare you which ministers are ousted and which are in, and give you the first three paragraphs a May 10 story on Gulf News Saudi Arabia headlined, “Shake Up Moves Saudi Arabia Down New Path”:

RIYADH: In a series of sweeping royal decrees on Saturday, King Salman of Saudi Arabia replaced a number of top ministers and restructured government bodies in the first moves of an ambitious plan to chart a new direction for the kingdom.

The decrees were among the first concrete steps in the plan, which was announced late last month to great domestic fanfare by the king’s son and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is about 30, oversees economic policy and runs the Defence Ministry.

The plan, known as Saudi Vision 2030, is intended as a guide for the country’s development. It aims, in part, to reduce Saudi Arabia’s heavy dependence on oil, diversify its economy and improve the quality of life for Saudi citizens.

OPINION

Now why, you may ask, would Saudi Arabia turn away from the oil that makes it wealthy? Two reasons. One, oil is a finite resource. They can’t take it out of the ground forever. And two, oil contributes to the climate change that is already severely affecting the planet, and in advance of the Paris summit last December the Saudis committed themselves to reduce carbon emissions as part of the world efforts against global warming.

Saudi Arabia realizes it must change or be left behind.

Meanwhile, in the hidebound, backward nation calling itself the United States of America, one presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, speaking at a CNN town hall in mid-March, suggested that, as the nation focuses on clean energy, a lot of coal miners will be put out of work.

“We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” she said, a line that opponents fell on like starving dogs on a bone, ignoring the next sentence: “And we don’t want to forget those people.”

Donald Trump, who operates in the realm of pure fantasy, was free to spin whatever pretty picture he liked.

“We’re going to get those miners back to work,” said Trump, who campaigned wearing a miner’s helmet. “The miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week, Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me. They are going to be proud again to be miners.”

The fact is that coal is in free fall and has been for years. In 2008, it represented half of the nation’s electricity production. Now it’s close to a third, replaced mostly by natural gas.

Bernie Sanders, campaigning in West Virginia, said the same thing as Clinton, but more artfully:

“While I strongly believe we need to combat climate change to make our planet habitable for our children and our grandchildren, let me be clear,” he said. “We cannot abandon communities that have been dependent on coal and other fossil fuels.”

Yes, Saudi Arabia is a kingdom, and thus has to go in the direction the king points. But aren’t we, a modern democracy, supposed to be able to act upon the future that is staring us directly in the face? We’re more interested in flattering voters than doing what is necessary. Politics makes cowards of us all.